Topic: MONEY

How to Collect a Missing Stimulus Payment

Setting aside whether or not $600 is an adequate amount, most Americans are grateful to get something after months of financial hardship and uncertainty. The problem, however, is that some recipients aren’t getting their payments because they’re hitting closed or incorrect accounts. If you’re still waiting on your check, here’s what you need to do:

VERIFY THAT YOU HAVE A PAYMENT COMING

For starters, are you eligible for a stimulus payment? If you received money during the first round of economic impact checks back in the spring of 2020, you’re almost certainly eligible for the second payment, which is $600 per U.S. citizen or resident alien, plus $600 per qualifying child. (If you filed taxes jointly with your spouse, you’ll receive $1,200 for the pair of you.)

The amount of your stimulus may be reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is too high. Per the IRS, you’ll get the full amount as long as your AGI does not exceed:

  • $150,000 if married and filing a joint return or if filing as a qualifying widow or widower;
  • $112,500 if filing as head of household; or
  • $75,000 for eligible individuals using any other filing status.

Over the threshold? You may still get a check, but the payment will be reduced by “5% of the amount by which your AGI exceeds the applicable threshold.”

CHECK WHERE YOUR PAYMENT IS HEADED

Payments are going out digitally and by mail, with most direct deposit payments already out the door and in accounts by now. There was no action required on your part, by the way – just like before, payments were sent out automatically based on the info from your 2019 tax return.

To verify the status of your particular payment, use the IRS’ Get My Payment tool. This will tell you the where and when of your stimulus payment. The IRS really doesn’t want you to call (they don’t have the capacity to help over the phone), so this online tool is your best bet for up-to-date info.

YOUR TAX PREP PROVIDER MAY HAVE YOUR FUNDS

Because payments on both stimulus checks are tied to your most recent tax return, if you used a third party tax prep company like H&R Block or Turbo Tax, your money may have ended up there. 

H&R Block has already announced how they plan to handle client payments, while Turbo Tax’s parent company issued a statement noting that they would reject any stimulus payments back to the IRS (note – this doesn’t mean your money is gone, it just means Turbo Tax doesn’t want to be responsible for handling these payments).

Long story short: if you used a tax prep service and it looks like that’s where your payment was sent, be sure to check their website or contact their customer service for more info.

CHECKS WON’T BE REISSUED

If your check is headed to the wrong place or was deposited into a closed account, you can still get your funds, but it may not be as immediate as you’d like.

The IRS has already stated that they won’t be able to reissue any checks. Instead, if you were due a payment and it never made it to you, you’re advised to claim the “Recovery Rebate Credit” on your 2020 tax return. Technically, this stimulus payment is already a tax rebate, but most of us will receive it in the form of an advance. By claiming the credit on your tax return, you’ll either see your refund increase by the amount owed to you, or have your tax bill decrease by the amount owed.

After having waited so long for this assistance, it’s understandably upsetting to have to wait even longer to receive your share, but unfortunately that seems to be the only option. Be sure to prep and file your taxes early this year to get access to any funds owed to you.

21 Smartest Money Moves to Make in 2021

Pop the Champagne (in a safe, outdoor setting) because 2021 is finally here. Even in a pandemic, a new year is an opportunity for a fresh start. Vaccines are coming, the economy is slowly returning to normal, and you’re perfectly poised to improve your financial life.

And Money is here to help.

We’ve compiled a list of the 21 smartest money moves you can make in 2021. Fix your budget, maximize your savings, spice up your resume and more with our guide. While these aren’t necessarily easy, we looked for things that could realistically be accomplished with a few hours (or in some cases days) of effort.

See how many you can complete!

Finance Your Future

1. Get Serious About Saving

If Americans ever doubted the importance of saving, the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear just how necessary a financial cushion can be. A study from the Pew Research Center found that 41% of all adults in the U.S. have had trouble paying their bills and making housing payments since the pandemic began, while a study from Clever found that 61% of Americans said they don’t expect to have any emergency savings by the end of 2020. That’s why in 2021, it’s time to get serious about saving — even if you think you’re already in a comfortable financial position.

Financial advisors often encourage people to follow a 50-30-20 rule when dividing up their take-home pay, with 50% of your income going towards living expenses like rent and groceries, 30% for recreation or entertainment, and 20% going into savings. But for people who are just starting to save (or even those who are already on the right track), jumping from zero to 20 can be a daunting task — and sometimes downright impossible. That’s why it helps to set incremental goals, according to Kristen Euretig, a certified financial planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans.

She recommends starting with a number you can actually commit to, even if it’s just a few dollars and gradually adding more as you get comfortable. For example, start by saving 5% of your monthly income in January and then increase that amount by one percentage point each month. By December you’ll have tripled the money going towards an emergency fund each month. “Saving is a long game, and it’s a situation where the tortoise wins every time,” says Euretig.

— Kenadi Silcox

2. Actually Earn Something on Your Cash

One additional obstacle savers face right now: Low interest rates make it hard to earn much, even in CDs and so-called high-yield saving accounts offered online. The good news is there are better options if you are willing to put in a little extra legwork.

One good place to look is high-yield checking accounts (also known as rewards checking accounts), according to Ken Tumin, founder of DepositAccounts.com. Some of these pay as high as 4% (compared to less than 1% for most CDs). Of course these accounts, mostly offered through credit unions and regional banks, do have some caveats, typically requiring a certain number of electronic transactions per month and limiting the amounts on which they will pay out top dollar.

For example, Consumers Credit Union’s Reward Checking account offers up to 4.09% interest on $10,000 or less, although there are some hefty stipulations. To earn the full amount, members need to make at least 12 monthly debit card purchases and deposit $500 each month. To earn the maximum interest, members also need to spend $1,000 each month using a CCU Visa credit card. However, account holders can opt out of the credit card and still get a comfortable 2.09% APY.

— Kenadi Silcox

3. Reconsider Small Caps 

It’s been hard out there for shares of so-called small-cap companies, those with market values below $2 billion or so. While tech giants like Apple and Amazon have seen business actually improve during the pandemic, smaller companies, whose financial prospects tend to be tied closely to the overall health of the U.S. economy, have struggled mightily: While large-cap stocks have returned 14% over the past three years, small cap core stocks have returned just 8.7%.

The silver lining: Historically, once the economy begins to pull out of a recession, investors tend to warm to small caps and their returns can sling-shot ahead of those of bigger, steadier names. Looking at the past 11 recessions small-cap stocks beat larger ones by more than six percentage points on average, in the six months immediately after the recession ended, according to brokerage firm LPL.

While the U.S. economy isn’t out of the woods yet, the prospect of an effective COVID vaccine has many Wall Street analysts hoping small stocks could turn the corner in 2021. “Small caps may have history on their side,” wrote Invesco portfolio managers Matthew Ziehl, Adam Weiner and Jason Farrell in a recent blog post.

— Ian Salisbury

4. Invest Your Conscience with an ESG Fund 

With issues like racial justice and climate change on young investors’ minds, so-called ESG (or environmental, social and governance) funds have been gaining fans. By the end of September, U.S. sustainable funds attracted a record $31 billion in new investment dollars, according to Morningstar. The strategy is also getting the attention of some of the biggest names on Wall Street. In its annual letter to clients, BlackRock said the company was making sustainability integral to the way it manages risk and constructs portfolios.

As an investor, it’s nice to think that you can easily sort “good” companies from “bad” ones. But that’s not always the case. “There are some notable shortcomings that the industry still has to iron out,” says Jennifer Coombs, associate professor at the College for Financial Planning specializing in ESG investing. Among these concerns is that the handful of agencies that grade companies on their adherence to ESG principles tend to vary widely in their approaches.

Click Read More for 17 more tips.

The Pros and Cons of Paying Off Your Debt Early

Not so fast. In some cases, paying a debt off early doesn’t save you all that much money. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of paying down debt before you have to.

Pro: You’ll save thousands of dollars in interest

You can’t take out a loan without paying interest. You also can’t carry a credit card balance without paying interest. And the longer you owe money, the more interest you’ll pay. Let’s say you buy a car for the price of $25,000, and you borrow $20,000 at an interest rate of 3 percent on a 60-month loan. That could mean more than $1,500 in interest payments over the course of five years. What a waste, right?

So whether it’s a car loan or credit card debt, the sooner you wipe it out, the more money you’ll save in interest payments, and depending on the balance, this could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Con: You may have paid off most of the loan interest already

Most loans have something called an “amortization schedule” that maps out how much you’ll pay in interest and how much you’ll pay in principal each month. With many loans — especially mortgages — you pay most of the interest in the early years and pay mostly principal later on.

For example, let’s say you have a 30-year loan of $300,000 with a 5 percent interest rate. Using this handy amortization calculator, this means you’ll pay $1,610 per month. (For simplicity purposes, I am not including taxes and insurance in this calculation.) A typical amortization schedule shows that you will pay $1,250 per month in interest payments at first. But toward the end of the lending period, your interest payments are much lower. By the time you have three years left on the loan, you’ll pay a little over $200 in interest per month and it will continue to decline from there.

If you are fairly late in the loan term, there’s not a major financial advantage to paying your loan off early. You’re practically borrowing money interest-free at this point, so you might as well hold onto your cash or use it for something else.

Pro: You free up cash for other things

Your mortgage is $1,500 a month. Your car payment is $200 per month. Your student loan payment is $180. The minimum payment on your credit card balance is $250. If you’re locked into these payments each month, you may not have a lot of money left over for other needs or wants. Debt prevents you from having true financial flexibility. Pay those debts off early, and breathe easier knowing you’ve freed up a significant amount of cash.

Con: You could deplete your emergency fund

Your drive to pay off debt early may be strong, but where is that money coming from? It’s not easy for most people to pay off the $20,000 left on a mortgage in one fell swoop, for example. If you do have that much cash available, you need to make sure it’s not coming out of your emergency fund. It may feel good to pay off a debt, but when you have no money left to cover a medical emergency or job loss, you’re playing a dangerous game. It’s best to keep at least three months worth of living expenses on hand in cash, and avoid the temptation to raid it just to pay off a debt early.

Pro: You’ll sleep better

For many people, carrying debt from month to month is physically and mentally exhausting. It weighs on you. And that’s totally understandable. Everyone has their own comfort level with debt, and if you simply can’t stand the thought of even a small debt burden, pay those loans off in full if you can. In many cases, paying off a debt early offers a mental and financial freedom.

Con: You might stop building credit

Believe it or not, paying off debt early may actually hurt your credit. If you insist on always clearing debts in full long before they are due, you may cease to have enough credit history to get a favorable rating from credit agencies. As long as your debt burden is not too high, making consistent, regular payments on debts and paying bills on time is the best way to build strong credit.

14% of Americans with retirement savings have already tapped into those funds

(Excerpt, click Read More below for full article)

Yet while lawmakers made it easier to take a withdrawal from your retirement savings, many experts say that it should not be the first step you take if you’re struggling financially. First make sure that you have explored and exhausted the other options available to you, says Kevin Mahoney, a CFP and founder of Washington D.C.-based advisory firm Illumint.

Depending on whether you’re employed or not, refinancing existing debt may help. Or you might be able to tap home equity. And don’t overlook family and friends who may be able to help with temporary assistance. “No matter the specific circumstances, a retirement withdrawal should stay down as far as possible on the list of potential options,” Mahoney says. 

“Withdrawing money from a retirement account is a reasonable move in a worst-case financial scenario,” Mahoney says. But make sure you’re only taking the money if you really need it.

If you tap into your 401(k) or other retirement accounts, make sure you’re using the money to pay off outstanding debts or cover an income gap during this difficult time, says Michael Kelley, an Ohio-based CFP and founder of Kelley Financial Planning. Don’t take it out to have an extra financial cushion or to make a big purchase, like a car.

And if you did take money from your retirement savings, give yourself a break, DuQuesnay says. “No one predicted that a global pandemic would cause 30 million Americans to lose their jobs in just six weeks,” she says. “Do what you need to do to get through the current crisis, then evaluate a path forward.”

5 Renovations That Don’t Increase Your Resale Value

The first major home renovation my husband and I ever undertook was insulating the walls of a 1921 Craftsman bungalow we shared in Columbus, Ohio. This project made the house a great deal more comfortable in the winter and the summer, since the existing insulation was the least expensive option available in the 1920s — making it completely inadequate for maintaining heat in the winter or coolness in the summer.

Unfortunately, despite the undeniable improvement to our comfort, we found that our new insulation did nothing for our resale value. Even though we had put nearly $5,000 worth of work and materials into this renovation, we didn’t see that money and effort reflected in our sale price when we had to move several years later.

Not all renovations are going to increase your resale value. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should forgo working on your home if you won’t see the value when it’s time to sell. For instance, I would definitely insulate that house again, even knowing that the money is only going to improve my comfort. 

But there are some home renovation projects that you just can’t expect to recoup your investment on. Knowing that, you should consider how long you intend to live in your house and whether you’re renovating just to increase your home’s value before jumping into any of these home improvement projects.

1. Invisible improvements

Insulating our bungalow was the kind of invisible improvement that had to be done, but didn’t appear to change the house. Unlike “sexier” improvements like updating a kitchen or bath, or even putting on a new roof, invisible improvements don’t change the look of the house. These are things like re-grading the yard to keep water from getting into the basement, updating the HVAC system, tuck-pointing bricks and chimneys, and replacing gutters.

While these improvements often have to be done to protect your house, the downside is that you may not recoup the cost of these improvements when it comes time to sell. It can be helpful to think of these renovation expenses as a way of protecting your home’s current value, rather than as a way to increase your future resale value.

2. Swimming pool

While homeowners in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, and Southern California may find that having a swimming pool is a big selling point for their homes, this isn’t going to be the case nationwide. According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to install a pool is over $27,000. That doesn’t include the annual maintenance costs, ranging between $500 and $4,000. It’s these maintenance costs, plus the work that homeowners will have to either do themselves or contract out in order to keep their pool sparkling clean that will turn off many potential buyers. Add in the additional insurance requirements that homeowners with pools will need to purchase, and it should be clear why many prospective buyers would rather not invest in a home that comes with a pool.

This is why you should only commit to the cost of installing a pool if you truly want to use it yourself and expect to stay in your home for at least five years. Otherwise, it might make more sense to invest in a membership to your local pool. 

3. Bathroom and kitchen upgrades

Remodeling your bathroom and/or kitchen is an excellent way to increase your home’s value, right? Yes and no. While replacing dingy tiling and updating old appliances will definitely help your home shine for potential buyers, there’s such a thing as going overboard with your bathroom or kitchen upgrades.

Specifically, if you add granite countertops, custom-made cabinets, stainless steel appliances, and ceramic tiles to your kitchen and bathroom, but the rest of the home is still an ordinary suburban home, potential buyers will see the house as a work-in-progress, rather than a home that feels move-in ready. Over-improving the bath and kitchen could make buyers think that it’s not worth the effort to try to get the rest of the house to match.

4. Built-in high-end electronics

We may all dream of living in a George Jetson house — where every possible electronic need you have is already built in — but committing to this kind of renovation may hurt your resale value. 

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, while your personal movie theater (with remote-controlled state-of-the-art projector) may be exactly what you want from your home, a potential buyer may just see a room that will need to be torn out and remodeled as soon as they move in. Plus, technology advances at a breakneck speed, so your cutting-edge electronics will soon look as dated as shag carpeting and harvest gold refrigerators.

If you need or want built-in high-end electronics in your home, make sure you’re installing them for your own pleasure and comfort, because it’s unlikely a buyer will appreciate them too.

How to Prepare for the End of an Eviction Moratorium

At the local level, governments have provided these moratoriums as a way to keep people in their homes during this difficult time. However, an eviction moratorium doesn’t prevent your rent or mortgage from falling further and further behind and once a moratorium ends you’ll need to bring yourself current or face a potential eviction. 

Of course, if your financial outlook hasn’t improved (or hasn’t improved dramatically), staying in your home will be a challenge. Here’s how you can prepare yourself for the end of an eviction moratorium:

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Eviction moratoriums vary depending on where you live. So you’ll want to do some research on COVID-19 eviction moratoriums in your city, state, and county. Here are a few things you’ll want to look into: 

  • How long an eviction moratorium is in place for. Some locales have extended moratoriums so be sure to understand the protections in your specific county or city.
  • Whether you’ll be on the hook for any nonpayment fees or penalties. You most likely won’t need to pay for fees or penalties for not making your rent during a moratorium. However, this could change once it’s been lifted, or after the grace period to pay outstanding rent ends. 
  • How to be offered protection under an eviction moratorium. You might only be eligible if you’ve suffered an economic setback, are on unemployment, or if your business has been hit hard financially. 
  • How much time you have to pay back in rent or mortgage payments you owe. This varies depending on the locale. In some places, it’s 3 months after an eviction moratorium is lifted. In other areas, it’s 6 months or 12 months. During this time, you cannot get kicked out for deferred rent. 

NEGOTIATE FOR LOWER RENT 

If you can afford to, pay something now. Not only does it show your landlord that you’re a responsible tenant, but it also means you’ll owe back less money down the line. 

Try to work out an agreement with your landlord. While it might seem intimidating, start by approaching your landlord as a teammate. And your situation is a problem to work out together, suggests Tilden Moschetti, a real estate attorney of the Moschetti Law Group. “Everything is negotiable,” says Moschetti. “Most landlords want to work out arrangements to get caught up.” So come up with a plan to get caught up on your payments — which we’ll get to in just a bit.

A pro tip: It’s often easier to negotiate when there are no intermediaries between the tenant and owner, explains Alexander Lerner, a realtor with Figure 8 Realty in Los Angeles. In other words, the landlord is an individual or is a family-run operation versus a property management company. 

Be upfront about your situation. “Tenants should be honest and forthcoming with as many details as they feel comfortable sharing,” says Lerner. “The more you can show that you have been impacted financially and need assistance, the greater the likelihood you will find the person on the other side being amenable to negotiation.”

Put yourself in your landlord’s shoes. As Lerner, who works with landlords and is one himself, points out, landlords don’t want to be in a situation where you’re defaulting on your lease or aren’t unable to pay at all. In turn, they’d probably rather know that you’re going to pay a reduced amount. 

If you aren’t able to cover any rent, it puts the landlord in a position of having to find a new tenant when the rental market might not be as strong as when you rented out the place. Or needing to pour resources into getting you evicted or collecting on any money owed. 

Let’s say your rent is $2,000 a month. And it takes the owner a month to find a new tenant. In that case, they’d be missing out on one month’s rent. But if your rent got bumped down to $1,800 for four months, they’d only be losing $800. So it’s worth their while to keep you around but bump down your rent. 

“Plus, there’s no guarantee — given a lot of the current economic uncertainty — that a landlord will be able to find someone to rent right away, which could mean that the unit will stay vacant longer,” says Lerner.

COME UP WITH A PAYMENT PLAN 

Your payment plan depends, of course, on your financial situation. If you’ve been laid off and are receiving unemployment benefits, you might be able to afford to pay half of your rent now. Once you are gainfully employed again, you can drum up a plan to make up whatever remains.

If you’re out of work and have zero income coming in, you might have to skip rent payments for now, and get on a more aggressive repayment plan, where you’re paying, say, your rent plus 20% for a year or what have you.

Whatever your case might be, it’s essential to plan ahead. Your plan should be feasible and in step with your current financial situation. 

Should things change, keep your landlord looped in and make sure they’re on board. Try to think of any payment plan as a win-win. If you need more time to pay off whatever rent is owed, communicate this to your landlord as soon as you can. This especially rings true if you were a tenant in good standing that stayed on top of your payments before the pandemic. If you’ve got a positive payment history before everything went sideways, your landlord might be flexible and give you a few options so you won’t need to uproot. 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET EVICTED

Evictions are a loss for both parties involved, points out Anderson Franco, Esq., a San Francisco-based tenant attorney. “Tenants don’t want to lose their homes, and landlords don’t want the expense of a vacancy or eviction,” he says. “As such, it behooves both tenants and landlords to negotiate mutually beneficial terms that could allow the tenant to remain in their home and avoid the landlord-eviction expenses.” 

If you look just at the numbers, reducing your rent might generate less money for the landlord. But let’s say you end up defaulting on your rent, and the landlord ends up needing to evict you. That’s extra money and time they need to dole out on evicting you. Plus, they’ll need to find a new renter, which takes time, and potentially lost rent money during the vacancy. 

In the worst-case scenario and you are in danger of getting evicted, know your rights. The process of eviction, including the timeframe and your responsibilities, will depend on the laws in your state of residence. No matter where you live, be sure to keep track of all communications from your landlord or lender. You can seek more information and help from a non-profit agency that can provide free legal guidance to tenants. Some might even offer free mediation. 

Finally, it may come to pass that there’s no path forward other than leaving the property. Once that decision has been made, you’ll want to refocus your financial and mental resources towards finding temporary or long-term shelter.

The 6 Absolute Worst Ways to Cash In Your Travel Points

Travel credit cards make it easy to earn all kinds of rewards ranging from airline miles to hotel points and flexible travel credit. While the value of the points you earn will vary depending on how you redeem them, it’s not unheard of to receive 2 cents per mile or point in value from airline miles or hotel points for certain, high-value redemptions. 

On the flipside, you can also redeem your rewards for some pretty awful items, and even ones that let you get half a cent in value or less. That doesn’t make these redemptions “wrong” per se, but it does mean you’re effectively leaving money on the table when compared to other options.

If you have a travel credit card, a hotel rewards card, or a flexible travel credit card that lets you redeem points for airfare, hotels, and more, here are the redemption options you should avoid.

1. Merchandise

Many rewards currencies let you cash in your points for merchandise. With some rewards portals, for example, you can redeem points for purchases made through Amazon.com or at Apple stores.

While this isn’t the worst option in the world, redeeming points for electronics, small household appliances, and other types of merchandise will typically get you one cent per point in value, and often a lot less. 

Delta SkyMiles offers some of the worst merchandise redemptions you can find. For example, they want 141,880 miles for a 10.5-inch iPad Air with Wi-Fi. This same model currently costs only $649 at Apple.com, so you’d be getting significantly less than half a cent per point.

While it may seem tempting to use points for merchandise (free is free, right?), if you can bank enough points for something of higher value, it’ll be worth the wait. 

2. Low value transfers to airlines

Most travel rewards enthusiasts know that transferring points to airlines can help you get more bang for your buck, but you have to remember this isn’t always the case. High value airline transfers can be a good deal, but not all programs are created equal.

For example, it’s common to transfer your points to the card issuer’s airline partners and receive at least 2 cents per point in value when you go to redeem. That’s because your points will typically transfer 1:1, with the exception of certain airlines.

But some programs offer paltry transfer ratios. For example, the IHG Rewards program lets you transfer points to airline programs like Air France/Flying Blue and Alaska Airlines, but you’ll only get 2,000 airline miles for every 10,000 hotel points you transfer. 

Takeaway: not all points transfers are equal. Sometimes it makes sense to lose points in the transfer just to be able to use the points, but when you’re sacrificing thousands of points just for the privilege of transferring, you’re better off finding a different travel partner to use the points for.

3. Trading airline miles for hotel stays

If you have a bunch of airline miles you can’t seem to use, it might be tempting to cash them in for hotel stays through the airline’s portal. This isn’t the end of the world, and redeeming miles for hotels is better than letting them expire. Still, you won’t get very much value in return if you choose this option. 

Take the American AAdvantage program, for example. You can use miles to book free hotel stays, but redemption values are not great. For random dates I chose this year, they wanted 188,500 miles for a free stay at the Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour in Miami at the same time a paid stay would set you back $1,185 per night. That means you would get a lot less than 1 cent per point in value, which is a significantly lower value than you’d receive if you cashed in your miles for flights. 

Don’t be in so much of a hurry to book your entire trip on points when saving them for your next trip will give you much more value.

4. Gift cards

Almost every rewards program lets you cash in your points or miles for gift cards, and this can be a decent value if you don’t have the option to redeem for travel. However, you may receive less than one cent per mile in value if you cash in airline miles from an airline loyalty program for gift cards, and even flexible programs might only give you 1 cent in value per point with this option.

Cashing in travel rewards for gift cards should really only be your last resort if you find you absolutely cannot travel or your miles are about to expire. 

5. Magazine subscriptions

Please don’t ever cash in your miles for magazine subscriptions, even though several programs including Delta SkyMiles advertise this option. With Delta’s “MagsforMiles” program, for example, you can get six to 228 issues of various magazines like People and The Wall Street Journal in exchange for your miles. 

12 Money Mistakes You’re Teaching Your Kids

“Children observe and soak up everything, including how you use and talk about money,” said money and budgeting expert Andrea Woroch. “In fact, family attitudes toward spending and saving and mom and dad’s financial habits directly shape how children will value their own money in the future. It’s critical that parents understand how their own habits will influence their children and that they need to model the behavior they want their children to adopt.”

While kids can absorb many beneficial financial lessons from their parents, they also tend to take in less helpful ones as well. HuffPost asked Woroch and other financial experts to break down the kinds of harmful money messages kids learn from their caregivers ― and to share the types of approaches parents should try instead. Read on for their insights.

1. Money is a taboo topic.

“There’s a taboo out there that talking about money is bad, especially if you’re in debt, and that it’s shameful,” said Woroch. “When you don’t talk about money in your own household because you don’t want your kids to worry or because you don’t think it’s important that they are involved, you’re teaching your kids not to talk about money, and you restrict the opportunity for learning valuable money lessons early on.”

Tim Sheehan, co-founder and CEO of the family-focused financial literacy app Greenlight, echoed this sentiment. He believes that not discussing money at all with children leaves them in the dark when it comes to understanding what money means, how to get it and the right ways to manage it.

“Parents can start by helping their kids learn the ropes of decision-making,” Sheehan said. “Start small by explaining why you choose to spend money on groceries instead of takeout.”

Because so much of money management today happens on cellphone apps, children don’t observe things like bill-paying the way they did in the past. So parents need to “perform” money a bit to make sure their kids see them engage with finances and feel empowered to develop opinions about it, rather than simply getting lectured on the topic.

“I ask my children questions about money, which establishes that money is a thing we talk about,” said financial therapist Amanda Clayman. “These talks also demonstrate that people have questions without easy answers when it comes to money, that this is something you don’t have to be ashamed of, and that I’m a trusted source you can come to for help making decisions.”

2. Money is always around, no matter what. 

The experts who spoke to HuffPost emphasized the importance of helping kids understand that people earn money from work and that it doesn’t simply “grow on trees.”

“It can start with something as simple as a chore,” Sheehan said. “This helps kids make the connection that, ‘If I do this work, then I’ll earn money.’ Then, kids can set a saving goal and work towards it. It teaches them about making real-world trade-off decisions instead of giving in to instant gratification.”

In addition to teaching kids about earning money, Sheehan believes that chores like hosing down the car or taking out the trash can help kids become generally more responsible and prepared for adulthood. As for families that don’t pay for household chores, they can look to neighborhood jobs or other ways to demonstrate that money is earned, not given.

3. Financial literacy is just a grown-up thing.

In addition to not talking about money, many parents don’t let their children gain experience managing money. But there are countless age-appropriate ways for kids to learn financial literacy and practice these skills.

“Start a small business,” suggested financial expert Kim Kiyosaki. “It’s key to learn the language of money. Kids can learn things such as income and expenses, profit and loss, cash flow, inventory, marketing, and the value of their time. This is hands-on, and it’s fun. And the learning is tremendous.”

She recommended businesses like mowing neighbors’ lawns, selling a product online, opening a lemonade stand, shining shoes, or even finding lost golf balls on local courses, cleaning them and selling them to golfers.

Kiyosaki shared other ways to teach kids about money, like buying a few shares of a company familiar to your children (like Disney) and letting them watch the price fluctuations and learn about the stock. Another approach is buying a 1-ounce silver coin. Or, you can leave it up to your kids.

“If your child wants a new toy or gadget, ask them, ‘How could you earn the money to buy it?’” she said. “Let them get creative.”

“You can’t teach your child the difference between needs and wants, or even the value of saving, if you are continually swiping a credit card for everything.”- KUMIKO LOVE, FINANCIAL COUNSELOR AND CREATOR OF THE BUDGET MOM

4. Money talk only evokes negative emotions. 

“Children are wired to be attuned to the emotions of their caregivers, so they start to notice associations,” Clayman explained. “They might notice if conversations about money seem to be tense or if their parents get upset and start talking about money when they ask for something. These form an emotional context that kids tend to grow with and bring into their financial lives as adults.”

What Causes a Credit Card to Stop Working?

Credit card technology has taken a leap forward in the past decade-plus, with new features that make transactions faster and safer. But that doesn’t mean your cards won’t fail you at the most inconvenient time.

So why do credit and debit cards stop working? There are two big picture reasons: there’s something wrong with the card, or there’s something potentially wrong with your account.

REASONS YOUR CREDIT CARD MAY MALFUNCTION

Most credit cards these days come equipped with at least two mechanisms to complete your transaction: the classic magnetic strips and the more recent computer chips. On top of that, many cards now offer contactless payment through an antenna connected to that computer chip.

Which means that if one option isn’t working, you may be able to try a different method with the same card. 

Still, if you’d rather not risk it either way, here are some of the most common reasons why a card may malfunction.

EXPOSURE TO STRONG MAGNETS

The magnetic strip on your credit card doesn’t play well with other magnets, although it takes a fairly strong magnet to actually cause your card to stop working. Bringing your card into a room where an MRI machine is operating could do it, for instance.

To be safe, limit your cards exposure to magnets and magnetic devices.

THE MAGNETIC STRIP IS SCRATCHED

This is likely the most common physical reason for a credit card to stop working. If the magnetic strip gets roughed up enough it may eventually become unreadable.

Be gentle with your plastic and try to keep your cards together in a wallet or money clip.

THE CARD IS DIRTY

If enough dirt or debris gets between your card’s strip or chip, the card reader may not be able to process the transaction. Luckily, this is the easiest one to remedy – you can wipe the card down with a clean cloth, or even use adhesive tape to pull off offending particles. While soap and water probably won’t ruin the card, it’s better to keep your card dry and soap-free.

THE CARD IS DAMAGED

It takes a lot to make the chip in your credit card stop working, but bending, cutting, crushing, or otherwise mangling your card will do the job. Most modern credit cards can survive years of normal wear and tear, but we all have our limits. Extended exposure to water (particularly salt water) can cause your card to stop working, too.

THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE READER

Sometimes it’s not your card’s fault! There may be an issue with the card reader at the store. There may be an issue with the system tasked with authorizing and process the payment. Or you may be inserting your card incorrectly. More times than not, a card failure can be resolved by just trying again, or swiping instead of dipping.

REASONS YOUR ACCOUNT MAY NOT BE WORKING

Sometimes the card itself is fine – it’s the account at the other end that’s got an issue. Here are the most common reasons your card isn’t working (that aren’t the card’s fault):

YOUR CREDITOR SUSPECTS FRAUD

A creditor may temporary freeze your account if there’s been enough “suspicious” activity to warrant a closer look. This usually means transactions in strange places, at strange frequencies, or for strange amounts. Basically, if the card issuer has reason to suspect that you’re not the one using the card, they may put it on lockdown until they make contact with you to confirm whether or not the transactions are legit.

YOUR CARD NEEDS TO BE REPLACED

Creditors will send a new card when the old one expires, or if the old one was lost or compromised. If you’re trying to use a card that’s expired or one that’s been replaced, it likely won’t work.

Conversely, your new card won’t work until you activate it, which is another reason your card may not be working.

THE BILLING INFORMATION DOESN’T MATCH

Many transactions, particularly online ones, require more info than just your card number. If the information on file with your credit card doesn’t match the info you provided, the transaction won’t go through. If you’ve moved recently, make sure to update your address on all of your financial accounts. The wrong ZIP code is a pretty common reason why transactions sometimes don’t go through.

YOUR ACCOUNT IS MAXED OUT

Many credit and debit accounts provide a little wiggle room for going above and beyond your credit limit/available balance (at a premium to you), but if there’s not enough money or available credit to cover the transaction, it likely won’t go through.

6 Easy Ways to Simplify Your Financial Life

If you’re looking for some easy ways to simplify your finances, consider these straightforward ways to master money management:

1. Create a financial calendar: Many of us start the year with great intentions, but we fall off track along the way. I always recommend creating a budget as an essential piece of money advice, and I’m going to make a slightly different suggestion for those of you who already have a budget — make a financial calendar. Store your calendar on your phone or tablet, so you can set reminders and create a list of major financial tasks you intend on completing, along with their due date. For example, you might remind yourself to complete your taxes by early April, compile all of your tax documents by March 1, and increase your 401k contributions for the year by January 15. You can also use it to set financial goals, such as the date by which you hope to save $2,000 for a vacation, or to track goal milestones toward paying off debt.

2. Ditch the Paper: Paper bills, credit card statements and other financial documents can become easily disorganized. Take a moment to request all of your financial documents be switched to e-delivery, and if you have old files of paper document you still need, start scanning them into an e-format. They’ll be easier to retrieve and use, less likely to be misplaced, and may allow you to make better financial choices when you can see everything at once.

3. Clean Out Your Wallet: If you’re savings-conscious like me, your wallet is probably overflowing with retailer loyalty cards and coupons. These are powerful tools for reducing costs with perks like free shipping, early access to sales, and other special promotions and discounts. However, having too much plastic in your wallet can also leave you feeling disorganized, scattered, and less likely to use these many programs regularly. Consider downloading apps for your favorite loyalty and coupon programs, or better yet, an app to consolidate all of your accounts in one place.

4. Streamline Credit Cards: While you’re cleaning out your wallet, consider the myriad rewards credit cards you may have. You’re less likely to use multiple rewards cards as intended, and more likely to run up needless fees. I recommend using a single rewards card, such as Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, that allows you to switch your cash-back category on a monthly basis. That means a single card can earn you top-notch cash back for online shopping, travel or many other common shopping categories. You’re more likely to get all the cash back you deserve and can save on fees associated with juggling multiple cards.

How to Deal with a Shockingly Big Utility Bill

If your lights stayed on during the cold front, however, you may be facing a different kind of crisis. Many Texans buy their electricity wholesale, which can be a great deal most of the year. Unfortunately, the market price of electricity spiked drastically during the deep freeze. Electricity that might normally cost 12 cents per kilowatt hour, jumped up to $9 per kilowatt hour (an increase of more than 7,000%). 

As a result, families across the state are suddenly dealing with enormous electricity bills, with many on the hook for thousands of dollars in charges. 

While unexpected spikes are always a possibility with any variable rate utility, it’s hard to imagine that anyone was prepared for these kinds of prices.

If you find yourself stuck with an enormous utility bill as a result of a natural disaster, severe weather event, or smaller scale misfortune, here are some of the initial steps you should take to protect your finances.

BE PATIENT

A big bill takes your breath away. We’ve probably all had those moments when we first lay eyes on an unexpected medical bill or car repair quote and the number nearly puts you on the floor. 

It’s easy to panic, but it’s important that you stay calm and patient when faced with an almost inexplicably huge bill. The last thing you want to do is make a hasty decision that comes back to bite you.

As in the case of the Texas electric bills, there may be relief coming, but that can take time. Until you know what aid is available, avoid taking any actions that may make it difficult to get relief later (charging the bill to your credit card or emptying your savings, for example).

DISABLE AUTOPAY

If you have automated payments in place, you may want to cancel those as a precaution, particularly if your autopay is set to take whatever’s due straight from your account without any additional approval. You can reinstate your preferred payment method once things are sorted with you and the utility company.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

In the immediate aftermath of the severe winter event in Texas, the state’s utility commission enacted a temporary moratorium on electricity shut-offs for nonpayment, protecting families faced with unmanageable bills. 

Check to see what protections are in place where you live. If you stop making payments while you wait for aid, will you still have access to your utilities?

CONTACT YOUR PROVIDER

Start the conversation with your utility provider as soon as possible. Ask what they can do for you. At the very least, they should be able to help you create a payment plan. Ultimately, what you really want is relief or forgiveness, but that may require government intervention.

In the meantime, figure out what you need to do to keep your utilities running until more information is available.

EVEN OUT YOUR SPENDING

If no help is coming you may have to work that new, unexpected cost into your monthly budget until the charges are paid off. If that’s the case, consider working with a trained, nonprofit financial counselor to reorganize your spending. 

Help! I’m Afraid to Retire, Even Though I Can Afford to

I am seeing an interesting pattern in discussions with my clients about retirement — and it’s certainly not one I was expecting. Instead of worrying about whether they’ll have enough saved to enjoy retirement, they’re worrying about whether they’ll enjoy retirement at all.

It seems like discussions about retirement start almost as soon as we get our first job. Whether it’s saving as much as possible in your 401(k) plan or making an annual IRA contribution, the focus is always on having enough money to retire and enjoy all the things they’ve been dreaming of doing. For some, the big plans include traveling to far-flung destinations; for others, it’s spending time with family, finally moving to that place you love to visit on vacation, or volunteering.

As financial planners, we talk about these dreams as goals and put dollar amounts on them with anticipated timeframes around when you could expect to achieve them.

Nearing Retirement, Client Has Second Thoughts

As we diligently make progress on achieving those retirement dreams, we don’t spend as much time as we should thinking about what life may actually look like in retirement. Just last week, I spoke to a client who says she would like to retire at the end of this year. We have been working toward her economic freedom for years, and she has enough assets to be able to make all the dreams she has expressed come to fruition. We got to the end of the financial plan discussion and I was all set to celebrate starting the countdown to the long-awaited retirement date.

But there was a pause, and then she said, “I don’t know if I can actually start to withdraw the money and feel good about it. I have been so focused on saving, investing and planning for years that I don’t know how I will feel about starting to take money out, even if it’s for things I think I want.”

She went on to say that she always thought she wanted to move to another state to be close to her extended family, but she now realizes that they are going to be busy with their own lives, and it won’t just be fun all the time like when she visits now. And if her family won’t be able to see her multiple times a week, then maybe she doesn’t actually want to live in that state and make a major lifestyle adjustment to weather she doesn’t enjoy year-round and not being able to walk on the beach every day.

She shared that she worries that the photography and golf hobbies that she feels like she never has time to enjoy now won’t be enough to fill her days. She has traveled extensively already, and the list of places she still wants to visit is getting shorter. In other words, her biggest worry about retiring is what she is going to do with her time when she retires — even though she says frequently, even now, that she can’t wait to stop working.

I have had similar conversations with physician clients who start our discussions by telling me that they are very stressed, and the only thing they want to do is close their practice as soon as financially possible. And yet, when we work through their wealth management plan and show that they have more than enough assets to walk out the door tomorrow, they can’t do it. For some people, retiring from being an expert in their field or having a prestigious job feels like giving up part of the identity they have worked very hard to earn.

Coping Tips If You’ve Got Cold Feet for Retirement

So, what do you do when the hardest part about retirement is actually retiring? The most successful transitions to retirement I have helped clients implement start years before the planned retirement date or have elements that help ease them into decisions. Here are some ideas to make retirement the next step in a journey, not a final destination:

  1. Consider slowing down at work instead of stopping completely. Working part-time allows you to have the best of both worlds: Continued income and a day-to-day sense of purpose, as well as the time to pursue hobbies, travel and leisure. The physician who wanted to walk away from his practice is now only working three days a week, happy to still be caring for patients while being able to participate in his teenager’s school and sports activities.
  2. Try before you buy. If relocation is in your retirement plans, you can similarly take a new location for a test drive before committing to living there full-time. In the case of the client who might want to live by her family but really likes her current home, I recommended that she rent a house for a year in the new state to see if she can deal with the weather, and if her extended family’s lifestyle suits her before she sells her current home. She can rent out her current home for some income, or she can just come back home for a break during the very hot or cold months in the new state.

Major Debt Collection Changes Coming in 2021

For a quick refresher, the new rules are basically updates to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which sets guidelines for how debt collectors can behave when attempting to collect a debt from consumers. The FDCPA is over four decades old at this point, so an update was arguably overdue.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has actually been working on this update for over five years now. The rule changes are an attempt to modernize the FDCPA and better account for how consumers and creditors communicate in the 2020s.

Here’s how these changes will impact you and the process of debt collection.

STRICTER LIMITS ON COLLECTION CALLS

The core rules of the FDCPA remain in place. That means debt collectors still can’t:

  • Call before 8am or after 9pm (local time)
  • Threaten or harass you
  • Tell your friends or family about your debt
  • Contact you at work (after you’ve asked them not to)

One issue the text of the original FDCPA didn’t cover was how often a creditor could call you. This new rule sets hard limit of one call per day. However, if the collector actually talks to you, they can’t call again for at least seven days.

On top of that, you’ll no longer have to send a letter to request that collectors stop calling you. You can make that request on the phone and collectors will now be obligated to stop trying to contact you that way.

COLLECTORS WILL BE ALLOWED TO TEXT, EMAIL, AND DM YOU

The only two communication methods mentioned in the original FDCPA are phone calls and letters, and it’s fair to say that both methods have fallen out of favor with many (if not most) consumers in recent years. 

The new rules provide guidelines for collectors contacting you through text message, email, and social media. There are two basic requirements for collectors using these communication methods:

  • Like with phone calls, they need to keep their outreach to reasonable hours (8am to 9pm); and 
  • Every text, email, and DM needs to include instructions on how to opt out of receiving future communications through that method.

It’s important to note that “social media” is limited to private communications. They aren’t allowed to Tweet at you or post about you on Facebook. Only direct, non-public messages are permitted.

VALIDATING DEBTS IS GOING TO BE A LOT SIMPLER

Perhaps the most consumer-friendly change is the new requirement that collectors need to provide validation of the debt in question either at the point of first contact, or within five days after the first contact. 

Prior to this rule change, if you wanted clear details on where the debt came from and an itemized breakdown of the charges, you’d have to request this validation yourself and collectors would have 30 days to comply. Now the onus will be on collectors to provide this information upfront and in an easy-to-understand format. 

COLLECTORS CAN’T REPORT ON A DEBT BEFORE CONTACTING THE CONSUMER

There’s good news on the credit report front. Collectors will now be prohibited from reporting on a collection debt to the credit bureaus until they’ve:

  • Spoken to the consumer in person or over the phone about the debt; or 
  • Sent the consumer a message about the debt through mail or email.

If the collector is reaching out via letter or email, they have to wait a reasonable amount of time (14 days seems to be the guideline) to ensure that the message was delivered. 

This gives consumers a fair chance to deal with a collection debt before it hits their credit report.

COLLECTORS CAN’T SUE FOR EXPIRED DEBTS

Debts don’t really “expire,” but each state does maintain statutes of limitations that spell out how long a creditor has to take legal action to collect an unpaid debt. Once that statute of limitations has passed (which can be anywhere from three to ten years, depending on where you live), the creditor or collector may still try to sue you, but if you can prove that the statute of limitations have passed, you’ll almost certainly win the case.

Of course, many consumers don’t know this, which some collectors may use to their advantage by using threats of a lawsuit to coerce the consumer into making a payment.

The new rules of the FDCPA explicitly prohibit collectors from threatening to sue on debts where the statute of limitations has passed (these are referred to as “time-barred” debts). 

TWO MAJOR DRAWBACKS TO THESE NEW RULES

While these changes are largely consumer-friendly and should improve many elements of the debt collection process, there are two big drawbacks.

First, while it’s nice to be able to pick and choose your preferred method of communication (particularly if you’re interested in working with the collection company), things could get hectic and frustrating fast with collectors on the phone, in your DMs, in your inbox, in your texts, and on and on. 

Conspicuously absent in these new rules is a limit to how often collectors can text, email, and DM you. Unlike phone calls, there is no one-a-day cap on messages sent through these other methods. Your only protection is to opt out, but there’s no universal opt out. You’ll need to opt out of each source individually.

Second, the increase in digital communication is almost certainly going to come with an increase in scams. You’ll need to be on alert to separate the real collectors from the fakes, which will likely just add to the already overwhelming amount of noise.

5 pandemic-driven financial habits worth keeping

As the pandemic shut down the world around her, Ashli Smith , an Atlanta resident and mom to a newborn, says she set up autopay for her recurring bills to help her stay organized and avoid late payments. “With everything going on, plus being a mom, I don’t want to forget to pay something or someone,” she says.

While the pandemic caused incredible financial stress and uncertainty, it also led many consumers like Smith to form new financial habits worth keeping, including saving more and spending less. A NerdWallet survey found that most people who formed new financial habits plan to continue them into 2021.

Here are five habits to consider sticking with even as life starts to return to normal:

1. SPEND LESS, SAVE MORE

For many Americans, spending less amid the pandemic came naturally because of income loss or fewer spending options after restaurants and travel largely shut down. NerdWallet’s survey found that among those who said they picked up new financial habits during the pandemic that they plan to carry into 2021, 58% said they were cutting back spending on “wants” and 36% said they were cutting back spending on “needs.”

“If your job was eliminated or your pay was reduced, then you’ve probably decreased spending and gotten used to a lower monthly budget,” says Eric Simonson, certified financial planner and owner of Minneapolis firm Abundo Wealth . “As soon as that income returns, it would be an amazing opportunity to keep expenses the same but save all of that new income.”

Natalie Slagle, founding partner at Fyooz Financial Planning and a CFP based in Rochester, Minnesota says, “For those who were furloughed or laid off, the No. 1 priority is replenishing savings.” For those who got used to spending less, she says, “we encourage them to sustain that habit so their cash flow can go toward building up their emergency fund at a higher rate than what was possible before the pandemic.” That way, it’s easier to handle the next crisis, whether it’s income loss or an unexpected expense, without taking on more debt.

2. STICK WITH A BUDGET

In the NerdWallet survey, 39% of those who adopted new habits that they plan to carry into 2021 said that one of those habits was sticking to a budget.

“So many people have looked at their budgeting and spending during (the pandemic), often for the first time,” Simonson says. “It’s important to stick with this post-pandemic, since keeping a budget is part of a healthy financial plan.”

Many people turned to budgeting to help regain a sense of control that the pandemic took from them, he adds. “The financial habits you’ve been forced to learn and adopt have the power to create huge, positive, lasting change if you stick with them,” Simonson adds. Continuing to budget makes it easier to generate long-term savings and avoid debt, for example.

3. MINIMIZE TRAVEL EXPENSES

Among survey respondents, 40% said one of the new habits they plan to continue in 2021 was cutting back on travel spending.

“One reason we saw our clients enjoy lower expenses (during the pandemic) is because they didn’t go on their planned vacations,” Slagle says. “Not only did that cut expenses, but they also have flight vouchers and unused travel miles to spend.”

As travel begins to start again, Slagle says she’s helping clients plan on using some of those savings and credits on their next trip to avoid overspending.

4. EARN EXTRA INCOME

Based on the study, among those who developed new financial habits, just over a quarter said they picked up a side hustle or extra work to make money. Kevin Mahoney — a CFP and founder of Illumint , a financial planning firm for millennials based in Washington, D.C. — says earning a side income can help provide financial stability during uncertain times, which is why he encourages his clients to consider it.

“Supplemental income mimics an emergency savings fund. People who can consistently generate self-income are better prepared to withstand financial volatility,” he says.

Biden Signs Stimulus Bill

The push for a third stimulus check started in December before the second round of $600 payments were even authorized. So, we’ve had to wait a couple of months to see how this would all play out. But, on Thursday, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which authorizes another round of stimulus checks. So, finally, we now know that a third round of stimulus payments is coming…we just don’t know exactly when they will arrive.

According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, some people could start receiving electronic payments as soon as the March 13-14 weekend. This would just be the first wave of payments. More stimulus check payments would then be sent over the following weeks.

When second-round stimulus checks were authorized in December, the IRS started issuing electronic payments in less than one week. So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if the tax agency is able to repeat that feat and start sending payments within days this time around, too. Psaki recently noted that the IRS is “building on lessons learned from previous rounds to increase the number of households that will get electronic payments, which are substantially faster than checks.”

We don’t know yet how long it will take to distribute all payments. Hopefully, it will be a matter of weeks, not months, before the vast majority of third stimulus checks are delivered. We shall see.

Nevertheless, whether it’s in a few days or a couple of weeks, at least we know the payments will be sent soon. And since the IRS has bank account information for more Americans than it did when first-round stimulus checks were being processed, they will be able to deposit payments directly into bank accounts for most people. This will speed up the payment process considerably. That’s good news for Americans who have lost income because of the pandemic and desperately need the extra cash.

Tracking Your Third Stimulus Check

We expect the IRS to fire up the popular “Get My Payment” portal again so that you can track the status of your third stimulus check. The online tool lets you:

  • Check the status of your stimulus payment;
  • Confirm your payment type (paper check or direct deposit); and
  • Get a projected direct deposit or paper check delivery date (or find out if a payment hasn’t been scheduled).

For first-round stimulus checks, you could also enter or change your bank account information to have your payment directly deposited into your account. But that feature wasn’t included in the tool for second-round payments. So, we’re not sure if you’ll be able to provide or update bank account information for the upcoming round of stimulus payments.

However, for first-round stimulus checks, you couldn’t use the “Get My Payment” portal to track the status of your payment if you didn’t file a tax return. Instead, there was another online tool that non-filers could use to give the IRS with the information it needed to process a payment. The non-filers tool wasn’t used for second stimulus checks, though. We don’t know if the tool will be used for third stimulus checks.

Calculating Your Third Stimulus Check Amount

Under the American Rescue Plan, every eligible person will receive a $1,400 third stimulus check “base amount.” For married couples that file a joint tax return, the base amount is $2,800. Then, for each dependent in your family, an additional $1,400 will be tacked on.

But not all people will receive the full amount. As with the first two stimulus payments, third-round stimulus checks will be reduced – potentially to zero – for people reporting an adjusted gross income (AGI) above a certain amount on their latest tax return. If you filed your most recent tax return as a single filer, your third stimulus check will be phased-out if your AGI is $75,000 or more. That threshold jumps to $112,500 for head-of-household filers, and to $150,000 for married couples filing a joint return. Third-round stimulus checks will be completely phased out for single filers with an AGI above $80,000, head-of-household filers with an AGI over $120,000, and joint filers with an AGI exceeding $160,000.

The Case Against Paying Rent with a Credit Card

Generally speaking, however, charging rent payments to a credit card is a bad idea. While it certainly adds convenience and can help keep you afloat if you’re short one month, the cons largely outweigh the pros – especially if you’re charging rent on a regular basis.

If you’re thinking of using a credit card to cover your next rent payment, consider the following reasons why you shouldn’t.

COSTLY FEES

Most sizeable apartment complexes and rental management companies offer some form of online payment portal, where you can make payments through a bank account or credit card. Even if you rent from an individual landlord who’s not set up for online payments, there are a ton of services that still allow you to make rent payments via credit card. Plastiq and RentTrack both process credit card payments and send them on to your landlord on your behalf (usually in the form of a paper check).

Another feature all of these services have in common is hefty fees. Most charge a service/processing fee on credit card payments of just below 3% of the rental payment. If your rent is $1,000, for example, you may be charged an additional $25-30. Taken as a one-time fee that might seem acceptable, but if you’re making every payment this way, you’ll end up spending an extra ~$300 in fees on the year.

While there are plenty of credit cards out there with great rewards programs, it’s unlikely that any points or cash back reward is going to be worth more than the cost of the service fee.

INTEREST CHARGES

Beyond the immediate processing fees, charging your rent also opens you up to potential interest fees if you haven’t repaid the bill before the end of the associated billing cycle. The amount of these interest fees will depend on the terms of your credit card and how long it takes you to repay the borrowed rent. If it takes you multiple months to complete your payoff, you’ll likely be accruing additional interest charges every month along the way.

No matter how long it takes to pay off your credit card, you’re better off not spending money on interest charges if you can help it.

REDUCED AVAILABLE CREDIT

Most of us have a finite amount of credit available. Even if you have a fairly large credit limit, charging your monthly rent means two things:

  1. There’s less credit available for other needs or emergencies. The credit tied up in your rental payments won’t be available again until you repay that debt. In the meantime, you may be financially shorthanded, particularly if you need to make another large purchase, or if you run into an emergency and need to access a large portion of your credit limit.
  2. Your credit may take a temporary hit. Nearly all credit scoring models base some percentage of your credit score on the amount of available credit that’s currently in use. The closer you are to your credit limit, the more negatively your score will be impacted. In other words, the lower your credit utilization ratio, the better that is for your credit score. 

WHAT ABOUT EMERGENCIES?

Of course, the reason credit card charges for rent were on the rise in 2020 is because many families had limited income and couldn’t afford to pay their rent any other way. It’s perfectly okay to use credit to help survive a crisis situation – that’s one of the primary reasons why you work so hard to have a strong credit history in the first place.

There are some instances, however, where you should make sure that using credit isn’t doing more harm than good.

Are you always one payment behind? If your rent is due before your next paycheck, it’s natural to turn to credit to tide you over. But if your rent is always due before your next paycheck, you may need to make some changes to your budget so that you’re not spending paychecks before they hit your bank account. 

Are you always just a little short? If you’re using credit to cover a persistent shortfall in your budget, you may be walking a dangerous line, especially if your debt keeps going up and up. It’s possible you don’t have enough income to cover your expenses. Fortunately, there may be simple tweaks you can make to even out your spending and stop relying on credit.

There’s no shame in using credit cards to manage an emergency. But if you’re continually relying on credit to help cover major expenses like rent that may be a sign of growing financial problem.

How to Get Out of a Bad Co-signing Situation

While it may be easy to say, “Too bad – work on improving your credit score,” that work takes time. And when it comes to things like housing or transportation (in the case of a car loan), there’s usually no time to spare.

So, despite all the warnings, you offer up your primo credit history and co-sign on the loan. Most co-signers are family members. It’s easy to see why a parent or sibling would want to help a loved one get what they need, even with the risks attached.

But then…you notice that your credit score has taken a dive. Looking further, you find that payments are being made late or not at all. They may be family, but their inability to follow through is costing you. You may even have collectors calling you (your name is on the loan, after all).

So how do get your name off a co-signed loan?

SEE IF REFINANCING IS AN OPTION

Co-signing for a loan or credit account makes you just as responsible for that account as your family member or friend. Your credit will be impacted if payments are missed and collectors have every right to come after you for what’s owed.

If things aren’t quite so dire yet, you can see if the co-signer is able to refinance what’s owed onto a new loan or account that’s only in their name. This gets you off the hook, although any damage you took before the original loan was paid off will still be on your credit report. 

Unfortunately, this is…pretty unlikely. If the borrower couldn’t get a loan without help to begin with and now you’re trying to get out of the loan because things are going poorly, there’s very little chance they’ll be able to get approved on their own now. This is the ideal path out from under a bad co-signer situation, but it’ll be very difficult to pull off. 

REPAY THE LOAN DIRECTLY

The best option is the one you’re going to be the least excited about. If you’ve co-signed on a loan and the other co-signer isn’t holding up their end, the path of least harm to yourself is to assume full responsibility for the loan and start paying it directly. 

Of course that’s not “fair” and probably not at all within the spirit of the initial agreement you made with the borrower. But here’s the thing: your agreement with the borrower doesn’t matter. Perhaps, if you put something in writing and took the steps to create a formal contract, you may be able to eventually seek compensation directly from the borrower. But in the meantime, you already have a contract with the lender. In co-signing the loan, you were essentially saying, “If they can’t pay, I will.”

So if you’re concerned about the potential damage to your credit and the chance of a creditor taking you to court for an unpaid loan (which is a very real possibility), then it’s in your best interest to start proactively paying the loan yourself.

You can work with the borrower (if they’re responsive) to create a repayment plan, but in the meantime, your priority should be to protect your own finances and get the loan in continued good standing.

WORK WITH THE LENDER

If assuming the payments for a co-signed loan is beyond your financial capacity, it may be worth your time to contact the lender to discuss any available options. There’s a good chance they may not be able to do anything for you, but you may be able to work out a revised payment plan that keeps the account in good standing. Again, a lender isn’t required to do this, but it’s still worth a phone call.

SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND ABOUT CO-SIGNING

Because co-signing is often pitched as “helping out” a friend or loved one, it’s important to remember that lenders, creditors, and leasing agents really don’t care all that much about any agreements or “understandings” you may have with the borrower/applicant.

  • You can’t remove yourself from a loan contract just because the other borrower isn’t holding up their end. Your responsibility doesn’t end until the contract is fulfilled and the loan is repaid.
  • Ownership and liability are two separate things. If you co-signed on an auto loan for someone’s car, but aren’t on the title, you’re responsible for the loan that paid for the car, but have no claim to the car itself. You may think that if you paid for it, you must also own it, but that’s not always necessarily true.

Unfortunately, the co-signing horror stories are very real. A bad co-signing situation can be extremely costly, terribly damaging to your credit, and almost impossible to escape. 

If you’re considering co-signing to help a friend or family member, be cautious and keep this information in mind. There are situations where co-signing can be mutually beneficial and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help a loved one, but it’s important to remember that if things go south, it may be long, hard road to recovery.

What Does It Mean If Your Credit Card is Charged Off?

WHAT’S A CHARGE OFF?

Charge off is an accounting term. It basically means that the account in question is a loss for the lender. 

When a lender or servicer charges off an account, they’re essentially claiming the lost profits for the purposes of lowering their tax liability. It’s a standard course of action for accounts that have gone unpaid for an extended period of time (most credit cards will charge off once they reach 181 days past due, though installment loans and other debts may reach charge off at different times). Your account will be closed as a result (if it hasn’t been closed already).

It’s incredibly important to remember, however, that a lender charging off an account doesn’t mean that the associated debt goes away. Legally speaking, your obligation to repay the debt does not change, even after the account is charged off. This is basically just a bookkeeping move from the lender to save a little money on their end.

WHEN IS AN ACCOUNT CHARGED OFF?

Different lenders will have different policies when it comes to charging off delinquent accounts. As a rule of thumb, lenders won’t charge off an account unless it’s seriously delinquent – again, most credit cards need to be 181 days (or six billing cycles) past due. The account will likely be well into the debt collections process by that point, and may even be serviced by a third party debt collection agency.

Don’t expect to be notified of a charge off. Instead, you’ll likely be receiving communications from the lender’s collection department or a third party debt collector. Those collection activities can continue long after the debt’s been charged off.

DO YOU STILL OWE MONEY ON A CHARGED OFF ACCOUNT?

You are absolutely still responsible for the repayment of debts even after they’ve been charged off. 

A lender choosing to charge off an account does not change any of the agreed upon terms and conditions of the original agreement. Interest can still accrue. Fees and penalties can still be added. 

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a charge off absolves you of your obligations to the debt. It doesn’t.

CAN YOU NEGOTIATE ON A CHARGED OFF ACCOUNT?

The one potential bright side of having your account charged off is that you may be able to negotiate a settlement for the outstanding balance. This is essentially how debt settlement programs work – you allow an account to go unpaid and become severely delinquent; once it’s charged off you may be able to settle with the account owner for a fraction of the full balance.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this scenario. Missing payments on your debts (intentionally or otherwise) will almost definitely cause your credit score to drop. No matter what happens after, those negative marks will stick around for seven years, so the damage may take a few years to shake. It’s also important to keep in mind that forgiven debt (the amount of the debt you don’t pay) will likely need to be claimed as income on your taxes, which could result in a bigger tax bill.

All that said, if your account has changed off because you simply couldn’t afford the payments, settlement can be a useful solution for both parties – the lender recovers some amount of what’s owed to them and you get to put the debt behind you, usually for a much more affordable amount.

CAN A CHARGE OFF BE UNDONE?

You can make arrangements with the lender or collection agency to repay the debt, either in full or partially as part of a settlement, but you won’t be able to “undo” the charge off. Your account can’t be reopened and you can’t remove the negative marks from your credit report.

Tips for Achieving Your Financial New Year’s Resolutions in 2021

Given the way 2020 unfolded, if you’re making a financial resolution for the new year, a lot of new considerations may be coming into play – whether that’s changes in your financial situation and outlook or new spending habits and priorities. As an unprecedented year comes to an end, here are a few tips that may be helpful if you’re sitting down to map out 2021.

  • 1. Set Short- and Long-term Goals. Instead of making the sweeping promise that you will generally “be better with money” moving forward, break down what you hope to achieve in a set of specific goals, spanning from short-term to long-term. Maybe it’s to pay off student loans in the next three years, buy a home within ten years and make sure you have enough saved for retirement in the long-term. Especially when you don’t know what the future might hold, this could help you maintain a sense of control. Also, you can more easily chart your progress, reassess and course correct as needed.
  • 2. Keep Up with Good Habits. Many Americans were fortunate enough to be able to improve their finances in 2020 — putting more aside toward savings or taking advantage of opportunities like mortgage refinancing. Of course, not everyone is in a position to save more, but if you can, continue to keep your foot on the gas, whether that’s shoring up savings or staying on the lookout for opportunities, like refinancing, that may be unique to the current times.
  • 3. Clean Out Your Wallet. Do you have credit cards floating around in your wallet or desk drawer that haven’t been used for years? Do you have a travel-centric credit card but rarely take trips? It might be a good time to reassess what you’re carrying, whether it fits with your spending habits and how you can simplify. One option if you don’t want to juggle multiple cards is the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, which allows you to earn 3% cash back on purchases in a category of your choice — including online shopping, gas, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings — and you have the ability to change that category each month. If you expect your spending to change next year (perhaps you are doing a lot of online shopping now but would like to start dining out and traveling more when you can), this card can adapt with you as your priorities change.

The Secret to a Quarantine Staycation that’s Actually Fun

If your vacation plans have been waylaid, how can you enjoy a vacation without straying too far from your stomping grounds? 

While many places in the U.S. are starting to allow businesses to reopen, and stay-at-home mandates have been relaxed to safer-at-home orders, if you’re playing it safe and trying to minimize the risk for yourself and others, you probably won’t be traveling anytime soon. 

To help fill that summertime void, we’ve drummed up some ideas for a fun quarantine staycation: 

BREAK OUT OF YOUR ROUTINE

While maintaining healthy habits and routines can be a good thing, there are also benefits to mixing things up. Studies reveal that routines can set us in autopilot. It could mean losing touch with your emotions and senses. 

During your staycation, find small ways to break out of your daily doldrums. Take a different route on your neighborhood walk, and hone in on one of your senses. For example, take deep breaths while you take a stroll around the neighborhood. Smell different flowers and plants on your walk. Or order dishes from local restaurants that you’ve never tried before. Has it been years since you’ve hopped on your bike? Dust it off and take it for a spin. 

Breaking out of your routine could be as simple as switching rooms you sleep in during your staycation. It might sound a bit silly, but waking up from a sleeping bag in your living room floor, or letting the kids sleep in the master bedroom, could be enough to enliven your senses. 

GO ON A MISSION-BASED STAYCATION 

Give your staycation a twist by centering your trip around a mission. See if you can find the best sandwich in town by ordering takeout at a few of the best cafes and sandwich shops on Yelp. Or if you have a sweet tooth, see if you can go on a hunt for the best chocolate caramel cupcake in your area. 

I’ve gone on little themed-based missions where I live in search of the best donut or pastor taco. It’ll help you discover new eats in your neighborhood and give you an excuse to check out the menu of a restaurant you might’ve previously overlooked. 

HOST A WEEK OF MOVIE NIGHTS 

If you live in a household of cinephiles,have you and each member of your family choose a movie you can watch together. If you live alone, you can organize a group viewing party on Netflix Party or Disney Plus Party. Toss together a charcuterie board featuring a spread of your favorite meats and cheeses. And have plenty of treats on hand for the kids. 

If you and your family are a bunch of art lovers, enjoy virtual tours of museums. 

PUT ON YOUR CULINARY CAP 

If you love to cook, think of recipes you’ve wanted to try. See if you can recreate dishes in the region or country you were planning to travel to this summer. With the extra time on your hands, ferment some napa cabbage and make some homemade kimchi. Or dice up some ginger, and add sugar and water and make your own ginger bug to create homemade ginger ale. 

CAMP IN YOUR BACKYARD 

Pitch a tent in your backyard and cook up some hot dogs or roast smores over your grill. When it gets dark, you can gather around and tell spooky stories. During the day, you can romp about outside and form designated areas for play, art and crafts, and rest and relaxation. 

GET OFF YOUR COMPUTER 

If you’re burnt out from all those Zoom calls during the quarantine, limit time spent on electronic devices. Go on a social media break, and don’t answer work emails if possible. And treat your staycation just like you were taking a proper holiday. Put up an “I’m on vacation” auto-responder on your work email, and try not to think about work. 

EXPLORE LOCAL NATURE

Whether it’s a hiking trail or urban park, spend some time outdoors. You can pack up a picnic lunch and inhale some fresh air and learn about flora and fauna in your area. 

Before you venture out, check online to see if your chosen outdoor spot is indeed open and if there have been any adjustments in the hours. And of course, be sure to practice social distance, wear a mask when outdoors, wash your hands frequently, and carry hand sanitizer with you. 

COME UP WITH A PLAN FOR THE MONEY SAVED 

If you’ve had to cancel summer travel plans, see if you can get a refund for that airfare or train ticket. And because you’re saving money by not traveling, those funds can go toward another goal. Which of your money goals is most pressing? For instance, you could squirrel it away into an e-fund, or put it toward debt repayment. If you can afford to, consider tucking it away for next year’s vacation fund. 

Whatever you decide to do for your quarantine staycation, focus on what it is about travel that you enjoy. Maybe it’s seeing new sights, exploring new terrain, trying fresh cuisines, spending time with your family, or taking a break from work. While you might not be able to travel, creating a staycation that’s rooted in what’s most important to you will make for time off at home that provides what you need.

How to Complete an End-of-Year Debt Assessment

If you’ve been too busy to sit down and take a closer look at your debt, the end of year is the perfect time. Here are some simple tips for assessing your debt and setting a plan for the next year: 

MAKE SURE YOUR DEBT LOAD IS MANAGEABLE 

Debt isn’t inherently bad and it’s entirely possible to have a completely manageable amount of debt. But for a debt load to be manageable, two things need to be true: you need to be able to comfortably afford the costs of your debt, and any growth in your debt needs to be in proportion to your income and financial capacity. In other words, you need the income to handle your debts, and income was a challenge for a lot of consumers in 2020. 

“When income is limited, people prioritize their daily expenses over debt,” says Brandy Baxter, an accredited financial counselor and founder of Live Abundantly. And when you’re out of a job, you might need to resort to digging deeper into debt to make up for reduced income. “On the surface, this strategy seems to make sense,” says Baxter. “However, without a cash infusion or an income increase, your debt will only continue to grow and create a bigger challenge in the future.” 

Do you have the income to support your debt? Was your income reduced or cut off for a period during the previous year? If there’s a gap there, you may want to prioritize debt repayment next year, either through increased earning, decreased spending, or a structured repayment plan.

GRADE YOUR PROGRESS 

Just like how a teacher calculates grades at the end of a semester, you can take a good look at your debt to see where it stands, explains Baxter. First, look at your credit card statements. Has your credit usage increased during the year? Have you had to take on a personal loan, or incurred medical debt? It’s also a good time to sit down and calculate how much interest you paid throughout the year. 

If a debt has defaulted, and you’re not sure where your debt is exactly, contact the creditor to see if it’s been moved to a collections agency. You’ll also want to review your debt to make sure you’re aware of the total balance, interest rate, and your monthly payment. 

Where are you versus where you started the year? And, more importantly, where are you versus where you want to be? Do you feel like things are moving in a positive direction? If not, it may be time to reach out for a little additional support.

Baxter suggests taking a look at the section of your credit card statement that shows you how long it’ll take to pay off your debt if you made only the bare minimum payment. It could be eye-opening how long it could take — and how much you would pay in interest fees alone.

REACH OUT TO YOUR CREDITORS

Your creditors want you to succeed. And by succeed, we mean that they want you to pay back your debts and then borrow more in the future. Defaulting for missed payments is bad for both of you. 

During these difficult economic times, creditors and lenders are often willing to talk to you about your situation and explore options to make your debt more manageable. Some credit card companies have some information on forms of relief on their website. That can be a good place to start if your debt has been trending in the wrong direction this year. 

“If you’re a client that has been in good standing and has never missed a payment, reach out to them to see what they might be able to lower the interest rate before you find yourself missing payments,” says Baxter. “Remember: The answer is always no, if the question is not asked.” 

If you’re not feeling positively about where things are headed, connect with your creditors to ask about waiving late fees, temporarily pausing payments, or lowering the monthly payment amount. 

LOOK INTO REPAYMENT OPTIONS 

If it’s time to take a more focused approach to debt repayment, there are ways you can potentially lower your monthly payments, interest fees, or both. For instance, debt consolidation lumps all of your unsecured credit card debt into a single payment. That may make it easier for you to manage your debt, particularly if the consolidated payment is lower and the interest rate is an improvement on what you were previously paying. However, debt consolidation loans usually require a strong credit score to qualify, and if you’ve been struggling your score may have been dinged already. 

Another standard option is a balance transfer, where you move your credit card debts to a new card, often with a low introductory interest rate. While a balance transfer could potentially save you money during the intro period, there’s usually a balance transfer fee, which is anywhere from 3% to 6% of the outstanding balance. And of course that low interest rate often only lasts 6-12 months. 

Besides debt consolidation and refinancing, you can also look into a debt management plan (DMP), which is similar to a debt consolidation loan: you make one payment and there’s usually pretty substantial savings on interest charges. A DMP isn’t a loan, however, making it a great option for consumers with a low credit score.

At the end of a particularly challenging year, it’s important to take stock and set an appropriate course for the year ahead. There will always be plenty of factors in life that you simply can’t control, so focus on what you can do, make a plan that suits your goals, and never hesitate to ask for help when you need it.

How to Turn Your Retirement Savings into Retirement Income

I have been working a long time on retirement planning that creates more and safer income for retirees. So long, in fact, that I sometimes forget the subject is new to most investors. They get much of their financial information from their advisers — who often simply treat these investors as “de-accumulators.” Another way to describe their message is, “Invest like you did when you were 55, only more conservatively.” In my opinion, that is not helpful guidance.

Please consider this article as a reference tool on a new way to plan and manage your retirement that you can come back to periodically to refresh your understanding. By the end of the article, I hope to answer your basic questions about the new Income Allocation planning and how it can benefit you with a more secure retirement.

Income Is the Foundation of Your Retirement Plan

Most eras in history are unsettled, but it sure seems we’ve got a lot going on now, and much of it makes us uncertain about how to plan for the future.

Interest rates are low and are expected to stay low for an extended period. The markets are volatile, making “stay the course” a particularly gut-wrenching choice. Add a pandemic to the mix. As you prepare for — or enter — retirement, you want to be able to celebrate. That means satisfying your desire for a self-sufficient lifestyle (while anticipating expenses such as unreimbursed medical or caregiver costs, or the premiums to cover these costs) even as you spoil the grandkids.

And that means income. A good retirement income plan is one that allows you to enjoy your retirement and provide the necessary cash flow that will create peace of mind.

Build Income Certainty into Your Retirement Plan

For the past several years I have been working to educate consumers about the pitfalls of typical Asset Allocation planning for retirement. That is the name for an approach to investing and retirement spending that leaves you with the risk of running out of money. Asset Allocation by its name allocates your savings among a range of investment categories — stocks, bonds and cash — then tests to see if that “plan” can deliver a desired level of income to your age at passing. There is rarely a distinction between dividends, interest, capital gains and withdrawals of capital — and the tax effects thereon. And, of course, what happens if you outlive your plan?

I advocate starting with a focus on income, and specifically allocating your sources of income among dividends, interest, withdrawals from your IRA and annuity payments. The annuity payments (replacing the pension that doesn’t exist for most new investors) are guaranteed for your life, are backed by highly rated insurance companies and complement your Social Security payments.

Why Annuity Payments? Why Now?

Income Allocation is not simply the act of adding annuity payments to your retirement mix. Instead, it integrates annuity payments with your other income sources to provide the most income with the lowest taxes and fees — and the lowest risk — to allow you to enjoy the rest of your life.

Some advisers say annuity contracts are too complex. They often confuse income annuities, intentionally or not, with index or variable annuities. (In fact, I introduced a “living benefits guarantee” to the variable annuity business leading in large part to its growth as a $1 trillion industry, and so I know the difference.) Advisers may want to talk about an annuity’s high fees and confusing crediting rate formulas; once again these are not features of annuity payment contracts. These contracts are really quite simple: Guaranteed payments are deposited monthly into your savings or checking account while you are alive, and optionally while your spouse is alive, or to a beneficiary if you pass before the investment is paid out. A good annuity agent shops the market of highly rated companies to get the highest income for your investment.

Best Online Fundraising Platforms

For the unacquainted, crowdfunding is when one raises money for a project, cause, or business endeavor through donations of small amounts. This money is pooled for a common goal. 

As they say, you can go a long way with a little help from your friends. Luckily, there are a ton of easy-to-use online platforms dedicated to helping you collect cash. But which platforms are best for which scenarios?

To help you decide, let’s take a look at some of the best crowdfunding options around: 

KICKSTARTER 

Founded in 2009, Kickstarter is one of the early crowdfunding platforms. To date, Kickstarter has helped raise over $5.4 billion, and over 191,000 projects have been successfully funded. 

Kickstarter is designed for innovators, makers, and entrepreneurs who have a business idea, creation, or endeavor they need help funding. To offer an incentive for donations, there are usually rewards for different tiers.

Note that unlike other crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter is all-or-nothing funding. In other words, if you don’t reach your goal, you don’t get any money you raised. Another feature about Kickstarter is that campaigns undergo a review process and need to get approval.

Cost: Kickstarter charges a 5% fee on the amount you raised (often referred to as a platform fee), plus there are processing fees between 3% to 5%. So you’re looking at anywhere from 8% to 10% in total fees. If you don’t hit your reward, you don’t need to pay any fees. 

Best For

  • Launching a new product
  • Growing a small business

If you have an idea for a business or artistic project you’d like to launch, or need help developing a product, or scaling or growing your company, Kickstarter may be the right choice for you. It can also be a good platform if you want to use Kickstarter to market your product or business endeavor. If that’s the case, you could use it to raise part of your funds. 

GOFUNDME 

GoFundMe has traditionally been known to be a crowdfunding platform for those who have experienced an unexpected emergency. Memorial funds, disaster recovery, and exorbitant medical bills are common fundraising themes. They can also be used to fund celebrations, such as graduations and honeymoons, and raise capital to start a business. 

According to its website, GoFundMe has helped raise over $9 billion dollars and over 120 million donations have been made through its platform. Unlike Kickstarter, rewards aren’t offered for different tiers. And you don’t have to go through a screening process to launch your campaign. In other words, anyone can go start crowdfunding on the platform basically immediately. 

Cost: GoFundMe charges a 2.9% processing fee (plus a flat $0.30) on every donation. There is no platform fee. 

Best For

  • Health and disaster-related requests

While the platform can be used for almost any kind of fundraising, the simplified structure makes it better suited for charitable requests. Since you don’t need to get the green light before launching your campaign, GoFundMe might be best if time is of the essence, and you need to secure some funds sooner than later. 

FUNDLY 

Instead of raising money for a business idea or to launch a product or service, Fundly is dedicated solely to fundraising for charity or a cause. Nonprofits and individuals can both raise money. As you might expect, the most common campaigns are related to medical and health expenses, kids and family, and education and schools.

One benefit Fundly pushes is easy integration with Facebook. If you’re active on Facebook (and your target donors are there as well), this integration can simplify the marketing process and get your request out to the right people. 

Cost: There’s a platform fee of 4.9%, and a payment processing fee of 2.9% (plus another flat $0.30 per donation). 

Best For

  • Personal/charitable requests
  • Users who need help getting the word out

Fundly seems to work best for those who need money to take care of urgent costs related to childcare, education, kids, or medical or health care expenses. 

PATREON 

Patreon is primarily for creators who have an audience and would like to ask for financial support in return for sharing their works. This includes artists, writers, YouTubers, gamers, performers, and everything in between. 

Patreon offers creators a platform where they can distribute a wide variety of content, including tutorials, webinars, artwork, podcasts, coaching sessions, and more. There’s a support tier system, and each tier comes with different benefits. Unlike other fundraising platforms, however, donations are usually subscription fees, which roll over every month. The expectation is that you’ll be producing work on a regular basis (although, technically that’s not a requirement).

Cost: There are three membership tiers for creators: Lite, Pro, and Premium. Patreon Lite charges 5% of the money you bring in, Patreon Pro takes 8%, while the Premium level takes 12%. The more expensive membership tiers come with additional features and tools. 

Best For

  • Dedicated content creators

If you’re a creator and you have the drive and time to create content on an ongoing basis, then Patreon might be for you. However, the support of your fans hinges on your commitment to creating more content, or being available for coaching or mentoring sessions.

KO-FI 

A newer kid on the crowdfunding block, Ko-Fi is part freelancing platform, part crowdfunding platform. It allows users to set up shop and offer their services or products, with payments coming through one-time donations, rolling monthly subscriptions, and direct purchases. 

If you’re not ready to commit to something long-term or ongoing, such as regular offerings to your audience, then Ko-Fi is a good place to start. It works well as a “casual” fundraising platform and may be a good in-between option for hobbyists looking to generate extra income on the side. 

Cost: While Ko-Fi itself doesn’t take a fee, there is a standard payment processing fee (which varies depending on the amount and location of the donation. It’s free to set up shop. However, Ko-Fi offers a Gold tier, which is $6 a month. Instead of just the $3 tip, the Gold tier allows you to choose how much your “tip” is and how you get paid. Plus, you can glean insights through analytics and post exclusive rewards. 

Best For

  • Entrepreneurs looking to get their feet wet
  • Creators who don’t want to commit to a monthly reward schedule

Ko-Fi is a great first stop for anyone who’s interested in offering products, services, or content, and isn’t quite ready to create content on an ongoing basis. 

SHOULD YOU USE A FUNDRAISING PLATFORM?

If you’re intrigued by the idea of raising money through a crowdfunding platform, it’s best to know the pros and cons. All in all, crowdfunding platforms are nice because they don’t require much time or resources to get started. Plus, you don’t have to worry about paying anyone back. 

On the flip side, successful crowdfunding campaigns typically require a lot of time and energy to launch and execute. You might find yourself emailing every single person you know to hit your goals. And of course, you’ll want to be mindful of the fees, terms, and also the limitations of each platform.

Ultimately, the success of your campaign comes down to some things you can control (your messaging and how well you promote yourself) and some things you can’t control (the financial capacity of the people you’re asking). In most instances, there’s not much harm in at least trying, but success is far from guaranteed: GoFundMe campaigns have about a 90% failure rate.

Why Having No Credit is the Same as Having Bad Credit

I learned the hard way that avoiding credit may seem like a smart way to save yourself from future hardships like debt and overspending, but it’s much more likely to cause a different sort of hardship when you discover that having no credit history is the same as having a very bad credit history. And while it’s completely reasonable (and advisable!) to be extremely cautious with credit, avoiding it altogether can be a recipe for disaster.

So here’s what happened, what I learned, and why developing a healthy relationship with credit is a much better goal than never using credit at all.

THE RATIONALE FOR AVOIDING CREDIT

I was a saver growing up. I liked having money, but not nearly as much as I was afraid of not having money. Even from a young age, I was predisposed to reducing risk and avoiding regret. 

When I got older, that urge to avoid risk influenced how I managed my money. The financial education I received basically boiled down to “credit cards lead to credit card debt, which leads to shame, social rejection, and maybe even bankruptcy.” There didn’t appear to be a healthy middle ground, so I stuck to cash and debit cards for a decade-plus. It just seemed safer and it kept me out of debt, which had to be a good thing, right? 

GOOD CREDIT MEANS PROVING YOURSELF

While not being in debt was certainly nice, that continued avoidance of any and all credit and loan products wasn’t actually a good thing. 

Since we tend to think of credit scoring as demerit-based (because it seems like the only things on there are notations of the few times you messed up) there can sometimes be an assumption that by not using credit – and therefore not having any mistakes – our credit should be “good” (if not perfect). That was my thinking, anyway. As I desperately avoided credit card offers at all turns, I thought I was actually preserving a spotless credit history. Of course, that wasn’t the case. 

That’s because a credit score is a product, created by credit reporting agencies, and sold to potential lenders. The purpose of this particular product is to help lenders understand how risky it will be to extend credit to certain individuals (or companies). Credit reporting agencies, therefore, need that product (the score) to be as accurate as possible, or else lenders won’t use it. 

What that ultimately means is that if you don’t have enough of a credit history, then credit bureaus don’t have enough information to assign you a score that they feel would be an accurate representation of your riskiness as a borrower. How can they know how risky it is to lend you money when you’ve never borrowed money before? 

HAVING NO CREDIT IS EXPENSIVE

My great credit awakening came when my car broke down for the last time and I found myself in a position all too familiar to many Americans: I didn’t have enough saved. I wasn’t prepared for such a singularly large expense. In fact, I barely had enough for a down payment on the cheapest used car on the lot. 

The moment of enlightenment happened in the financing office, where an increasingly exasperated loan officer did his best to get me the funds needed to buy a truly underwhelming car. In the end, I got the loan and the car, along with an interest rate so embarrassingly high, I can’t bring myself to share it here.

That’s when the loan officer explained the issue at hand: “You don’t have any credit history. Like, none. At all.” 

Lending money is risky, you see. In order to mitigate that risk, lenders set standards and protocols for who they will and will not lend to. With no credit history and no credit score, I simply didn’t meet the standards for a lot of creditors, who rejected me one after the other. (Seriously, I got at least a dozen different “Here’s why we rejected your application for credit” letters afterward.) 

The lender that did agree to finance my car was required – by their protocols – to charge me an exorbitant interest rate in order to mitigate the risk. 

That’s how the cheapest car on the lot ended up costing me about as much as a new car.

MAKE CREDIT AN ALLY, NOT AN ENEMY

Ultimately, my extremely expensive cheap car was a valuable lesson in why I couldn’t ignore credit any longer. On top of maintaining timely auto loan payments, I opened a secured credit card, which I used regularly (and paid off immediately, thanks to the power of online banking). After the secured card graduated to a regular, unsecured card, I refinanced the car loan and opened a second card with a higher limit and better terms. 

To this day I make my payments on time and avoid carrying a balance. And that’s basically it, but it’s been enough to build a strong credit history and a high credit score. That credit score helped me buy a house and a new car (for my wife – the expensive cheap car, long since paid off, continues to be an inexplicably good investment).  

There are a lot of good reasons why you might want to avoid using credit. And if you’ve been burned by credit before, you may be especially inclined to live a plastic-free life from now on. But in the long run using credit responsibly will serve you much better. Take my word for it.

Will COVID Change Our Habits Permanently?

Such an impactful event also brings up questions of how people are coping and which new habits will stick when we no longer have to worry about the coronavirus. We talked to some experts to find out how COVID has changed us and what changes may be still to come.

FIGHT, FLIGHT, OR FREEZE

Looking back at how people initially responded to the coronavirus outbreak offers some insight into how a crisis can impact us. 

“First and foremost, COVID is affecting our mental health by creating an initial stress response: fight, flight, and freeze,” says Dr. Alex Melkumian, founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. 

Perhaps you’ve seen or experienced some of these responses. People “fighting” by updating their LinkedIn profile and jumping into a job hunt. Flight and freeze might look like avoiding the situation and putting off everything until the last minute. Although, a similar lack of response can come from optimism bias—the belief that everything will work out okay. 

Of course, there’s more at play than an initial response, and people react differently depending on the situation. For example, after a layoff some people may avoid filing for unemployment due to shame or pride rather than a flight or freeze response. 

Crisis responses have also played out in different ways on a large scale. If you think back to the early days of the pandemic (a lifetime ago), you’ll remember how panic-buying led to toilet paper shortages. 

SOME FINANCIAL HABITS ARE ALREADY CHANGING 

Over half-a-year in, people have had time to adjust, develop new routines, and implement changes. Some of these might not be habits, per se, but they can still have a long-term impact. 

“A lot of what holds people back is that they think there’s all the time in the world to get it done,” says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin. “When the reality hits… the fire burns to get things going.” Many of her clients are finally crossing things off their financial to-do list, such as getting life insurance or writing up a will. 

A McKinsey & Co. survey from October 7, 2020, offers more insight into what types of financial habits may be changing: 

  • Most people are cutting back on discretionary spending.
  • About 23% to 25% of people recently started using food or grocery delivery services for the first time, or are using them more often. Of those, over half plan to continue using these services after the coronavirus subsides. 
  • A small group (12% to 13%) is trying curbside store and restaurant pickup for the first time, and about half of that group plans to continue using curbside pickup. 
  • More than two-thirds of people are trying new shopping methods, brands, or stores. Many are “trading down” to find cheaper brands and retailers. 
  • Since the pandemic, people are increasingly aware of how companies care for their employees’ safety (23%) and a company’s purpose or values (17%).
  • The increased use of social media, wellness apps, online streaming, and online fitness programs may continue post-pandemic. Topping the list of changes that may continue is an offline activity—regularly cooking.

Katherine Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, also recently shared some insights on what habits can be “sticky” in an interview on the Slate Gist podcast and article by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic

For example, it’s not hard to imagine someone developing a preference for a lower-cost brand or more convenient services. But washing your hands for 20 seconds might not stick when there’s no fear of a virus. 

TRAUMAS MAY STAY WITH US 

Specific habits aside, there could be a lasting impact on people’s relationship with their work and finances. 

Even before the pandemic, the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey from 2019 found that most people listed work and money as one of their most significant sources of stress. The pandemic and resulting layoffs has only exacerbated those stressors. 

“This is our Great Depression,” says Melkumian. “The level of anxiety and concern and worry could be exponential to where we were before. From a mental health standpoint, we’ll see an increase in financial trauma.” 

There’s no single answer to how this plays out. The pandemic is affecting households in drastically different ways, and even those who are impacted in similar ways may have different responses. 

“How much we’re going to be ruled by fear, caution, worry, anticipation, and doomsday scenarios is going to be part of our overall psychology and how we approach finance,” says Melkumian. “There may not be answers until we get there, but we need to beware of our psychology.” 

He also draws the connection between financial stressors and the resulting impacts on how you may interact with your spouse or kids, and your overall wellbeing. “In turn, how does that affect your physical health? What happens to your family and identity as a provider and contributor?” Melkumian asks. 

BUT THIS IS ALSO AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE 

While the pandemic can cast a foreboding shadow over everything, if you can get out of crisis mode, it can also be a significant opportunity to rethink your life and the habits you want to change. 

As Bryan-Podvin shared, some of her clients have done this by checking off some of their financial to-dos. She’s also observed a growing interest in making more drastic lifestyle changes. “They’re starting to consider what life would be like if they downsized housing and could retire earlier, or spend more money elsewhere,” she says. What might have been a daydream before has become a more realistic option. 

“Obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re in a limbo pattern of not knowing when we can resume normal life,” says Melkumian. “But I’d love COVID to be the call to action to improve and increase our financial consciousness, awareness, and literacy.”

How to Eat Right When Resources are Tight

hese wellness tips might be met with an eye roll if you work 40-plus hours a week. Being squeezed on time, money, and space is the unholy trifecta that can have you spiraling into making poor lifestyle choices.

If you don’t have access to a full kitchen, or if you work a ton and don’t have the luxury of cooking every night, it might be easier to nuke a frozen dinner in the microwave or order your favorite greasy combo meal from the McDonald’s drive-thru. Eating well when you’re tight on resources is entirely possible. Let’s take a look at how it can be done: 

BUY INEXPENSIVE, NUTRITIOUS INGREDIENTS 

Look for low-cost, nutrition-packed ingredients that have a long shelf life. This includes grains, beans, and rice. If you have a freezer, frozen foods are as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. As an added bonus, the nutrients in certain frozen veggies are sometimes “frozen in,” making them more nutritious than fresh veggies. 

You can also save by eating less meat. Since there’s a meat shortage, you can save money and hassle by eating plant-based more frequently. 

There are some great, free resources to help you eat well on a budget. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) researched over 1,200 foods to assess their nutritional value, price, and environmental impact. While the guide is from 2012, the research remains sound. You can do a search for the top foods and make those items staples going forward. 

INVEST IN A CROCKPOT 

There are many inherent joys of having a crockpot. The convenience factor is a big one. Namely, you just toss in a bunch of ingredients, set the timer and put a lid on it, and let it do its thing for a few hours. You don’t need a kitchen or tons of space to have a slow cooker, either. All you need is an electrical outlet.

Some easy, nutritious meals you can make with a crockpot are veggie chili, which requires some veggies, beans, water, and spices. You can also concoct a quinoa mixture with grains, cilantro, and some veggies. You might be able to find a quality slow cooker at a home goods or discount retailer for cheap. You can also scour online marketplaces like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to find a used one. 

Other kitchen tools that might help you save on time but are a little bit of an investment upfront include an air fryer, or Instapot. Air fryers are a popular choice to make healthy veggie snacks. 

KEEP LOW-COST STAPLES ON HAND 

To make sure you get your nutrients in and eat a balanced diet, make sure you keep a rotating selection of food staples on hand. For instance, tinned fish — think sardines, tuna, or cod liver — are packed in protein and vitamin D, but are quite affordable. They go well with a side of crackers or cucumbers. You can even mix them with some mustard or hummus. 

Other food items that are relatively cheap include beans, rice, and grains. You can easily buy these in bulk. To switch things up, experiment with different combinations of spices. Most spices are typically low-cost, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can change the flavor of a dish by playing around with different sauces and condiments. 

CARRY SNACKS WITH YOU 

If you’re always on the go, cut back on highly processed foods and fast food meals. Not only are prepackaged salty snacks and candy low in nutrition, but they tend to be more expensive. 

Instead, go for simple, minimally processed snacks when you’re out and about — nuts, trail mix, apples with some peanut butter, roasted chickpeas, or popcorn with a bit of nutritional yeast sprinkled on top are reliable options. 

These snacks can also help you fill up more quickly, so you end up eating less. And swap out the prepackaged stuff for bulk items, and pack your own. You’ll get more bang for your buck, and you can mix things up as you please. 

SHOP IN YOUR PANTRY 

Before you head to the market, take inventory, and see what’s already in your fridge and pantry. Try using up existing food items before embarking on another shopping trip. If you want to bring things up a notch in terms of commitment, try a 30-day no-spend challenge, where you try to only use what’s in your home. You can only buy items that are a necessity, or to replace something that’s run out. It’ll urge you to be more creative! 

Eating well when resources are tight isn’t as challenging as it seems. It requires a bit of know-how. But really, it’s all about making some minor adjustments, being efficient as to how much time you spend preparing food, and doing a bit of research to see which foods offer the most nutrition for the lowest cost.

Ten Money Topics You Should Always Discuss with Your Partner Before Committing

As a culture, we struggle to talk openly about a lot of topics, but money is perhaps the one that causes the most discomfort. There’s so much pride and fear and sometimes shame wrapped up in the size of our paychecks, the depths of our debts, and those little three digit numbers that make up our credit scores.

So it’s no surprise that new couples aren’t always comfortable having some pretty crucial conversations about money and our relationship with personal finance. But whether or not you’re headed toward marriage, it’s really important that all couples take the time to understand one another and get on the same page. That doesn’t mean they have to agree or share all the same values. It just means that by having these conversations and understanding one another, they’ll be better able to make compromises that satisfy both parties.

With that in mind, here are ten topics you should always try to explore with your partner. You don’t have to dive into every topic all at once, but the more you know, the more comfortable you’ll both feel.

FAMILY INFLUENCE

How did your family handle money when growing up? You may not immediately recognize the influence of your parents or caregivers in the way you approach money, but it’s there. Your relationship with money – for better or for worse – is shaped largely by how your family dealt with money during your younger year.

So ask each other:

  • What did you like/not like about the way your family handled money?
  • What about the way you manage money feels like a reaction to how your parents managed money?

SPENDING VERSUS SAVING

How much do you prioritize saving money? Some of us are more naturally inclined to focus on saving money for rainy days or big picture goals, while others focus more on the here and now. Understanding how you and your prioritize your available funds (and why) can help mitigate hard feelings down the line.

Try asking each other:

  • How much savings is “enough” savings?
  • What would you do if received an unexpected $1,000?

HAVING VERSUS EXPERIENCING

Do you prefer spending your money on things you can keep or memorable experiences? When it comes time to make some big decisions with your collective money, this can be a major dividing line. Understanding what your partner values and what makes them happiest can help you find a middle ground that satisfies both parties.

Ask each other:

  • What’s the best gift you ever received?
  • Would you rather save up for a special gift (new TV, new car, etc.) or a dream vacation?

MONEY STRESS

Different people have different thresholds for financial stress. For some people, getting calls from creditors is a minor irritation. For others, there mere thought of carrying a credit card balance is enough to cause a minor panic attack. It’s important to know what your partner considers a “problem,” especially if your radar is tuned quite differently.

Try asking each other:

  • What makes you worry about money?
  • How would you feel if you got a collection call?

DEBT SITUATION

Debt doesn’t need to be a mark of shame or a relationship deal-breaker. But if you can’t openly discuss your general debt situation that can become a major issue down the line. Remind yourself that it’s perfectly okay to carry debt. The issue is always how you’re able to balance that debt against your other expenses and goals. A good partner should be an ally, but they can’t help you if you’re not able to be honest.

Begin by asking each other:

  • How do you feel about your debt?
  • Do you have any debts that you think we should focus on?

CREDIT SITUATION

While your partner’s previous credit challenges won’t show up on your report, his or her bad credit could cause problems when applying for joint credit, particularly for big picture items, like a new car or a mortgage. 

The important thing to remember about credit is that you can absolutely improve a poor score over time. If you’re able to be open about your current credit situation, you can work together to make the necessary improvements that will have you prepared for when your ready for some of those big picture purchase.

Start the conversation by asking each other:

  • How do you feel about your credit?
  • Is there anything about your credit history you’d like to work on improving?

JOINT ACCOUNTS

Different couples handle money differently. Having separate accounts can be a practical way to share financial responsibilities while maintaining individual freedoms. However, many couples who agree on spending habits find that a joint account works well for them. The key to either choice will always be open and consistent communication.

Try asking each other:

  • Would it make it easier if we created a joint account for joint expenses?
  • Do you feel comfortable having an account that we both control?

JOINT DECISIONS 

It may be helpful to define what each of you considers a “big” financial decision. One potential key to a happy financial life is to vow to make all big financial decisions together. For that to work, though, you’ll need to be on the same page when it comes to your definition of “big.” After all, one of you might consider a television a huge purchase, while the other might be thinking more along the lines of a car.

Ask each other:

  • What kind of purchases would you want to be consulted on?
  • What dollar amount feels like too much to spend without telling you first?

DAY-TO-DAY MONEY MANAGEMENT

Sometimes one member of a relationship loves managing the money and the other one just doesn’t. It’s perfectly okay for one half to do most of the financial driving, but only if that’s the agreement you’ve reached mutually. No assumptions, no unexpressed expectations. Once your finances become interwoven, make it clear how you want to share the work. Ideally, neither side should feel cut out of the process or asked to do things they aren’t comfortable doing.

Begin by asking:

  • How comfortable do you feel managing bills and other household financial responsibilities?
  • How much do you want to know about where our money goes and how much we’ve saved?

FINANCIAL GOALS

Everyone, whether they’re in a relationship or single, should take the time to set financial goals. Those goals will help guide your decision-making and provide some helpful structure to your spending plan. You just want to make sure that your goals are aligned and that you’re flexible should things shift in the years to come.

Ask each other:

  • What are your top three goals?
  • How quickly do you want to achieve those goals?

These conversations aren’t always easy to start, but once you have one or two, they’ll become easier and easier. The worst thing you can do is hide your feelings and your financial challenges from one another.

How to Read and Understand the Fine Print in Credit Card Offers

However, plenty of credit cards hide predatory terms in the fine print. Lots of them even couch those bad deals in terms that make them sound like good deals. When you’re considering opening a new credit card account, make sure you understand and agree to these finer points. 

Here are six specific features to review, what to look for, and when to walk away:

1. REWARDS TERMS AND LIMITS

With rewards cards, for every dollar you spend, a percentage of that purchase is applied to a benefit for you. This might be a cash rebate, frequent flier miles, a credit on your account, or a combination of the above. The idea is that you get something of value back, in proportion to how much you spend.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Review the rewards program’s exact details and write them down on a separate piece of paper. Specifically, look for:

  • What you get back
  • How much you get back per purchase
  • If there are any thresholds or limits
  • What fees are associated with the program
  • The process for using your rewards

Some cards may offer high rewards, but cap them at a level beneath the card’s fees. If, for instance, you get 5% cash back on a prepaid card that costs $7 per $100 you load on it, you’re losing money on that deal.

Similarly, consider how you’ll use the card. If you plan to keep it as an emergency resource without putting regular spending on it, then 3% cash back with a $75 annual fee is worse than no rewards.

2. TERMS OF LOW-INTEREST RATES

Although the average credit card interest rates fall between 12.99% APR and an APR in the low 20s, you can find offers with zero interest. These are almost universally introductory offers with a much higher interest rate after an initial period. 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

These low interest rates may be a trap, resulting in you paying higher interest later. Find out how long the introductory period lasts and the exact interest rate that kicks in after it expires. Also, look to see if there are ways you can lose the initial rate early. For example, many cards end the deal the first time you make a late payment. 

Be extremely wary of cards that offer a long-term low interest rate. In many cases, these offers come with high fees. Although there is no interest, the costs can add up to the equivalent of an APR of more than 20%.

3. LATE OR MISSED PAYMENTS

Almost every card available charges a late fee if you make your payment past the due date. These run between $28 and $39, according to research by U.S. News & World Report, and they’re added to your interest-accruing balance. This can sting, especially in a month when you already have trouble paying your bills.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Look carefully at the policies for what happens if you miss payment due date. Beyond the loss of an introductory interest rate, it can also bump up your regular interest rate. Read the policy carefully, and ask questions. Some cards might also suspend rewards or benefits after a late payment. 

4. BALANCE TRANSFER SPECIFICS

You can save on interest from high-balance cards and loans by putting the balance on a card with a low-interest balance transfer offer. This works out well for them because they’re getting business you were doing with another company — and because most people end up carrying that balance after the offer expires. 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

The most important information here is the length of the low-interest balance transfer offer and how the issuer prioritizes your payments. Calculate how likely you are to pay off or make a dent in the balance within the low-interest period, and then run the math on how long after that you’ll be accruing fees. 

Prioritizing payments tells you whether the money you pay on the card goes first to the transferred balance or any purchases you made with the card. Because both accrue interest at different rates, this can make a surprising difference in how long it takes to pay your balance off. 

Finally, look very hard at the balance transfer fee. It’s typically 3% to 5% and accrues immediately upon the transfer, which can make a huge difference to your bottom line. For example, moving money from a card with a 15% interest rate to a card with a 12% interest rate and a 5% fee could end up costing you more than just staying put. 

5. FEE STRUCTURE

The card looks great, offering a high credit limit, flexible terms, great rewards, and small benefits and bonuses for cardholders. The interest is even lower than you expected for somebody with your credit rating. So, what’s the catch? Check out the fees.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Those too-good-to-be-true offers often have hidden costs in the form of a variety of fees. Annual fees, processing fees, monthly service charges, foreign transaction fees, exchange fees, and a host of other flat or percentage-based fees can show up on our statement. Added up, they can be the equivalent of APRs well above other cards you qualify for, or even higher than the law permits under usury statutes.

Go through the user agreement until you’ve tallied up every possible fee, then add them together. Then use the APR and what balance you imagine you’ll carry to calculate the card’s full and actual cost. In other words, don’t let great perks trick you into opening a card that costs more than it’s worth.

6. BELLS AND WHISTLES

Many higher-end cards come with a variety of small, but convenient, extra benefits for cardholders. For example, one card may give you a free Netflix account. Although these perks aren’t the core purpose of opening a credit card, they can make life more enjoyable and be used as a tie-breaker between two otherwise similar offers.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR 

Nothing is truly free, and most perks come with some sort of a trade-off. Some may even comes with a fee. If the perk is a subscription or membership, there may be a flat annual or monthly fee for access. Find out what the cost is, then compare it to what you would likely spend on that service outside of this credit card offer (assuming you even want that service).

All in all, because they aren’t money-makers for the credit card company, these added extras can leave a lot to be desired when it comes to quality. Read the offer details carefully to be sure you know what you’ll be receiving.

FINAL THOUGHT

This analysis isn’t just for new credit cards you’re considering opening. It can also help you make purchasing and payoff decisions as you work your way out of debt. For example:

  • Understanding the late payment policies of different cards can help you choose which to skip paying during a lean month.
  • Knowing the limits and details of your miles or cash-back offers can help you understand which one to use for specific situations.
  • Remembering the actual fees and interest paid each month can guide which card you aim to pay in full first.

Whether you’re looking at new credit, old balances, or what to do next with what you already have, understanding these fine points will help you master your credit instead of letting it master you.

Do You Need an LLC to Start a Business?

Some people may even put off working for themselves because they think they need to form a company first. However, with many types of work, you can start and build a successful business without registering a limited liability company (LLC) or forming a corporation. 

WHAT IS A LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY?

A limited liability company (LLC) is a legal entity that’s separate from you, the business owner. You register an LLC with a state—it doesn’t necessarily need to be the state where you live—and the state’s laws dictate the costs and responsibilities of the business’s owners. 

Often, there is an initial filing fee with the state and requirement to file a report (and possibly pay an additional fee) every year. You may also need to register your business with your city, which can come with its own requirements and fees.

You can do the process yourself, or hire a company to help you prepare and file the paperwork. However, forming an LLC isn’t a requirement if you want to run a business. You can start a business simply by beginning to sell products or services to others, and you’ll have what’s known as a sole proprietorship. 

In fact, if you’ve worked as a contractor (perhaps for a rideshare or delivery app) and received a 1099-MISC, you may have already filed your taxes as a business owner, even if you didn’t realize it. A sole proprietorship can be a great way to start as there’s no additional cost to get started. However, there are also good reasons to form an LLC. 

FORM AN LLC TO LIMIT YOUR LIABILITY

Unlike an LLC, a sole proprietorship doesn’t draw a legal distinction between the business owner and the business. One reason many business owners form an LLC is for this extra layer of separation and, as the name implies, to limit their liability. 

For example, if you have a sole proprietorship and one of your customers gets hurt using your product, the customer may sue you for damages. You could be personally liable, and all your personal assets could be at risk if you lose the lawsuit.

If your LLC sold the product, the customer may only be able to sue the LLC, but not you personally. As a result, the LLC may have to pay for damages. However, even if the LLC doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost, the other party might not be able to go after your personal assets. 

The level of protection than an LLC offers can depend on a number of factors, including your involvement with the business and whether you’ve taken adequate steps to separate your personal and business finances. If you’re registering an LLC for liability protection, it’s best to speak with an attorney who can help you draft the necessary documents and advise you on how to separate and protect your personal assets. 

CHOOSE A TAX OPTION THAT CAN SAVE YOU MONEY

Whether or not you’re looking to limit your liability, you may also be able to benefit from different tax rules that you can choose for the LLC. 

By default, an LLC isn’t a separate tax entity—it’s a pass-through entity. This means that the money the business makes or loses gets passed through to the owners’ personal tax returns. It will be as if you’re running a sole proprietorship (or a partnership if you have business partners), and you’ll use the same tax forms.

However, you can also elect to have your LLC taxes as either a C corporation or S corporation, and use those tax rules instead. Being taxed as a corporation can add new responsibilities and costs, such as running payroll for yourself, but you may save more on taxes than you spend on administrative fees. 

As with hiring an attorney to discuss the legal protections an LLC can offer, you may want to hire an accountant who is familiar with your industry and state to discuss the tax options. For a one-time fee, many accountants can create a side-by-side comparison of the total tax liability with each option. 

DECIDING IF AN LLC MAKES SENSE FOR YOU

More complex situations can make the business entity choice particularly important. For example, if you’re forming a business with several partners or if you plan on raising money from investors, then there are different trade-offs to consider. But for solopreneurs and freelancers, the decision to form an LLC often comes down to how risky their business is and whether they can save money on taxes. 

If you’re just starting and there’s not much risk involved, sticking with a sole proprietorship often makes sense. As your business grows, you can reevaluate the situation and decide if you want to transition to a limited liability company. 

How to Stay Safe When Shopping Online

There was a time when shopping from home was the height of convenience and luxury. Eventually, the idea of just picking up your phone and buying a tub of laundry detergent was so commonplace it hardly seemed notable.

And of course, nowadays making purchases online isn’t entirely about convenience. If you’re looking to limit face-to-face contact and reduce your potential exposure to contagious diseases, online shopping can certainly help.

But shopping online does create an entirely different set of risks – risks to your identity and your financial security. The basics of safe online shopping have remained fairly consistent in the past decade-plus, but it’s always a good idea to refresh yourself and ensure that you’re following all the best practices. If you’re making purchases online, make sure you’re taking these steps every time.

KEEP YOUR DEVICE AND YOUR BROWSER UP-TO-DATE

Malware is constantly evolving. To stay ahead of the curve, software developers are continually updating operating systems and browsers, shoring up weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You may miss out on some of these important tweaks if you’re not updating to the latest version, so stay alert for updates and install them as they become available.

USE ANTI-VIRUS PROTECTION AND SCAN YOUR DEVICE REGULARLY

Most modern anti-virus programs update automatically and runs scans in the background on a regular basis, so you won’t have to do anything on your own. But if for some reason there is no anti-virus protection on your device, or if you need to schedule scans manually, be sure to take care of that, or else you may risk malware infiltrating your device and exposing your personal information.

ONLY MAKE PURCHASES WITH TRUSTED VENDORS AND THROUGH SECURED WEBSITES

If you’re making an online purchase with a new vendor for the first time, take a quick moment to do a little research. Check reviews on third-party websites to see if others have had positive experiences. You may also want to check their listing on the Better Business Bureau.

Once you feel comfortable, be sure to verify that your transaction is being processed through a secure website. Just check the full website address – if it starts with “https” the website is secure.

PAY WITH A CREDIT CARD OR TRUSTED DIGITAL PAYMENT PLATFORM

The last thing you want is for thieves to get access to your bank account. Should your credit card number be compromised, you’ll have the ability to dispute and likely reverse any charges with the card issuer. Digital payment platforms like Paypal offer similar security features.

For an extra layer of security, avoid allowing vendors or your browser to save payment data.

USE STRONG, UNIQUE ACCOUNT PASSWORDS

The stronger and more complex your password, the harder it becomes for a hacker to guess their way to the correct combination. Meanwhile, using unique passwords for all of your accounts protects you in the event that one of your accounts is compromised – either locally (someone saw your password) or via a data breach. It’s no fun to have one of your accounts compromised, but it’s much worse to have all of them compromised, one after the other.

USE TWO FACTOR AUTHENTICATION WHEN POSSIBLE

Two factor authentication adds an additional security layer when accessing accounts or completing certain transactions. One of the most common forms is receiving a text message (to the cellphone number associated with your account) with a special code you need to enter before you can continue. If someone nabs your password, but not your cellphone, they won’t be able to access your account.

AVOID USING PUBLIC COMPUTERS OR UNSECURED WI-FI NETWORKS

If you can’t vouch for the security on a device, don’t use it to submit or share sensitive personal information. The same holds true for public or unsecured Wi-Fi networks. When making online purchases, it’s safer to use a secured personal Wi-Fi network or your cellular network.

TRACK PURCHASES, SAVE RECEIPTS, AND REVIEW YOUR BANK STATEMENTS REGULARLY

Keep a record of what you bought and take a look at your creditor/payment accounts often to verify that there are no strange charges showing up. You should also verify that the amount on your receipts matches what came out of your account.

NEVER EMAIL SENSITIVE DATA

Email just isn’t an especially secure way to transmit sensitive data (like credit card numbers). Be wary if a vendor ever asks for you to complete a transaction via email.

Online shopping isn’t the wave of the future – it’s how we conduct business in the here and now. New threats will always emerge, but as long as you do your best to stay safe, you should be able to shop without (too much) worry.

6 Ways Being Self-Employed Can Impact Your Credit

axes are more complicated. Health insurance is expensive and difficult to navigate. Even at-work injuries and gaps in income usually covered by government programs are out of reach. 

Credit is one of the farthest-reaching categories. Lenders prefer W-2 income to self-employed earnings, even when an entrepreneur is making more each month. Here are six specific ways being self-employed can create roadblocks for your financial goals, with insights on how you can overcome those roadblocks.

1. IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO GET A LOW INTEREST RATE

You might be approved for a loan, maybe even with no more hassle than somebody with a regular job. The trouble is when you look at your statement and see how much that loan costs.

Your credit is all about risk from a lender’s perspective, and banks consider the self-employed a higher risk than people with a regular job. You’ll pay more interest on a similar loan than you would with employment earnings. As a result, every borrowed dollar costs you more — sometimes much more. 

The Solution

You have two ways to mitigate this issue. First, look at the fine print on every loan you’re offered. Find the nominal APR (annual percentage rate) and the actual price you’ll pay after fees and escalators. Don’t be shy about negotiating if that price is high.

Second, form a meaningful relationship with the bank where you hold your business accounts. Know the manager’s name, and say hi to the tellers. When it comes time to negotiate for credit, this can grease the wheels.

2. INCONSISTENT PAYCHECKS CAN LEAD TO MISSED PAYMENTS

You gave up a lot of things you didn’t like when you went to work for yourself, but one generally positive perks you let go of was predictable paychecks showing up on anticipated days. When you’re self-employed, your income ebbs and flows each month. It may be enough to get by, but it’s hard to set a budget with that kind of cash flow.

When business lags, it can get so low you have trouble paying all your bills. Missed and late payments go on your credit report, making it harder to get credit during the next slow patch — which means you have even more trouble paying your bills. This downward spiral can severely damage your credit and your business’s health. 

The Solution

You can solve this quickly by changing your relationship with your budget. Set a salary and pay it as W-2 income to yourself or take an owner’s draw. Base your monthly budget, including debt payments, on that amount. Any extra money you earn becomes a bonus once a month or once a quarter, which you can use for large purchases or fun indulgences. It takes a little organization upfront but is well worth the trouble.

3. LENDERS MAY NEED A TON OF ADDITIONAL DOCUMENTATION

When you’re looking for a loan as an employee, you just show a couple of pay stubs and tell the lender how to contact your boss to confirm that you work there. As a self-employed person, this process gets replaced by a much more in-depth look into your financial situation.

Your credit score won’t be enough proof that you’re a low-risk borrower. Lenders might ask for additional documentation such as a profit and loss statement, business plan, several years of company and personal tax statements, and even letters from vendors or your landlord. The process is more complicated and requires meticulous record-keeping.

The Solution

Keep all of your records. Keep them up to date. Keep them well-organized and easy to find, both in hard copy and electronic format. If you already do this, the keep doing it. If you don’t do it, you’re in for some work.

Get a list of the documents lenders are most likely to want when you apply for credit. Over the next several weeks, locate the materials you have and create the documents you don’t have. Make them look sharp, and store them someplace where you can find them easily.

4. YOU MAY BE TARGETED BY PREDATORY LENDERS

Predatory lenders love business loans. Regulations are more relaxed than those for personal credit, and the numbers can be much higher. You may have already received calls from them, offering you a high credit limit with unreasonably low requirements and stipulations. They’re more like loan sharks than traditional lenders. 

These loans tend to take advantage of desperate or inexperienced business owners, trapping them in a cycle of minimum payments and high interest. Usually, they come with one or more deal-breaking aspects, such as:

  • Exceptionally high interest rates (often more than 20%)
  • Hidden costs and fees spiking the effective interest rate to levels that would otherwise be illegal
  • A contract allowing the lender to debit payments from your account at will

Such conditions make for bad loans and can kill a business over time. Even if you make the payments faithful, these lenders often report late payments early and negotiate in bad faith. They can ruin your credit quickly, especially if you start to push back against their questionable policies.

The Solution

Apply two simple rules to any credit offer you’re considering. First, if the lender called you rather than the other way around, you should be cautious. Second, apply the well-worn advice that anything that seems too good to be true probably is, and move on.

5. YOU MAY LEAN ON PERSONAL CREDIT TO FINANCE BUSINESS EXPENSES

Because business credit is expensive and hard to get, many self-employed people end up putting business expenses on personal credit cards. Credit churn happens when you’re constantly using a personal card to cover operational costs, including inventory, payments to vendors, and similar expenses, and then quickly paying that personal debt with business income. 

This one’s not so much a problem as an opportunity with a downside. The churn puts you at risk of carrying a balance every month. When business revenues drop, that balance can harm your credit history by showing you’re borrowing more than you should. It also increases your business costs because you’re paying interest on those expenses.

The Solution

As we said, it’s also an opportunity. As Tim Ferriss says in The 4-Hour Workweek, you can run those expenses through a card that earns cash back, air miles, or other rewards. As long as you keep your balances paid each month, the churn can net you meaningful savings, tax-free.

6. YOUR REPORTED TAXABLE INCOME MAY BE TOO LOW FOR CREDIT APPLICATIONS

One benefit of being self-employed is charging some expenses to your business. Although you should never be abusive or dishonest, it’s common practice to drive a company car, expense office supplies, and apply part of your utilities and phone expenses to your business. These write-offs save on taxes but can cause credit issues.

For most self-employed people, the income they report on their tax returns doesn’t represent the buying power of their full earnings each year. This can be a problem when you’re trying to get credit and the lender wants to compare your reported income against the needs of the loan you want. 

The Solution

Unfortunately, there isn’t a reliable solution to this dilemma. If you report more income, you pay more taxes. If you report less income, your access to credit may suffer. Your best bet is to plan for your credit needs to the best of your ability. That way, you can at least adjust your tax strategy accordingly. 

FOLLOW CREDIT BEST PRACTICES NO MATTER WHAT YOUR EMPLOYMENT STATUS IS

For anyone, self-employed or not, it pays to keep your credit score as high as possible and your credit report clean. But this is especially crucial for the self-employed. A high enough credit score can overcome or alleviate most of the problems mentioned above. Keep yours healthy and robust with techniques like:

  • Checking your credit report regularly for problems
  • Paying your credit card balances down to zero whenever possible
  • Paying all bills on time
  • Negotiating directly with lenders if you can’t avoid paying late
  • Avoiding unnecessary applications for credit
  • Keeping zero-balance cards open and on hand, even if you don’t use them

There’s no guarantee that getting all the credit you need will be a cinch, even if you’re armed with a good credit score and reliable business records. But it’ll certainly be easier if you follow these tips and keep your credit healthy on a day-to-day basis.

Best Debt Repayment Apps

And some days, those numbers and figures might be swirling around your head in a befuddling jumble. 

In our modern age, you can lean on financial technology to assist. Enter debt repayment apps. In a nutshell, these apps can help you get a handle on your payments, keep track of your debt load, and assist in figuring out how much you’ll be paying in interest based on different timeframes. 

The good news is there’s a bounty of options. Here are our top picks for debt repayment apps: 

UNDEBT.IT 

Undebt.it is a simplified debt repayment online platform that employs different debt payoff methods to tackle your debt. You can choose some payoff options, including the debt snowball, the debt avalanche, the hybrid plan, the highest monthly payment, or the highest monthly interest paid. 

According to its website, Undebit has helped knock out over 700,000 debts. What’s more, there are currently over 120,000 active users, and $8.7 billion of debt is being paid down. 

Features include picking different payoff plans for each debt, sifting through and exporting the payment history for each debt balance, seeing your projected payoff date, and the total interest. 

There is a premium version available, which includes a handful of added features such as payment reminders via text, integration with a Google Calendar, and an at-a-glance view of your payment planner. 

Pricing: Free for the basic plan, and $12 for the premium version. 

DEBT PAYOFF PLANNER 

The Debt Payoff Planner is a solid choice for those who don’t want to create a separate login to track their debt payments. To date, the app has helped over 200,000 pay off debt with custom payoff plans, and successfully crush over $200 million in debt. 

This particular debt repayment tool enables you to choose a debt repayment strategy. You’ll also gauge how long it’ll take you to pay off the remaining balances on your debt. 

How it works: You punch in the current balance of the loan, the APR, and the minimum payment. You can choose between two popular debt payoff methods: The avalanche method or the snowball method. Debt Payoff will come up with a custom plan tailored to your needs. You can also opt to pay an additional amount to get ahead of your debt repayment. 

There are two versions: basic and pro. The pro version includes the following features: 

  • The ability to print your plan 
  • Web access 
  • Payment reminders 
  • Charts that show how your debt balance goes down over time if you follow a payment plan 

Available on iOS and Android

Pricing: Free for basic version: The pro version is $1 to $5 a month, depending on the time commitment 

DEBT MANAGER AND TRACKER PRO

The Debt Manager app boasts multiple features, including access to a summary of all your debt and outstanding balances in one place, plus any money owed to you. You can track anything from standard debt such as loans and credit cards, microfinancing, P2P loans, and cash owed to individuals like your friends and family. 

One thing to note is that unlike other debt repayment apps, it doesn’t seem to offer repayment tactics and timelines. However, if you’re looking for a debt repayment app that helps you keep track of all types of debt, it might be worth checking out. 

Available on Android

Pricing: $2.49

ALWAYS KEEP YOUR INFORMATION SAFE 

While apps like these strive to keep your information safe, they do require that you share potentially sensitive data. When using any type of technology that involves personal, sensitive information, you’ll want to take proactive steps to protect your data. 

Finally, although these debt repayment apps and online platforms can help you stay on top of your debt and potentially help you save on interest, in the end, they’re merely tools. The value is all in how you use them. It’s ultimately up to you to make it a priority to pay off debt and figure out how to juggle debt repayment while juggling a bunch of other financial goals.

Can You Afford to Homeschool?

When schools across the country closed their doors in the spring, many expected that the coronavirus pandemic would subside before class restarted in the fall.

Of course, COVID-19 persists, bringing far-reaching healthcare and economic consequences in its wake. In many places, soaring infections have made the start of school uncertain. 

As a result, some schools are opting to start the school year virtually, hoping extra time in isolation will reduce infection rates and allow more time to prepare for students back on campus. Meanwhile, other schools are deploying a hybrid approach, allowing some students to return to school buildings while others continue virtual learning. Of course, some are choosing to open for business as usual. 

Taken together, there is incredible uncertainty about the efficacy and responsibility of restarting schools. When coupled with broad disillusionment with earlier attempts at virtual learning, this reality is driving up the number of people considering or opting to homeschool their kids. According to a survey by Real Clear Education, a curation platform for educational issues, 40% of parents indicated that they were considering alternative options to traditional school structures. 

However, many education experts are encouraging families to make this decision carefully, noting that homeschooling is a significant undertaking for families. 

It can also have a substantial impact on personal finances, something that looms large for families navigating an uncertain economy. While we are not education experts at MMI, we know a thing or two about personal finances and we have homeschoolers in our ranks, including myself. To help you in the decision-making process, we asked our staff to discuss some of the financial considerations associated with homeschooling.

Here’s what we found. 

HOMESCHOOLING & YOUR BUDGET 

The costs associated with homeschooling will vary by household. However, everyone should evaluate these expenses – both direct and ancillary – before committing to full-time at-home education. 

SALARY

For several months, parents have been asked to play many roles at once. They were simultaneously employees, parents, teachers, and an exclusive support system. This isn’t sustainable, and opting to homeschool is committing to being your child’s primary educator. Although this arrangement is nuanced and somewhat flexible, it may require a parent to take reduced hours, a temporary leave of absence, or quit a job altogether. While families can find creative ways to both work and teach – including relying on extended family and tutors to provide additional academic support – it’s important to crunch the numbers and consider your options before making a decision. 

SOCIALIZATION

Peer-to-peer interactions continue to be one of the most valuable, intangible elements of in-person schooling. Parents choosing to homeschool will likely want to augment this through camps, clubs, sports or other extracurricular activities. While these activities are optional, they each come with a price tag that needs to be factored into your bottom line. 

WORKSPACE

A commitment to homeschooling might require updating or retrofitting space in your home for this purpose. Parents and students will need workspaces, supplies, and other upgrades to create a fertile learning environment. Some of these costs aren’t mandatory (or these features may already exist in your home), but understand the true costs of your workspace expectations, and factor them into your decision-making process.

ACADEMIC ASSISTANCE

Schools are outfitted with a plethora of academic resources that meet the needs of all types of learners. These “extras” come with a cost. Evaluate your child’s academic needs, and estimate the potential academic assistance costs required to provide a high-quality academic experience. 

CURRICULUM

Opting to use an individual curriculum is an up-front investment. There are entire organizations, blogs, and digital resources dedicated to this, which can help parents best understand the cost of academic curriculum. However, be careful not to assume that homeschooling can be completed on free resources alone.

HOW TO CONSOLIDATE COSTS

Homeschooling undoubtedly comes with a cost, but it isn’t necessarily a net loss. Before making a decision, carefully evaluate your entire household budget for potential savings. This might include: 

TRANSPORTATION

While homeschooling, can you consolidate your vehicles? Moreover, how much money can be saved if one parent is no longer commuting to work?

EATING OUT

When families are more home-based, they have the opportunity to be more thoughtful about diet and food plans, giving them more control over an often-overspent budget category. 

Employment & education-related spending. Eliminate costs associated with maintaining a professional wardrobe, licensing, and other job-related expenses. Similarly, parents might be able to save money by spending less on the school clothes and other items that typically accompany the on-campus experience. 

ENTERTAINMENT

The same circumstances that encouraged you to homeschool in the first place are curtailing travel and recreational opportunities. During this season, these budget savings can help make up some of the difference when choosing to homeschool. 

SHOULD YOU HOMESCHOOL?

COVID-19 has pulled back the illusion that we are entitled to a public education that is both academically rigorous while serving as a de facto daycare. All parents want to make the best decision for their children, and there likely isn’t a right or wrong answer when it comes to opting to homeschool (although the stress and long-term financial impact could be a factor). Parents should carefully evaluate their finances as part of a holistic assessment of homeschooling as a best practice for your family.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that this decision doesn’t have to be permanent. In the years ahead, you can pivot and make adjustments. Just because you are making a change right now, doesn’t mean that you have to make this decision forever. Do your best to make an informed decision and remember you aren’t alone. 

How to Find and Claim Your Old Retirement Accounts

While the money you contributed is yours forever, accounts can sometimes get forgotten about in the shuffle. And, in some cases, you may not have even realized you’d had a retirement account if your employer automatically signed you up and withheld contributions. 

Whether intentional or not, you can wind up with a handful of retirement accounts at different companies and lose track of some of them over time. Former employers and plan administrators may lose track of your current contact information. 

Here’s how to check and track down old accounts, and what you can do to get your finances organized. 

FINDING OLD RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS

You may want to start by contacting your former employers and the plan administrators, the companies that ran the retirement plan. Sometimes, you’ll find that your retirement account is still there and chugging along as is, hopefully growing in value over time. If you want, you may be able to leave it there, although update the company with your current contact information so it can let you know about any important changes. 

However, it’s not always that easy. If your account had less than $5,000 in it when you left, the plan administrator can transfer the funds to an individual retirement account that was set up in your name. If it had less than $1,000, the company may have tried to send you a check for the amount to the address it had on file. You may also have trouble tracking down the account if the company went bankrupt or switched plan administrators, leaving it up to you to figure out who is holding onto the money now. 

One thing is certain—other companies don’t get to keep your money. If a company can’t figure out how to contact you, it has to turn unclaimed funds over to state agencies. You can start searching for your unclaimed funds in these databases:

  • The Unclaimed.org and MissingMoney.com databases are run or endorsed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. It’s a good place to search for all sorts of unclaimed funds, not only forgotten retirement plans. 
  • The U.S. Department of Labor has an Abandoned Plan Search tool that’s specifically for retirement plans that don’t have a plan sponsor or plan administrator. This could help you track down a retirement plan if your former employer or plan administrator. 
  • The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits can also help you find retirement plans if your former employer registered with the service. 

Once you find your account or money, you’ll still need to decide what to do with it. 

WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS FOR OLD RETIREMENT PLANS?

You generally have four options for dealing with money that’s in an employer-sponsored retirement account when you’re no longer working at the company:

  • Leave the money where it is: Although you might not be able to contribute to the account any longer, you may be able to leave the money in your former employer’s plan. Sometimes, you may need to meet a minimum account balance to qualify, such as $200 for a TSP or $5,000 for some 401(k)s. 
  • Transfer funds to a new employer-sponsored plan: If you have a new job with a company that sponsors a retirement plan, you may be able to “roll over” the money into your new employer’s plan. When this is an option, compare the previous and new plan’s fees, terms, and investment options to see which is best. 
  • Roll over to an individual retirement account: You can also move the money into an individual retirement account (IRA). An IRA may give you more control as you can choose where to open the account and invest in a wider range of funds. It’s also fairly easy to move from one IRA to another as the account isn’t tied to your employer. However, IRAs could have more fees, especially if you don’t have a lot of assets and don’t qualify for lower-cost investment funds. 
  • Cash out: You can also take the money out of retirement accounts completely. But unless you’re 59½ or older (55 if you just left the job), you may need to pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty in addition to income taxes on the money. 

PICKING THE BEST OPTION

Figuring out what to do can be difficult, as there may be complex tax and investment return implications for each decision. 

In many cases, unless you’re ready to retire, moving the funds into a new retirement account is often a good option. If your funds are in an IRA that was opened in your name, the IRA provider may be charging high fees. And, unless the old employer offers a much better plan than your current options, consolidating your money within a few accounts can make it easier to track your investments and help you qualify for discounts or benefits from plan administrators. 

The easiest way to do this is with a direct transfer, where the money never touches your hands. Otherwise, 20 percent of the money has to be withheld for taxes, and you only have 60 days to deposit the funds into the new retirement account or the withdrawal will be treated as a cash out. 

Fair warning, there can still be a lot of paperwork involved with a direct transfer. However, the company that you’re sending the money to will often be able to help you with the process. 

No matter what option you choose, if you’ve got old retirement accounts floating out there it’s in your best interests to track that money down sooner than later. The more you know about your retirement funds, the more options you may have the next time you’re faced with a major financial setback. At the very least, you’ll understand where you stand as you prepare for retirement.

How to Prepare for the End of a Credit Card Deferment

Financial calamities, like the current coronavirus pandemic, mean that credit card issuers may have to temporarily increase the scope of those hardship programs or else risk seeing millions of accounts defaulting simultaneously. The problem, however, is that sometimes the deferment ends before your situation has gone back to normal.

So let’s take a look at what happens when your credit card deferment ends, and what you can do to protect yourself.

VERIFY THE TERMS OF YOUR HARDSHIP PROGRAM

To start, make sure you understand what benefits are actually in place and for how long. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, many creditors were quick to offer a wide variety of COVID-related benefits, from waived fees to bonus perks to extended deadlines on existing rewards. Not all offered payment deferments and many only offered deferments on a case by case basis.

It should also be said that not all deferments are the same. The terms “deferment” and “forbearance” can sometimes be used interchangeably, but both can mean something different depending on your creditor’s policies. 

If you’re unclear on your responsibilities or when your hardship expires, connect with your creditor ASAP. Here are some questions you should know the answers to:

Is there a monthly minimum payment? While a deferment usually means that no payment is due during the specified period, a forbearance program may sometimes simply reduce the amount of your monthly minimum. Make sure you understand what your creditor expects from you each month.

When does the deferment end? Many of the deferments offered by creditors at the start of the pandemic were for 60 or 90 days, but you should verify when it started and when it’s scheduled to end.

Are you being charged interest or fees? In a student loan forbearance, interest charges are almost always accruing even as you aren’t making payments (which is one of the arguments against using a student loan forbearance). Most credit card deferment programs don’t charge interest during the deferment period, but that’s not universal. 

How much will you owe once the deferment ends? This is the big question. What will your new minimum monthly payment look like post-deferment? If you haven’t been charged any interest, it may be what it was before the deferment began. However, if your creditor expects you to “catch up” on your missed payments within a certain timeframe, you may be expected to make substantially higher payments.

ASK FOR AN EXTENSION OR NEW HARDSHIP

Assuming things haven’t gone back to normal and you still need help managing your credit card debt, your first step should be to contact your creditor before your current deferment ends and ask about an extension. 

It’s hard to say whether or not a creditor is going to be willing to help you out a second time. Like most lending decisions, it usually comes down to some form of risk versus reward. And in many cases, the customer representative is simply working off a set of pre-determined guidelines. But it never hurts to ask. Just be prepared to explain your situation and know that it may take a few phone calls (and some persistence on your part) to get to a definitive answer.

REVIEW YOUR DEBT REPAYMENT OPTIONS

If you can’t get a new deferment in place, you’ll need to consider your situation and your options. Is it that you can’t pay the minimum required by your creditor or are you not able to pay anything at all?

If you need a lower payment to make it work, consider your options. If your credit is in good standing, you may benefit from a debt consolidation loan. If it’s difficult to get a loan with good terms, you can access a lot of the same benefits through a debt management plan.

Be proactive, though. If it’s your intention to keep your accounts in good standing and continue to pay, then figure out your debt repayment plan early. Once you start missing payments, you may find that some of your options have dried up.

PRIORITIZE YOUR AVAILABLE CASH

If your income is reduced or paused entirely, there’s only so much cash to go around. In a situation like that, debt repayment should naturally fall to the bottom of your budget priorities. 

Take the time to review your available money and routine expenses. There may be enough to keep some accounts current, while others become delinquent. It’s not a bad idea to let creditors know that you won’t be able to make your payments to them (even if they can’t offer you a new hardship).

Ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you and your family, and that may not include making payments to your creditors. 

CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT REGULARLY

Finally, if you’ve used a creditor hardship program of any type, it’s important that you review your credit report to verify how that account was reported during the hardship. Specifically, the CARES Act requires that creditors who offer deferments during the coronavirus pandemic not report those accounts as delinquent during the deferment period. In other words, the payments skipped during the deferment shouldn’t adversely impact your credit.

No matter the details of your hardship program, review your credit report frequently to see how your accounts are reported. If you see an error, be sure to request that your creditor correct their reporting as soon as possible.

Tips for Repaying Credit Card Debt After a Long Layoff

Here are some tips for getting your credit card balance back to zero after a long layoff: 

STRIKE A BALANCE

In a perfect world, you would be able to pour all your efforts into aggressively repaying your debts (new and old). The reality is that you’ll need to pay off credit card debt while juggling other needs — covering your rent, putting food on the table, restoring your emergency fund, etc. — and that takes a bit of awareness. 

To help you juggle your other financial priorities while paying off your credit card balance, jot down all your money goals. Then order them in order of urgency or importance. Last, figure out exactly how much you can reasonably put toward each financial priority. 

This is the time to get granular. Get specific and assign an exact dollar amount to each of your money goals. Next, figure out a target date as to when you’d like to hit each financial goal. 

LIVE LEAN 

You’ll probably have a hard time ramping up on your credit card payments if you’re also undergoing lifestyle inflation. If you’re starting to rake in some money, instead of going back to your old ways of spending, rework your budget. 

Figure out how much you’ll need to reasonably get by. Go through your list of expenses, and see where you can cut back. Easy wins include nixing or lowering the cost of recurring costs, such as memberships and subscriptions. Let’s say you can cut back on a streaming subscription service that costs $12 a month. That’s $144 a year back in your wallet. 

Big wins include cutting down on the three most significant categories — housing, transportation, and food. If you can slash monthly grocery spending by $50, you’ll have saved $600 a year. Or if you switch car insurance carriers, and save an average of $25 a month on your policy, that will earn you $300 a year. 

FIND WAYS TO MAKE MORE MONEY

While unemployment is at a record high, there are ways you can make a bit of extra scratch. For instance, sell some unwanted stuff. Grow herbs and veggies in your garden, and offer contactless pickup. 

Or you could see what kind of side hustles might suit you. Don’t feel comfortable doing frontline work? You could take up a work-from-home gig, such as being an online tutor, virtual assistant, or work in computer support. If you’re qualified, you could also potentially do in-home bike repairs and general lawn maintenance. Handy with a needle and thread? Set up an Etsy shop and sell customized face masks.

It’s not easy, and finding the time is a real challenge, but for a lot of people the fastest path to debt repayment and a balanced budget is more income. The key is finding ways to leverage your skills (and resources) to meet a consumer need. 

LOOK FOR CREDIT CARD RELIEF PROGRAMS 

A handful of credit card networks — Chase, Citi, Capital One, Apple, Discover, American Express, and Bank of America, to name a few — have been offering economic relief to cardholders who have been impacted by the coronavirus. Depending on your situation, you might be able to have late fees waived, have your payments paused temporarily, or your monthly payments lowered.

It typically depends on your situation. Reach out to your credit card company to see if you can request financial assistance. If you plan on giving the card issuer a ring, anticipate longer than usual wait times. 

KEEP WATCH ON YOUR CREDIT 

Of course, you’ll want to maintain the best practices to minimize damage to your credit score. While paying off debt, be sure to continue making minimum, on-time payments (presuming you can afford them). Plus, you’ll want to keep watch to ensure that your credit usage remains low. Otherwise, your credit score might take a hit. 

There are plenty of ways to check your credit score these days, including some popular money management apps and directly through select credit card issuers. Don’t just pay attention to the score, however. Be sure to review your actual credit reports often. You can access reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com. 

CONSIDER A DEBT REPAYMENT PLAN 

If you’re drowning in your debt, consider a debt repayment plan (DMP). Under a DMP,  you make a single payment for all your credit card debt. While it’s not guaranteed, for most consumers a DMP can lower your interest rates, waive late fees, or lower your monthly payments. The downside of a DMP is that you’ll likely have to close your credit cards. 

Paying off credit cards, while challenging, is certainly doable. The more you know and the greater vigilance you have around your situation, the better. In time, you’ll get that balance down. 

The 5 Best Budget Tricks I Learned in Lockdown

And if you cut back on your spending during the last few months, you’re not alone. According to estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), personal consumption among Americans dipped 13.6% (or $1.89 trillion) in April (as compared to March). 

As non-essential businesses start to reopen across the U.S. and life tries (successfully or not) to get back to normal, it’s not a bad idea to think about the budget-trimming tactics you picked up while cities and states were in lockdown. While you’ve probably come up with some great money-saving techniques, here are a few budgeting tricks I learned during the quarantine — and have stuck to: 

BATCH YOUR SHOPPING TRIPS 

Confession: I used to head over to the nearest discount grocery store to unwind. I’d sometimes go several times a week. As you might suspect, this typically led to impulse buys as I got a cheap thrill from the hunt for “amazing bargains.” 

After stay-at-home orders were mandated, and we were advised to limit our shopping trips, I got used to only grocery shopping once every two weeks. To limit my exposure, I made this one trip count and tried to get any and all shopping done before hustling home. Shopping with purpose (and a list) made me more efficient and helped me cut way down on my extracurricular purchases.

Leaving aside the fact that limiting my exposure is still a good thing, I’m staying dedicated to shopping rarely and efficiently. Meanwhile, I’m still working on finding some less costly ways to unwind. 

ACCESS THE BENEFITS OF ONLINE SHOPPING

While online shopping can cause you to spend more and buy things you don’t need, there are also a few tools in place that could help you save. For instance, consider online buying mainly essentials — groceries, household supplies, and personal care items. When you shop online, you have an easier time tallying the bill before you checkout. 

What’s more, you can also keep items in your cart before buying. For household items, I’ll add items into my virtual shopping cart throughout the month. Before I hit “checkout” I’ll go over the full list and make sure I still need everything I’ve picked out. This staves off impulse shopping. I also prefer to pick up in-store or opt for a curbside pickup. That way I won’t be tempted by items that catch my eye, which is a danger when you’re perusing the aisles. 

USE CASH-BACK REWARDS 

You can also use cash-back rewards on your credit cards — this is usually when you’re paying through PayPal, or making a purchase on Amazon. Instead of routinely redeeming my credit card points on ride-shares or gift cards, I’ve used cash-back rewards a few times during quarantine. Browser extensions like Honey can help you find promo codes and apply them automatically. 

For everything else, limit the amount of time you spend shopping. You can also limit your purchases. When I was in quarantine, I found myself squandering chunks of time surfing the web. In turn, those banner ads or an Instagram influencer account would entice me to buy something. I made a pact to allow myself only one non-essential online splurge a week. 

CONSIDER ECO-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVES 

Going green can also put some greenback in your pocket. Due to shortages in household staples such as paper towels and toilet paper during quarantine, I started using eco-friendly choices that are also budget-friendly. I treated the last roll of paper towels in my kitchen as a sacred resource, and used them sparingly. Instead, I opted for cloth towels as much as possible. 

Instead of paying for Swifter pads, I bought a cloth pad that I could wash and reuse. And I used white vinegar and Simple Green, which is available in concentrate, to clean cookware and surfaces. 

REVIEW SUBSCRIPTIONS AND RECURRING BILLS REGULARLY

When the pandemic hit, I went through my living expenses to see which bills could be lowered, and which needed an adjustment. I switched car insurance providers from a policy where I paid in six-month chunks to a pay-per-mile policy. The coverage was pretty much identical to my previous insurer. Because I now batch my shopping trips and typically use my car to run local errands, I’ve saved an average of $50 a month on car insurance, or $600 a year. 

I also went through my subscriptions and found a home internet plan that was the same price, but with faster speeds, than my old internet provider. Other subscriptions and recurring bills I reviewed included streaming entertainment platforms, charges for money apps, services for my freelance business, and recurring domains. I decided to drop a few subscriptions for services that I wasn’t really using. 

What the Payroll Tax Deferral Means for You

While it sounds like a positive move to help workers and self-employed folks, you’ll want to get your head around the facts and know the pros and cons that come with such a deferral. Here’s a breakdown of what it means, how it might impact you, and how to prepare should you owe back taxes when April rolls around: 

WHAT IS THE PAYROLL TAX DEFERRAL?

In a nutshell, your payroll taxes for Social Security could be put on hold until the end of 2020. This executive order mainly impacts two groups: eligible workers and their employers. 

If you’re an employee, what this means is that the employer portion of Social Security taxes is pushed back until the end of the year. In return, you’ll receive a four-month pay hike of 6.2%, explains Josh Zimmelman, a managing partner at the NY-based Westwood Tax & Consulting. This deferral went into effect on August 28th, 2020, and is in effect until December 31, 2020. 

HOW THIS MIGHT IMPACT YOU 

In the immediate, the impact for employees is fairly straightforward: less comes out of your paycheck, so your take home pay through the end of the year is higher. 

On the employer’s end, it could be more complicated, says Zimmelman. For one, if you’re an employer, you’ll need to adjust your payroll systems to provide this deferral to your employees. 

Plus, the repayment process could be an issue. “For their workers to repay the deferred taxes, employers would need to increase their withholding on future paychecks,” says Zimmelman. But if you’re an employee and you end up leaving the company before your employer boosts their withholding on your upcoming paychecks, you might be on the hook for paying back the difference. 

NO, IT’S NOT A TAX BREAK 

As one might expect, there are a few misconceptions around the payroll tax deferral. The biggest one? It’s not a tax break or a tax cut. “It’s just a deferral, so the taxes will need to be repaid the following quarter,” says Zimmelman. 

“So while it may result in slightly larger paychecks until December 31, starting in 2021, those same workers will likely see even smaller paychecks.” 

That’s because your Social Security withholding will likely double in order for you to pay back those deferred payroll taxes. 

Another common misconception? Is that it’s for all workers. It’s only available for workers who will benefit from this deferral. As Zimmelman explains, workers in the U.S. earning less than $4,000 on a pre-tax biweekly basis are eligible. This adds up to $104,000 annually. Plus, employers aren’t mandated to participate. “Some may not prefer to, because of the administrative challenges of repayment,” he says. 

If your employer decided to opt in to the deferral, they likely would have informed you prior to August 28th start date.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR INCREASED PAYROLL TAXES 

And just like how the deferral is for four months, you’ll have four months in 2021 — between January 1 and April 30, 2021 — to pay back the 6.2% of each paycheck that would have gone to taxes. Again, you won’t just go back to your old pre-deferral paycheck — you’ll be paying double the rate in order to catch up.

If your employer has opted into this payroll tax deferral, here’s how you can best prepare to pay back those taxes once the new year rolls around: 

KNOW WHAT YOU OWE

Tax rules, thresholds, limits, credits, deductions, and other relevant items often change each year, points out Riley Adams, a CPA, and founder of Young and Invested. So even if your financial circumstances haven’t changed, your tax bill might experience a shift. 

“Staying on top of these developments will help avoid any surprise come tax return preparation time each year,” says Adams. “It’ll also allow you to make financial changes, where possible, to account for these changes and potentially use them to your benefit.” 

LOWER YOUR LIVING EXPENSES

While you might be squeezed financially right now, try to do your best to bump down your living expenses. And if you’ve tackled the big three categories — food, transportation, and housing — and don’t think you can cut back any more, try again. By implementing small changes, you might be able to scale back on your spending. 

After you’ve focused on the big stuff, go down your list of fixed expenses and see if there’s anything you’ve overlooked. For instance, app subscriptions that renew automatically every year, domain names you purchased during a burst of inspiration, only to have forgotten about them. It might not seem like much, but a $5 savings adds up to $60 a year.

Remember: if you’re opted in to the deferral, you’re currently taking home a bigger paycheck. Spend what you need to, especially if you’ve fallen behind on important bills, but don’t forget that the income boost is temporary. 

RAMP UP YOUR EARNINGS, IF POSSIBLE

Given the timing delay of these payroll taxes, any impact you will experience will be temporary, points out Riley. If your employer does offer payroll tax deferral, you might be better off keeping your tax situation as is and find ways to boost your income by, say, 5% to 10%. Finding ways to increase your take home pay might be a better, long-term solution. 

If you’re looking to earn more money within a short period, consider side hustles that don’t cost a lot upfront and have a low barrier to entry — walking dogs and shopping and delivering food on platforms such as Instacart. 

The truth is, while the payroll tax deferral is well-intentioned, there’s probably not a lot of employers who are offering it to their employees due to the administrative hassle. This tax deferral really won’t have much of an impact on most workers, explains Zimmelman. Very few employers are likely to opt into the program. And those who were hit the hardest by Covid-19 and are unemployed won’t benefit from this. 

“If you’re one of the few employees who are eligible, you can use this extra money to help shore up your savings or pay down debts incurred during the pandemic,” says Zimmelman. “Just don’t forget that you will need to pay that back eventually and will likely do that via smaller paychecks next year.”

How to Rent When You Have Bad Credit

That’s because many landlords and property management firms require a credit check as part of the application process. And depending on your score and the requirements for the property, that credit pull may lead to your application being denied.

Why do landlords look at your credit report at all?

It’s probably helpful to understand why landlords are looking at your credit report at all. After all, they aren’t loaning you money, so why do they care about your creditworthiness?

In truth, however, your landlord is lending you something of value – the rental property itself. And just as banks and credit unions weigh the risk and reward of lending you money, property managers do the same thing before handing over the keys. 

So while your credit report and, more specifically, your credit score can’t tell a landlord exactly how you’ll behave as a tenant, they can tell a prospective property manager how you’ve handled other financial responsibilities. A bad credit score can be interpreted as you having a hard time staying current on previous debts and bills. If a landlord or property management firm is trying to minimize the risk of having tenants who fall behind on rent (or worse, ultimately require an eviction) they’ll likely see your credit score as a strong indicator of what to expect over the course of the lease. 

So it helps (a lot) to have strong credit score. And while it would be great if you could just fix your credit overnight, improving your score takes time – time you probably won’t have if you’re looking for new housing. So what can you do if your credit score is low but you need to find a new apartment? Here are some steps to take if you’re trying to rent an apartment with bad credit.

EXPLAIN THE ISSUES IN YOUR CREDIT HISTORY

There are a lot of reasons why your credit score can dip and you being irresponsible with money doesn’t have to be one of them. If you feel comfortable explaining the circumstances behind your poor credit score, go ahead and share that with the property manager. Landlords are more interested in your recent history, so if your low score is the result of something that happened years prior be sure to discuss that and share what you’ve been doing to improve your score and fulfill your responsibilities since then.

OFFER REFERENCES FROM PRIOR LANDLORDS

You can have a poor credit score and a spotless rental history, which is why it may be helpful to provide documentation from previous landlords. If you can show that you have a history of making your rent payments on time (in addition to all the other behaviors that make you a good tenant) then a poor credit score may not be as big of a deterrent.

BE WILLING TO PAY MORE UP FRONT

A security deposit is one way that landlords offset the risk of renting out their property. Should something happen, they can use those funds to cover any cleaning or repairs above and beyond what’s covered in the rental agreement.

The higher the risk, the more you may need to pay up front to mitigate that risk. This could be a larger than usual security deposit, or possibly even upfront rent payments for one or more months. Whatever you agree to, however, make sure it’s captured in the lease and you understand how that money will be used and how you can get it back (if applicable). You should also consider your financial capacity – while you’re likely under pressure to find an apartment, try not to overextend yourself. If the required deposit puts you in a dangerous position, keep looking.

ADD A CO-SIGNER

As a last ditch option, you can try to add a co-signer. The co-signer wouldn’t need to live at the property, but they would be equally responsible should you fail to meet your obligation. In other words, if you miss payments, the property manager could go after the co-signer for the back payments. 

Co-signing can put both parties in an awkward position, though, so be sure that you and the co-signer are comfortable with the arrangement and understand what’s expected.

Finding an apartment with a bad credit score is far from impossible, but it’s harder than the alternative. If you’re not planning on moving any time soon, now’s the ideal time to start working on your credit score. If we have tons of great articles on building a positive credit history, but if you’re interested in one-on-one help with your credit, consider working with a trained counselor to review your credit report and create a plan for long-term credit success.

Over 50 and Furloughed/Unemployed?

In 2014, the AARP Public Policy Institute’s Future of Work@50 sponsored a survey that examined how Americans over 50 had fared since the Great Recession. The resulting study, The Long Road Back: Struggling to Find Work after Unemployment, reported that 50% of older workers who had become unemployed in the prior five years were not working. Of those who did find work, 48% reported earning less than they had with their previous job. And that deficit could be substantial: A discussion paper by the Urban Institute’s Program on Retirement Policy found that re-employed men ages 50 to 61 received a median hourly wage that was 20% less than they had received previously, while men over 62 took a 36% salary cut.

If you’re currently unemployed or furloughed, I suggest that you realistically consider your chances of re-employment. Don’t continue to act (and spend) as if you’ll soon be receiving your former income — even if you’ve been furloughed. “Call it realism or pessimism,” writes Christopher Rugaber of the Associated Press, “but more employers are coming to a reluctant conclusion: Many of the employees they’ve had to lay off in the face of the pandemic might not be returning to their old jobs anytime soon. Some large companies won’t have enough customers to justify it. And some small businesses won’t likely survive at all despite aid provided by the federal government.”

I’m not saying these things to depress anyone — just the opposite, in fact. When it comes to your finances, I believe it’s best to plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you can be OK with a worst-case scenario, you’ll feel even better if the worst doesn’t happen. 

To create a plan that can help you get through an open-ended period of unemployment, I suggest you:

Evaluate your financial situation 

When considering your finances, assess your condition as if you are not returning to your previous position. What other sources of income do you have? What expenses?  Do you have any benefits available to you? Create a cash flow plan  so that you can see exactly where you are financially, and where you want to be.

Make any necessary changes

If you’ve unexpectedly lost your job, you may need to cut back on expenses. Put everything on the table. Do you really need two cars, or can you sell one? Is it time to downsize your house? You don’t need to make every cutback you ascertain, but I do think it’s important to identify any expenses that can be reduced, and to seriously consider them.

Think about taking Social Security early

 Though you may have planned to wait to take Social Security later, don’t discount taking it before your full retirement age. In fact, you may want to take it for a year as a sort of interest-free loan. That’s right: If you are 62 or older, you can opt to take your benefits and then change your mind. If you do so within 12 months, you can withdraw your Social Security application and repay the money you have received without interest, (although you will need to include any money withheld for Medicare premiums or taxes).

Don’t skip health care

If you’re eligible for Medicare, congratulations. If you’re not, can COBRA carry you until you’re 65? Or can you find a good plan on the marketplace? No matter what, don’t court disaster by leaving yourself or your family uncovered.

Smart Ways to Support Local Businesses During Quarantine

If you’re playing it safe and staying out of your favorite stores and restaurants, you may be wondering how you can keep supporting those businesses (so they’re still around when you’re ready to leave the house).

If you’re trying to support a local restaurant, the solution may seem simple: just boot up your favorite food delivery app and order some dinner. Unfortunately, while ordering up some food on your phone is great for convenience, it’s not always great for your local restaurants. 

That’s because food delivery platforms like Grubhub, Postmates, and UberEats charge enormous commission fees to businesses — we’re talking anywhere from 10% to 30%, and in some instances as high as 40%. That’s not to mention the additional fees pushed on to the customer. 

LetterPress Chocolate is a chocolatier based in Los Angeles that temporarily closed its shop out of an abundance of caution and currently relies on deliveries and online orders. As co-owner and chocolate maker David Menkes explains, these popular food delivery platforms can cut deeply into the profit margins of small businesses. At LetterPress Chocolate the cost looks like this: For every $10 a customer spends on chocolate, the food delivery platform takes $3, plus a $3 delivery fee. So while you’re spending $13, the business only gets $6. (And that’s leaving aside the tip for your driver – don’t forget to tip your delivery drivers!) 

Normally, these kinds of steep costs are easier to bear when balanced against “in-person” customers. Right now, however, these business have, at best, very limited in-person capacity, and at worst are restricted to takeout or delivery business only. 

So how can you better support your favorite local businesses? Here are a few ways to go about it: 

CONTACT THEM DIRECTLY 

Instead of ordering through a third-party platform, check the business’s website. Menkes set up a Weebly site through Square to offer curbside pickup. “It’s not without its glitches, but it allows our customers to order online and even schedule a pickup time,” he says. 

If an establishment is new to curbside pickup or delivery, there’s a chance that its website has yet to be updated or might have outdated info. When in doubt, just give them a ring and see what your options are. A local restaurant I love looked like it was only accepting orders through Postmates. But after giving them a call, it turns out that you can place an order directly. 

ORDER MERCHANDISE 

Besides ordering food from a food establishment, see if there are other ways you can patronize local businesses. They might have products that you can order online and have shipped to your home. For instance, LetterPress Chocolate ships nationwide, which has helped it stayed afloat as a big chunk of its income before the pandemic came from factory tours. 

HELP PROMOTE THE BUSINESS 

And if you’re on a budget, you can do your part by helping promote your most beloved establishments. Share a photo of a delicious meal you just enjoyed on Instagram. Write a glowing review on Yelp. Rave about them on Facebook. Bottom line: Helping spread the word about a local business is just as important as giving them your dollars. 

FOCUS ON A FEW BUSINESSES 

If you’re on a budget during quarantine but still want to support your businesses, pick just a few to order directly from. If you can afford to eat out once a week, rotate the restaurants you patronize. That way you won’t be traveling to a bunch of different eateries around town. Plus, you won’t be quibbling over the delivery fees and tips, and it won’t be as much of a strain on your wallet. 

ORDER A GIFT CARD 

Order a gift card that you or someone near and dear to you can cash in on later. By doing so, you’re helping the business boost sales and its cash flow, plus you’ll have something you can enjoy down the line. 

The efforts you make in putting as much money back into the local economy makes a big difference. “Thankfully, our customers have been super supportive since we closed our retail shop,” says Menkes. “Since it’s literally just the two of us, we can’t afford to get sick. That’s why we aren’t allowing anyone inside at all.”

How Retirees Can Protect their Portfolios

If they are forced to sell beaten-down stocks and mutual funds to pay the bills, they could inflict permanent damage on their portfolios, increasing the risk that they will outlive their savings.

That’s what happened during the Great Recession. Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index lost more than half of its value during the bear market of October 2007 to March 2009, and IRAs and 401(k) plans lost about $2.4 trillion in value just during the final two quarters of 2008. Investors who rode out the downturn recouped their losses in the 11-year bull market, but seniors who took withdrawals before the stock market recovered were left with locked-in losses.

Ideally, you have prepared for this calamity by sequestering enough in cash or other low-risk investments that, when combined with guaranteed sources of income, you can cover at least two years of living expenses. “It’s the equivalent of an emergency fund within your retirement plan,” says Andrew Houte, a certified financial planner in Brookfield, Wis. You’re even better prepared if you’ve adopted the bucket system, in which you divide your savings into cash, short- or intermediate-term bond funds, and stocks, based on when you’ll need the money.

Cut expenses. After years of stock market gains and a roaring economy, some retirees and near-retirees may have forgotten the lessons of the Great Recession. David Mullins, a CFP in Richlands, Va., says he recently received a call from a retiree who had invested 100% of his savings in stocks. On one day in mid March, his portfolio lost more than $112,000.

If you find yourself in that unfortunate position, look for ways to cut expenses so you can postpone selling stocks or funds for as long as possible. Review your wireless bills for services you no longer use (or never requested). While you probably don’t want to cancel Netflix until you’re allowed out of the house, look for other subscriptions you can do without.

Low interest rates offer other opportunities to cut costs. If you still have a mortgage, refinancing to a lower interest rate could lower your monthly bill and free up some cash. If your mortgage rate is more than one percentage point above current rates, it’s usually a sign that it makes sense to refinance. For help crunching the numbers, use The Mortgage Professor’s refinance calculator to enter the details of your current mortgage and your new loan to see how long you’d have to stay in your home to start saving money with a refinance.

Look into a reverse mortgage. For homeowners who are 62 or older, a reverse mortgage could provide a reliable source of income until the market recovers. A strategy recommended by some financial planners, known as a “standby reverse mortgage,” is designed for just this type of downturn. Under this game plan, you take out a reverse mortgage line of credit to cover your expenses until your portfolio recovers. If you maintain your home and pay taxes and insurance, you don’t have to repay the loan as long as you stay in your home.

Low interest rates have made these loans even more attractive. Under the terms of the government-insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, the most popular kind of reverse mortgage, the lower the interest rate, the more home equity you’re allowed to borrow. And if it turns out you don’t need the money, your untapped credit line will increase as if you were paying interest on the balance.

Be smart about Social Security. If the Great Recession is any guide, there will soon be a spike in claims for Social Security benefits, both by people who were forced to retire earlier than planned and by retirees who are worried about depleting their investment portfolios. Filing for Social Security benefits will provide a guaranteed monthly paycheck, which could allow you to postpone taking money out of your retirement savings. You can file for benefits as early as age 62, but if you do, your benefits will be permanently reduced by at least 25%. If you’re married and are the higher earner, claiming early could also reduce the survivor benefits your spouse will receive if he or she outlives you.

Waiting until full retirement age — 66 or older for those born after 1943 — will allow you to claim 100% of the benefits you’ve earned. If you wait to file for benefits until after you reach full retirement age, your payouts will grow by 8% a year until you reach age 70.

Married couples may be able to play it both ways. Have the lower-earning spouse file before full retirement age — as early as 62. Although that spouse’s benefits will be reduced, you can use that money to pay the bills until your portfolio has recovered. Meanwhile, the higher-earning spouse will be able to put off claiming benefits until full retirement age or later.

How Student Loan Borrowers Can Benefit from the CARES Act

These are especially stressful times for those with debt payments that continue to pile up even as the economy stalls. Fortunately, for the 5.2 million people paying on student loans, there is help and hope for a positive outcome. The CARES Act, one of several federal stimulus packages intended to steady the economy and support workers, offers relief for students and student loan borrowers.

Here are some of the key resources available under this new legislation.

HOW THE CARES ACT IMPACTS STUDENT LOANS

The CARES Act provides financial relief for federal student loan borrowers, including those with Direct, Direct PLUS, Direct Consolidation loans and FFEL or Perkins loans owned by the Department of Education. Notably, the CARES Act applies to all federal student loans, even those in default, which means that struggling borrowers at every stage can benefit from the student loan provisions of the CARES Act.

Borrowers with federal student loans receive an automatic administrative forbearance on loan payments from March 13, 2020 through September 30, 2020. This means that during this time, borrowers are not required to make payments, and auto-draft will be disabled. Additionally, the interest rate during this time is 0%, meaning interest will not accrue while payments are in forbearance.

FFEL Program loans owned by commercial lenders and Perkins Loans owned by academic institutions do not qualify under the CARES Act. However, borrowers have the option of consolidating these loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan, which would then be eligible for the forbearance. Perkins loans held by universities may also be eligible for a 90-day deferment, and borrowers should contact their schools for specific details.

Private student loans are not eligible, and private loan borrowers should review their loan agreement and contact their servicer to inquire about hardship options such as deferment, forbearance, or loan modification.

DEFAULTED BORROWERS HAVE MAJOR OPPORTUNITY

One of the biggest boons of this program is the benefit to those in student loan default. During the forbearance period, administrative wage garnishment, tax refund offsets, and Social Security benefit offsets will be suspended, and the stimulus check will not be subject to offset either.

Loan rehabilitation is often the path out of default. Typically, a defaulted borrower makes a reasonable payment arrangement with their servicer, which can be for as low as $5 a month in some circumstances. After making the arrangement, the borrower pays nine monthly voluntary payments, and the loan will be removed from default. Under the CARES act, the months of forbearance where borrowers make zero dollar payments will count towards the rehabilitation payments, and interest does not accrue during the forbearance.

This is one of the best opportunities ever presented for defaulted borrowers to get on the path to clearing their default. If you have defaulted student loans, don’t wait! Contact your servicer today about entering a rehabilitation program.

A CHANCE TO ESTABLISH SAVINGS

For student loan borrowers experiencing income disruption, this period of administrative forbearance can provide financial flexibility, allowing them to prioritize things like mortgage or rent, groceries, utilities, child care, and other essentials. Consumers can allocate the money that would otherwise go to student loan payments towards priority expenses.

Borrowers can also contact their other creditors to inquire about hardship plans or deferments on credit cards and mortgages in order to allocate available income or savings to the most pressing needs. Ultimately, everyone benefits when borrowers have the resources they need to fulfill their obligations and lenders want to make their customers’ long-term success possible.

For those who are not experiencing financial hardship, the administrative forbearance period is a great time to allocate money towards establishing or increasing a $1,000 emergency savings account, and afterward to pay down student loan principal. If a borrower makes a manual student loan payment, the entire amount will be allocated to paying down principal after paying any accrued interest prior to March 13, 2020. This is a great way to accelerate student loan payoff, save on interest, and decrease the total amount repaid.

For those enrolled in Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), the administrative forbearance period will count towards their 120 qualifying payments as long as they remain employed full time for a qualified employer and are on a qualified repayment plan. In that case, it may not make sense for a borrower to pay additional principal payments on their student loans, and instead those borrowers can benefit from contributing towards emergency savings and paying down other consumer debts.

ACCESSING HEERF GRANT OPPORTUNITIES

Another provision of the CARES Act provides a grant opportunity for currently enrolled students, whether they are student loan borrowers or not. Eligible students who incurred expenses related to the COVID-19 disruption of campus operations may be eligible for a grant through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) – Student Share.

These grants will be distributed through universities’ financial aid offices, so students should look for information from their university or contact the financial aid office to apply. Eligible expenses include those related to cost of attendance such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and childcare. This is a grant, not a loan, meaning students will not need to pay back any money granted for qualified reasons.

Low-Cost Ways to Stay Fit During Quarantine

As we’re deep into the second month of sheltering-in-place, you’re probably feeling cooped up, listless, antsy, bored, or some combination of all those. Beyond staying socially healthy, you’ll also want to make moves to keep your physical well-being in tip-top shape.

Heading to the gym or local pool to lift some weights or get your cardio on isn’t an option for the time being, so what can you do to get moving and release some endorphins? If you’re on a tight budget, here are a few low-cost ways to stay healthy while in quarantine:

CHECK OUT FREE VIRTUAL CLASSES

As a lot of fitness studios are pivoting to digital platforms, poke around to see which studios offer free or donation-based, pay-what-you-can workouts. Here are a few of our favorites:

RYAN HEFFINGTON’S SWEATFEST

There’s a reason why the L.A.-based choreographer and dance studio owner has attracted a lot of buzz and thousands of attendees per workout. His hugely popular one-hour dance workout session on IG Live, Sweatfest, is donation-based. And there’s no obligation to contribute if you’re not able to.

Offered several times a week, these workouts provide a cathartic vessel to release stress, boredom, and anxiety. What’s more, his central message is to simply focus on love and peace and helping others.

If you’re looking to learn new dance routines, Heffington’s staff of seasoned dance teachers are offering weekly virtual classes via IG Live. This is through Heffington’s dance studio, The Sweat Spot, and is also donation-based payments.

YOGA WITH ADRIENE

There are scads of free workout videos on YouTube. If you’re itching to get your yoga on, check out Yoga With Adriene, who boasts over 7 million subscribers and hundreds of videos. Not sure where to start? Try one of her 30-day yoga challenges, which are centered around themes like “Yoga for Your Back,” “30 Days of Yoga,” or if you’re keen on a more introspective bent, “Dedicate.”

The equipment you need varies, but you can probably do most yoga workouts with a yoga mat, blanket, and a pair of foam blocks.

BEFIT

The BeFiT YouTube channel features a litany of vids from top trainers. These workouts range from cardio and strength to rebalancing and pilates. You can think of the BeFit channel as a catch-all of fitness workouts.

ORANGETHEORY AT HOME

A handful of fitness studios and gyms are offering free virtual workouts. Orangetheory recently released free daily online exercises that focus on everything from strengthening and toning different parts of your body to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

FREELETICS

If you’re hopping on the calisthenics train, which is a popular type of workout that consists of exercises that primarily rely on your own bodyweight, check out the Freeletics app. There’s a handful of free workouts and one-off runs and drills.

If you want to tap into a guided training route, you’ll need to upgrade to its premium version Depending on the plan, it costs anywhere from $1.44 a week, or $73 a year, to $3.85 a week, or $200 a year.

COREPOWER YOGA

You can access its daily free streaming live classes or a weekly collection of online courses.

USE WHAT’S AROUND THE HOUSE

Chances are you might already have some forgotten exercise equipment nestled in your storage closets and underneath your bed. Before you commit to any exercise program, take stock of what you already own and build a workout around that.

For instance, I have a pair of five-pound weights and a yoga mat. Because I’m trying not to spend too much money on exercise gear, I’ve been doing mainly bodyweight exercises — think planks, pushups, and squats — and yoga routines.

INVEST ONLY IN INEXPENSIVE EXERCISE GEAR

No need to purchase a costly elliptical machine or a pilates reformer contraption. Those types of exercise equipment are not only expensive, but they take up a lot of space and can be a pain to get rid of once you’re done using them.

If you want to spend money on exercise gear, start with low-cost essentials such as a yoga mat, a set of weights, or resistance bands. You can probably find them on sale online. And if you’re going to spend money on more costly gear, make sure it’s worth the spend.

For instance, thinking of throwing down $50 on a set of resistance bands? Commit to using them in your workout several times a week for the next few months. Otherwise, you might find them tossed out alongside your partner’s neglected sparring gear.

STRIKE UP A DEAL

If you already have a gym membership, your gym might offer some virtual classes or online workouts that you can download from your desktop or app.

If you’re squeezed financially and would like to keep your gym membership to tap into the virtual offerings, reach out to your gym to see if they have any current discounts or promotions. 

Low-Cost Ways to Stay Socially Healthy During a Quarantine

After weeks of isolation, and with no clear end in sight, it’s perfectly natural if you’re starting to suffer from the mental strain of being homebound.

While we’re all pining for some sense of normalcy, it won’t be hard to return to our normal patterns any time soon. And unfortunately, neglecting our social needs could lead to serious repercussions: feelings of loneliness and frustration, and other mental health issues such as boredom, depression, and anxiety.

So how can we stay socially healthy in isolation? Here are some low-cost ways to stay active and have our social needs met during the quarantine:

SCHEDULE IN SOCIAL TIME

There are plenty of budget-friendly ways to enjoy social time. If you live with roommates, your partner or family, carve out time to enjoy a puzzle or round of board games, or to play music together. Of course, if you cohabitate with high-risk populations, such as those over the age of 65 and folks with pre-existing health conditions, you’ll want to definitely maintain social distancing and practice proper hygiene and precautionary measures.

If you live alone or would like to connect with those that live elsewhere, schedule in social time on digital platforms. For instance, schedule a social meetup on free video-chatting apps and meeting platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or Houseparty. FYI: Houseparty has partnered with Epic Games to play games such as Quick Draw and Trivia with family and friends. As mentioned, it’s absolutely free.

For family members who might not be as tech-savvy, you could schedule some quality one-on-one phone time or squeeze in a Facetime chat. So that it doesn’t interrupt your daily routine and other tasks, you can book social time during periods when you normally would hang out with loved ones, like during the evenings and weekends.

BE HONEST WITH YOUR SOCIAL NEEDS

If you lean toward being introverted, you might get a case of being oversocialized. How is that possible? Well, you might be bombarded with requests to hang out. New phrases such as “having a zoomy day” or “zoomed out” might come out of the pandemic.

Those who might be overwhelmed with online hangout invites, don’t be afraid to turn down an invite. Just because you’re mostly home doesn’t mean that you’re available. There’s certainly a difference. It’s perfectly okay to politely decline and express that you prefer to lay low for the evening.

If you need to be on a lot of video conference calls for work and need time to recharge, you might limit your social time or stagger them. For instance, as an introvert, I prefer to do fewer than two meetings or phone calls a day. Beyond that, I start to hit a wall.

MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR SPACE

Depending on your living arrangement and where you live, you might be cooped up indoors for most of the day or share tight quarters with family or roommates. And if you’re working from home and so are other co-habitants, you could feel stifled and suffer from pent-up energy.

Consider partitioning your space so that you have a specific area just to work. And if possible, set up work from home stations in separate areas. You’ll also want to be sure to communicate your working hours and boundaries to others. For instance, just because you now work at the kitchen table doesn’t give your partner liberties to park themselves next to you and complain about their co-workers.

Besides setting up designated spaces for work from home stations, to break up your days use different areas of your home for different purposes. You can have a designated space to work out, another for creative projects, and another to read or play video games. That might help you stick to a routine and offer a bit of space from those you live with.

And if you need time alone, don’t be afraid to ask for it. For instance, set quiet time hours. On the flip side, designate social hours if you feel like you’re under-socialized.

AVOID THE COMPARISON TRAP

Staying connected with friends, family, and peers is healthy – comparing your “quarantine output” with anyone else is generally pretty unhealthy and unfair to yourself.

We’ve all heard the stories of the 3rd grade classmate who finally finished their novel and the cousin who started an heirloom tomato garden. Some people are thriving in their environment and some people have successfully cashed in on their free time and/or inability to leave the house. But that’s not everyone. It’s not even most people. Most of us are just trying to do the best we can and make it through all of this terrifying weirdness.

So when you’re Zooming with your parents, don’t feel bad if your big update is that you reorganized your Blu-rays. It’s not a competition and you aren’t losing anything if you’re just trying to get by.

ENGAGE WITH YOUR COMMUNITY

Besides social apps and video hangout platforms, think of ways you can engage with your community. If you are healthy and practice safety, you could volunteer at a local food bank, or help a senior in your neighborhood buy groceries.

Prefer to stay indoors? Create themed meetups or events on Instagram live around your interests. If you’re a meditation ninja, schedule a mindfulness meetup online. Or if you would like to offer others resources or advice during these uncertain times, create an “ask me anything” thread on an online forum such as Reddit or via Instagram Stories.

While it’s certainly tough to get your social needs met during the quarantine, with a bit of ingenuity you can certainly maneuver your way to a healthy state. If you would like help during the coronavirus pandemic, MMI is here for you. We have a number of online resources to help you financially and beyond. Want to speak to a human? You can talk to our team of accredited counselors.

21 easy home projects to tackle while you’re hunkered down

As the U.S. confronts the spread of the novel coronavirus, most of the country has now implemented stay-at-home orders. And while we grapple with how to pay rent, whether we’re headed into a recession, and how the virus is impacting the housing market, we’re also left with a more basic question: What should we do while we’re stuck at home?

There’s only so much comfort TV to binge-watch before restlessness kicks in, so for those of us that are able, this extended time indoors is an opportunity to tackle those long-avoided home projects. Of course, now is not the time to flock to the stores for nonessential items, so we’ve gathered a list of ways you can upgrade your space with things you probably already have at home.

From restyling your bookshelves to prepping your planters for spring, here are 21 easy projects you can do while social distancing at home.

Rearrange things for a fresh perspective

Renovating your entire living room or splurging on a new bedroom set likely isn’t in the cards at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some changes.

Try a new furniture layout: It’s easy to get in a rut with the same ol’ furniture setup, but what if you tried something new? Move the couch to a different wall, adjust where your armchair sits, or mix things up by swapping rugs from one room to another. Even switching a lamp from a side table to another spot in your house could brighten up a space in new ways.

Bring out the “special occasion” dinnerware: There’s no better time to add a bit of drama to your table, so bust out the china, special silverware, or fancy wine glasses. Now that we’re all eating at home, it’s the perfect chance to sip and savor at the dinner table using our favorite pieces. Want to share the fun with a few friends or family? Try hosting a virtual dinner party.

Restyle your bookshelves: Even avid readers don’t change up their bookshelves all that often, so now is the time to rethink them. If you’re focused on the literature, arrange your books by alphabetical order or by theme. If aesthetics are the priority, remember these three tips from designer Emily Henderson: Declutter, use neutral colors, and focus on a few standout pieces.

Cleaning projects

There’s a lot of talk about cleaning these days, and rightly so. But beyond disinfecting all of your high-touch surfaces, it’s also past time to buckle down on the tasks you avoid doing.

Clean your vents and baseboards: Heating and vent covers accumulate dust over time, and cleaning them can help reduce allergens in your home and increase the efficiency of your air conditioning or heating unit. Vacuum the vents with a dusting brush attachment or wipe with a dry microfiber cloth—avoid using water or other cleaning products, because they can smear the dust.

You can also unscrew the vent covers and place them in a sink filled with hot, soapy water. But don’t rub them too hard or paint may come off. And while you’re at it, turn your HVAC unit off and change the air filter on your furnace.

Go under your bed: Vacuuming and cleaning the toilets are usually on the weekly to-do list, but when was the last time you cleaned underneath your bed? Don’t wait until the next time you move to clear out the dirt—move the bed, empty out any storage boxes you might have underneath, and vacuum the dust. Plus: You might be surprised at the things you’ll find (hello, missing phone charger).

Clean out your bathroom drawers: This is another task we put off when we don’t have the time. Our bathroom drawers take a lot of daily abuse; after emptying the drawers you’ll likely find hair, spilled makeup, toothpaste, and so on. Once the insides are free of gunk, toss the junk and reorganize what’s left.

Organizing

Where to begin? There’s no shortage of home organization projects that can yield big results, but the options below won’t require a trip to the store. Of course, if you want to buy new storage solutions, we’ve got you covered there, too.


Don’t forget to check out our 30 Days of Purpose and Productivity throughout April and our “Using Social Distancing to Grow” Bingo Card to track your progress.

How to start composting at home

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your garden is feed it with nutrient-rich compost. This mix of decaying vegetable matter, grass clippings, and leaves may not be glamorous, but it improves soil structure and provides the nutrients your plants need to thrive. And it’s easy to create your own compost in your backyard or patio, at little or no cost. But don’t delay: it takes about a year for compost to be ready to spread on your vegetable patch. Ready to start? Here are a few simple steps to composting at home:

Choose Your Container
Garden centers sell a variety of containers for making compost. You can buy a sealed composting bin that has a little door in it for adding organic matter—or a composting barrel on a stand that allows you to tumble it. Traditionalist might want to create a conventional compost heap. To do that, build a four-sided container from scrap timber that fits comfortably in a corner of your yard, says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia, which grows more than 2,300 varieties and 22 million plants annually. It’s best to position your heap away from the house and any outdoor areas where people gather, as compost can get a little stinky when it’s not sealed in a container. 

Start Piling
If you an organic garden (or close to it), make sure everything you put into your compost is organic, notes Robert McLaughlin, CEO of Organic Bouquet in Maitland, Florida. “Don’t put chemically-treated produce in there or you’ll just be putting in chemicals.” Most of your compost should be vegetables and fruit, but paper, newspapers, small sticks, grass clippings and straw make excellent additions. “I’d venture to say the amount of chemicals in newspapers is so minor it won’t make a big difference,” reveals Staddon. If you find yourself short on organic matter, knock on your neighbors’ door and ask for their extra grass clippings or vegetable refuse. “You could be doing them a favor,” says Staddon. If you or your neighbors own horses, chickens, or goats, you can also add nutrient-packed manure.

Hit the Right Ratio
It’s important to keep a healthy ratio of carbon-rich matter and nitrogen-rich matter in your compost heap, says Nell Foster, horticulturist, gardening blogger and owner of Joy Us in Santa Barbara, California, which creates eco-conscious garden accessories. The fastest way to produce fertile, aromatic compost is to maintain a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of approximately 25 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too low (excess nitrogen), you’ll end up with a smelly pile.

Good sources of carbon include (finely shredded) cardboard, corn stalks, straw, fruit, leaves, peanut shells, sawdust, pine needles and ashes. Sources higher in nitrogen are vegetables scraps, coffee grounds, clover, garden waste, grass clippings, manure, seaweed and hay. “Do a little research on composting before you start throwing things in,” says Foster. Also, don’t throw in things that have gone to seed or they’ll take root in your compost. For example, toss in a rotting jack-o’-lantern and you’re likely to find a plethora of pumpkins suddenly sprouting out of your compost!

Stir Regularly
It’s critical to turn your compost regularly with a garden fork. This aerates the soil, which speeds up bacterial activity. You can tell when compost is ready to use by how it looks; it should be broken down to a point where it has the appearance of rich, healthy soil.

Keep it Warm
Compost breaks down faster in warm conditions, so try to keep your bin or heap insulated from the cold. (That’s why so many bins are black—the color attracts the most sun. If you have a heap instead of a container, cover it with a black tarp for the same effect.) The ideal temperature for fast decomposition is between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. But don’t worry too much—the microbes in compost generate their own heat and some decomposition will continue to happen as long as your compost heap remains above freezing. 

Collect the Run-off
If your compost bin allows rainwater to flow through it and out the bottom, collect the drainage, says McLaughlin. This liquid is amazing fertilizing material—simply pour it around the plants in your garden. 

Put it to Work
When your compost is ready, begin adding it into your garden. After plants have taken root and are showing growth (around 10-12 inches), add about an inch of compost on top of the soil around the plants and blend it in, advises McLaughlin.


Don’t forget to check out our 30 Days of Purpose and Productivity throughout April and our “Using Social Distancing to Grow” Bingo Card to track your progress.

Is It Ever a Good Idea to Borrow From Your Retirement Fund?

While many people will advise you to never dip into retirement funds early, the reality is that you may have an immediate need and few choices. Rather than drawing a hard-line rule, learn how withdrawals and loans work so you can make an educated decision for yourself. 

WHY SHOULDN’T YOU WITHDRAW MONEY FROM RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS?

Retirement accounts are special because you’ve earmarked the money for retirement, a period when you likely won’t have much income and will need the savings. They also offer tax-advantages that can significantly increase how much money you’ll be able to accumulate over time.

Taking money out of the account can lead to several negative consequences:

  • You might increase your taxable income: If you’ve contributed to a pre-tax or “traditional” retirement account, you likely received a tax deduction for your contributions. When you withdraw the funds, you have to include the money in your taxable income for the year, which can increase how much you owe come tax time. This is true even when you withdraw money during retirement, but you may pay less tax then if you have less income for the year. 
  • You may pay additional penalties: Qualified retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs may charge an early withdrawal fee of 10% if you don’t qualify for an exemption. The fee increases to 25% for SIMPLE IRAs if it’s been less than two years since opening your account. The fee is in addition to the income taxes you may pay on withdrawals.
  • You miss out on future growth: While you won’t feel the pain right away, withdrawing your money now means you’re stopping its growth. You can use an online calculator to estimate how much an early withdrawal will cost you in terms of taxes, penalties, and lost growth. 
  • You may lose protections from creditors: In some cases, creditors can’t go after your money if it’s in a qualified retirement account. Your 401(k) balances and over $1.1M in IRA accounts may even be exempt if you declare bankruptcy. However, creditors may be able to go after the money if you withdraw it from your qualified account.

You can’t avoid including withdrawals as taxable income unless you used a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), in which case, you already paid income tax on the contributions. However, you may be able to avoid the early withdrawal penalty. And, if you borrow from your account rather than completely withdraw the funds, you might limit the overall impact.

HOW TO AVOID EARLY WITHDRAWAL PENALTIES

You won’t pay early withdrawal penalties once you’re 59½ years old. Even before that point, there are certain situations when you can qualify for an exception. 

For example, you may be able to take a penalty-free withdrawal if you become totally and permanently disabled or if you use the money for unreimbursed medical expenses that are over 10% of your adjusted gross income. 

These exemptions also vary depending on whether you have an IRA or a 401(k) or 403(b). With IRAs, you can take an early withdrawal to pay for health insurance premiums while you’re unemployed. You can also withdraw up to $10,000 to buy a home if you haven’t owned a home in the previous two years. But those two exemptions don’t apply to 401(k)s and 403(b)s. 

The IRS website has a complete list of exemptions.

YOU MAY BE ABLE TO TAKE A LOAN INSTEAD OF AN EARLY WITHDRAWAL

Another way to avoid an early withdrawal penalty is to take out a loan rather than withdraw the money. Loans aren’t available with IRAs, although there’s a workaround to take money out for 60 days, and are only sometimes available with other qualified retirement plans. 

If your retirement plan sponsor allows loans, they can offer several benefits over other types of loans:

  • There’s no credit check to qualify
  • It won’t show up on your credit report
  • The loan won’t count as income
  • The IRS allows you to borrow up to $50,000, although some plans may have lower limits
  • You’re paying interest to yourself
  • You may be able to repay the loan over a five-year period (or longer, if you use the money to buy a primary residence)

It’s not all good news, though. Taking money out of your retirement plan means you’ll still miss out on potential growth during that period. Plus, if you need the money when the market is down, you’ll be “selling low” and may wind up rebuying your investments at a higher price later.

Also, if you’re unable to repay the loan, the money could be considered an early withdrawal and you may have to pay income taxes and a penalty. And if you lose or leave your job while repaying the loan, you may have to repay the remaining balance by the due date of your next annual tax return. 

SO, WHEN IS IT A GOOD IDEA?

As with everything tax- and finance-related, there are fine-print details that may impact your specific situation. But now that you know the basics pros and cons of taking early withdrawals or retirement account loans, you can make a more informed decision. 

Yes, there are drawbacks to taking money out of a retirement fund. However, it may be an okay option when:

  • You’ve lost your job and need money for basic necessities.
  • You may otherwise lose valuable assets, such as your primary residence or vehicle. 
  • You can use the funds to pay off high-interest debt. 

Even so, you don’t want to jeopardize your future if you can avoid it. Many people struggle with finances during a large crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic. However, creditors may also be willing to work with you to offer lower payments or temporarily pause payments.

Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus Scammers

We’ve seen this repeatedly in the wake of massive disasters. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, we’re already seeing individuals across the globe attempting to take advantage of growing confusion and fear at the expense of those who are suffering most.

At the outset of the outbreak, this took the form of hording and price gouging, as individuals bought up massive quantities of crucial supplies (including face masks and Clorox wipes). Now, as various organizations begin rolling out relief solutions, we’re starting to see new scams develop. 

As you navigate this incredibly challenging situation, be on the lookout for the warning signs of a potential scam. Here are a few scams that have already appeared, but it’s a certainty that there will be more.

FAKE VACCINATIONS OR PREVENTATIVES

There isn’t a vaccination for COVID-19 currently available, and there are no commercial products that can make you immune to the virus. Beware on anyone trying to sell you a vaccine or a “cure”. If you’re going to invest in preventative measures, follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and make sure you have the ability to wash your hands regularly and disinfect all commonly touched surfaces.

Beyond that, practice social distancing and use good judgment.

FAKE GOVERNMENT RELIEF CHECKS

There’s an ongoing discussion about what steps the government might take to help families and individuals through this crisis. With massive shutdowns and recommended (and sometimes required) self-isolation, there are a lot of workers who can’t make a living right now. There’s also been an enormous toll on multiple industries as consumers shy away from travel, entertainment, and more.

One option on the table is that the government will start cutting everyone a check. Leaving aside the logistics of how that might work and whether or not it’s the right idea, it’s absolutely the sort of situation scammers are looking to take advantage of.

The FTC recently released a few crucial tips on how to protect yourself from “fake government check” scammers:

You will not have to pay anything to receive your relief funds. Assuming this option moves forward, there is absolutely no way you will be asked to pay a fee to access your funds. Be extremely suspicious of anyone attempting to charge you upfront.

The government will not call you and ask for sensitive information. Do not give your Social Security number or private bank information to an unknown, unverified party over the phone.

Anyone offering something that doesn’t exist is probably a scammer. You best defense against any scammer is good information. Try to stay current on what is and isn’t happening. Until the government actually decides to start sending out relief funds, anyone claiming to help you receive those funds is likely trying to scam you.

BEWARE OF PHONY CHARITIES

There will always be unscrupulous people willing to manipulate the generosity and kindheartedness of others. Phony charity and crowdfunding schemes are a year-round scam, but they tend to increase exponentially in the wake of a disaster or crisis.

Make no mistake – giving to charity is absolutely a noble and worthwhile thing to do. Just make sure you do your research. Just because something has a lot of likes on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. Try to stick to nationally recognized charities or local organizations you’ve personally verified. Your local food banks, shelters, and free clinics are great places to start.

Another thing to consider: how a charity wants you to donate. If they’re insistent on things like cash, gift cards, or a wire transfer – popular currency for scammers – they’re likely not legitimate. 

Unfortunately, scams like this aren’t going away anytime soon. And as this outbreak develops, we’re likely to see more and more attempts to trick consumers out of money they absolutely cannot afford to lose right now. So stay smart, stay vigilant, and if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

How to Safeguard Your Finances from Coronavirus

If you’re worried about coronavirus (or COVID-19, which is the particular strain of coronavirus that’s currently spreading quickly across the world) that’s completely understandable. News coverage of the outbreak is nearly constant and many countries are taking drastic measures to curb the spread.

How worried you should be is dependent on a number of factors, from your age to your overall health to where you live and where you’ve recently traveled. Even if you aren’t worried about the possibility of infection, there’s a very strong chance that you will eventually be impacted in some way by the virus. 

COVID-19 has already had enormous ramifications for the global economy and those ripples will inevitably reach consumers and workers across the country.

AVOID OVERBUYING 

It is extremely tempting to load up on everything you think you might need for the months ahead and hunker down until the worst of the outbreak has passed. And while minimizing inessential person-to-person contact is definitely a good idea during an outbreak, buying your local Target out of toilet paper and Clorox wipes isn’t the way to go.

For starters, it’s vitally important that you be smart with your money right now (for reasons we’ll explore in a moment). Secondly, there’s the matter of everyone else who needs a reasonable supply of those items. Mass overbuying leads to shortages, which both drives up the price for remaining goods and leaves a lot of people empty-handed.

Finally, take a moment to consider who’s most at risk during the outbreak. The elderly and the immunocompromised face much starker odds should they become infected. If you don’t fall into either of those categories, try to be reasonable when you stock up. Quarantines tend to last for 14 days – when stocking a preparedness kit, buy only what you and your family may need for two weeks. 

REDUCE EXPENSES WHERE YOU CAN

One of the most effective ways to slow the spread of a disease is to keep people away from other people. This may mean that your place of work is shut down for a period of time. For many people, not working means not earning any money.

That’s why it’s crucial that you ramp down your spending before a work stoppage. There’s no way to know exactly how the COVID-19 outbreak will play out, but it’s almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. So if you’re working now and everything seems business as usual, act like it isn’t. Reduce spending on non-essentials and prioritize saving money – at least until the worst is over.

DON’T MAKE NON-REFUNDABLE TRAVEL OR EVENT PLANS

SXSW, an enormously popular film and music festival in Austin, Texas – with historically pricey tickets – was recently canceled. And at the moment, it looks like ticketholders aren’t going to get a refund. Coachella, another wildly popular spring music festival, is moving to the fall, leaving attendees scrambling to cancel or rebook travel arrangements.

All over the world, major events and gatherings are being canceled or postponed in order to limit potential exposure to COVID-19. Again, it’s hard to know exactly when things will return to “normal”, so in the meantime avoid making travel plans or purchasing any non-refundable tickets.

If you’ve already purchased tickets for events that may be (or already have been) canceled, you may have some protection if you made your purchase with a credit card. Some cards offer travel insurance, which can help minimize some of your potential losses. Connect with your creditor to see what benefits your card offers and if they can help any sudden changes of plan.

TALK TO CREDITORS AND LENDERS ASAP

Should you experience a disruption in income due to COVID-19, be sure to reach out to your creditors and lenders as soon as possible to let them know and see what they can do to help.

Banks in the United Kingdom are offering a three month deferment on mortgage payments. Italy recently declared a moratorium on all debt repayment. While we’ve yet to see what kind of financial relief will be available in the United States, major creditors are working to provide hardship programs for impacted customers. 

As with any hardship, the sooner you reach out and start the conversation with your creditors the better. The same is true for medical bills. If you incur any expenses during this period – or even if you’re still trying to repay an old medical bill – start a conversation with your provider about a repayment plan. Financial aid and assistance programs may be available, but you need to ask and advocate for yourself.

Being stressed and worried about COVID-19 and what it may mean for you is a completely reasonable reaction. The key is to avoid overreacting and potentially making the situation worse for yourself and others.

Six Steps to Financial Success After a Career in Sports

The confetti had barely stopped falling at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, where the Kansas City Chiefs won the NFL’s 52nd Super Bowl, and many players were already grappling with one of the most consequential questions of their careers: Would this game be their last?

With the average NFL career lasting just more than three years, it’s a question that every player will have to consider sooner rather than later. Even professional athletes in less physically demanding sports face uncommonly short careers (typically less than ten years) that produce relatively high earnings before players enter a long retirement. 

This scenario is almost entirely unique to professional athletes who, even by modest standards, earn about thirty-six times the annual salary of the average worker. From an investment standpoint, this places athletes in an enviable position. Still, it’s one that can quickly go awry if they make bad financial decisions early on or fail to plan for a future without a seven-figure annual income. 

As a result, careful, intentional planning is required to ensure financial wellness well into retirement. Fortunately, while everyone is familiar with the horror stories from programs like ESPN’s Broke, which documents the plight of athletes who wasted their hard-earned income from their playing days, many athletes are well-positioned to execute on a financial strategy that positions them for the win. 

Professional athletes are no stranger to preparation. They are disciplined planners, fearless executors, and models of excellence. With the right plan, they can harness their high earnings during their playing days into a lifetime of financial well-being. To get started, here are six steps to financial success after sports. 

DETERMINE YOUR NET WORTH 

Simply put, it’s impossible to start a journey without first knowing the starting point. Net worth is the difference between assets and liabilities, and, from a planning perspective, it’s the first step to developing a personalized plan that maximizes opportunities while mitigating risks from debts and financial obligations.

While several free online calculators allow anyone to calculate their net worth, it’s easy to determine this amount just by listing assets and liabilities and identifying the difference between the two. 

This process is especially crucial for NFL players who often play without guaranteed contracts and who face the shortest playing careers because of the unique physical demands of their sport. However, regardless of an athlete’s sport, determining net worth is a critical first step that will help guide subsequent financial decisions. 

CREATE A BUDGET 

One NFL organization displays a message in their facility: “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” When planning for a sustainable financial future, a personal budget is a way to identify the things you want most and to chart a path that will make those dreams a reality. 

It also requires a unique amount of discipline. Budgets can help eliminate or manage debt, while establishing appropriate spending levels in different categories. In addition, it might be helpful to create a financial calendar that allots daily, weekly, and monthly evaluations of your ongoing financial picture. These brief assessments will help set your spending goals for the day, week, month, and year. 

REVIEW CREDIT REPORTS 

Debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but excessive amounts can make long-term wealth development difficult. Review your credit reports regularly to better understand your debt situation and determine which outstanding debts need to be eliminated. Ultimately, everyone should strive for a high credit score, which translates to lower borrowing rates, and, in the end, more money in your pocket. 

REDUCE SPENDING 

For many nuanced reasons, many professional athletes increased their spending during their playing careers, relying on high paychecks to fund a lavish lifestyle. Of course, in most cases, these spending habits aren’t sustainable forever, and athletes will need to reduce their cash outflow to pursue other priorities. 

Regardless of their sport, most professional athletes will need to reduce spending in exchange for a bright financial future that still meets their needs and wants. 

EVALUATE YOUR FINANCIAL TEAM 

Professional athletes are uniquely talented at their sports, but their success is often largely influenced by the coaches, trainers, and teammates who support and bolster their playing careers. The same can be true for financial planning. Plan to connect often with your financial advisors, CPAs, and other advisors in order to determine your priorities and navigate a smooth transition from career to retirement. 

Since professional athletes face unique financial planning opportunities, there are many athlete-specific support systems that can help. Just like every athlete didn’t make it to the pinnacle of their sport on their own, executing on a retirement plan isn’t achieved in a vacuum. Evaluate your team and, if necessary, add new players to help meet your financial goals. 

KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW 

In general, the athletes who are most successful at planning and executing on their long-term financial priorities are the ones who took action from the start. No one is born ready to make complicated financial decisions, and everyone is in the process of learning how to navigate their financial future. 

Therefore, those that engage in the process early and reach out for more information and resources are best prepared to reach their financial goals. The most successful people are willing to admit what they don’t know. And remember – no one has to go through this process alone. If you need help and support, contact Money Management International. We can provide the insights and tools necessary to help you get started today.

Should You Ever Pay for an Extended Warranty?

A few weeks ago, I noticed a slight crack on the screen on my Macbook. On top of that, a few letters on the keyboard fell off. While my partner’s cat was to blame, I would be footing the bill for repairs.

The good news? When I bought my laptop a few years ago, I had purchased a three-year extended warranty. After doing a bit of research online on what these repairs typically cost, I realized that I had spent $150 more on the warranty and per-incident deductible than what these repairs would cost out of pocket. In hindsight, I wish I had just gone with a different warranty or skipped it altogether.

While getting an extended warranty can quiet those “what if” hypotheticals and offer you peace of mind, at the end of the day is it worth it? Let’s dig in:

DO SOME RESEARCH BEFOREHAND

The thing with extended warranties? They, well, simply extend the length of the regular warranty, explains Michael Bonebright, a consumer analyst with DealNews.com. In other words, you’re not buying expanded coverage. That’s why they’re very rarely worth the cost.

“The vast majority of warranties only cover manufacturing defects, as opposed to problems caused by misuse or accidental damage,” says Bonebright. “Typically, you’re going to notice a manufacturing defect almost immediately.”

When I purchased the extended warranty for my laptop, I also purchased accidental coverage. This covers incidents such as water spilling onto my keyboard, or if someone accidentally stepped and cracked the screen.

Other things to check for: What exactly is covered, and if there’s a per-incident deductible. What’s more, check and see what options you have for getting an item repaired or replaced. Do you have to ship off that phone or laptop to the insurer’s repair center, or can you drop it off at a nearby repair shop and get reimbursed? If you’re itching to get your phone back, the few extra days you’ll have to wait could make a difference.

USE YOUR CREDIT CARD WARRANTY INSTEAD

Many credit cards offer extended manufacturer’s warranties. If you make the purchase with the credit card, they’ll usually match the manufacturer’s warranties or extend them for 12 to 24 months. Some credit cards require that you register the item after you buy it, so you’ll need to upload a copy of the receipt, and pop in some basic details.

GAUGE THE LIKELIHOOD YOU’LL NEED TO TAP INTO THE WARRANTY

Besides the ins and outs of a warranty, think about how likely it is you’ll need to get an item replaced. For instance, depending on your situation, a big screen TV might have a lesser chance of getting trampled on or suffer water damage, than say, your cell phone or laptop.

I travel quite a bit with my laptop, and like to work out of coffee shops and coworking spaces. And as my laptop is the main device I use to earn a living, I thought it would be worthwhile to invest in a warranty.

What’s more, is it a necessity, or is it more of a nice to have? Worst-case scenario: that item gets demolished, and you need to get it replaced. Instead of doling out cash for a warranty, you could save for a new one. Or maybe wait until you snag a good deal on it.

HANG ON TO RECEIPTS

If you do decide to get a warranty, make sure to hang on to your receipts, recommends Bonebright. “Whatever the length of the warranty, to get your item repaired or replaced you’ll need to show that it’s still within the warranty period, which means providing proof of purchase,” he says. “Without proof of purchase, the manufacturer may assume you bought the product as soon as it hit store shelves, and that’s likely to put you outside the warranty period, extended or otherwise.”

BEWARE OF RETAILER WARRANTIES

Another pitfall of extended warranties? They’re usually offered by a retailer instead of the manufacturer, says Bonebright. When a manufacturer’s warranty is offered, it usually offers expanded coverage. “AppleCare is one of the best warranties you can get, as it covers a whole host of problems,” says Bonebright. “Buying a retailer warranty for your Apple device is actually worse coverage in some cases.”

While an extended warranty is usually not worth the cost, you’ll want to do your homework and do an assessment for yourself. The best time is to do it when you’re not standing at check out, and might make a rash decision.  

How to Protect Yourself and Your Rights When Working Side Gigs

According to the Freelancing in America 2019 report, which is released annually by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, 57 million American workers — or 35% — are freelancing.

That being said, many side hustlers and gig economy workers are armies of one and might be in the dark about their rights. If you find yourself steering through legal hot water, how can you best protect yourself and your side business?

Even if you’re side hustling to earn some cash on the side, it’s important to know how to best advocate for yourself should you find yourself in a financial or legal bind. Here’s how freelancers, particularly gig economy workers and side hustlers, can go about doing so:

UNDERSTAND HOW THE LAW APPLIES TO YOU

First things first: Gig economy workers need to know a few areas of the law and how the law applies to them, explains Tristan Blaine, Esq., an attorney for freelancers, author of Law Is Not for Lawyers (It’s for Everyone) and founder of Law Soup.

The most basic issue — and one that is in flux right now — is whether the law considers you to be an employee or an independent contractor. “As an employee, you have the protections of employment law, including required breaks and overtime pay,” says Blaine. “However, for many gig workers and freelancers, these issues are not a major concern, and they prefer certain freedoms of independent contractor status, such as the ability to take gigs or not.”

STAY ON TOP OF CHANGES IN THE LAW 

Keep in mind that state and federal laws on this issue are being written and rewritten right now, points out Blaine. “The good news is that gig workers currently have a unique opportunity to weigh in and advocate for their preference as to how their work should be treated by the law,” he says.

For example, the new gig worker law in California (AB 5) makes it far tougher for gig workers to be classified as independent contractors. The rules are changing on how to classify someone as an employee or an independent contractor. “But legislators are looking to ‘fix’ the new law,” says Blaine.” If you prefer to be an independent contractor rather than an employee, you should reach out to your elected officials to let them know.”

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS AS AN EMPLOYEE 

If you’re considered an employee, make sure to read up on all your employee rights, suggests Blaine. Employee rights vary by state and can change, so you’ll want to stay on top of any changes to state law. Does something seem off with an employer? If so, reach out to an employment law lawyer to discuss, says Blaine. “Most employment lawyers will offer a free consultation to determine whether you have a case,” says Blaine. “If they think you have a good case, they often take it on at no upfront cost to you, but will instead take a percentage of any money you win.”

That being said, know what the legal fees will be before you decide to work with an attorney. Depending on what you’re hiring them to do, some attorneys have a retainer or charge an hourly rate. If you’re asking an employment law attorney to review a contract, they might charge a flat fee.

FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH CONTRACT LAW 

Let’s say you’re considered an independent contractor instead. A few things to note: As an independent contractor, you aren’t entitled to any employer benefits, such as health coverage, sick and vacation time, nor are you protected against discrimination laws designed to protect workers.

In that case, you should familiarize yourself with contract law, recommends Blaine. That’s so you can have an idea of whether a work-related contract is fair or not. It will also help you wrap your head around what a contract should or shouldn’t include in the type of work you do and the industries you do work in. 

“Of course, it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer review and potentially draft these contracts, if possible,” says Blaine.

Will the New FICO Credit Scoring Model Help or Hurt You?

Just when you finally think you’ve got this credit thing all sorted out, here comes FICO with another updated scoring model. And as with all new scoring models, it could be a very good thing for you…or a very bad thing. Here’s what you need to know about the new FICO Score 10.

REMINDER: YOU HAVE MULTIPLE CREDIT SCORES

First things first, whenever we’re talking about a new credit scoring model it’s important to point out that there are quite a few different scoring models out there. FICO is the most recognizable name in the game, but even FICO offers more than one scoring model.

So when we say, “These changes will impact your credit score,” what we’re really saying is that these changes will impact one of your credit scores. And that only really matters if a lender or other party is using that particular scoring model.

WHY DO CREDIT SCORING MODELS KEEP GETTING UPDATED?

When new credit scoring models are rolled out, they’re usually designed to better predict the behavior of individual consumers and borrowers. Certain factors are emphasized, others are de-emphasized or phased out altogether. New models strive to do a better job using the available data to help make good decisions. For the many competitive markets where consumer credit scores matter, the more precise a credit scoring model, the better.

You may not be personally impacted by the FICO Score 10 right away because the lenders you interact with may not be using the FICO Score 10. It’s still very important to pay attention to these changes, however, because they likely represent trends that will eventually make their way into other scoring models.

WHAT CHANGES WITH FICO SCORE 10?

The major upgrade for FICO Score 10 is the use of trended data. Historically, credit scores have been based off of a snapshot of your current credit report. Today’s credit balances and today’s credit utilization ratios helped form the basis of most scores. FICO Score 10 more carefully examines a consumer’s recent history and the trends that have developed over time to predict their creditworthiness.

The aim of the new model is to better identify risky behavior and adjust scores accordingly.

HOW YOUR SCORE COULD CHANGE

If the new scoring model works as intended, normal, traditionally healthy credit usage will continue to help build a strong score. You may also find yourself significantly less penalized for negative marks that don’t fit the pattern of your recent usage.

For example, a sudden spike in debt – whether from holiday shopping or an unexpected medical bill – should hurt your credit significantly less than it may have in past models, especially if your overall trends are positive. This new scoring model should do a better job of rewarding you for consistently positive credit behavior over time, even when things take a momentary dip.

On the flip side, however, certain risky credit behaviors that haven’t been factored into previous scoring models could cause your score to drop. One potentially significant factor is a rising debt load. If your debt levels are trending up – even if your credit utilization ratio is still looking okay – you may be seen as risky and your score could drop.

Similarly, if you consolidated your debts with a consolidation loan and then began accruing new credit card debt, that may likely be viewed as risky behavior and your score could be penalized as a result.

The 6 Best Ways to Invest Just $100 Per Month This Year

The new year is the perfect time to ditch poor financial habits and pick up some new ones. Maybe you decided that this is the year you’ll finally pay off high interest credit card debt, or perhaps you’re using a budget for the first time in your life. Whatever your goals are, you probably know that it will take time and perseverance to get there. 

But how should you invest your money? If you have an extra $100 per month to spare, there’s more than one way to build wealth and finally get ahead. 

We reached out to financial advisors to find out how they would invest an extra $100 per month in the new year, and here’s what they said. 

1. Bump up your 401(k) contributions 

Colorado financial planner Mitchell Bloom of Bloom Wealth says your workplace 401(k) is a good place to start if your employer offers one, and particularly if you can qualify for an employer match. After all, an employer match you can qualify for is the closest thing to “free money” you’ll ever receive at work, so you might as well take advantage. 

You can strive to boost the percentage of your 401(k) contributions in order to funnel approximately $100 more into your account each month, but you may also be able to set aside a flat $100 in funds monthly if your workplace plan allows. 

Either way, money in a 401(k) plan can grow tax-free and compound over time, and you won’t have to pay taxes on distributions until you reach retirement age. 

Also note that if you don’t have a workplace retirement plan, all isn’t lost. 

Instead, you may want to “consider using a low-cost advisory firm like Betterment, where they will build a fully diversified globally allocated portfolio model with fractional shares so you can achieve diversification with a small investment amount,” says Bloom.

2. Save $100 per month in a Roth IRA

Jeff Rose of Good Financial Cents says that consumers can also consider saving money in a Roth IRA if they meet requirements to contribute. While this type of account requires you to invest money that has already been taxed, your contributions can grow tax-free and compound until you reach retirement age. Once you’re 59 ½ or older, you can withdraw money from a Roth IRA without paying income taxes, which is pretty sweet.

In 2020, most people can contribute up to $6,000 to a Roth IRA and traditional IRA account. However, individuals ages 50 and older can contribute an additional $1,000 for the year for a total of $7,000. 

Income limits do apply, however. Married couples who file taxes jointly can’t contribute to a Roth IRA if they earn over $206,000, and their contributions are phased out for incomes between $196,000 and $205,999. Single filers with incomes over $139,000 cannot contribute, and their contributions will be phased out for incomes between $124,000 and $138,999.

3. Save for emergencies

Also, consider saving for emergencies if you haven’t already. Financial advisor Jake Northrup of Experience Your Wealth says that your emergency fund should include at least three months of living expenses, but potentially more.

You’ll likely want to keep your emergency fund in an account you can access such as a high-yield savings account. While this means your emergency cash won’t bring in a huge return, this money can literally save your finances if you face a surprise medical bill you can’t pay or experience a job loss. 

Further, having a fully funded emergency fund can also help you avoid charging up credit card balances with exorbitant interest rates.

4. Save for future healthcare expenses in an HSA

Financial planner Taylor Schulte, who is also host of the Stay Wealthy Retirement Podcast, says that assuming an emergency savings fund is in place and high-interest debt is paid off, the best place to put extra cash is into a Health Savings Account (HSA). 

“The HSA is the magical unicorn of tax-advantaged investment accounts,” he says. “Unlike any other account, they are triple tax-advantaged.”

Schulte says this because you can invest up to certain limits on a tax-advantaged basis each year, then your money grows tax-free. When you take distributions in order to pay for qualified healthcare expenses, you won’t pay taxes then, either. 

There are some requirements in order to use an HSA, however, including the requirement that you have a high deductible health plan. For 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines a high deductible health plan as any plan with a deductible of at least $1,400 for an individual or $2,800 for a family, notes Healthcare.gov. Also note that any high deductible health plan’s total yearly out-of-pocket expenses must be less than $6,900 for an individual or $13,800 for a family. 

Morgan Ranstrom, who works as a financial planner in Minneapolis, MN, says you should strive to keep enough cash in your HSA to pay your insurance’s annual deductible in case of unexpected health costs, but beyond that you can invest the rest for long-term growth. 

“With regular contributions, potential investment growth, and minimal withdrawals, you’ll have an account that may be used to fund medical expenses in retirement without tax penalty,” he says. “How great is that?”

5. Pay off high interest credit card debt

While you may not consider debt repayment as an investment, the financial return can work similarly. Note that any debt you pay off is no longer charging an outrageous interest rate, and that means more money in your pocket each month that you can save or invest for the future. 

Debt expert Chris Peach, who teaches consumers how to pay off debt through his Awesome Money Course, says you should check to see the interest rate you’re paying on your credit cards, keeping in mind that the average credit card APR is well over 17%. 

“For most people, getting an 18% return on your investment every year is more like a dream come true than a reality,” he says. Fortunately, you can achieve that return by paying off high interest debt and saving the money you would normally pay toward interest each month. 

Let’s say you have a credit card balance of $10,000 at 18% APR and you’ve been making minimum payments on this card for years. Making the minimum payment of $200 each month would take you another 94 months to pay off the balance, which also results in $8,622 more in total interest paid, notes Peach. 

But what if you were able to invest $100 per month as an over payment on your credit card?

“Though it may not sound like a ton of money, $100 more per month will pay the balance off 47 months earlier and saves almost $4,000 in interest,” says Peach. “Not bad for a $100 monthly investment if you ask me.”

6. Invest in yourself

Fee-only financial advisor Russ Thornton, who focuses on providing retirement planning for women, says an investment in yourself can also pay off in a big way. “This could be used to buy books, audiobooks, online courses, offline courses, professional associations, personal training sessions, or something else,” he says. 

If you acquire new or deeper knowledge that could help you perform your job, it could help you get a bigger raise or even a promotion, whereas learning a new skill could help you create a side hustle that could ultimately help you bring in more income. 

You could even get involved with a professional association or networking group to build your network, says Thornton. “This could help with your current career or might open doors to new opportunities — both personal or professional.”

Top Financial Mistakes Students and Parents Make When Preparing for College

That’s quite steep, especially for someone young and still trying to get their bearings in the world. And depending on your child’s professional trajectory, they could potentially be saddled with student debt for decades. 

Want to make sure you get a handle on financing your child’s college education? If your kid is college-bound, here are some financial common mistakes parents and their kids should avoid, and what to do instead:

NOT THINKING ABOUT THE ROI 

The first thing that every parent and student need to think about is the return on investment of attending college, explains Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor. “Sure, it can be difficult because it’s not just about money, but about your kid’s dreams, aspirations, and goals,” says Farrington. “However, paying too much—and borrowing too much—for college can lead to a lifetime of financial hardship.” 

A good rule of thumb? Never borrow more for college than the student is expected to earn in the first year after graduation, recommends Farrington. “For example, if your child wants to become a teacher, you shouldn’t borrow more than $35,000 to pay for school. If they want to be an engineer, there is more leeway to spend upwards of $60,000.” 

If your total loan amount is more than how much your child anticipates earning their first year out of college, it could limit choices on where they’ll be attending school. But by being smart on education spending, you can prevent overspending and financial hardship. If your child isn’t sure what they want to major in — or you would like to save on the overall costs of college — consider attending a community college first, then transferring, says Farrington. Or enroll in less-expensive schools that are in-state and living at home.

NOT CONSIDERING FINANCIAL FIT WHEN CHOOSING A COLLEGE

Besides a college being a strong fit academically, socially, and environmentally, you and your child should compare their total resources, explains David Levy, interim director of financial aid, scholarships, and veterans services at Rio Hondo College; and co-author of Filing the FAFSA. So look at college savings, contributions from income, scholarships, grants, and taking on a reasonable amount of debt against the full net price of the college. 

“If the total resources are equal to or exceed the four-year net price, the college is affordable,” says Levy. “But, if total resources fall short, you and your child might need to borrow excessively to cover the college costs. In turn, this might force the student to drop out of college or transfer to a less-expensive school when the financial realities set in.” 

Bottom line: In addition to whether the college is a good match for the student’s academic and social needs and career pursuits, it’s best to also consider whether the college is affordable. 

BORROWING TOO MUCH

Beware of over-borrowing, warns Levy. “If the total student loan debt at graduation is less than the annual starting salary, the student can afford to repay his or her student loans in 10 years or less,” says Levy.

Let’s say the total debt is more than their annual income. In that case, the student will probably struggle to make the student loan payments. In turn, to keep up with monthly payments your child might need to look into an alternate student debt repayment plan. For instance, the income-driven repayment plan, in which payments are based on your child’s income after they graduate; or an extended repayment plan. Both of these repayment plans lower the monthly payment by stretching out the term of the loan. 

“This means that the student will be in debt longer, thus delaying certain life-cycle events—possibly, even until their children enroll in college—and will pay more interest over the life of the loan.” So you’ll want to carefully review your child’s financial needs before they enter college and each subsequent year that they’re enrolled. 

COSIGNING A STUDENT LOAN

While you want to help alleviate your child’s debt burden and make it easier on them, you’ll want to set boundaries and be aware of how co-signing a student loan could affect your financial well-being. Parents need to understand that a cosigner is essentially a co-borrower, explains Levy. In turn, they’re on the hook to repay the debt. “The cosigned loan will affect the parent’s credit history, too,” he says.

So if your child is late with a student debt payment or defaults, it will ruin not just your child’s credit score, but yours as well. “Even if the student manages the cosigned loan responsibly, making every payment on time, the loan can affect the parent’s ability to borrow,” says Levy. “For example, if the parent wants to get or refinance a mortgage, the cosigned loan will count as part of their indebtedness, potentially affecting approval for the mortgage or the interest rate they are charged.” 

NOT APPLYING TO SCHOLARSHIPS EARLY

As you might’ve guessed, scholarships are one of the most under-utilized tools for most students. The reasons are many, points out Farrington. Scholarships can be hard to find, take time to apply to, and the odds of winning could be slim. 

But the beauty of scholarships is that they’re a form of “gift aid”—and the money is plentiful if students take the time to apply to as many as they can. Don’t forget to follow the instructions and provide all the required documents and information. You’d be surprised at how many people overlook that last step. “Following the instructions can give you a big leg-up on the competition,” says Farrington. 

Along the same lines, some students don’t apply to enough scholarships. While there’s no magic number, Farrington suggests applying to at least 40 to 50 if possible. Some of these scholarships have an application fee, so do your research beforehand and create a “scholarship fund” if you can. “The odds will be in your favor to pay for a good portion of your schooling if you follow this plan,” says Farrington. 

NOT PLANNING TO WORK DURING SCHOOL

One of the best things that college students can do, not only for their budgets but for their future careers, is work during school, says Farrington. “Beyond the extra money, working provides students with real-world career skills—specifically business communication and business problem-solving skills. These can’t be taught in a classroom. By working during school, you can develop these skills, and improve your post-graduation job prospects.” 

There’s no shortage of ways to work while in college: work-study programs, paid internships, or on-campus jobs. Scour listings at college career centers, or a job fair. You can also bypass traditional, on-site jobs and look for freelance gigs on boards such as Upwork or Fiverr. While at first you might not be making a ton of money, freelancing can give you a wide range of experience. It could eventually be more lucrative than, say, working a job on campus. 

FAILING TO FILE THE FAFSA

The FAFSA (or Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is your key to not only qualifying for federal grants, work-study and scholarships, but is also your key to unlocking federal student loans, explains Farrington. 

“You should plan on filling out the FAFSA every year, as early as possible,” says Farrington. “The reason? Many school-based awards are limited, and they go to those who file early and qualify. So, even if you may qualify, if you don’t file early enough, you won’t get an award.” 

You’ll want to file the FAFSA as soon as possible, adds Levy. You can file as early as October 1, and the FAFSA has an 18-month cycle. You’ll also want to check for state and school-specific deadlines. That way you don’t miss the cutoff. 

Plus, if you do need to borrow student loans, federal loans are the best—and not filling out the FAFSA won’t get you any federal student loans. 

Whether you’re trying to devise a plan to finance your child’s student loans, or coming up with a repayment plan to pay off student debt, Money Management International (MMI) is here to assist. Our team of accredited financial counselors can look at your situation and come up with advice, guidance, tools, and resources. 

What to Do With a Windfall

However, making good decisions with a large infusion of cash can feel overwhelming, especially if your windfall comes about because of something negative. For instance, when I received a life insurance payout after my father passed away in 2013, the money was both emotionally charged and stress-inducing, and I was terrified of making a misstep.

If you’ve received a windfall, taking your time and making intentional decisions about the money will serve you better in the long run. Here’s how you can do that. 

Take a break before making any decisions

No matter how you received your newfound wealth, you’re likely to have a number of strong emotions associated with the event. And we all know that emotions and rational decisions can struggle to coexist. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a little time before you make any decisions whatsoever with your new money. 

If the money came to you because of a negative situation, such as a death in the family, the end of a lawsuit, or the sale of a beloved business, your emotions will inevitably color your view of the money. I personally found that I wanted Dad’s insurance money to no longer be in my hands, because having it was a reminder of my loss. 

Even if you have positive associations with the money (after a lucky weekend in Vegas or a surprise profit-sharing bonus from work), those fuzzy feelings may prompt you to make risky decisions to keep the good vibes coming. Letting some time pass between receiving your windfall and deciding what to do with it can help you view the money more dispassionately so you can make the best possible decisions with it.

So how long should you pause before deciding what to do? Depending on the size of the windfall, you might want to wait as long as six months (or longer) before making any decisions. This will give you time to process your emotions so that you’re psychologically ready to make these big choices.

Put it someplace safe

What you do with your money while you wait to make the big decisions depends partially on where your windfall came from. Life insurance benefits and other inheritance money can sometimes stay safely in the same account you’ll be paid from. In these cases, it’s common that your money will even earn some interest while it stays put. Simply keeping the money in place can be a good way to give yourself the emotional breathing room you need without worrying about making a preliminary decision.

Other types of windfalls, such as lottery winnings or an inherited retirement account, may give you the option of taking a lump sum or annual payouts. Choosing annual payouts (when available) will give you the opportunity to make lots of smaller decisions over several years, rather than overwhelming yourself with the need to make several big decisions at once. 

For when you have no choice but to take your entire windfall into your hot little hands, stashing it in a money market account or high-yield savings account can be a good way to keep it safe.

Consult a tax professional

The tax implications of your windfall could be a major deciding factor in how you choose to use it. Some types of windfalls, like life insurance benefits, can pass to you tax-free. However, for most types of windfalls, you can assume that Uncle Sam will want his cut.

For instance, the killing you made at the blackjack table is considered normal income to the IRS, which means you may have shifted into a higher tax bracket when you walked off with a cool $40,000. If you don’t plan for this shift in your income taxes, you may find yourself staring down a nasty surprise come tax time. Your CPA can help you figure out the best way to navigate your sudden bump in income. For instance, they might suggest that you maximize your tax-deferred retirement contribution this year to help offset your windfall.

If you sold a business, inherited taxable property or accounts, or even got a major bonus at work, a tax professional can help you determine the most tax-efficient way to access and enjoy your new wealth so that you’re not stuck holding the bag when the taxman comes calling.

Get your financial house in order

Before you start making it rain, it’s important to look at your current financial situation and see how your new money can make it better. 

If you’re carrying high-interest or revolving debt, using your windfall to pay it off (or at least pay it down) may not seem like a sexy use of the money. But reducing or eliminating your debt burden will give you more peace of mind and more financial freedom in the future. That money will turn into what feels like little windfalls every month when you don’t have to send most of your paycheck towards your debt.

Similarly, if you haven’t prioritized saving for retirement, your windfall can give you a great opportunity to improve your financial future. Maximize your 401(k) or IRA contribution this year (and enjoy the tax benefit), and use it as a springboard to send more money to your retirement every year thereafter.

Finally, keep some of your windfall as an emergency cushion. Knowing that you’ll be covered the next time a financial emergency strikes is a great gift to your future self.

Have some fun

It does feel good to receive a large amount of money, and having a little fun with it is a great way to enjoy it.

No matter how a windfall comes into your life, splurging on something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise have can be a great way to enjoy your good fortune. Deciding to use a set amount of money however you please is a life-affirming way to mark the occasion of your windfall.

Savvy Ways to Lower Your Tax Bill

SAVE FOR RETIREMENT WITH AN IRA

The first option is perhaps the most well-known. If you have (or open) an individual retirement account (IRA), you can choose to make your 2019 contributions up until the April 15 tax filing deadline in 2020. To do so, you elect to have the money counted as a 2019 contribution, which is often an option when you electronically transfer the funds to your IRA.

If you have a traditional IRA, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your income when you file your tax return, which can lower your tax bill this year. You’ll need to add the contributions and earnings to your income when you start taking withdrawals from your IRA — ideally, after you turn 59 ½, or you may have to pay a penalty. 

Alternatively, you could contribute to a Roth IRA. Your contributions aren’t tax deductible, and won’t save you money now. But once you turn 59 ½, you can withdraw both your contributions and the earnings from your account tax-free. If you’re in a low tax bracket now, or expect your tax rate to be higher in the future, a Roth IRA may make more financial sense in the long run.

There are contribution and deduction limits based on your income — and higher limits if you’re 50 or older. However, for both traditional and Roth accounts, qualified low- to moderate-income households can receive a Saver’s Credit for their retirement account contributions. 

Tax credits are more valuable than deductions, as each $1 in credit lowers your tax bill by $1. A $1 deduction lowers your taxable income by $1, which may only lower your tax bill by 10 to 37 cents, depending on your tax bracket. 

BUILD YOUR MEDICAL SAVINGS WITH AN HSA

A Health Savings Account (HSA) is another type of tax-advantaged account that allows you to contribute up until the tax-filing deadline. An HSA is similar to an IRA in that the contributions can lower your taxable income. 

The money in an HSA is intended for medical expenses, rather than general expenses during retirement. However, some people use an HSA as an additional (or alternative) retirement accounts because of its triple-tax advantages. 

You can deduct contributions (like a traditional IRA), invest the funds tax-free, and then withdraw all your money tax-free (like a Roth IRA), if you use the funds for a qualified expense. These can range from prescriptions, vaccines, and tests to medical equipment and copays or deductibles, which are an inevitability as you age. You can also choose to pay for qualified expenses with non-HSA funds now and use the receipt to withdraw money from your HSA later — allowing your HSA to grow in the meantime. 

However, you will pay a penalty if you withdraw money from your HSA without a qualified medical or dental expenses. Additionally, to qualify for an HSA, you need to have a high-deductible health plan(HDHP), and there are annual contribution limits for HSAs. 

DON’T MISS DEDUCTIBLE BUSINESS EXPENSES

You don’t need to run a formal business or storefront to qualify for small business deductions. If you have a side hustle, you may already be a business owner in the eyes of the IRS. There’s a good chance you’re paying an extra self-employment tax, so make sure you’re also claiming all the business deductions you’re allowed to take.

For example, if you got work through a rideshare or delivery app, you may be able to get a deduction for each mile you drove while working. The apps may help you track some of the business expenses, but they might not catch everything. If you buy snacks or water for passengers, make sure you keep the receipts as those could be business expenses. Additionally, a portion of your cellphone bill might be deductible as a business expense. 

Other contract, freelance, or side gigs can also result in deductible business expenses. If you buy or make products to sell online, you could deduct your expenses from your business revenue. Or, perhaps you bought a computer that you use exclusively for contract work online — don’t forget to write that off. 

CLAIM ENERGY TAX CREDITS

If you’re a homeowner and you made energy-efficient upgrades to your home, you may be eligible for state and federal energy tax credits. The upgrades could include added solar panels or a solar-powered water heater, and the federal credit could be worth up to 30% of what you spent on the equipment and installation. You may have known about the tax credit already, as these are often expensive investments, but don’t forget to claim it when you file. 

GET YOUR TAXES PREPARED AND FILED FOR FREE

Paying your taxes and paying for tax preparation and filing often go hand-in-hand. However, most taxpayers qualify for free tax preparation and filing.

If you want to do your taxes at home on your computer, look into the software options from the Free File Alliance. There are free versions of tax software from major tax preparation software companies, including TurboTax and H&R Block. Federal tax return filing is also included, and some options come with free state filing as well. 

To qualify for Free File Alliance software, your adjusted gross income (AGI) can’t be higher than $69,000 in 2019, which means over 70% of people can use these free options. However, some software options may have lower AGI limits, or may offer free preparation but require you pay to file your state tax return.

If you’d prefer in-person help, the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax preparation, federal, and state filing for households who made $56,000 or less. There are VITA sites around the country where you can find trained volunteers who will prepare and file your tax return for you. Sometimes, you can even drop off your paperwork rather than sitting with the preparer. 

WHAT IF YOU RECEIVE A SMALL REFUND OR OWE MONEY?

In spite of doing everything you can to lower your tax bill, you might wind up with a smaller refund than you expected. Or worse, a large tax bill that’s difficult to repay. Even if you don’t like the numbers, make sure you at least file your tax return by April 15, 2020, or apply for an extension. Otherwise, you may have to pay a penalty for filing late. 

There are also penalties and fees for failing to pay your full tax bill on time. However, you can get on a repayment plan with the IRS, and it’s often a relatively easy process. You can even apply online if you owe $50,000 or less — or, $100,000 or less if you’re applying for a short-term plan. Getting on a repayment plan can reduce the penalty you’ll pay, although you’ll still pay interest on the past-due amount.

Claim These Tax Deductions Even If You Don’t Itemize

Bulking up the standard deduction has let millions of taxpayers avoid the hassle of itemizing write-offs on their tax return because the bigger standard deduction would exceed their qualifying expenses.

But there’s a handful of tax breaks that people taking the standard deduction can still claim to lower their tax bill. Most of these so-called “above-the-line” deductions have no income limits, so anybody can claim them. And in addition to the direct tax savings from these breaks—for taxpayers in the 24% tax bracket, for instance, every $1,000 in above-the-line deductions will lower your tax bill by $240—your lowered AGI could enable you to claim other tax breaks that have income limits.

Individual Retirement Account

Contributing to a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) is a win-win move that lets you boost your retirement savings and trim your tax bill at the same time. The contribution limit is $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re 50 or older) for 2019, and if you don’t have a retirement plan at work (or your spouse does), every dollar of that can be knocked off your income. If you’re covered by a retirement plan at the office (or your spouse is) then that deduction might be limited by your income on your 2019 return.

You may make 2019 IRA contributions up until April 15, 2020.

Note that, for 2020, the contribution limits remain the same, but the income limits for the deduction are slightly higher.

Health Savings Account

Are you funding a health savings account (HSA) in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP)? Smart move.

You get an above-the-line deduction for contributions to the HSA, assuming you made them with after-tax money. If you contributed pretax funds through payroll deduction on the job, there’s no double-dipping—so no write off. In either case, you need to file a Form 8889 with your return. The maximum contribution for 2019 is $7,000 for family coverage and $3,500 if you’re an individual (they are slightly higher for 2020). If you’re 55 or over at any time in the year, you can contribute (and deduct) another $1,000.

Self Employment Deductions

If you work for yourself, you have to pay both the employer and the employee share of Social Security and Medicare taxes—a whopping 15.3% of net self-employment income. But at least you get to write off half of what you pay as an adjustment to income. You can also deduct contributions to a self-directed retirement plan such as a SEP or SIMPLE plan (and those can cut big chunks off your income).

Also deductible as an adjustment to income: the cost of health insurance for the self-employed (and their families)—including Medicare premiums and supplemental Medicare (Medigap), up to your business’ net income. You can’t claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under a health plan subsidized either by your employer (if you have a job as well as your business) or your spouse’s employer (if he or she has a job that offers family medical coverage).

Educational Costs

If you paid college tuition for yourself, your spouse or a dependent in 2019, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in college tuition and fees. To qualify for the full deduction, your adjusted gross income must be $130,000 or less if married filing jointly ($65,000 or less if single). You can deduct up to $2,000 in tuition and fees if your joint income was $160,000 or less ($80,000 or less if single). There is no deduction if you earn more than that. (This deduction expired at the end of 2017; however, it was retroactively extended through 2020 in December 2019. You can file an amended return to claim it for the 2018 tax year.)

In addition, up to $2,500 in student-loan interest (for you, your spouse or a dependent) can be tax-deductible on 2019 returns if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $70,000 if you’re single or $140,000 if you are married and file a joint return. The deduction is phased out above those levels, disappearing completely if you earn more than $85,000 if single or $170,000 if filing a joint return.

Click Read More for Other Deductions on Your 2020 Taxes.

How to Pay Off Holiday Debt: A Step-by-Step Guide

A 2019 study conducted by CreditCards.com and YouGov Plc showed that more than half of consumers with credit card debt said the holidays are a good reason to borrow money. Even 26% of consumers with no debt at all said they might be willing to rack up debt over the 2019 holiday season. 

Once those bills start pouring in and the monthly payments start siphoning your paycheck, you could easily regret it. By that point, however, it’s too late.

If you’re in debt from the holidays and want to pay it off, you should consider consolidating and creating a plan to get out of debt once and for all. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Assess the damage and add up your debts

The first step to get out of holiday debt may be the hardest since you have to see your spending in black and white. Take the time to add up all your credit card balances and other debts from the holidays to see how much you owe. 

Crafting a plan for debt repayment will be a lot easier if you write down each of your debts along with the interest rate and the current balance all in one place. Here’s a good example of how your list might look:

Step 2: Choose a debt consolidation method

Once you know exactly how much debt you owe, you need to figure out the optimal way to consolidate your balances and pay them off. While there are a few other options to consider, the most popular products for debt consolidation include 0% APR credit cards and personal loans.

Balance transfer credit cards

Balance transfer credit cards let you secure 0% APR on balances transferred from other cards for anywhere from nine to 21 months. Some charge a balance transfer fee that is usually equal to 3% or 5% of your balance upfront, but the interest savings can be worth paying the fee if you get serious about your debt and knock it out quickly at 0% APR. 

Because balance transfer credit cards only let you save on interest for a short amount of time, this option works best for someone who can pay off their holiday debt on an expedited timeline. That’s because once your introductory APR period is over, the interest rate on your credit card will reset to a much higher variable rate. 

Personal loans

Personal loans let you consolidate debt with a low fixed interest rate, a fixed monthly payment, and a fixed repayment period. This means you’ll pay interest on your consolidated debt while you pay it off, but personal loans have low rates for consumers with good credit — even as low as 4.99% APR. That’s much lower than you’ll pay with a credit card since the average credit card APR is currently over 17%. 

Personal loans typically offer terms ranging from 12 months to 60 months, so they can be a better option for consumers who have a lot of debt and need plenty of time to pay it off.

Step 3: Pick the best repayment plan

The right debt consolidation method for you depends on a few factors — how much debt you have, how much you can afford to pay each month, and how long your debt will take to pay off. A good debt repayment calculator can help you determine your next best steps and which debt consolidation to go with, but you can also do some basic math to figure it out on your own. 

If you had $2,394 in debt to consolidate, here’s how your strategy might look with a balance transfer credit card:

For example, let’s say you signed up for a card that gives you 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, followed by a variable APR of 14.49% to 25.49%. This card doesn’t charge any balance transfer fees for balances transferred in the first 60 days, so you could make a fee-free transfer of your debts right away upon approval.

With 15 months to repay your holiday debt at 0% APR, you would need to pay $159.60 per month to become debt-free without interest within that time frame.

If you couldn’t pay that much each month toward your debts, you might want to go with a personal loan that offers a low fixed rate for several years. If you took out a personal loan that charged just 4.99% APR and let you pay off your debt over 36 months, you would only need to pay $72 per month to become debt-free over the course of three years. During that time, you would wind up paying $189 in interest on your loan. 

Step 4: Stay the course

Whatever debt consolidation option you wind up with, make sure you decide on a concrete plan and stick with it. If you don’t, you won’t pay off as much debt as you want and you’ll prolong the financial problems debt brings into your life.

If you’re worried about paying as much as you can toward your debts, it can also help to cut your spending for a while. Eat more of your meals at home, enact a temporary spending freeze, and stay in on the weekends for a few months instead of going out. With enough small cuts in your spending, you may be able to free up some extra cash to pay toward debt or start building a savings buffer. 

Also make sure that, while you’re in debt repayment mode, you’re not using credit or loans to rack up more debt. You’ll never pay off holiday debt if you keep digging throughout the year, so stop using plastic and switch to cash or debit instead.

Financial Resolution Ideas

For many, there are two burdens they want to eliminate in 2020: low savings and high debt.

Putting aside more money and paying down balances are the two top financial resolutions for 2020, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments. That is followed by spending less.

That comes as the Federal Reserve found earlier this year that many adults could not afford to cover a $400 unexpected expense. Meanwhile, almost half of Americans have no rainy day fund, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

They key to shoring up your safety reserves — and keeping your resolutions — is to map out how you’re going to get there.

Set clear savings goals

Start by setting a tangible goal you can reach in 2020.

That can include adding one month’s pay to your emergency fund. Ideally, your emergency fund should eventually grow to have six months’ or one year’s worth of living expenses saved.

You can schedule money to be directly deposited into a high-yield online savings account. Those accounts provide around 2% annual percentage yields, compared to about 0.2% at traditional brick and mortar banks.

Your goal could also be to boost how much you contribute to your retirement savings in your 401(k) plan or individual retirement account.

In 2020, you can put away as much as $19,500 in a 401(k), or $26,000 if you’re age 50 or over. For IRAs, you can save up to $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re 50 and up. And thanks to new legislation, you can continue to contribute to your IRA accounts no matter your age, as long as you have earned income.

The key is to identify a specific step, and then keep going.

Have a debt payoff strategy

Also try breaking down your goals to knock off debts into smaller, meaningful steps.

For example, you may strive to pay off 20% of your credit card debts.

Because the average credit card balances are roughly $8,700 per household, the idea would be to pay off $1,740 toward that debt. That would cost $145 per month, provided you transfer your balance to a 0% interest credit card.

A 0% interest credit card can allow you to combine your credit card balances by using a balance transfer. You will need to have good credit to qualify.

Next, identify a strategy for paying down those debts. You may want to start with small balances first to get momentum. Or, you could start with the debts with the highest interest rates first to help reduce the total you ultimately pay.

Identify ways to spend less

One surefire way to reach your financial goals faster is to spend less.

But to do that you need to have a plan. Just 42% of adults have a budget, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Even if you do have a budget, it’s always wise to update your plan and look for more ways to cut corners.

Start by gathering all of your bills from the last three months.

Then, make a list of recurring expenses and rank them in order of importance. Put your necessities — housing, food and health care — at the top of the list.

Next, look for ways to start cutting expenses from the bottom. Ideally, you want to get to a point where your take-home pay is more than what you spend each month.

Be sure to look for ways to pare back your existing expenses. For example, look for ways to get lower rates on your renters, home and car insurance.

Revisit your subscriptions and memberships, such as to streaming TV services or the gym, and reevaluate whether they are necessary. You may also want to find a cheaper alternative — such as joining your local Y instead of a pricier brand-name gym.

Over the year, these small changes could save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

27 Money Moves to Make Now to Prepare for 2020

Among the items on our to-do list: Trim your 2019 tax bill by pruning your portfolio and giving to charity. Boost your retirement-plan contributions. Cash in credit card rewards. We also suggest moves that will boost your bottom line in 2020 and beyond. Take a look.

Harvest Your Losses

You’ll trigger a capital gains tax bill if you sell winners in a taxable account (but not in a tax-deferred account, such as an IRA). But you can sell any stocks or mutual funds that have fallen from the price you paid and use the losses to offset your profits in other investments.

Line up your short-term losses with short-term gains, and do the same with long-term losses and gains. If losses exceed your gains, you can use up to $3,000 of losses to offset ordinary income. Any losses exceeding that can be rolled over—up to $3,000 per year—to future years.

Watch Out for Capital Gains Distributions

If you’re shopping for mutual funds for a taxable account, check the fund’s website before you buy. Otherwise, your investment could saddle you with a big tax bill.

During the month of December, many funds pay out dividends and capital gains that have built up during the year. If you own shares on what’s known as the ex-dividend date, you’ll have to pay taxes on the payouts, even if you reinvest the money.

Before you invest in a fund, call the fund company or check its website to find the date and estimated amount of year-end distributions. The estimates are often reported as a percentage of a fund’s current share price. A distribution of 2% to 3% of the share price probably won’t cause you a lot of tax headaches, but if the fund estimates it will pay out 20% to 30% of the share price, wait until after the distribution to buy—or consider investing in a different fund.

Check Your Withholding

The 2017 tax overhaul lowered tax rates across the board, but it also scrapped some popular tax breaks. As a result, some taxpayers who were accustomed to receiving a refund ending up owing the IRS when they filed their 2018 tax return.

If you were part of that band of disgruntled taxpayers, you may be able to take steps between now and year-end to avoid another April surprise. Use the IRS tax-withholding estimator tool to determine whether you need to file a new Form W-4 with your employer and increase the amount of taxes withheld from your paycheck between now and year-end. You’ll need your most recent pay stub and a copy of your 2018 tax return to help estimate your 2019 income. Because only a few pay periods remain between now and the end of the year, reducing the number of allowances you claim may not make enough of a difference in your withholding to affect your tax bill. Instead, go to line 6 on your W-4 form and fill in the dollar amount you’d like to have withheld.

Pay Some Bills

Unless your finances have changed significantly, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether you’ll itemize or claim the standard deduction when you file your 2019 tax return. If you plan to itemize (or you’re close to the threshold), now is a good time to prepay deductible expenses, such as mortgage payments and state taxes due in January.

Review Your Medical Bills

In 2019, you can only deduct unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (in 2018, the threshold was 7.5%). That puts this tax break out of reach for most taxpayers. But if you had very high medical expenses this year—due to a major illness, for example—you may qualify.

And there’s still time to schedule appointments and procedures that will increase the amount of your deductible expenses. The list of eligible expenses includes dental and vision care, which may not be covered by your insurance. 

Click Read More for other tips.

Common Tax Prep Mistakes for Freelancers

The truth? We’re busy running our own businesses. We have income goals, and aim to be strategic in everything from the clients we work with to how to boost productivity. As a solopreneur, we’re responsible for our own health insurance, have to save cash for vacation and sick days, and need to pony up for self-employment tax — all while living on an inconsistent income.

That being said, on top of meeting work deadlines and client demands, it’s easy to let our financial housekeeping fall to the wayside. And when tax season rolls around, when our bookkeeping is in a state of disarray, we hit the “panic” button. To spare the headache, stress, and costly mistakes, here are some common tax prep mistakes freelancers tend to make:

GETTING STUCK IN THE WRITE-OFF MENTALITY

Ever find yourself justifying a business-related purchase with the reason that you can simply “write it off” for taxes? I’ve heard fellow solopreneur friends buy fancy equipment that they don’t really need, or take an unnecessary work trip under the assumption that they’ll be “saving on taxes.”

But you’re not saving money by spending more of it. You’re simply lowering your taxable income. So unless you have a good reason to spend that money, it’s probably best to keep it sitting in your bank account.

“Spending to save on taxes makes no sense in many situations,” says Eric Nisall, a freelance tax expert and founder of AccountLancer. Nisall provides the following example: If you pay 30% in taxes, then every $100 you spend will potentially get you back $30. But if you keep the $100 and pay the $30 in taxes, you actually come out ahead. Doing some simple math, you can see that keeping $70 is greater than getting back $30, especially if you’re spending money on things you don’t really need.

There may be situations where it makes tax-sense to spend, but quite often you’re better off holding on to your money.

NOT USING PROPER ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE 

The first few years I freelanced, I went the cheapskate route and neglected to use proper accounting software. And when I did purchase a subscription to a cloud accounting software, it took me the third try to settle on a program that actually did everything I needed it to do. While I do pay a little more for my accounting subscription, I feel better about using software that accurately records my transactions and spits out reports in seconds. It’s easier for me to stay on top of my invoices, banking transactions, and business-related expenses. In turn, I know I won’t be missing deductions or overpaying Uncle Sam.

If you’re not sure which software to go with, try out a few and see which one works best for you. Many major services offer a free trial. You can also ask a tax professional, who can answer any questions you have, or help you with the initial setup.

FAILING TO REPORT ALL INCOME

This goes beyond your 1099s, explains Tai Stewart a tax professional and founder of the accounting firm Saidia Financial Solutions. Stewart explains that if a client has paid you more than $600 in the year, they’re required to issue a 1099-MISC. However, the income from the clients who paid you less than $600 also need to be included. “Don’t think that only the 1099s need to be reported,” says Stewart. “Your total income includes all the smaller invoice payments as well for businesses with cash-based accounting.”

So why shouldn’t you cut corners and skip reporting all of your income? Because trying to save on taxes by reporting less income could end up costing you more. “In the event of an audit, if it has been determined that you underreported income, you will be subject to additional taxes, penalties, and interest,” says Stewart. Be thorough and avoid an unpleasant conversation with the IRS.

NEGLECTING TO HAVE A SOLID BOOKKEEPING SYSTEM 

It’s important to maintain your day-to-day bookkeeping, points out Katherine Pomerantz, founder of The Bookkeeping Artist. However, we freelancers are too busy hustling and running our own businesses to take care of these day-to-day administrative tasks. 

I personally aim to tend to my bookkeeping at least once a week. I’ll check on my business-related expenses to ensure they’re properly recorded and categorized. And about once a month, I’ll send invoices to my clients. 

“A good bookkeeping system can help you stay disciplined, but for most freelancers the best option is sucking it up and hiring a bookkeeper. Or at least an assistant to help you send invoices,” says Pomerantz. “Remember: The less time you spend on admin, the more time you have to make money. Plus, tax time really will be a piece of cake without the last-minute scramble.”

NOT HAVING A HOLISTIC PLAN

In other words, are you looking at the larger picture and your financial needs as a freelancer? Pomerantz recommends you ask yourself the following: Are you saving for retirement? Are you keeping yourself healthy? Do you have insurance in case you’re ever disabled or can’t work? 

Looking at all aspects of your financial health can lead to greater tax savings. “Most people don’t consider these things when they plan for taxes, but each of these provides a significant tax break for a freelancer,” explains Pomerantz. 

What’s more, they protect freelancers against financial disasters. “You might not be worried about building these financial buffers now, but nothing makes tax time more stressful than not having the money to pay your taxes,” says Pomerantz. “These big-picture questions can protect your savings and help you file on time.” 

WRITING OFF DEDUCTIONS YOU DON’T QUALIFY FOR

Another mistake that freelancers make in the pursuit of saving money is claiming tax deductions they don’t actually qualify for, which could end up nipping them in the bud later on. Some commonly misapplied deductions? Stewart points that many freelancers try to deduct clothes — everyday clothes not exclusively used for the business aren’t deductible.

We freelancers are also sometimes guilty of trying to deduct home office expenses for spaces not used exclusively for operating business. Another popular misapplied deduction is meals, such as for regular, everyday lunches. Only meals relating to your business can be written off. If you’re unsure if your expense qualifies for a deduction, check out what the IRS lists as qualified expenses, or seek the advice of a professional.

Not staying on top of your financial housekeeping can certainly cost you tax-wise — in time spent, by overpaying, or by getting penalized for tax blunders. By minding these common tax prep mistakes, you can run a more efficient freelancing business. 

How to Free Up Cash in Your Budget Each Month

When you’re tight on money, spending on things that evoke joy or pleasure might not cross your mind. That seems like a champagne problem for those who have multiple zeros in their bank accounts.

But if all your income is going toward paying off bills or debt, you’ll start feeling deprived. And in turn, you might be tempted to reach for the shiny plastic only to find yourself with a more treacherous debt load.

You don’t have to get a huge raise at work or move into a tiny apartment with five roommates to have more money to spend on the things you want. For an influx of cash, here are a few easy ways to free up money each month:

TRACK YOUR SPENDING 

If you don’t know how much money is coming in, or where it’s going, how can you level-up on your finances? Before you can find ways to free up cash, track your spending. You can use a handy, free money management app  such as Mint or Clarity to take an at-a-glance look at your transactions.

Once you track your spending, you can see what your “trouble areas” are. From there, you can make the proper adjustments to make sure you’re spending within your limits.

NEGOTIATE DOWN YOUR BILLS 

One of the easiest ways to save is to negotiate with your current providers, points out Steven Donovan, a money coach and founder of Even Steven Money. Call your cellphone, cable, and internet provider (really anything with a monthly subscription) to ask for a lower rate.

Pro tip: If you’re a longstanding customer with a history of making on-time payments, you’ll have greater leverage to ask for a discount. It also helps to do a bit of research beforehand and know what competitors are offering.

Not sure how to go about negotiating? There are a handful of apps that will do the negotiating for you. “You can certainly cancel the service, but sometimes just asking for a lower price will save you money,” says Donovan.

USE WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE 

This might seem like a no-brainer. But how often do we make a trip to the market for say, a stick of butter, only to come home to realize we have a few unused sticks stowed on the bottom shelf of our fridge?

Before you make a purchase, take stock of what you already own. Donovan suggests making a list before you head to the market. “I like to start with what we have in the house, followed by a meal plan for the week, then a list of ingredients that I need to make the meals,” he says. “It’s a great way to save money.”

Along the same lines, think of multiple uses for the same item. My vitamix doubles up as a blender and food processor. And I use my desk to store different parts of my drum kit. It’ll save you cash, and time spent shopping for stuff you could do without.

MAKE TRADE-OFFS WITH YOUR SPENDING 

Minimize spending on stuff you feel “neutral” or even “negative” about. That way you can spend more on stuff you value. Instead of spending purely out of habit, spend intentionally.

For instance, if you love to travel but don’t care much for fine dining, cook at home. That way you’ll free up some money to put toward your globe-trotter aspirations and checking things off your bucket list for travel.

Personally, I’m not much of a traveler. But I love quality noms. While I’ve stashed enough cash to trek over to a work conference and a few short camping trips for the year, I probably spend more than the average person on grass-fed meat, fish shipped straight from Iceland, and on organic, locally sourced produce.

Set up auto-transfer to save that money toward meaningful goals. Let’s say you save $20 each week on food by not going out to lunch. Put that $80 a month toward your travel fund. Or if you’d rather not spend money on snacks while on the go, every $7 you don’t spend on a pastry and drink could go toward your next vacation.

SELL YOUR JUNK 

Inspired by the KonMari method? Undergoing a purge of your belongings? If so, make some extra cash by selling unwanted items scattered around your house. There are plenty of online marketplaces — Letgo, OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace, and Decluttr — where you can sell your gently used stuff locally. Not only do you make an extra buck, but you will clear up the clutter in your digs. 

33 Best Things to Buy on Black Friday/Cyber Monday

‘Tis the season for retailers to slash prices on coveted items in a variety of product categories for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend including Black Friday. No matter if you plan to brave the in-store crowds looking for the best doorbusters or keep it cozy and shop online from the comfort of your couch, the deals are plentiful.

We talked with several smart shopping gurus to get the lowdown on which Black Friday bargains are worth your consideration at Costco, Amazon.com, Target and Walmart. This year, holiday shoppers can score up to 50% on everything from air fryers to toys to widescreen TVs. Take a look.

Amazon Black Friday Doorbusters and Deals

n true Amazon fashion, the e-commerce giant undercut the competition by kicking off its Black Friday specials several days earlier than most on November 22. Every day until November 29, online shoppers can go to Amazon.com/BlackFriday to find new deals on a wide variety of product categories for up to 50% off — from electronics to home goods to skincare.

BradsDeals.com’s Casey Runyan, Cheapism.com’s Saundra Latham and RetailMeNot.com’s Sara Skirboll to weigh-in on Amazon’s best Black Friday deals:

  • Alexa-Enabled Devices (i.e., Echo Show 5 bundle and Fire TV Cube) from $55 to $90 (discounts ranging from $30 to $35 off)
  • Kindle Kids Edition for $79.99 ($30 off)
  • Samsung Flat 82-Inch QLED 4K Q60 Series Ultra HD Smart TV for $1,797.99 ($2,002 off)
  • Shark IQ Robot Vacuum for $399.99 ($149.01 off)
  • Yedi 9-in-1 Instant Programmable Pressure Cooker for $79.96 ($20 off)
  • 23andMe Genetic Testing Kit for $99 ($100 off)

Costco Black Friday Doorbusters and Deals

Costco’s stores are closed Thanksgiving Day, November 28, but you will still be able to score early Black Friday deals at Costco.com. A word of advice: Shop the website first, because some Costco Black Friday deals are online-only.

DealNews.com’s Julie Ramhold and smart shopping experts at NerdWallet.com round up the warehouse club’s top Black Friday bargains:

  • Apple AirPods (second generation) headphones with wireless charging case for $139.99 ($35 off)
  • Apple MacBook Pro 13.3-inch laptop for $1,199.99 ($250 off)
  • Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch laptop for $699.99 ($200 off)
  • Dyson Pure Hot + Cool Link 3-in-1 HEPA air purifier for $374.99 ($130 off)
  • Freedom Foundry men’s super plush flannel shirt for $11.99 ($3 off)
  • GoPro HERO7 camera bundle for $329 ($70 off)

Target Black Friday Doorbusters and Deals

Calling all Target shoppers! The big-box retailer will be offering deep discounts on some of the season’s most coveted items — from air fryers to Chromebooks — as part of its Black Friday sale.

For shoppers who are also Red Card holders, you’ll get early access to select doorbusters online starting on Wednesday, November 27. For in-store shoppers, locations open at 5 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving Day and will close at 1 a.m. Stores will reopen again on Black Friday (November 29) at 7 a.m.

BradsDeals.com’s Runyan, Cheapism.com’s Latham and TrueTrae.com’s Trae Bodge dish on which of Target’s Black Friday doorbuster deals are worth your time and money:

  • Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation) for $22 ($27.99 off)
  • Apple 10.2-Inch iPad (7th Generation) for $249.99 ($80 off)
  • Beats Solo3 Wireless Headphones for $129.99 ($170 off)
  • Elements 65-Inch Roku 4K UHD HDR Smart TV for $279.99
  • Hatchimals HatchiBabies for $29.99 ($30 off)
  • HP 11.6-Inch Chromebook for $99 ($100 off)
  • Ninja Foodi TenderCrisp for $169.99 ($60 off)
  • Samsung Galaxy S10, S10+ or S10 Note. Receive a $400 store gift card with purchase and monthly plan activation.
  • Soda Stream Fizzi Sparkling Water Maker for $49.99 ($40 off)
  • Tranquility 12-lbs. Weighted Blanket for $30 ($19 off)

Walmart Black Friday Doorbusters and Deals

If Walmart is on your list of stores to shop on Black Friday, get ready to score huge savings. The big-box retailer is going toe-to-toe with competitors in a variety of product categories — from clothing to small appliances to toys — and offering exclusive incentives to get customers in-store and shopping online.

Select deals will be available on Walmart.com starting at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 27, while in-store doorbusters go on sale starting at 6 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving Day.

Cheapism.com’s Latham, RetailMeNot.com’s Skirboll and TrueTrae.com’s Bodge dish on which of Target’s Black Friday doorbuster deals are worth your time and money:

  • Barbie Helicopter or Glam Convertible Car for $10 ($9.98 off)
  • Google Home Mini for $19.99 ($5 off)
  • Instant Pot Vortex 6-Quart Air Fryer for $49 ($50 off)
  • iRobot 670 WiFi Vacuum for $197 (nearly $50 off)
  • Neon Vector Two-Wheel Scooter (Non-Motorized) for $15
  • Paw Patrol Vehicles (Assorted Variety) for $5 ($4.84 off)
  • PlayStation 4 1TB Game Bundle for $199.99 ($117 off)
  • Philips 65-Inch 4K Android Smart TV for $278
  • Roku Ultra With JBL Headphones for $48 ($51 off)
  • Sleepwear Sets ranging from $4.75 to $10
  • Tranquility 12-lbs. Weighted Blanket for $30 ($19 off)

How to find the best deals on Black Friday and Cyber Monday

It’s finally here — the week when almost everything is on sale.

The National Retail Federation expects more than 165 million people to take part in the five-day shopping marathon from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday.

All the hype and pressure to buy can be overwhelming, so you need to have a plan if you want to find the honest-to-goodness bargains. NBC News BETTER contacted a half dozen shopping experts to get their advice.

1. MAKE A LIST

If you just wing it without a shopping list and a budget, you could wind up deep in debt.

About 35 million Americans are still paying off holiday credit card bills from last year, according to the WalletHub’s 2019 Holiday Shopping Survey.

Your list should include what you plan to get each person and how much it will cost. Impulse shopping can bust your budget, so stick to your list.

“And when you’re shopping, keep a running total of your spending — it’s amazing how keeping tabs on your spending will protect you from busting your budget,” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Look at newspaper circulars and online ads to see which stores have the best prices on the items on your list.

“Different stores have different things on sale, so you really have to cherry pick the deals,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the HotShoppingTips podcast.

Black Friday websites and apps can make this a lot easier. You can see Black Friday circulars at BFAds.net or sort the sales by category (e.g., clothing, TVs, toys or videogames) at Blackfriday.gottadeal.com.

Freeman uses FLIPP, an app that searches newspaper fliers to help you compare prices for the same item from store to store.

“This way, you don’t have to go through all the paper flyers physically and track everything, so it’s a really cool tool to have on hand,” she said.

Other recommended sites: BlackFriday.com, BestBlackFriday.com, TheBlackFriday.com, Brad’s Deals and DealNews.

3. EVALUATE THE DEALS

The sale prices offered on Black Friday and Cyber Monday tend to be among the best prices of the year, but not for all items and all product categories.

“We do expect there to be some good deals on toys for Cyber Monday, but historically there are even better deals if you wait until December,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews. “If you can wait, prices on winter clothing will be better in January.”

Consumer Reports says the biggest discounts on top-rated big screen TVs typically take place just before the Super Bowl.

“To separate the ho-hum deals from the good ones, you need to know the price history of that particular product,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of ConsumerWorld.org. “You can’t just look at the crossed-out price, the so-called ‘regular’ or ‘list’ price. Many retailers inflate those original prices to make it look you’re getting a great deal. The only way to know for sure is to check the price history for that item.”

Dworsky recommends Camelcamelcamel, a site that lets you compare today’s price to its price history at Amazon during the past year.

Freeman also likes Honey, a browser extension that not only finds and applies coupons automatically, but also provides the price history on many items.

4. RESEARCH THE PRODUCTS

“A low price on a lousy product is no bargain,” Dworsky cautions.

You can check the reviews on retail websites (but recognize that some of them may be fake) or see what professional product testers have to say at sites such as Consumer Reports, PCMag, Wirecutter or CNET. You can find some amazing Black Friday doorbuster deals on TV’s from lesser-known brands, but you may not be happy with their performance.

“A lot of times, when we review these TVs they’re in the lower part of our ratings,” said Jim Willcox, senior tech editor at Consumer Reports. “So, if it’s the main TV for your house, it may not be the best set for you to buy.”

5. CHECK STORE POLICIES IN ADVANCE

Most major retailers have a price-match policy, but there’s a good chance it doesn’t apply during Black Friday weekend. And be sure to find out about the return and exchange policies, especially for electronics.

6. START EARLY

Don’t wait until Black Friday. Many retailers are currently offering pre-Black Friday sales. Black Friday starts at JCPenney.com on Wednesday morning and at Walmart.com at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

“Most deals will be available online starting early Thanksgiving morning, so you can shop even before you sit down to your turkey dinner,” said Ramhold of DealNews.

7. GOING TO THE STORES? YOU NEED A PLAN

You couldn’t pay me to fight the Black Friday crowds, but some people love the excitement and the thrill of the hunt.

“Some doorbuster specials are in limited quantities, which means your chances of getting one are pretty slim,” said Willcox of Consumer Reports. “And remember, the whole idea is to get you into the store so that you can buy more profitable items once you’re there.”

If you’re headed to the stores on Thanksgiving Day when many major chains will be open or on Black Friday itself, you need a game plan.

Where do you want to shop and when do those stores open? Prioritize stores that have a limited quantity of the doorbuster item you want — and get there hours before the store opens.

One strategy is to go with a group of friends or family members. You can split up the stores to maximize those blockbuster deals and then meet up later to swap items.

A Guide to Socially Conscious Holiday Shopping

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the average American will spend over $700 on holiday gifts this year, totaling more than $465 billion.

“If that money was spent on socially conscious gifts that helped to make the world a better place, we could help to better the lives of millions of people while helping to tackle some of our world’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges — all without spending any more money,” says Laura Hertz, CEO and co-founder of Gifts for Good, a gifting platform that supports charitable causes.

For the unacquainted, social good companies might offer goods made of eco-friendly, durable materials or provide services to help workers in developing countries. They might fold giving back to the community or supporting sustainable practices into their business model.

“It’s good for the economy because when you purchase more intentionally you are typically purchasing higher-quality items that cost the same or more than you would otherwise,” says Sunny Wu, founder of ourCommonplace, an online marketplace that features ethical and sustainable goods. “You’re also supporting local communities, small businesses, or people in developing countries.”

After all, you do vote with your dollar. Here are a few ways you can shop socially conscious this holiday season:

SEEK SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE COMPANIES 

Look for companies that demonstrate socially responsible business practices such as certified B Corps or those that give back, explains Donna Kwok, co-president of Net Impact Los Angeles. Think TOMS, Patagonia, or Warby Parker, which incorporate one-for-one business models, or donate a proceeds of its profits for charitable acts or environmental causes.

One that you’ll want to be aware of is “greenwashing.” Some companies might make it seem like the products are made of eco-friendly materials or ingredients, when it fact they’re cleverly using language to mask the fact that they’re not. If you’re curious whether a business is indeed a socially responsible one, go to their website to learn about their mission and business model.

SHOP ONLINE THROUGH SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS PLATFORMS 

By shopping through online marketplaces such as Gifts for Good, ourCommonplace, and the charity gift card platform TisBest, you can easily find holiday gift ideas with a positive social impact. These one-stop shops make it easy to explore different companies and options. 

SHOP LOCALLY

Skip the big box, corporate retailers and strip mall franchises. Instead, shell out those dollars at mom-and-pop retailers. When you shop at local businesses, you’re doing your part to support the local economy. It turns out that of every $100 you spend locally, $68 goes back toward supporting the community. Whereas if you shop at a big box retailer, only $43 goes back into the community. Plus, you’re doing your part to keep your stomping grounds unique with its own sense of character. 

Not only will you be helping independent businesses, but you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding excessive packaging and shipping, points out Kwok. You won’t be wasting fuel on shipping, while also cutting back on unnecessary packaging.

ATTEND A HOLIDAY FAIR 

Check out local crafts and holiday fairs during the season. That’s where you can find unique, handcrafted art, jewelry, clothing, and housewares, points out Kwok. You can look beyond the standard craft fair to nonprofits in your city to discover unique wares with a charitable bent. For instance, the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles has Made by DWC, a store featuring unique items designed and made by the residents of the homeless shelter. 

SHOP INTENTIONALLY 

To avoid waste, purchase meaningful gifts that you know the recipient will enjoy and use. Kwok adds: When it comes to gift giving, ask the person what they want, find items that you know the person will use, or purchase zero waste gifts — think: e-gift cards, refillable items, or things you can buy in bulk. You can also donate to the cause of one’s choice.

What’s more, when you’re wrapping presents, make sure you cut back on waste by using recycled gift wrap. You can also use a reusable tote bag or used, unwanted cloth to wrap your presents.

When you give back through your purchases, you’re killing two birds with one stone: Buying a meaningful gift for someone for the holidays, plus doing your part to make the world a better place.

As Wu explains: “In the past, gift giving has been about ‘it’s the thought that counts,’ but with the shift toward minimalism and only keeping things that ‘spark joy,’ purchasing more consciously for yourself or others helps reduce waste, improve the livelihoods of others, and promote better business practices.”

6 Ways to Make More Cash During the Holidays

According to a Credit Karma survey, in 2019 one in four Americans plans on going into debt from the holidays. What’s more, one in 10 plans on taking out a loan to cover their debt. To avoid going into debt in the first place, you can drum up new ways to rake in more money. Here are a few to consider: 

ASK YOUR BOSS FOR OVERTIME

Are you a non-exempt employee and eligible for overtime? There might be opportunities for you to take on additional work at the end of the year. If co-workers are on vacation and there are shifts to fill or tasks to complete, you might be able to swoop in and work extra hours. 

When I worked for a calendar publisher, the end of the year was our crunch time. I would have a sit-down with my boss to see if there was anything I could help with. What’s more, I’ve worked on special projects for different departments that needed an extra set of hands. While it might be unconventional to be involved with a different department, my employer didn’t have to go through the hassle of hiring temps. 

GET A SEASONAL GIG

If you have the time and energy, consider being a seasonal employee or associate, suggests Allan Liwianag of The Practical Saver. “With so many big upcoming holidays, a lot of companies are in need of more workers to keep up with the customers’ demands during Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Liwianag. 

While you might not make as much as you might by going on your own and side hustling, you can easily apply through a retailer’s website, fill out an application, and be guaranteed steady-ish work during the holidays. “Depending on your experience and the store’s needs, as a seasonal worker, you can start earning minimum pay or more,” says Liwainag. (FYI: The current national minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25.) “So if you get a job that pays $10 per hour, and you put in 20 hours per week, then, you’d expect to make $200 per week.” 

TAKE ON A HOLIDAY SIDE HUSTLE

Consider side hustles that might have a spike in demand during the holidays. If you’re taking on a side hustle just for the holidays, think of things that don’t require a lot to get started. Maybe you already have the necessary equipment or know-how. 

“Rideshare or delivery driving are in demand, as a lot of family members are flying in for the holidays, and people might also want groceries delivered around this time,” explains Daniella Flores, creator of I Like to Dabble. “Also, you can pet sit for people who are out of town.” 

For instance, if you’d like to take on dog walking, you only need a leash and some sturdy walking shoes. And when you set up a profile on Wag or Rover, you would just need a solid review or two to start getting noticed. 

TAP INTO YOUR TALENTS

If you’re known among your circle of friends for being an amazing baker, consider baking cookies, bread, or pies, and setting up shop at holiday fairs. If you have an artistic bent, you could do portrait photography or play piano at festive gatherings. You can look for opportunities on side hustle sites such as TaskRabbit. 

If you’re great at making friends and keeping people company, consider being rented as a friend. (Yes, this is an actual thing.) You can set up a profile on Rent a Friend, and scour listings to be someone’s date at their company holiday party, or join an out-of-towner for a round of eggnog at a local coffee shop or a night of Christmas caroling. 

TRY TO BOOST EXISTING SALES

If you already run an online store, consider finding ways to boost your sales.“Research online prices on eBay, then source items and make sure you will at least get 100% return,” says Flores. “Do as much research on this process as you can.” For instance, look up YouTube videos on how to increase traffic to your site during the holidays, or on keeping your products in prime condition. 

If you have an online shop selling homemade wares or art, dream up products that have a seasonal twist, or repackage existing items so they have more gift-giving appeal. For instance, if you create small vinyl toys, could you turn them into ornaments? Or could you potentially create a stocking stuffer version of your crafty creations? 

CLEAN YOUR CLOSET

Just like how you can earn money during spring cleaning, you can declutter your place and sell unwanted stuff for cash. Plus, an end-of-year purge can make your place feel more spacious. There is no shortage of sites: decluttr, OfferUp, and Letgo are great online platforms to sell all things used, from books to records to furniture. Of course, you can also sell stuff on popular platforms such as eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace. 

Just because you might not have enough tucked away doesn’t mean you’ll be in the poorhouse when the new year rolls around. Coming up with ways to save during the holidays, plus earning more money, can help you avoid digging a deeper debt hole.

Disaster Recovery: How to Spot and Respond to a Scam

In times of crisis, it’s common to hear a familiar refrain attributed to the late Fred Rogers: “Look for the helpers,” he said, “you will always find people who are helping.”

This sentiment underscores the support systems that arrive after a natural disaster. Often, helpers abound, bringing hope and restoration to hurting communities. 

Unfortunately, not everyone who arrives after a natural disaster is there to help, and dishonest dealers often gravitate to disaster areas looking to take advantage of the urgent needs and inevitable chaos that confront disaster survivors. 

In this environment, contractor scams, price gouging, and phony charities sometimes conspire to capitalize on the moment, making an already difficult situation even worse.

It’s critical that you know how to spot a scam, and how to report bad actors before they make the recovery effort even more difficult for you and your community. 

Here’s how it can be done. 

EXAMINE CREDENTIALS

After a natural disaster, few things are as important and pressing as starting the repair process. 

However, in the frenzy to begin recovery efforts, it’s easy to skip the vetting process that can weed out fraudulent contractors and other scammers. 

Unfortunately, choosing the wrong contractor can be devastating. Online forums are full of stories from disaster survivors who handed over insurance payments or signed contracts with contractors who never delivered. This delays the recovery process and costs valuable resources along the way. 

It’s well worth the effort to carefully vet potential contractors and relief partners. 

Remember that people who are offering genuine assistance will readily show their ID and credentials. Those without credentials are a red flag — they may not be operating above board. 

In addition, FEMA advises people to be vigilant about spotting fake credentials like “FEMA Certified Contractor.” The agency provides significant resources after a natural disaster, but they do not certify contractors nor do they provide contractors with victims’ names or personal information. 

Don’t just let credentials speak for themselves. Ask for references, assess customer reviews online and check with the Better Business Bureau to determine viability and suitability. 

DOCUMENT AND REVIEW EXPENSES

The recovery process is time consuming and expensive. Scammers are looking to capitalize on this dynamic by inflating prices, collecting payment on incomplete work, or by failing to start work at all. 

Ensure that you receive a fair price for your project by soliciting written bids from multiple contractors. For projects that exceed $10,000, request a copy of the contractor’s Certificate of Registration, which can help determine their ability to provide necessary services.

Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach program provides a free and helpful worksheet for comparing contractors and determining a suitable person for the job.

At times, homeowners may want or need to pay for third party or municipal inspections during the building process. However, you should never have to pay for:

  • FEMA inspections 
  • Insurance adjustments
  • Contractor bids 
  • On site contractor visits 

Payment requests from these operations could be a sign of a scam. 

When expenses do arise, actively monitor and control costs by: 

  • Requesting a comprehensive list of work to be completed. 
  • Getting a line item list of projects being charged. 
  • Avoiding signing confusing or vague contracts. 

As Brandon Fremin, executive director of the National Center for Disaster Fraud, notes, “fraud follows the money.” Protect yours by ensuring that you get a fair price for a complete job. 

KNOW WHEN AND HOW MUCH TO PAY

It’s common for disaster survivors to feel powerless in the wake of a devastating event, but when it comes to recovery efforts, survivors are in the proverbial driver’s seat. 

Contractors, both honest and fraudulent, need the financial resources that you provide, and controlling the money through the rebuilding process is a crucial way to to weed out fraudsters and ensure that your project is completed in a timely manner. 

In general, the timing of payments should correspond with project completion benchmarks. Avoid paying large up-front sums, and never offer full payment for an incomplete job. 

If you have a mortgage on your home, your insurance payments may be made jointly to you and your mortgage company. Before you can begin to rebuild, you must first understand your lender’s process for dealing with insurance payments. 

Communication with your lender is key. If a contractor is pressuring you to sign over the check or get your mortgage company to release the payment to them, this could be a red flag. 

Clear contracts that establish who will complete work – when and where – can make the rebuilding process more transparent. If a conflict arises, hold payment from contractors until it is resolved. 

While the FEMA application will request information like your Social Security number and banking information, that data will never be solicited over the phone. 

When you’re unsure how to proceed, get the help you need to effectively navigate the situation. 

REPORT SUSPECTED FRAUD

If you identify a scam or you think that you’ve encountered fraudulent contractors or other bad actors, make reporting a top priority. 

Acquire as much information as possible about the person, and make a report to your state Attorney General Office. The Better Business Bureau also has an online complaint system where anyone can present questionable business practices. 

After a natural disaster, it’s common for rumors to crop up and spread. FEMA provides a rumor control resource that can help you distinguish fact from fiction. 

Most importantly, nobody has to navigate this landscape alone. If you’re unsure about determining the validity of a contractor, a contract or a project, there are services ready to help. 

Project Porchlight provides recovery assistance through a free one-year program that offers financial counseling services to help people recover from a natural disaster. Staffed with HUD-approved counselors that are experienced in spotting scams, the program can provide the support necessary to ensure that your recovery process proceeds as quickly and efficiently as possible.

How to Enjoy a Night Out Without Worrying About Money

When money is tight, it might be hard to justify enjoying a night out on the town. After all, there are bills to pay and looming debt to crush. But if you set a few parameters, you can still dine at fancy restaurants and enjoy a few rounds of drinks with friends. Here are some tips for enjoying yourself on a shoestring budget:

BUDGET FOR FUN

To live within your means, gauge how much a night out might cost. Some simple math can save your budget. Want to enjoy a nice date night with your bae? Scour the menu for that nice restaurant downtown beforehand, and estimate how much you might spend per person. Get granular. Figure out how much everything will cost, from appetizers to drinks. Don’t forget to include related expenses, such as Lyft rides and pet sitting.

You can also estimate how much you’ll be spending by looking at past outings. How many libations do you typically consume when you go to happy hour with co-workers? The truth lies in your bank statements. Check your transactions by logging on to your bank’s website, or through a money management app.

Remember: If we’re not being realistic with our financial situation, we might spend more than we can afford to. While it might feel fun and liberating in the moment to completely disregard our budget, it could offset money goals we’ve been working so hard to achieve. You’ll want to set boundaries so you can comfortably spend on the things you enjoy. 

CREATE A SPLURGE FUND

The splurge fund is a total budget saver. If you’re trying to aggressively pay off debt, you might feel like you need to deprive yourself until your debts are taken care of. The thing is, if you don’t enjoy yourself every so often you’ll end up hating life, or you’ll rebel by going on an impulsive spending spree. 

It’s important to carve out some room in your spending plan for fun. To start, revisit your spending plan, and see how much you can reasonably afford to set aside each week toward nights out. The easiest way to go about this is to set up auto-transfers into your fun fund. If you’d like $100 a month to spend on a night out, sock away $25 a week. Want $200? That’s $50 a week. 

Knowing how much you want to ideally have is one thing, but saving for it is another. When on a shoestring budget, carefully look for areas where you can cut back on costs. For instance, how can you save on your monthly food bill? Or can you negotiate down on your bills? Next, consider side hustling and setting aside a portion of that money toward your splurge fund. 

All work and no play, especially when you’re using that extra money to pay off debt, can cause debt fatigue. Or maybe allow yourself to spend some of your tax refund, overtime pay, or a job bonus. 

SET GROUND RULES

Ground rules are specific to what works for you and your family’s situation. I find it helpful to employ “when/then” statements when budgeting in some fun. For instance: When I pay off X amount of my credit card debt, then I can treat myself to a nice dinner at Y. Or when I set X aside in my emergency fund, then I can spend Y on drinks with pals. Think of these as celebratory markers or points of release from focusing on your money goals. 

FIND WAYS TO SAVE ON THE COSTS

Discover ways to save on the costs of going out. Yes, you want to enjoy yourself and not have to worry about the bill. But it couldn’t hurt to snag up a deal on eating out by hunting on daily deal sites or looking for referral codes that could help you save on transportation. 

A restaurant might have an early bird deal or a less expensive daily special. You can also save by sharing a few smaller dishes. Or, instead of going out for dinner, consider visiting your favorite fancy restaurant during lunch or happy hour. 

If you find yourself overspending, revisit your budget and see where you might be able to cut back, or think of ways to earn more money. It’s not rocket science, but it will require a bit of diligence and discipline. 

As the saying goes, you can afford anything, but not everything. Giving yourself permission to enjoy a night out on the town without feeling guilt or remorse means working that expense into your budget, doing a bit of planning, and employing tactics to afford it. 

Want help with your spending plan? MMI’s team of financial counselors can assist you in devising a budget that allows you to enjoy nights out while juggling your financial commitments and goals.

How to Dispute Mistakes On Your Credit Report

There are several obvious reasons to give a hoot about your credit score, and very few reasons you should ignore it. After all, you’ll need a good credit score and a solid credit history if you ever plan to purchase a home or take out an auto loan. A bad credit score can even come back to bite you if you want to rent an apartment or apply for certain jobs.

But your score isn’t the only detail you need to pay attention to. You also need to keep an eye on your credit report — the document that lists your formal credit history including any accounts you have open, balances due, and payments you’ve made. 

Your report and your score are intricately intertwined. If bad information gets on your credit report due to fraud or misreporting, this can easily cause your credit score to nosedive. Likewise, a clear credit report with nothing but true (and positive) information can help your credit score reach greater heights.

That’s why, every single year, you should get a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Fortunately, this part is easy to accomplish via AnnualCreditReport.com.

How to dispute information on your credit report

Once you have a copy of your credit report from all three bureaus, you’ll want to look over all the details to make sure they’re correct. Incorrect information you might notice on your report may include: 

  • Errors regarding your name or personal information
     
  • Accounts that aren’t even yours
     
  • Accounts belonging to someone with a name that is similar to yours
     
  • Closed accounts that are reported as open
     
  • Incorrectly reported late payments
     
  • Accounts listed more than once
     
  • Incorrect balances on accounts
     
  • Incorrect credit limits on accounts

Thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), both the credit bureau and whoever is providing them with information are responsible for correcting misinformation on your credit report. This means that, if a specific retailer or bank is reporting an account that isn’t yours or an incorrect balance, both the credit bureau and the retailer or bank have to work together to make things right.

If you find an error, here are the steps you should take right away:

Inform the credit bureau with the incorrect information of the mistake

The first step you should take is informing the credit reporting agency of their error, keeping in mind that it’s possible not all the credit bureaus will have the same information. You should let them know about the mistake in writing, taking special care to list important details about the mistake with proper documentation. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even offers a sample letter you can use if you need help. 

Note that credit bureaus usually have 30 days to investigate your claim and they are required to get back to you with a response. They are also required to forward the information you sent them to the provider who shared the information with them in the first place. 

Inform whoever provided the information of the mistake

You’ll also want to provide the company reporting the incorrect information with copies of any documentation that prove an error has occurred. Make sure to include all details required to prove your claim along with copies of documentation that backs you up. The FTC offers another sample dispute letter you can use for this instance. 

Watch for your credit report to be updated

Generally speaking, credit reporting agencies are required to inform you in writing of the results of your case. They are also legally required to give you another free copy of your credit report if your dispute caused a permanent change. 

You also have the option to ask the credit bureau to send notices of any corrections to anyone who has requested your credit report within the last six months. You can even have an updated copy sent to anyone who has asked for a modified version of your credit report for reasons regarding employment. 

Caring about your credit

While the steps above may sound tedious, it’s crucial to understand the damage incorrect information on your credit report can do. If you have inaccurate late payments on your report, for example, you could see your credit score plummet through no fault of your own. And if there are accounts on your credit report that aren’t even yours, that could signify a much larger problem, such as outright identity theft.

Fortunately, the small amount of time required to dispute an item on your credit report really can pay off in a big way. After all, any negative information you manage to get wiped clean should immediately stop dragging your score down. 

However, you should also note that you’ll only be able to get false negative information removed from your credit reports. Any damaging information that’s true will have to linger on your report until enough time has passed. Generally speaking, negative information and reporting can remain on your credit report for up to seven years and bankruptcy can stay on your report for 10 years.

The bottom line

Errors happen all the time, and they may never be uncovered if you don’t find them yourself. In addition to staying on top of your credit reports, it can help to sign up for a free service that gives you updates on new accounts in your name or fluctuations in your credit score. CreditKarma.com and CreditSesame.com are two that offer a similar free service with these features, so they are both worth checking out. 

Disaster Assistance: 5 Tips for a Successful Aid Application

In the U.S., natural disasters impact as much as 8% of the population, creating tens of millions of dollars in losses for communities and families.

Their arrival stands in contrast to aid efforts, which are pinpoint and precise, offering a hand up to those who are brought down by a natural disaster.

For every major incident, there are disaster relief organizations and government agencies deployed to provide assistance and resources that help survivors establish a new normal.

There is just one catch: you have to apply for this assistance.

Aid applications are one of the most crucial components of natural disaster recovery, but it’s easy to let other priorities or the raw urgency of the moment crowd out this critical opportunity.

Since a successful aid application can provide the resources that many families need to get back on their feet, getting this part right is important.

Here are five tips for completing an aid application that gets approved.

1. APPLY IMMEDIATELY

Disaster recovery can be a chaotic process. In addition to the obvious tangible ramifications like locating food and shelter, reconnecting with loved ones and communicating with employers, charting a path forward often takes precedence over other seemingly more menial tasks like paperwork.

Consequently, many people wait too long to complete their aid applications, ultimately forfeiting or delaying valuable resources that can accelerate their recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers several relief programs, including residence and business loan assistance. These programs require a FEMA application, and survivors have a limited time to access these resources.

Once a disaster is declared, FEMA and many other aid agencies have resources available for survivors, and it’s imperative to submit applications as soon as possible.

2. PRIORITIZE ACCURACY

While there is an inherent urgency in completing aid applications, accuracy is equally important.

For instance, a FEMA application requires significant information that applicants will need available when they complete the process. This includes:

  • Social Security number 
  • Insurance information 
  • Damage information 
  • Financial information 
  • Contact information 
  • Direct deposit information

This information has to match the records for the Social Security Administration, and failing to provide the correct information can delay benefits or prevent you from accessing the application system.

For some families, primary caregivers might not have a social security number. Families can still apply as long as one family member, including children under the age of 18, has a social security number.

While aid organizations have different qualifications and application procedures, accuracy always needs to be a priority.

3. ACCOUNT FOR THE NEED

Disaster survivors are often modest when applying for aid. A sense of self-sufficiency, and sometimes even survivor’s guilt too often override the reality.

However, accounting for your needs is a critical step in receiving the assistance necessary to achieve a new normal as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, applicants frequently fail to account for every dependent family member or forget to include things like vehicle damage in their application.

By accounting for the entire need, you ensure that aid organizations can provide you with the most accurate support possible.

4. MANAGE REJECTION

Sometimes, aid applications are rejected. Understandably, this is difficult news to receive as it means a delay in resources at a time when help and support are desperately needed.

However, the rejection might not be permanent, and responding correctly to a rejection letter can ensure that resources eventually arrive. Aid applications are rejected for a reason, and rejection letters will include the basis for the decision, which often can be addressed through an amended application.

Always be sure to read the entire letter. Understand the reason for rejection, and make every effort to accurately update the information in question.

For some, assistance may be needed to help navigate this process, and trained professional with Project Porchlight can help with the resubmission process. In more complex cases, legal advice from organizations like the American Bar Association may be necessary.

5. CONTACT PROJECT PORCHLIGHT

Disaster recovery is an all-in effort, and nobody has to go through the process alone. Project Porchlight is here to help through a free one-year program that supports disaster survivors with counseling services related to the financial challenges that often accompany a natural disaster.

Project Porchlight’s HUD-approved counseling staff can assist with aid applications, ensuring that families receive the support they need as quickly as possible.

By getting help from the very beginning, you can ensure that you have access to the best information and get the help you need to receive aid quickly.

The stakes are incredibly high when it comes to completing aid applications. Don’t risk delay or denial. Get the help and support necessary to get this process right the first time so that you can begin your journey towards stability and complete disaster recovery.

How to Get Your Spouse on Board With Budgeting

Money is the most common cause of stress in relationships, according to a study conducted by The Harris Poll, and fights about finances are often cited as the reason for divorce. Couples struggle to get on the same page about their finances because they don’t have a shared budget or regular conversations about money. Unfortunately, avoiding the budgeting discussion will do nothing to improve your money stress or your bottom line. It doesn’t do much to avert fights about money, either.

But even if you know all this, your spouse may not be willing to embrace the joys of budgeting. In fact, just bringing up the subject could prompt your partner to leave a person-size hole in the wall as they make a hasty exit.

Here’s how to bring a spouse on board to the necessities of budgeting if they’re reluctant to try it.

Start by dreaming big

Budgeting is really all about figuring out how you can have the things you want most in life. But most people think of budgeting as deprivation and spreadsheets, which is no one’s idea of fun.

So to get your unwilling spouse on board with budgeting, start by having conversations about what you both want in life. For instance, you might ask your partner what they would do with a million dollars. Not only will this conversation be fun — it’s thrilling to think about these kinds of dreams — but it also provides a great jumping off point for starting a budget.

After your big dreams conversation, you could open a new savings account specifically for the trip to Egypt your spouse has always wanted and start putting aside $5 a week. This shows your spouse that you’re taking their dreams seriously, and that a cruise up the Nile is more than just a fun fantasy. Once there’s a real trip or other goals that you’re working toward, it can be a lot easier to get a reluctant spouse excited about budgeting.

Work solo on a budget, but ask for input

In every marriage, there are tasks that one spouse takes over because the other spouse isn’t interested in handling it. Maybe she handles all the lawn care while he does the grocery shopping and cooking. So there’s nothing wrong with creating a budget by yourself if your spouse has made it clear that they’re not interested.

However, even if your partner says they want nothing to do with budgeting, it’s still very important to make them part of the process. Put together your monthly spending plan solo, but ask your partner for their opinion after you’re done. Not only will this show them that you care about their input, but they may also have a different viewpoint of various spending categories. For instance, if your partner handles the cooking, they may recognize when you have over- or under-budgeted for grocery shopping. 

In addition, you can potentially ask your spouse if there are any places to trim the fat that you hadn’t thought of. If you’ve already started setting aside money for a big dream you share, this will make this request even more motivating, since your spouse will recognize that you’re trying to reach that dream faster.

Let your budget work its magic

While budgeting is much easier if everyone is on board, you can still improve your bottom line and reduce your stress while working by yourself. Even if dreaming big and asking for input don’t motivate your partner, seeing a budget actually work can make a big difference. 

For instance, let’s say you and your spouse find yourselves stressed and scrambling every six months when it comes time to pay for car insurance. Since you’ve started implementing your budget, you’ve decided to put aside $75 per month toward that bill. When it comes due, instead of feeling overwhelmed and panicked like you normally do, the amount of money you need is already set aside and ready. 

Simply sharing this win with your spouse could do a lot to bring them around to the benefits of budgeting. This is especially true if you used to have arguments or stressful scenes every time this bill came due.

Celebrate the wins together

Pointing out the ways that things are improving is a great method for encouraging your spouse to take ownership of your budget. For instance, if you spend less on dining out because you’re making more of an effort to cook at home, you could ask for their input on how to celebrate. You might say: 

“Check out how much we saved this month by cooking at home! I’d like to put most of it toward our credit card debt, but let’s think about how we can enjoy some of this saved money. What do you think we should spend it on?”

Sharing the benefits of your budget with your spouse, even if they haven’t done the same budgeting work that you’ve put in, can help make it clear that your budget is a joint endeavor.

From reluctance to excitement

The majority of budgeting fears stem from a sense that it will be both boring and limiting. Bringing your spouse on board means showing them that budgeting offers both fun and freedom. Consistently focusing on big goals, doing the budgeting work yourself while always asking for input, letting the budget do its job, and sharing the wins can all help your foot-dragging spouse to embrace the budget. 

In time, your spouse may even say those three little words everyone wants to hear from their sweetheart: “You were right.”

How to Manage Debt Fatigue

For one, you might feel the onset of debt fatigue. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, deprived, angry, or mentally and emotionally exhausted, you might be experiencing what’s known as debt fatigue. 

Here’s how to know if you’ve been hit with debt fatigue, and what you can do to manage it: 

WHY DEBT FATIGUE HAPPENS

If you’re carrying a large debt load, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps despite your efforts at paying off that mountain of debt, you might feel like you’re barely chipping away at it. Or it could be that taking on extra side hustles after your 9 to 5, plus trying to pinch pennies, could have you feeling deprived. In turn, this fatigue could take an emotional or mental form: you could be feeling drained, or spiraling into anxiety, depression, or bouts of despair. Or, you might feel physically exhausted. 

Because it could take years to pay off your debt, and the journey can be long, hard, and met with challenges, you could end up feeling exhausted. It’s perfectly normal, and if you think you’re starting to feel the effects of debt fatigue, the good news is that there’s plenty that you can do to help relieve those negative feelings. Here are some of the best ways to combat the ill effects of debt fatigue. 

ENJOY SMALL SPLURGES

Depriving yourself when you’re paying off debt can take its toll. You can only eat ramen and entertain yourself at home for so long before you feel as if you’re living a joyless existence. 

Make sure you enjoy a little splurge from time to time. You can even set up a reward system of sorts: For every checkpoint you pass on your debt payoff, allow yourself to spend a small amount of money on something just for you, such as a massage or dinner at your favorite restaurant. 

CREATE A DEBT PROGRESS CHART

A fun, motivating way to track your debt payoff is to create a debt progress chart. Clever ways of creating a debt repayment chart include drawing a series of squares. Each square represents say, $100 or $500. For every $100 you pay off, fill in a square. Other ideas include drawing clusters of spirals, or creating a Pac-Man-esque game. 

For maximum motivation, create a reward for every mini-milestone you hit. For instance, it took Steven Donovan, founder of Even Steven Money, years to pay off his six-figure debt. To track his progress, he made a debt thermometer. To feel the taste of victory, he celebrated with a craft beer with every crucial milestone.

GET SMARTER ABOUT SIDE HUSTLING

Adding side gigs on top of your full-time job can help speed up the debt repayment process. If you’re interested in increasing your income, you might want to consider dabbling with a side hustle that doesn’t require a lot of money or equipment to start, or finding a side gig that serves as a welcome respite from the tedium of your day job. The problem with working multiple jobs, however, is that it can be time-consuming and tiring. 

One way to get smarter about working extra gigs is to stack your side hustles. In other words, try to switch between two gigs, or do two gigs pseudo-simultaneously so you can maximize your earnings and reduce the amount of time you spend in work hours. You can do this by toggling between two side hustles that require the same equipment (i.e., food delivery and ride share driver), or try to pair a side hustle that requires you to be on-site with one you can perform virtually. 

MAKE THE MOST OF GIFT CARDS

Derive some pleasure from gift cards and other types of “found cash.” Found cash can emerge in the form of cash back or gift cards from credit card reward points or shopping apps, or spare change discovered in the seat of your car and in between your couch cushions. 

While you’re determined to pay off your debt as soon as possible, don’t forget to enjoy life, too. Redeem some reward points on your credit cards for gift cards to restaurants or retailers to enjoy a night out. 

SHARE YOUR DEBT WOES

Debt fatigue could in part stem from feelings of shame. So let it out into the world. You might also try talking to a trusted friend, suggests Donovan. “Having an accountability partner is key in your debt story,” says Donovan. “Find someone who is there to listen, and not there to judge.” If you’re nervous about being judged, try blogging anonymously about it, or start a journal. “Writing all your successes and failures can serve as your friend or mentor.” 

REVISIT YOUR DEBT REPAYMENT PLAN

If you’re constantly feeling drained, stretched thin, and exhausted from your debt payments, it might be time to reassess your payment plan. There may be better options available if you don’t have enough left over every month to support a healthy lifestyle.

One option is working with a nonprofit credit counseling agency such as Money Management International (MMI) to come up with a debt management plan, which could not only lower monthly payments, but lower interest rates and end calls from debt collectors. Plus, instead of paying a bunch of different creditors, you make a single payment, which is then dispersed to each company. 

“While paying off debt can seem like it’s going to take forever, remember that debt usually doesn’t happen overnight,” reminds Donovan. “Neither is paying it off.” So be kind to yourself. The day when you’re debt-free will certainly arrive.

How to Prepare Your Credit for Retirement

PAY DOWN REVOLVING ACCOUNTS

One of the most important credit scoring factors is your utilization rate. This is the portion of available revolving credit (e.g., the credit limits on your credit cards) that you’re currently using.

For example, if you have two credit cards and each has a $5,000 limit, you have $10,000 available to you. When your combined balances are $5,000, your utilization rate is at 50 percent.

A lower utilization rate is best for your scores — some say to try and keep your utilization below 30 percent or 10 percent as a rule of thumb. 

While paying down credit card debt can be difficult, this is fortunately also one of the few credit scoring factors that you can quickly impact. Even consolidating your credit card debt with an installment loan (such as a personal loan) will lower your utilization rate, as you’re moving the debt from revolving accounts to an installment account. 

If you’re struggling to afford your credit card bills, also consider a debt management plan (DMP) from a nonprofit credit counseling agency. A DMP alone won’t necessarily increase your scores, but it could help you pay down your debt with a single, reasonable monthly payment and keep you from missing a payment (which could lead to fees and hurt your scores). 

CONTINUE BUILDING YOUR CREDIT HISTORY

There are a few important points to keep in mind when considering the age of accounts, your credit history, and credit scores:

  • Credit accounts can live on your credit report for up to 10 years after you close the account or pay off the loan, assuming you never missed a payment.
  • Many negative marks, such as a missed payment, will fall off your credit report after seven years. Their impact can also decrease over time. 
  • If missed payments led to an account being charged-off, going into default, or being sold to collections, the entire account will fall off your credit report seven years after the initial late payment. 
  • The average age of your accounts on your credit report can impact your scores. A higher average age is best, and opening a new account will decrease the average age. However, don’t let this keep you from opening accounts you need. 

You might have been using credit for years and have a lengthy credit history and a high average age of accounts. But if you’ve paid off your loans and prefer not to use credit cards, you might actually want to open a new card. You don’t need to use the card every day, but having one active account could be important. 

For FICO credit scores, you need at least one account with activity during the previous six months, and one account that’s at least six months old (they can be the same account), to qualify for a credit score. 

A free way to go about this is to get a card that doesn’t charge an annual fee. Use it for a small monthly bill, and set up automatic payments for the full balance so you won’t pay any interest. 

LEARN ABOUT THE OTHER CREDIT SCORING FACTORS

While your credit utilization and payment history are often the most important scoring factors, many things can impact your scores. For example,

  • Applying for new accounts can lead to a hard inquiry, which may hurt your scores.
  • Checking your own credit scores and reports can lead to soft inquiries, which don’t impact scores at all.
  • Having a mix of different types of accounts in your credit history could help your scores.

You can read more about the details of different scoring factors on the myFICO and VantageScore websites. 

REVIEW YOUR CREDIT REPORTS FOR ERRORS

If you’re focused on lowering your utilization rate and making on-time payments, one of the next things you can do is to review your credit reports for errors. An error, such as a late payment on an account when you’re sure your payment wasn’t late, could be hurting your scores. 

You can file a dispute with the credit bureau (or credit bureaus if the error appears on more than one report), and ask the bureau to correct or delete the late payment mark. 

THE BIGGER PICTURE — CREDIT SCORES DON’T EQUAL CREDITWORTHINESS

While many creditors consider your credit scores when reviewing a loan or card application, the score is often only one of many metrics that get considered. Your overall outstanding debts, income, and your monthly bills and income can also be important.

While Social Security and retirement savings could count toward your income and help you qualify, you might not have as high an income as you did during your working years. As a result, it may be more difficult to qualify for large loans or the lowest possible rates.

How to Prioritize Your Debts When Money is Tight

The following is presented for informational purposes only.

If you’re stressed out about your debt situation, you’re suffering in good company. A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that finances remain a top stressor among Americans. It can lead to sleepless nights, spats with your significant other, and being distracted at work. 

And why wouldn’t you be stressed? Debt in the U.S. is at an all-time high. According to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt, for the first time, has exceeded a staggering $4 trillion. It’s due in large part to rising student loan balances, credit card debt, car loans, and mortgages. 

If you have multiple debts – as most consumers do – you may be feeling an added anxiety as you try to determine where to focus. Here are some pointers on how to rank your debts in order of importance:

TAKE STOCK OF ALL YOUR DEBTS

Before you figure out which debt to focus paying off first, gather as much information as you can about each of your debts, including:

  • Where the debt is (i.e., with the company, or has it gone to collections?) 
  • Your balance (how much you owe) 
  • The interest rate
  • The payment due date 
  • If it’s installment credit (i.e., car loan, personal loan, student debt), how many payments are left?
  • What’s the minimum payment? For credit cards, you’ll want to make the minimum payments to preserve your credit score, points out Detweiler. 

Debt and personal finance can create some serious emotions, and those emotions can make decision-making harder and more complicated than it needs to be. By laying out the numbers, you can remove some of the emotions and let the facts point you in the right direction.

CONSIDER WHICH DEBTS ARE COSTING YOU THE MOST

If you’re working on prioritizing debt repayment, you’re likely in one of two buckets: you’re either working from a surplus and trying to determine where the extra payments should go, or you’re working with a deficit and trying to figure out which bill doesn’t get paid this month.

If you’re in the fortunate position to be working with a surplus and trying to determine where to make increased debt payments, the simplest solution is to target the debts that are costing you the most. If you have any debts with abnormally high interest rates or costly fees, these are likely the best ones to focus on if you have extra cash available.

THINK OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF A LATE OR MISSED PAYMENT

If you’re in the position of having to consider which payments to skip this month, think of what the repercussions would be if you were late on paying each of your debts, advises Gerri Detweiler, co-author of Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and education director for Nav. What is it going to cost you to miss a particular payment?

Detweiler suggests asking yourself the following questions: 

  • Will there be a penalty fee? 
  • Will it be reported to your credit report? 
  • If you fall behind on payments, is there collateral you can lose if you fall behind, such as a car or home? 
  • If you fall behind on payments, would you experience a significant lifestyle adjustment? For instance, could you continue using your home and car, or would you need to make drastic changes to your living expenses to pay off your debt? 

Figuring out which of your debts have the greatest impact on your finances and lifestyle could help you determine which to tackle first. For example, having your credit score dinged for a missed credit card payment isn’t pleasant, but it’s infinitely preferable to having your car repossessed. 

CHECK IF PROVIDERS ARE FLEXIBLE

Before making the decision to not pay a creditor or service provider, reach out to see if they can help you. If you ask for what’s called the hardship department, and explain your situation, they might be willing to lower your payments, or temporarily pause your required payments. 

If changing the due date on your bills could help you make on-time payments, it certainly couldn’t hurt to give the company a call to see what’s possible. 

If you’re currently are in good standing and have been diligent about your payments, you stand a greater chance for the company to listen to your situation, and offer you some options that could help. 

What’s more, some providers might be flexible and are willing to set up a payment plan, says Detweiler. For example, if you’re thinking of skipping your credit card payment for a couple months because you just received a sizable hospital bill, contact the hospital first – they may be able to set you up on a monthly payment plan that allows you to stay current with your other financial obligations. It never hurts to ask. 

CONSIDER THE CAUSE OF YOUR ISSUES WITH DEBT

If you find yourself trying to determine what bills to skip and which to pay, it’s vitally important that you be honest with yourself about whether it’s a short-term problem or a long-term problem, points out Detweiler. If it’s a short-term cash issue, work on resolving the issue. For instance, maybe you had a lean month or two, or had your hours scaled back at work and are on the hunt for some side hustles or another part-time job.

“However, if it’s truly not a short-term cash crunch, then reach out for help as soon as possible from a reputable credit counseling agency,” says Detweiler. By connecting with an objective professional, you have a better chance of understanding the root causes of your financial troubles. Best of all, nonprofit financial counseling is available for free. 

Or perhaps you’re in a place where your in good shape financially, but you simply have too much debt to juggle every month. In a situation like this you should examine your repayment methods and consider if an option like a consolidated debt management plan might be what you need.

With a debt management plan, you would make a single payment, which would then make payments to the creditors on your behalf. The benefits include no more calls from debt collectors, waived fees, and potentially lower monthly payments and reduced interest rates.

No matter what the circumstances, sitting down and having a good, hard look at debt situation can help you come up with a game plan to pay them off.

4 Mindful Spending Habits That Will Save You Money

But just because it’s easy to spend money without thinking doesn’t mean you have to fall victim to it. The following mindful spending strategies can help you resist impulse buys long enough to help you remember what you truly value.

Calculate costs in hours spent

While money is replaceable, time can only be spent, not earned. That’s why it’s helpful to start thinking of prices in terms of hours, rather than dollars. Remembering that you’ve already traded your time for the money you plan to spend on whatever has caught your fancy can be enough to help you keep your cash in your wallet. 

Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez popularized this strategy in their book Your Money or Your Life, where they make the case that your time is literally money, since you trade your time away in order to get money. When you calculate costs in hours spent, you determine the amount of money you net per hour, and compare that number to the cost of goods and services to buy. With your calculation in hand, you have a better sense of how much time any one purchase costs you.

To put this strategy into action, start with your monthly income. Check your pay stubs to see how much you make per month. Multiply your monthly net income by 12 to get your annual income, then divide it by 2,000 (the typical number of hours worked in a year) to get your hourly wage.

Let’s say your monthly income is $3,100. If you multiply that by 12, you get $37,200. Divided by 2,000, you get an hourly wage of $18.60.

Having that number in your head can re-contextualize prices, because it gives you a concrete value of your hours. When you’re tempted by a home assistant device that’s on sale for $150, the price may seem like no big deal. But is it worth 8.06 hours of your work time? 

You may ultimately decide that having a home assistant device is worth just over a day of work — and that’s absolutely fine. Calculating prices in hours worked means that you’re actually clear on what the true costs are.

Know why you’re shopping

Eating and shopping can both feel very good in the moment, to the point where you ignore any signals that tell you that you’ve had enough. Like eating, we often spend money because we want to change our emotional state. And in both cases, there’s a huge industry in place trying to keep us mindless, continuing to ignore signals and consume in order to avoid emotions.

To combat this, get several blank index cards. Place these where you’ll see them anytime you might spend money. For instance, put one in front of your credit cards in your wallet, one on your laptop, and one taped to the back of your phone. On each card, write the following questions for yourself:

  • Why do I want to buy this?
     
  • What problem do I expect this purchase to solve?
     
  • How do I expect to feel after making this purchase?
     
  • How long do I expect to own this item/use this service?
     
  • Do I already own something similar?
     
  • Can I recreate the feeling of buying this without spending money? 
     
  • Can I recreate the feeling of buying this by spending less money?

It’s important to check in with yourself to understand why you’re consuming so you can stop if it’s not what you really want, or engage mindfully so you can truly enjoy the process if it is what you want. (See also: 8 Ways to Save Money When You Can’t Really Afford To)

Create a purchase wish list

There is an excellent reason why “wait before making any purchases” is a classic personal finance tip. Forcing yourself to wait to decide if you actually want to spend money on an item can help mitigate the emotional element of spending decisions. 

However, if you’ve ever tried to institute such a rule for yourself, you’ll remember the “I don’t wanna wait!” reaction that can derail the entire process. Even though you might be aware of these impulse-driven moments, it can still be tough to stand up to that foot-stomping part of yourself insisting on making the purchase right now.

One method of both calming and honoring the little Veruca Salt inside you is to keep a purchase wish list. When you find something you absolutely want to buy, quickly write down what it is, where and when you found it, and how much it costs. Once you’ve written it down, set a date anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days in the future when you may come back to make the purchase, if you still want it. 

There are two benefits to this list:

You create self-awareness

You’re recognizing the part of yourself that wants to give in to the impulse purchase. It does feel good to buy things on a whim. It would be fun to have whatever cool thingamajig you’re pining for. Writing down all the details about the potential purchase is a way to honor the reality of your spending desires. You’re not wrong for wanting the item, and making this list can help you feel more at peace with leaving it behind at the store or in your digital cart because you’ve honored your emotional reaction to it.

You train yourself to resist impulse buys

The second benefit is that by creating this list and letting it age, you learn to spend less on impulse buys, while still being open to making spending decisions that truly enrich your life. True impulse buys won’t tempt you to return, since the inconvenience of going back will be stronger than the impulse to buy. The purchases you actually care about will be worth the wait, and allowing yourself to go back for such buys will ensure you don’t feel deprived.

Keep your mind on your money

Parting with money is incredibly easy, especially in our increasingly cashless society — which makes it very hard to resist the siren song of spending. But recognizing the time cost of purchases, asking yourself why you’re buying, and honoring your impulses by creating a purchase wish list can all help you to pause between your desire and your purchase.

Five Steps to Achieving Financial Stability After a Natural Disaster

When a natural disaster strikes, the news coverage captures the devastation that quickly envelops communities and forever changes lives. We’re familiar with these images as they’re the most visible and emotive elements of a catastrophic event. 

However, after the camera crews depart and the immediate physical fallout is addressed, the long-term financial consequences of a natural disaster can be even more destructive than the event itself. 

For many people, living through a catastrophe will disrupt their income, stressing savings accounts and credit limits as out-of-pocket costs associated with recovery efforts plunge them into debt before meaningful recovery can even begin. 

The cost of recovery is immense, and too often the financial repercussions of living through a natural disaster create incredible strain for survivors, slowing the recovery process and causing continual disruption along the way. 

Ready for some good news? Financial peace is an attainable reality. By making the right moves after a disaster event, full recovery is possible. 

Here are five steps to achieving financial stability after a natural disaster. 

1. PRIORITIZE PAYMENTS

After a disaster event occurs, it’s normal for funds to be limited even as financial obligations mount. Increased demand sends housing prices soaring, building materials become more costly, and food supplies can be both hard to find and more expensive to buy. 

It’s critical to prioritize payments to ensure that the most vital goods and services are acquired first. Distinguishing between high and low priority payment obligations can maximize recovery opportunity while ensuring that necessities stay accessible. 

Notably, nonnegotiables like housing, transportation, food, insurance, and medical needs are a top priority, while other expenses may have the flexibility to be put off until later. 

Meanwhile, minimize the amount of money going out the door by turning off automated payments to low-priority expenses and discontinuing utility services for homes that aren’t inhabitable.

Most importantly, timeliness matters. Take action as soon as possible to set the groundwork for achieving financial stability. 

2. CONTACT YOUR CREDITORS

Managing debt obligations can be incredibly challenging in the chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster. Fortunately, many creditors are willing to make special arrangements for those impacted by a catastrophic event. 

Creditors may offer ways to support disaster survivors, including: 

  • Pausing payment obligations for a limited time. 
  • Enabling a lump-sum repayment at a later time. 
  • Issuing a loan modification to make monthly payments more affordable. 

Moreover, to promote long-term, holistic financial stability, you can request that these changes not be negatively reflected in your credit report. Creditors are not required to accommodate this request, but if they agree, be sure to note the details of the conversation and set a reminder to check your credit report in a few months to verify. 

If your creditors won’t work with you to create a viable path for managing your debt, don’t stop trying to find solutions. You may be able to find relief by speaking with a certified credit counselor at MMI about concessions the creditors offer through our services. 

3. FILE INSURANCE & ASSISTANCE CLAIMS

Insurance and federal assistance are two of the most important ways to get up and running again after a natural disaster. Therefore, filing insurance and assistance claims should be a top priority for promoting financial stability. 

After a disaster event, contact your insurance agent and begin the process of getting your claims started. Most insurance companies impose specific timeframes for filing claims, so give yourself plenty of time to get the claim filed and, if necessary, amended. 

Similarly, immediately file for federal financial assistance. The following government organizations mobilize in response to natural disasters, and they are a front-line of support for those looking for financial assistance: 

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 
  • Small Business Association (SBA) 
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Quickly submitting insurance claims and aid applications ensures that resources will become available as soon as possible, perhaps mitigating the risk of further financial implications and hastening the recovery process. 

4. FIND A CASE MANAGER

Recovering from a natural disaster can be an arduous, drawn-out process, but nobody has to go through it alone. Case managers are available to help with everything from finding food supplies to identifying reliable contractors. 

Case managers offer immediate and long-term guidance that makes a confusing situation more clear, providing on-the-ground assistance to help people affected by a natural disaster rebuild their lives as quickly as possible. 

Aid organizations like the American Red Cross provide volunteer case managers and other services that promote total recovery from a catastrophic event. At the same time, there are dozens of religious organizations and nonprofits offering free case management services. 

The recovery process is complicated. Get the support necessary to make the process as simple and effective as possible. 

5. CONTACT PROJECT PORCHLIGHT

74% of those who experienced a natural disaster indicated that at least one element of post-disaster financial coaching could have improved their financial picture. Now, that service is available for free through Project Porchlight. 

Project Porchlight is a free disaster recovery solution that helps survivors regain their financial footing. 

It’s a one-year program that supports survivors as they overcome post-disaster financial challenges by providing a step-by-step recovery plan, counseling, referrals, monthly check-ins, and aid application assistance. Project Porchlight is staffed by HUD-approved counselors who are specially trained to help people navigate the road to financial peace after a natural disaster. 

Natural disasters are undoubtedly destabilizing, causing chaos on many fronts. With the right help, it’s possible to re-establish financial security after a natural disaster, an important benchmark on the path to restoring normalcy. 

6 Home Renovations That Can Surprisingly Harm Resale Value

There are certain renovations that, if done correctly, will have a strong return on investment, such as updating bathrooms and kitchens. However, one of the worst things you can do is make renovations that aren’t supported by the local market (i.e. potential buyers). 

“Fabricating and customizing to your very specific tastes doesn’t necessarily mean those are the tastes of the market,” he explained. That’s especially true of lavish upgrades that don’t fit in with the surrounding environment. “The classic real estate advice is that it’s never good to have the most expensive house in the neighborhood. If, after your upgrades, you’ve got a $600,000 home in a neighborhood surrounded by similarly sized homes selling at $400,000, it’s a risk,” Sopko said. 

So before you pick up your sledgehammer, find out what specific types of home renovations can bring down the resale value of your home or make it tougher to eventually sell.

1. Over-The-Top Kitchen Upgrades

The kitchen is often viewed as the most desirable portion of a home and an area of the house that potential home buyers are likely to base their decision on, according to Susan Bozinovic, a realtor with Century 21. 

However, spending too much for a kitchen renovation can hurt a home seller in two ways. For one, “A high-end kitchen in a home that isn’t itself high-end creates expectational disproportion among buyers,” Bozinovic said. In other words, homebuyers may dislike the quality mismatch between the kitchen and the rest of the house. 

Bozinovic added: “The second problem is that such expensive kitchen remodels do not generate much of a return. You don’t want to put a $100,000 kitchen in a $200,000 home because not much of the renovation investment can be recouped.” 

Typically, kitchen renovations shouldn’t exceed 25% of the home’s value. Given that the median home value in the U.S. is $227,700, the cost of the average remodel shouldn’t be more than about $56,925. 

2. Poorly Conceived Room Additions

One of the most common types of renovations that destroy a home’s value is a poorly conceived room addition, according to Robert Taylor, a real estate investor and rehabber based in Sacramento. For instance, no one wants to sleep in the bedroom that someone has to walk through to get to the bathroom. You should also avoid additions that seem to be globbed onto the side of an existing home without much thought.

“If you’re going to add an addition to your home, it’s wise to get professional help with the layout. Getting multiple people’s input may help you find a way to add a hallway that will connect the addition without destroying the floorplan,” he said.

Taylor also noted you should be careful about overbuilding for the neighborhood where your house is located. For example, if you add a second story to your existing 1,500-square-foot home, you might think you’re adding another 1,000 square feet. “But if all of the other homes in the neighborhood are single-story ranch homes, your home becomes the elephant in the neighborhood,” he said. In this case, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fully recoup the costs of the new addition when you resell your home.

“It’s way too easy for a room addition to make your home look like the Winchester House instead of the Taj Mahal,” he said.

3. Pools

When it comes to homes with pools, the saying is, “Everyone loves a pool, but not the maintenance.” Pools are not only expensive to install (costing around $25,000 to $30,000), but costly to maintain. Plus, they present a safety hazard to some families. So if you invest in a pool, know that you’re unlikely to recoup the cost.

“If you make the decision to add one to your property, it should be done with the expectation that you and your family plan to use it for years to come,” said Paul Andrés Trudel-Payne, owner of Casa Consult+Design and Sandstone West Real Estate.

4. Room Conversions

As much as you might want a home office or gym, it’s usually not a great idea to fully convert a bedroom or garage into a room for another use, especially if it involves removing closets and other storage space.

Bozinovic explained that the number of bedrooms a home has is a feature that virtually all home buyers consider when deciding whether to even look at a property. “So if your home has one less bedroom, [some] buyers will immediately set the home aside,” she said. And like bedrooms, a garage is a feature that also determines initial buyer interest. Most buyers would prefer a garage they can use with its original intended purpose, especially in areas where the weather can get bad or there’s limited street parking.

5. Quirky Customizations

Unique designs, such as funky wallpaper, textured walls and quirky tiling, as well as built-in features, such as walled aquariums or expensive electronics, might be exactly what you want, but are often off-putting to buyers. “Much of this is seen as a bother to buyers, either for the maintenance or the cost of replacing it,” Bozinovic said. 

If your home features a lot of customization that might not appeal to a wide audience, buyers will likely subtract the cost of replacing these features from their offers. 

6. Wall-To-Wall Carpeting

If you’re going to go through the trouble of replacing the flooring in your home, you might as well spring for a hard surface such as wood or tile rather than carpeting. “Most buyers hate carpets, so when they see them, they get turned off,” said Pavel, a realtor and founder of Pavel Buys Houses. 

Khaykin advised that prior to renovating your home and putting it on the market, you should ask your realtor to provide you with a list of homes in your neighborhood that have recently sold and take a look at what type of amenities and upgrades those homes had. 

As a homeowner, you’re free to make any changes you want. You’re the one who has to live there, after all. So if you plan to stay awhile, don’t shy away from upgrades that make it more comfortable and enjoyable. 

However, understand that when it does come time to sell, you might need to invest in additional renovations or upgrades that make your home more attractive to potential buyers.

What I’ve Learned from Coaching 6,000 Professional Athletes on Financial Wellness

When you see athletes in their element — running the field or making a touchdown — they look invincible. But even though these pros appear unstoppable during a game, the truth is that they need financial fitness as much as anyone else.

LESSON #1: EVERYONE NEEDS A COACH

Our culture places athletes on a high pedestal, but they are just people with a job to do. Unfortunately, lack of financial knowledge cuts across age, race, gender, salary, and even career path. At 21 years old, rookie professional athletes are expected to manage millions of dollars, but the statistics show that most Americans lack the skills to effectively manage their finances. Only 24 percent of millennials demonstrate basic financial literacy, according to a recent study from the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Society puts the expectation on athletes that they should know how to do all of this — establish a budget, invest wisely, create a will, and hire a financial advisor. But did any of us know this at 21 years old? Probably not. In reality, we all need this education because we probably didn’t get it growing up. According to a recent report, only one-third of states require graduating high school students to have taken a personal finance class. In my experience, whether working with executives, laborers, or athletes, all employees can benefit from financial wellness coaching.

LESSON #2: YOU NEED A GAME PLAN

Athletes don’t go on the field without a game plan, and they shouldn’t go into their finances without one either. Whether coaching rookies or veterans, I emphasize having a plan in place to budget, create financial goals, and prioritize savings.

Many professional athletes will come into their wealth without any idea of what to do with it. They’ve probably heard that it’s important to focus on retirement, but the reality is that retirement comes much sooner for athletes than the average worker. Their career lifespan is short — less than four years on average — so they really have to accelerate their financial understanding. When they leave professional sports they are often in their mid-twenties and take a substantial pay cut. Retirement looks a lot different for young athletes, and that’s why a financial game plan is so important. They have a wonderful financial opportunity that they work really hard for, and with proper planning it shouldn’t have to end when they stop playing.

LESSON #3: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU PUT ON YOUR FINANCIAL TEAM

No one cares about your money more than you do, so I’ve learned that it’s important for professional athletes — and all of us — to choose the members of our financial team carefully. I tell athletes that they can’t just hand their money off to others and expect it to be protected in the way they would for themselves. That’s why it’s important to have a base level of financial literacy. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to know the basics in order to protect yourself from being exploited. It’s also important to have a financial mentor in your life; someone with financial maturity who you respect and who you can trust will give sound, objective advice.

LESSON #4: DON’T GET CONSUMED WITH IMAGE

One of the most common pitfalls that I talk about during financial bootcamp is the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. If you’re looking in your neighbor’s window, it might look great while the blinds are up, but you have no idea what is actually going on once the blinds go down. People can project a wealthy image, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are as financially fit as they appear. If you surround yourself with friends who are overly-concerned with image, then you might get sucked into that attitude as well.

LESSON #5: SET BOUNDARIES AND EXPECTATIONS

Some of the hardest moments of managing finances involve dealing with other people who have their own agenda, ideas, and expectations about your money. This is often amplified for young professional athletes because many of them are the first in their family to become a high income-earner. I teach them that they need to set boundaries early and often.

If you get a financial request from a family member or friend, or are tempted by an advertisement, give yourself a day or two to think about it. Look at your budget and think about the long-term impact that your decision will have on your goals. And remember, the only people who will get upset about boundaries being set are those who benefit from you having none.

LESSON #6: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

All athletes have the skills required to successfully manage their finances. They’ve demonstrated that they work hard, have discipline, and are willing to make sacrifices. But beyond that, they are willing to learn. These are the habits and characteristics that got them to where they are in their sports career, and these are the exact traits that people need to successfully manage their finances. You have to take the skills from wherever you have been successful and apply them to your finances with that same determination.

Athletes regularly watch recordings of their games. They continually check their performance so they can improve, and that’s what makes them great. Similarly, it’s important to make time to review your finances and get hands-on with your money.

Claim Social Security at the Right Time

For every year you delay Social Security beyond your full retirement age, your benefit grows by 8% until age 70.

That’s a lot of leeway—and a lot of room to make a decision that can trim benefits over a lifetime. In fact, according to a new study, today’s re­tirees have rarely made the right call, with only 4% taking Social Security at the financially optimal time. 

Put another way: Collectively, retirees stand to lose out on $3.4 trillion in income throughout their retirement—or about $111,000 per household. Almost all of that income is being forfeited because retirees are claiming benefits too early, concluded a study by United Income, an online investment management company. (Results were based on data from roughly 2,000 retiree households, including the age they claimed benefits, their assets, gender, health and more.) 

What’s best for you? There is no single optimal time to claim benefits for everyone. If you are in poor health and unlikely to have, say, two or three decades in retirement, claiming early may be best. Or perhaps you were forced into early retirement by a layoff and had no other choice but to claim early. But “for the vast majority of people, delaying until 70 is best,” says Jason Fichtner, an author of the study and former chief economist at the Social Security Administration.

Given the dollars at stake, why do most retirees claim Social Security by age 63? “They hear the words ‘early eligibility age of 62,’ and they think that’s the first day they’re eligible without understanding that it’s a reduced monthly benefit for life,” says Fichtner. 

He wants to change that mind-set. One way to do that, he says, is to revise how the SSA describes claiming. Instead of labeling 62 the “early eligibility age,” the agency should name it the “minimum benefit age,” while calling 70 the “maximum benefit age,” he says. “What I want people to start thinking about is how they can minimize the risk of running out of money in retirement, especially given that longevity is increasing for so many people.”

Kiplinger generally recommends that retirees wait until age 70 to claim benefits, if health and finances permit. But we often get pushback from readers, who argue that benefits should be taken early in case Congress cuts them in the future to shore up the program. Proposals to change Social Security generally exclude current retirees and workers 10 to 15 years away from retirement. And even if Congress does nothing to fix the program’s solvency, retirees will receive about 80% of promised benefits—another reason to wait for a bigger payout, says Fichtner.

Others say they would be better off taking the money early and investing it. But Fichtner says investors would have to take on more risk to beat the benefit boost that retirees get by delaying Social Security. “The odds are you would have to be fully in equities and hope the market is good,” he says.

James Bayard, a certified financial planner in Baton Rouge, La., hears these arguments from clients, too. They are often persuaded to delay benefits once Bayard runs the numbers. 

He tells them how their benefit can grow each year they delay, and that future cost-of-living adjustments will be based on that bigger benefit. Once some spouses learn they will have only one Social Security check—the larger of the two—when one of them dies, they delay claiming. And when confronted with longevity statistics showing they may live longer than anticipated, Bayard says, “the vast majority of clients will say, ‘Okay, let’s play it safe.’ ”

How to Pick a Travel Insurance Policy

Travel insurance may make your vacation more expensive in the end, but it could also save you thousands of dollars. Not only can travel insurance reimburse you if your trip is interrupted or canceled for reasons outside your control, but it can cover pricey medical bills, pay for medical evacuation in the event of an emergency, replace lost luggage, and more.

But there are so many different types of travel insurance policies — and so many travel insurance providers — that finding the right policy isn’t always easy. You have to choose a company you trust first and foremost, but you also need to find a policy that makes sense for your trip and your budget.

Sa El, CEO of Simply Insurance says it’s important to make sure your travel insurance provider has a strong reputation, an easy claims process, and proof that they pay claims reliably.

“This might seem like the last thing you should look for,” he said. “But there is nothing worse than attempting to file a claim and the insurance company is giving you the runaround.”

What to look for in a policy

However, travel insurance policies aren’t necessarily created equal. In addition to buying insurance from a reputable company, you need to pick a policy that includes the types of coverage you need for your specific trip. Here’s what you need to know:

Make sure your policy includes trip cancellation/interruption insurance

Carol Mueller, Vice President of Strategic Marketing at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, says that the most common travel insurance claim in the U.S. is trip cancellation or “reimbursement for your trip investment if you must cancel for a covered reason.” This type of coverage comes into play when you have a trip booked and paid for but can’t go due to health problems, civil unrest in your destination, or any other reasons your policy agrees to cover.

“It’s important for travelers to purchase a policy with trip cancellation and interruption coverage if they want their trip deposits covered,” she said. Without this type of coverage, you could lose any deposits you’ve made on your trip or any other amounts you paid upfront.

While many hotels let you cancel up to 24 hours before your stay without a penalty, remember this isn’t the case with airlines at all. Plus, there may be other components of your trip paid upfront including cruises, train travel, park tickets, group tours, and more. Trip cancellation/interruption insurance can reimburse you for all qualified reasons when you are unable to travel.

Pay extra for medical expense and medical evacuation coverage

Also, if traveling outside the U.S., Mueller says you should make sure your plan also includes coverage and adequate limits of emergency medical expenses and medical evacuation coverage. “A comprehensive plan like Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection’s ExactCare Extra will include those coverages and more,” she said.

With this specific policy, you get up to $50,000 in qualifying medical expenses reimbursed and up to $500,000 in emergency evacuation and repatriation of remains coverage. That might sound like a lot, but imagine how much it might cost if you broke your legs while hiking in a foreign country and had to be evacuated by helicopter. Or, just think of how much it would cost to have a heart attack abroad and fly home overseas with around-the-clock medical care.

The bottom line: Paying extra for this type of coverage will be well worth it if you ever need it, and some policies include it already.

Some policies also offer fixed reimbursements

Mueller also notes that some policies have fixed benefits that pay out in a set amount any time a qualified event happens during your trip. With their ExactCare Extra plan, for example, you get a payout each time you miss a connection and get rerouted to your destination.

“While the airline is rebooking you on a later flight, ExactCare Extra automatically pays out $100 directly to you for simply enduring the glitch on your vacation,” she said.

Benefits you may not need

While it’s smart to pick a travel insurance policy that is as comprehensive as possible, Sa El said that you may not want to pay extra for optional benefits like Accidental Death Insurance or excessive amounts of coverage for your personal items.

“This is mainly because there are probably other policies such as your life insurance, renter’s insurance, or home insurance plans that will cover you for those items,” he said.

You may also want to explore any travel insurance benefits you receive from a travel credit card. Consumers with a travel card may already qualify for trip cancellation and interruption coverage, primary auto rental coverage, baggage delay insurance, trip delay insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, travel and emergency assistance, and travel accident insurance, among other perks.

Keep in mind though that rewards credit cards offering travel insurancetend to be extremely light on medical coverage — if they offer any at all. Because medical bills can get out of control in a hurry, that can be a problem.

Your Rights When Dealing With a Debt Collector

Maybe you’ve been down on your luck or maybe you’ve just gone through a terrible cluster of missteps and unfortunate circumstances — a debilitating illness, costly divorce, or job loss, just to name a few.

Whatever the reason, you’ve accumulated debt, weren’t able to make making payments, and they’ve defaulted and have gone to collections. And those seemingly incessant phone calls from debt collectors incite anxiety, fear, and deep feelings of dread.

It’s important to know your rights when dealing with collection agencies. Here’s what you should know when navigating prickly encounters with debt collectors, and how you can protect yourself as a consumer:

YOUR BASIC RIGHTS AS A DEBTOR

This might not come as much of a surprise, but most consumers don’t know much about their rights when debt collectors contact them, explains Gerri Detweiler, co-author of the free Kindle ebook, Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and education director for Nav.

In turn, it makes them vulnerable to threats by both debt collectors and scammers. As Detweiler points out, many consumers don’t know:

  • You have the right to ask a debt collector to stop calling you at work or during a time or place that is inconvenient to you. You have the right to let them know when, where, and what time is most convenient for you to be contacted. If you would like them to stop contacting you altogether, you can also send them a “stop contact” or “cease” letter. If they persist, you have the right to send them another letter.
  • Debt collectors aren’t allowed to engage with you in any way that makes you feel harassed, oppressed, or abused. They can’t use threaten you with violence or the use of profane language.
  • There is a time limit in which a debt collector can successfully sue to collect the debt. This time limit varies by state. And within each state, it can vary depending on the type of lawsuit. “If a debt is ‘time-barred’ or outside the statute of limitations, the debtor can raise that as a defense if they are sued,” says Detweiler.
  • You are most likely not personally responsible for the debt of a loved one who died with that debt. There are exceptions: You might be personally responsible if you were on the account, or were married in a community property state. If there was an estate, the creditor can try to collect from it.
  • Generally speaking, debt collectors aren’t allowed to share information about your consumer debt with other people who aren’t on the account. The one exception would be your spouse.
  • It’s highly unlikely a debt collector who calls you has the power to get you arrested or seize your bank account because you don’t pay them right then over the phone. “Dire threats of serious immediate consequences are usually illegal, or threats by scammers,” says Detweiler.

HOW TO HANDLE THREATENING CORRESPONDENCE FROM A DEBT COLLECTOR

If you get a call or letter from a debt collector, take a deep breath, advises Detweiler. “It can be scary and intimidating— especially if you know you owe the debt and just don’t have the money to pay it,” says Detweiler.

“But keep in mind, you do have rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a federal law that provides protections if you owe consumer debts. Your state may have additional consumer protection laws as well.”

BEWARE OF SCAMMERS

Scammers often purchase information about old debt for very cheap and try to use that to collect from consumers who don’t know their rights. “Ask the debt collector to send you written verification of the debt,” says Detweiler. If they refuse, you could be dealing with a scammer. “Just because a debt collector knows a lot about you and the debt that doesn’t mean they are a legitimate collector.”

DON’T FEEL PRESSURED TO PAY ON THE SPOT

This is particularly important if a debt is several years old or if you have a legitimate dispute about the debt. “If you pay something toward the debt— even a small amount — you may reset the statute of limitations which gives the collector more time to sue you to collect.”

GET IT IN WRITING

Before you pay, you’ll want to verify the debt, recommends Detweiler. If someone calls you claiming to be a debt collector, start by asking them for their name, company, business address, and contact info. That might be enough to discourage them.

Ask for written verification of the debt. Under federal law, you have the right to get a verification of the debt if you send the letter within 30 days of receiving the first notice from the debt collector.

Once you receive it, review it to make sure the amount is correct and that the debt isn’t too old (this is referred to as time-barred, or outside the statute of limitations). “Only after you’ve established that should you decide how to handle it with the collector,” says Detweiler.

KNOW WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD

Don’t agree to make payments until you have a realistic plan for handling all your debt, explains Detweiler. “Consumers will sometimes agree to make small payments on a debt to stop a debt collector from contacting them, but the payments are so small they will be paying it off for years, or even decades,” she says. “Or they’ll work out payments on one debt but have others that are piling up.” Before you start making payments, Detweiler recommends talking to a reputable credit counseling agency to work out a complete plan for paying all of your debt.

You might want to consider working with a credit counseling agency on a debt management plan (DMP). With a DMP, the agency negotiates on your behalf to work out a repayment plan. You submit a single monthly deposit to the agency, who then disburses it to your creditors. Through a DMP, your interest rates are often reduced, late fees might be waived, your monthly payments could be lowered, and you should no longer receive calls from collection agencies.

GET LEGAL HELP WHEN NEEDED

If you’re being sued for a debt, or a collector has obtained a judgment against you, talk with a consumer bankruptcy attorney so you understand your rights. “In some states, a creditor with a judgment can seize funds from your bank account or garnish your wages,” says Detweiler. “A consumer bankruptcy attorney can help you understand how to protect funds you need to pay essential bills.”

Debt collectors calling you non-stop? Money Management International (MMI) can help. Our crew of accredited counselors can inform you of your rights, and offer a few solutions on how you can dig yourself out of debt.

Budget Guilt Gets You Nowhere

Looking for guidance and inspiration, we might check out blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and forums. Sometimes we get a real lift, reading these stories and hearing solid, actionable advice. And sometimes we can’t help but think, “Boy, I really stink at this.”

It’s perfectly normal to feel disappointed when we don’t live up to whatever standard or goal we’ve created for ourselves. But there’s a fine line between feeling disappointed and beating yourself up. If you’re carrying around guilt over your latest spending spree or a retirement account that’s not as full as everyone says it should be, today’s the day to let it go. Here’s why feeling bad about a busted budget won’t do you any good, and how to redirect those negative feelings into positive outcomes.

PERFECTION ISN’T POSSIBLE

This is probably obvious, but it’s a helpful thing to repeat: everyone makes mistakes. While we’re often quick to share our successes, we don’t always like to broadcast our slip ups. This can sometimes make it feel like you and you alone are the only one not killing it on a daily basis.

When you hit roadblocks or miss your goals or straight up do something silly with your money, just remember that we’re all struggling and we all make those very same mistakes. Even the easily preventable ones. Someone somewhere just spent $15 dollars having a medium order of fries delivered to their house from McDonald’s. Don’t hold yourself to an impossible standard.

DON’T SWEAT INDIVIDUAL MOMENTS OF WEAKNESS

Eat in or go out to a restaurant? The frugal option is almost always eating in, and if you’re on a tight budget or have financial goals that require you to shave every penny from your expenses that’s the option you should probably take.

But that doesn’t make eating out bad and if you love eating out – if it’s one of your favorite activities – then you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Because those individual choices only matter as they relate to the bigger picture of your personal finances. Can you afford to eat out twice a week? Does that negatively impact your other financial goals in some way?

Don’t get hung up on individual choices. You’re going to be faced with thousands (if not millions) of choices and decisions throughout your life and you’re not going to nail every single one of them. Focus on the big picture.

YOUR EXPENSES DON’T EXIST IN ISOLATION

Everything ultimately comes back to the big picture. In a vacuum, stopping at Starbucks every morning on your way to work doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is the impact of those purchases on your overall financial health and long-term goals. It’s easy to say, “Never buy coffee at Starbucks. Just make coffee at home.” But the coffee isn’t really the issue. The issue is what you can’t do because you spend $4 five days a week on a to-go cup of coffee.

So rather than feeling bad about past choices or about spending money on certain conveniences you love, just think about where these expenses fit in the big picture. Maybe you need to cut back somewhere else to make it work. The key here is not to feel guilty about what you’ve done. Instead, focus on what you’ll do going forward to balance out those choices.

YOUR HAPPINESS DOESN’T HAVE TO LOOK LIKE ANYBODY ELSE’S HAPPINESS

In the end, your day to day health and happiness come first. That doesn’t necessarily mean you live solely for the moment in front of you, but it does mean that your values and personal vision should guide you as you make important (and distinctly unimportant) daily decisions.

In the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, devotees maximize both their earnings and their savings in order to retire as quickly as possible. That means expenses are driven down to the barest essentials. You are careful and pragmatic with every cent you spend.

Personally, that sounds awful. I like trying new restaurants and spending waaaay too much on Christmas presents. FIRE doesn’t work for me, but that doesn’t make my significantly less strict spending plan bad. It’s just different. And, most importantly, it supports my goals and matches my values. If I tried to live with FIRE or any other method that didn’t suit my personal vision, it wouldn’t work – and I’d probably feel pretty bad about it.

So if you’re feeling guilty about how you spend money or the choices you’ve made, examine those feelings. It’s possible you’re holding yourself to standards that don’t match your values. It’s possible you’ve set goals that simply aren’t right for you.

Most importantly, it’s okay to feel bad about your finances. However, it’s not okay to get stuck in those bad feelings and fail to address the cause of your issues. If you feel guilty for what you’ve done with your money so far, that’s fine! But what are you going to do about it?

Should You Move or Stay Put in Retirement?

Our house is large enough to accommodate out-of-town guests but not so big that we rattle around in it. Our mortgage is paid off, and I don’t have a burning desire to live anywhere else—at least for now.

That makes me pretty typical of retirees, according to a study by Age Wave and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Their research shows that 36% of retirees do not anticipate moving in retirement. But more than one-third (37%) of retirees have moved, and 27% expect to move at some point. 

Among those who have relocated, about half downsized. But a surprising 30% moved up to a larger home. “That stunned us,” says Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave. Those who upsized, says Dychtwald, “wanted a house where they could add an office or where grandchildren could come and spend the summer.” 

Respondents in the Age Wave study said their primary reason for moving was to “be closer to family.” But no single reason—and no single destination—makes sense for everyone. “Decades ago, people thought of relocating to places where they vacationed, such as Phoenix and Miami,” says Dychtwald. “Now, they look for somewhere that’s stimulating, has access to excellent health care and a community of folks to interact with.”

Before you make a move, make sure that you and your spouse agree on the destination. It’s not uncommon for one of you to dream of being closer to the grandkids while the other prefers to bask in a warmer clime. Ask yourself if you’d still be happy if the temperature soared or the grandkids didn’t visit often. And consider your finances. If you’re hoping to unlock your home equity, Fidelity estimates that transaction and moving costs can eat up as much as 13% of the sale price of your home. “Do your homework and learn from the successes and failures of others,” says Dychtwald. 

Reality check. A good place to start is with the experience of Kiplinger’sreaders such as Mark and Sharon Koenig. The Koenigs agreed on several criteria for a retirement location when they moved from South Carolina: a climate with less heat and humidity, a place their scattered kids would visit, proximity to a major airport and a community that would allow them to meet new friends. They settled on an active living community near Denver, and “things couldn’t have worked out better for us,” says Mark. 

A number of readers turned into reverse snowbirds as they got older. After a “wonderful, 20-plus-year vacation in Florida,” Joe and Ginger Cissell say, they moved back to Wisconsin to “reconnect with old friends, be closer to the family we love and start a new adventure.” 

Sometimes a retirement move hits a speed bump. Together with another couple, Tom and Gayle King bought a home in Belize. The other couple decided almost immediately that an ex-pat community wasn’t for them and returned home. The Kings traveled back and forth for several years before selling the house and returning to New Mexico because, says Tom, “I didn’t have enough to keep me busy.” Before retiring overseas, he advises, “rent for at least one year, or one season, to see if you like it.”

That’s good advice wherever you decide to go. And be prepared to adapt. One New Jersey couple, Nancy and Garry, had always planned to spend time at their Florida condo when Garry retired. But when the time came, it was hard for Nancy to step away from her volunteer activities, including a youth group and a basketball program.

The solution: During the couple’s initial 3½-month stay in Florida, Nancy returned home for a basketball fundraiser. And she is stepping up her volunteer time over the summer. “The best thing is to talk it through,” she says. “I figured out a way to spend time with my husband in Florida and still get joy from my volunteer work.

Consumers Are Not Financially Prepared for Natural Disasters – Here’s How to Help

But when it comes to natural disaster preparedness, planning for the worst is actually the best way to avoid long-term negative outcomes. Despite this fact, most individuals are not ready for a natural disaster to strike, and neither are many of the financial institutions that serve them.

In fact, according to a recent Harris Poll conducted for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, less than one-quarter of Americans have taken basic steps, like conducting a home inventory or creating a disaster response plan to prepare for natural disasters. Yet the same poll found that 72 percent of Americans believe natural disasters are occurring more often. In other words, there’s a disconnect between what customers believe and what they do.

In the same way most individuals are not prepared, many financial institutions are not equipped to help customers during and after a disaster either. Yet research shows that every $1 invested in disaster preparation saves $6 during a disaster. That’s why it’s important for financial institutions to have systems in place before a disaster occurs, particularly in disaster-prone areas.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Natural disasters do not discriminate, but the recovery process and how long it takes to recover can differ based upon income and wealth. Affluent communities have greater access to resources and support, which helps them recover from a disaster more rapidly. For financially vulnerable communities, it may be more difficult to receive aid or even know where to begin.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Project Porchlight demonstrates the ways that natural disasters can disproportionately affect financially vulnerable households. Ultimately, the survey shows that consumers need a comprehensive recovery program that includes personalized steps survivors should follow after a disaster. Personalization is important because survivors from various socioeconomic backgrounds need access to different types of support and information. The survey also reinforces a recent Urban Institute research report which states that current disaster relief programs and other private support do not fully protect survivors from negative financial impacts.

A CUSTOMER-FOCUSED SOLUTION

There are hundreds of organizations that do a spectacular job of providing in-person, on-the-ground aid during natural disasters. Whether it’s rescuing people from rooftops or providing clean water, these organizations play a critical role in saving lives during a crisis. But what about long-term financial resources that allow people to rebuild their lives once they are physically safe? That’s where Project Porchlight comes in.

Project Porchlight is a post-disaster financial recovery program that focuses on assisting people affected by natural or human-instigated disasters. It provides individuals with the tools, education, and support needed to take control of their post-disaster finances through recovery assessment, aid application, and denial assistance, all of which is done over the phone.

Project Porchlight aims to increase the use of FEMA aid by assisting consumers through the application and appeals process. Plus, Project Porchlight encourages communication between the individual and their financial institutions throughout the entire process.

It’s not a replacement for the on-the-ground work that aid organizations are already providing; it’s a supplement. Project Porchlight exists to make sure that consumers can afford to move on, take the next step, and meet their financial obligations.

THE ULTIMATE WIN-WIN

Data shows that the number of mortgage delinquencies increases after a natural disaster, and in a lot of ways that makes sense. But in the same way disasters can interrupt the lives and financial well-being of consumers, natural disasters can also interrupt the financial wellbeing of financial institutions.

Natural disasters can negatively affect the day-to-day operations of banks and other financial businesses. By partnering with these institutions, Project Porchlight helps to make sure that the company and their customers are working towards the same goal: developing and implementing a personalized recovery plan to improve resilience and minimize the long-term negative impact.

For most people affected by a natural disaster, financial concerns are something that comes into play days or even weeks after the disaster occurs. That’s when consumers usually realize that they have no idea how to reach the financial resources they need. But through Project Porchlight’s financial coaching, consumers can learn how to speak the language of aid applications and appeals.

FOUR WAYS TO HELP CUSTOMERS PREPARE

Natural disasters are a time of high-stress, which is usually amplified by the fact that everyone is scrambling to find solutions. That’s why it’s critical for companies to prepare before a disaster occurs.

Here are some simple ways businesses can help their customers prepare.

Education: Whether it’s a webinar, e-mail, or new customer orientation, educating customers about financial preparedness for natural disasters is critical. Some topics to discuss include insurance coverage, financial document storage, and recordings of property.

Safe deposit box: It might be a good idea to recommend a safe deposit box for customers. It’s important to have a secure place to store hard copies of important documents like birth certificates and passports. Plus, it increases the likelihood that the documents will survive if something happens to the customer’s house.

Emergency fund: It sounds simple, but emergency funds are often the difference between long-term financial struggle and rapid rebounds after natural disasters. Customers who have an emergency fund (of any size) will benefit from peace of mind after a disaster.

Resources: It’s important to make sure that customers know what steps to take after a natural disaster, and the best way to make sure that happens is to provide resources before a disaster strikes. Project Porchlight can serve as a regular tool in the toolbox that you offer clients as part of your preparation and recovery efforts.

How to Boost Your Credit Score

Ryan Ermey: Whether you’ve got a long robust credit history or a slightly spottier record, everyone could use a boost to their credit score. Kiplinger contributing editor Lisa Gerstner, tells you how to get your number up in our main segment.

Ryan Ermey: On today’s show, I give out some fun money stock picks, and Sandy and I delve into renting your home and timing the market in a new edition of Financial Fact or Fiction. That’s all ahead on this episode of Your Money’s Worth. Stick around.

Ryan Ermey: Welcome to Your Money’s Worth. I am Kiplinger’s associate editor Ryan Ermey joined as always by senior editor Sandy Block. Sandy, we have an investing related opening segment today. I wanted to ask you, have you ever had any sort of humongously successful stocks that you’ve invested in?

Sandy Block: No, I haven’t. But my husband often reminds me that he wanted to buy Apple at 10, and I said, “That company is over and nothing’s going to happen.” We don’t buy individual stocks. We put all our money into index funds and our 401(k) plans.

Sandy Block: Now if I had taken that advice, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Yeah, I think that I have always been a little timid about doing that, but I’ve always been curious . . . stories about people who actually have pulled it off.

Ryan Ermey: Yeah, and it gets to something and I have written about a little bit in the magazine, which is you should really have a core portfolio before you venture into individual stocks. By the way, everyone has a story that they could have bought Apple or they could have bought Netflix. My sister claims to have come up with the idea for StubHub before StubHub actually came out. Everyone has stories like that.

Ryan Ermey: But I wrote about that because I only own one individual stock, which is Amazon. But I didn’t buy that until I had already had an established, diversified core portfolio that is for my nest egg. That’s in line with what a lot of CFPs that I’ve talked to have told me, which is that you should take a core and satellite approach.

Ryan Ermey: Your core portfolio should be diversified, low cost, buy and hold, a long-term portfolio that’s going to make up the vast majority of your assets. Then you can use a sleeve of your portfolio to maybe get into some more actively manage stuff, some things that you are going to try to use to outperform.

For a full transcript, click Read More. Or just listen above.

Why You Should Budget Weekly, Not Monthly

You’ve done the due diligence and created a budget (kudos to you, by the way). But despite figuring out how much you need to cover your living expenses, you could still be falling short each month. If that’s the case, consider revisiting your budget once a week, instead of once a month.

As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” In many ways creating a budget is like jotting down a to-do list for your money. It’s far easier to create a to-do list for each day or week than it is per month. Plus, your recurring bills are due at different times each month. So consider chunking it down by week.

Here’s how to go about budgeting weekly, not monthly:

JOT DOWN YOUR EXPENSES

If you haven’t done so already, write down all your basic living expenses and the amounts. This typically includes:

Fixed (expenses where the amounts are roughly the same each month)

  • Rent
  • Utilities
  • Insurance premiums
  • Cellphone bill
  • Monthly subscriptions (i.e., streaming services, subscriptions to magazines)
  • Gym or yoga membership

Variable (expenses where the amounts changes each month)

  • Gas for your car
  • Public transit
  • Food (groceries, eating out)
  • Personal and household spending
  • Clothes
  • Entertainment

Don’t forget to include payments that are due only once or twice a year, such as your cloud backup for your computer, or auto insurance premiums. I divide the payment into x months, and include it into my budget.

FIGURE OUT WHEN YOUR BILLS ARE DUE

Once you figure out what your monthly expenses are, create a schedule for when your bills are due. For instance, your rent is due the first of the month, your credit card payments might be due on the 15th, and your phone and insurance premiums might be due closer to the end of the month. Write down the exact date payment for each bill is due.

DIVVY UP YOUR PAYCHECKS BASED ON WHEN BILLS ARE DUE

After you map out what the payment dates are, you can divvy up your paychecks accordingly. Let’s say you get paid on the 15th and 30th of each month. If that’s the case, then you might want to pay your rent using money that’s coming on from the first paycheck, and some of your smaller bills from the second paycheck. Here’s an example:

Paycheck 1 (15th of each month) – $1,500
Rent (due on the 1st)
Water and power (due on the 5th)
Gas (due on the 7th)

Paycheck 2 (30th of each month) – $1,500
Insurance (due on the 20th)
Credit Card (due on the 20th)
Cell Phone (due on the 22nd)
Netflix (due on the 17th)

The goal is to divvy up your paychecks so that you spend $750 a week, or $1,500 every two weeks. This isn’t a perfect science, but you’ll have a better idea of how much you’re spending on just your recurring, fixed expenses each week of the month.

If you’re having trouble syncing up the payment schedule for some of your bills, you can reach out to the company and ask to move your payment due date. If you explain that it’ll help you make your payments on time, it’s a win-win situation for both parties.

TRACK YOUR WEEKLY SPENDING

Now that you’ve handled your fixed expenses, let’s move on to the fun part: budgeting for your discretionary, or variable expenses. This includes groceries, eating out, going out with friends, clothes, and the like.

First, you’ll need to know where your money is going. You can use a money management app or review bank or credit card statements to see what exactly you’re spending your money on.

FIND YOUR WEEKLY SWEET SPOT

It’s what Dan Ariely, the chief behavioral economist of Qapital, calls your “weekly sweet spot.” This is based on your tracked expenses I find it’s easier to focus on your sweet spot for just your variable spending, not on your fixed bills. So let’s say your take-home pay is $3,000 a month, which breaks down to $750 a week. If you’re spending about $500 a week on bills, that leaves you $250 a week for everything else.

While it takes a bit of work and planning up front, you could find yourself having an easier time living within your means, paying off your debt, and saving for the future. If a monthly budget isn’t working for you, creating a weekly one is definitely worth a shot.

Want help with your monthly spending plan? Money Management International (MMI) can help. Our certified counselors can help you create a budget, and provide you with information, tools, and resources to help you with your finances.

Retirement Plans for the Entrepreneur

The entrepreneurial spirit lies at the heart of the American dream. The path of the small-business owner is noble yet risky, and some entrepreneurs may feel out of their depth when it comes to managing both their business and their personal financial needs. My experience with successful entrepreneurs is they are rightfully intent on building their business in the near-term but forget the importance of rigor and discipline in taking the long view — that is, building their retirement nest egg.

If their business is the type that can be sold years down the road to provide a windfall, they might come out the other side with a comfortable retirement fund. But some businesses are the person himself or herself, such as consultants and Realtors, and while they can be wildly successful during their career, they don’t have anything to “sell” at their retirement. Regardless of the type of business, however, anyone who is self-employed must be deliberate in planning for their retirement, and the sooner they begin that journey, the better off they will be. 

Thankfully, the tax code provides powerful tools for self-employed individuals to help them start and grow their nest egg, most with pretax dollars. There are, of course, the workhorse traditional and Roth IRAs, available to both the self-employed and wage earners alike. But their benefits should not be overlooked. The traditional IRA allows contributions of up to $6,000/year ($7,000/year if age 50+) of pretax dollars, and it grows tax-deferred. The Roth IRA allows the same contribution levels after-tax. It gives no immediate tax break, but it grows tax-free. There are also potential income limits that come into play with IRAs — something a small-business owner should consult with a tax and/or financial adviser on. 

But those are not the only options available to the self-employed. There are several others, including:

If your business has employees:

401(k). The staple of the corporate world, the 401(k) is also available to small employers. These plans offer high contribution limits — $19,000/year for employee contributions ($25,000/year if age 50+) and up to $56,000/year ($62,000/year if age 50+) when both employee and employer contributions are counted. It offers flexible design, participant loans, pretax and Roth options, and a variety of other features to help both the business owner and their employees achieve their financial goals. If the plan is properly administered, a small-business owner can put away on a pretax basis as much as $62,000/year, depending on their age. 

These plans are complex, however, so business owners will want to seek appropriate professional advice to ensure they are being administered appropriately. Employers also need to be cognizant of nondiscrimination testing — that is, the plan cannot favor them or other highly compensated employees — and ensure they’re meeting all federal compliance requirements. 

Simple IRA. This type of plan has lower costs than a 401(k) and is easier to administer. The employer contributes 1% to 3% of compensation to the employee’s plan, and the employee can add their own pretax contribution, up to $13,000 ($16,000 if over 50). This plan allows greater contributions than the basic traditional IRA, but clearly not as much as the 401(k). The trade-off is clear: The Simple IRA provides greater contributions than a traditional or Roth IRA, but less than the 401(k). It is a good “middle-of-the road” solution.

If your business has no employees:

Solo 401(k). This plan takes all the attributes of a large corporate 401(k) and applies it to just the small-business owner. Since it is just the self-employed individual in the plan, there are no concerns about nondiscrimination testing. However, the employer/employee contribution limits still apply ($56,000/year, $62,000/year if over 50). For the self-employed individual in a position to sock away a lot of income to bolster their retirement nest egg, this is a clear winner. It also has loan provisions. 

The potential downside to this type of plan is that there are start-up and ongoing recordkeeping fees, which vary from custodian to custodian. Reasonable expectations would be start-up fees of $500 to $2,000, and ongoing record keeping fees of $750 to $2,000/year. 

SEP IRA. The SEP IRA has low plan costs and simpler administration than a solo 401(k), but a different method of calculating annual contribution limits. The business owner can set aside the lesser of 25% of their compensation or $56,000. So, for example, a self-employed Realtor who makes $200,000 in a year could put up to $50,000 of money into the pretax SEP IRA. Unlike other types of retirement accounts, SEP IRAs do not have any catch-up provisions. 

The key takeaway for any small-business owner/self-employed individual reading this is that they have options, and in many ways, more powerful ways to save for retirement than the average W2 wage-earner. But this is also one area where an entrepreneur shouldn’t go it alone — they need to spend some time getting smart and consulting with a financial adviser to ensure they’re setting themselves (and, if they have them, their employees) up for long-term comfort and stability.

More Changes to Debt Collection Could Be on the Way

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) goes a long way toward protecting consumers from some of the less ethical members of the debt collection industry. The legislation, which places certain limits on how and when debt collection companies can contact a debtor, was passed in 1977 and as you probably know, a lot’s changed in the past 42 years.

Thankfully, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) seems to be aware that circumstances for borrowers and lenders have changed substantially in recent decades. This past May, the CFPB issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the FDCPA in an attempt to clarify and refine elements of the original legislation that didn’t anticipate innovations like email.

The new rules have yet to go into effect, but presuming the regulation goes through as currently written, there are some helpful changes on the way for anyone dealing with an overdue or charged off debt. Here are the key features of the proposal:

HARD LIMITS ON CALL ATTEMPTS

The FDCPA already bars collectors from calling your home before 8am and after 9pm, but there isn’t currently a specific limit on the number of calls a collector can make.

The new proposal seeks to reconcile this by setting a limit of seven attempts by phone per week. Once the collector has had a conversation with the debtor, they cannot call again for at least one week.

You can easily make the argument that seven calls a week is still quite a few, but a hard cap (even an arguably generous one) is a good start.

SIMPLIFY THE VALIDATION AND DISPUTE PROCESS

You already have the right to request written validation of the debt in question, but the new rules would require collectors to make that information more transparent in their initial communication. This would mean a clear, easy-to-understand itemization of the debt, plus a plain language explanation of your rights.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the proposed requirement that these collector disclosures include a tear-away reply form that you can easily fill out and send back.

SET RULES ON “NEW” FORMS OF COMMUNICATION

A large portion of the proposal deals with emails, voicemails, text messaging, and other forms of communication that didn’t exist in 1977. The new rules seek to clarify how these mediums can be used lawfully by debt collectors.

Importantly, the proposal offers guidance on how consumers can manage their preferences (so to speak), by allowing them to opt out of certain forms and specify when and how they prefer to be contacted.

Lifelong Learners: Set Up a 529 Plan for Yourself

If you have helped children or grandchildren with college costs, you are probably already familiar with 529 plans, the tax-advantaged education savings accounts offered by states and educational institutions. The money grows tax-free over the years until you take it out, tax-free, to use for a child’s tuition, books, room and board, and other qualified educational expenses. Another benefit: Most states also offer residents a tax break for contributing to their own state’s plan.

But you may not realize the plans also can serve a different purpose—to fund your own education. If you are a lifelong learner, you can set up a 529 plan for yourself to pay for your educational pursuits. You get the same tax breaks and benefits as any 529 plan owner. You can fund the account with new money or with unused money from a child’s account. Any leftover money in your 529 that you don’t use can go to the 529 of a child or grandchild.

Joe Hurley, 62, of Victor, N.Y., used about $5,000 saved in his 529 plan to study horticulture and conservation at Finger Lakes Community College. “I don’t think a lot of people know you can do one just for yourself,” he says. “It sounds almost too good to be true.”

Hurley, who is a former accountant and founder of Savingforcollege.com, a college finance research website, learned about a personal 529 after setting up plans for his two children in the early 1990s. He sold the website in 2012 and now runs a farm.

To set up your own 529, do some shopping first. Find details on different state plans at savingforcollege.com. There’s no federal tax deduction for 529s, but residents can usually get a state tax deduction on contributions made to their own state’s plan. You can choose a plan in another state, which could be a smart move if your state doesn’t offer deductions and another state’s plan offers better investing options or lower fees. You also can research and compare plans at the website of the College Savings Plans Network.

If you decided only recently to go back to school, you won’t have time to let your 529 contributions grow. But most states allow for immediate 529 withdrawals, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher for Savingforcollege.com. You can set up a plan one day, take money out the next day and still qualify for a state tax deduction that same year. Check the rules for your state. Four states—Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin—have restrictions that may force you to delay claiming deductions or withdrawals, he says.

Karen Austin, deputy treasurer for the state of Iowa, set up a 529 for herself in 2012 to help pay for her MBA from the University of Iowa. By the time she finished her degree, Austin deducted nearly $9,000 over three years from her state income taxes. She says her only regret is not saving money in a 529 sooner.

Know the Rules

You may be tempted to use the money to take a trip advertised as an educational tour, but it likely won’t count as a qualified plan expense, Hurley says. Continuing education or certification courses count, so you could use a 529 for those. Be sure any course you take is offered by an eligible educational institution, and use the money only to pay tuition and other eligible expenses. Otherwise, you could face a 10% tax penalty and income taxes on the account’s earnings, and you also may have to pay back your state tax deduction.

You can’t double dip on tax breaks, Kantrowitz says. Going back to school may make you eligible for the federal Lifetime Learning tax credit, which is worth 20% of the first $10,000 in tuition you pay per year, for a maximum credit of $2,000. If you have additional expenses beyond that amount, you can pay those from your 529. But you can’t use the same educational expenses to justify both the tax credit and the tax-free withdrawal from a 529. You’d owe income tax on the earnings withdrawn from your 529, though the 10% penalty would be waived. To avoid the tax hit, use 529 money only after you exceed the limit of the expenses covered by the tax credit.

How to Stay Out of Credit Card Debt for Good

Why you might be mired in credit card debt could be chalked up to any number of reasons: a series of unfortunate circumstances, chronic debt denial, or poor spending decisions, to name a few. With the average credit card debt in the U.S. hovering at $5,331, over time, carrying a balance can cost a pretty penny in interest fees.

What’s more, a recent survey reveals that nearly one-third of Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings. Avoiding credit card debt altogether could help you be able to save for a rainy day, or make it easier to hit some of your other money goals.

It may not be possible to completely avoid debt – things may just happen that are out of your control. But, by understanding the most common reasons people fall into credit card debt, you can take steps to avoid racking up unwanted debt.

PREPARE FOR FINANCIAL EMERGENCIES

Life happens. A hefty medical bill, job loss, major car repair, and urgent dental work could have you digging a debt hole. It turns out that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcies in the U.S. Add a couple of these big-ticket bills to your credit card balance, and it could take you years to pay that balance off, especially if you’re only making the minimum payments on your cards.

What to do: If you already are carrying high-interest debt in the form of a credit card, save up a bit of a cushion before aggressively tackling your debt. While some might suggest paying off your credit card debt before you save for an emergency fund, if you have some money saved aside for the unexpected, it could prevent you from falling deeper into debt.

AVOID OVERSPENDING

There could be a number of reasons why you’ve been spending more than you can reasonably afford to. Perhaps you spend to fill a void: you might waste money out of boredom, anxiety, or to keep up with appearances. Or it could be simply that you put a few purchases on a bunch of cards, and failed to keep track. Whatever the cause might be, if you make excessive purchases, you might find yourself paying for your past well into the future.

What to do: If you aren’t currently tracking your spending, there are a handful of free money management apps on the market these days. A few you can check out are Clarity Money, Mint, and Buxfer for starters. Monitoring your cash flow is only one half of the equation. You’ll also need to create a spending plan, more commonly known as a budget. A spending plan can help you to not only live within your means, but to live more intentionally.

If you find yourself overspending, find ways to cut back. You can save on everything from transportation to groceries. Or maybe you can start to earn more by taking on a side hustle, selling unwanted items in your closet, or working more hours at your current job.

PLAN FOR LARGER-THAN-USUAL EXPENSES

Common peak spending times are the summer, back-to-school season, and the holidays. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spend on average a bit over $1,000 for the holidays. And if you or your kids are returning to school in the fall, you’ll be shelling out extra dough for computers, supplies, books, and maybe a back-to-school wardrobe.

What to do: Create a spending plan just for these spend-heavy times of the year. What are the additional expenses, and how can you prepare accordingly? Is there any way you can cut back? Or maybe save in advance for anticipated spikes in your budget?

AVOID CARRYING TOO MANY CARDS

Especially if you have decent credit, and the offers keep coming in the mail, you could find yourself with more cards than you know what to do with. Put a couple of big purchases on each card, and you could find yourself carrying a hefty balance before you know it.

What to do: Keep close watch on how much of a balance you’re putting on your cards. Try to check your balance at least once a week. You can also set alerts if your balance exceeds a certain amount, or temporarily “pause” your cards so you can’t make any additional purchases.

If having a handful of cards might be too tempting, consider closing cards you no longer use. When closing your credit card, it typically negatively impacts your credit score. The size of the impact depends on a number of things: how many cards you have, what the credit limits are, and how long you’ve had those cards.

If you’re not comfortable with closing your credit cards, safely stow them away and pretend you never had them. You could make one purchase a year to keep them active.

If you’re having trouble with your existing credit card debt, or are trying to avoid ways to rack up more debt, Money Management International (MMI) can provide guidance and resources. We can work with to come up with tactics to stay out of debt and pay off your debt altogether.

Maxing Out Your 401(k) and What to Do Next

Sure, buying a home is a big decision, but if you make the wrong retirement decisions now, having enough money to live on during your later years is nearly impossible. That’s why you have to understand how your retirement accounts work and how to maximize their effectiveness. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should aim to understand enough about your financial future to know where to direct your money.

Study after study decries Americans’ lack of or limited retirement savings. If you’re like the majority of people, you need to save aggressively.

“With millions of Americans behind in their retirement savings, it is important not only to save, but to save more each year,” says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com chief financial analyst, and a CFA.

For many retirement savers, their 401(k) is their main retirement savings vehicle. In 2018, you can contribute up to $18,500 to your 401(k) plan. In order to do that, you will have to contribute $1,541.66 per month. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute $6,000 more – up to $24,000 in 2018. That’s a monthly contribution of $2,000.

Contributing that much may not be possible, but if it is, it might be a good idea. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why. And for the super savers out there, we’ll also discuss what to do after you’ve maxed out your 401(k).

It Lowers Your Tax Bill 

“Participants who make tax-deferred contributions to their 401(k) are allowed to write them off of their income come tax time,” says Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors, Inc., in Irvine, Calif., and author of “Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors.”

“You will eventually pay taxes once you withdraw funds in retirement,” Hebner adds. “But it may be advantageous to make tax-deferred contributions, especially if you expect to find yourself in a lower tax bracket in retirement.”

If you contribute the full $18,500 and fall into the 24% tax bracket for 2018 (annual income between $82,501 and $157,500), that’s $4,440 you won’t owe to Uncle Sam. If you’re 50 or older and making catch-up contributions, you could save as much as $5,760. It’s hard to say no to savings like that.

There’s Probably a Match 

Not all financial planners believe you should max out your 401(k) savings – some believe it isn’t a good idea. But most do agree that you should contribute up to your employer match. You’re probably getting about 50 cents on the dollar for a maximum of 6% of your salary if you fall into the average. That’s the equivalent of your employer giving you a check for around $1,800 for a worker making $60,000 per year. And don’t forget that over a period of time, that $1,800 will grow. That makes your employer’s contribution worth a lot more than $1,800. Don’t turn down free money.

You Don’t Have to Be an Investing Pro 

Once you contribute up to your employee match, you have choices to make. Many 401(k)s have mediocre investment options. You’re probably forced to choose among a limited number of mutual funds with higher fees and lower performance.

You may read articles or receive well-meaning advice to “evaluate the available funds in your plan” or “speak to a financial advisor” – good recommendations if you actually know how to do it or whom to consult.

But no matter how bad the available choices in your 401(k) are, they’re all better than doing nothing at all. If you barely understand anything having to do with investing and finance, and you aren’t going to pay for a financial advisor, maxing out your 401(k) is the best choice. Not because it’s necessarily the best way to save, but because it’s better than doing nothing at all.

Most 401(k)s have at least a few low-cost index funds as their offerings. If you’re young, put a lot of your money into a stock index fund. As you get closer to retirement, shift the majority of it to a bond fund. Some people say to allocate by your age. If you’re 30, keep 30% of your retirement funds in a bond fund. If you’re 60, make it 60%. If you don’t want to mess with allocation, consider a target-date fund.

“Target date funds in a 401(k) can be a very good investment. They provide investment diversification without having to choose each individual investment. They also trend towards being more conservative closer to the selected date. The combination of these benefits can make this a one-stop-shop for 401(k) participants,” says David S. Hunter, CFP®, president of Horizons Wealth Management, Inc., in Asheville, N.C.

Maxed Out 401(k): Here’s What to Do Next  

Now, if you’ve contributed the maximum to your 401(k) but still want to save additional money for retirement, here are some options to consider beyond your 401(k).

IRAs

Everyone is eligible to contribute up to $5,500 to an IRA (as long as their earned income is at least that much) in 2018. Those 50 or over can add another $1,000. Certain IRA options do have income restrictions, however. Deducting a traditional IRA contribution is subject to income ceilings if you are working and covered by a retirement plan at work.

In this case, for single taxpayers, the deduction phase-out starts at modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $63,000 and goes away completely with a MAGI of greater than $73,000 for 2018. For those who are married and filing jointly, the phase-out starts at $101,000 and goes away for a MAGI above $121,000.

Contributing to a Roth IRA also entails income limitations and phase-outs. For single taxpayers for 2018, the income phase-out starts at a MAGI of $120,000 and goes away for income in excess of $135,000. For married taxpayers filing jointly, the phase-out begins at a MAGI of $189,000 and ends completely above a MAGI of $199,000. 

Spousal IRAs are a vehicle for a non-working spouse to make a deductible contribution to an IRA account.

For those who do not qualify all or in part to make their traditional IRA contribution on a pre-tax basis, they can still make a non-deductible IRA contribution up to the contribution limits. Their investments will still grow on a tax-deferred basis. Upon withdrawal, they will need to have kept track of their non-deductible contributions.

HSA Accounts

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, are available to those with a high-deductible health insurance plan whether via their employer or one purchased independently. Contributions are made on a pre-tax basis and, if used for qualified medical expenses, withdrawals from the account are tax-free. Additionally, money does not have to be withdrawn at the end of each year, so it can function like another retirement plan. This is a great way to save for health care costs in retirement. The contribution limits for 2018 are $3,450 for an individual and $6,900 for a family. The catch-up contribution for those who are 55 at any time during the year is an additional $1,000.

Taxable Investments

Taxable investments are a viable way to accumulate retirement savings. While dividends and capital gains are subject to taxes, long-term capital gains (for investments held at least a year) are taxed at preferential rates. If you have maxed out your 401(k), be cognizant of asset location, i.e., which investments are held in taxable versus tax-deferred accounts.

Variable Annuities

Annuities often get a bad rap and, frankly, many annuity contracts deserve it. However, a variable annuity can provide another vehicle to allow after-tax contributions to grow on a tax-deferred basis. Variable annuities generally have sub-accounts which are similar to mutual funds. Down the road, the contract holder can annuitize the contract or redeem it in total or in part. The gains are taxed as ordinary income, and far too many contracts have onerous fees and surrender charges, so if you are considering a variable annuity, do your homework before writing a check. 

401(k) Planning: The Bottom Line 

If you have the talent, time to learn and are a little adventurous, you could remodel your home for a fraction of the price of having a pro do it for you. But if you’re like most, you don’t have the time to learn. The same holds true with retirement planning. There are potentially more profitable ways to invest your retirement funds – IRAs and traditional brokerage accounts, among them. 

But for the sake of your future, putting your money to work somewhere is better than nothing. With a minimum amount of knowledge and research, you can learn about index funds. They come with low fees and they’re easier to understand than many other mutual fund types. And if you are a diligent saver who has maxed out your 401(k) contributions, there are other avenues for your retirement savings that can be considered.

How to Sell Your Car and Get the Best Deal

TRADING IN VS. SELLING IT YOURSELF

If you’re looking for simplicity, trading in your vehicle may be the way to go. You’ll almost certainly get less money than if you sell the car yourself. After all, the dealership will turn around and sell the car for a profit. But you won’t have to deal with listing it, meeting with prospects, or handling all the paperwork for the sale.

You could use the trade-in value to lower (or cover) the down payment on your new car. And in some states, you’ll only pay sales tax on the price of the new car minus the trade-in value. However, don’t let these benefits keep you from haggling. Every extra dollar you get is one less you’ll have to pay for your new car.

If you’re considering the DIY sales route, you have the potential to walk away with more money in your pocket. Although it can be more difficult, here are a few tips to help you prepare and get top-dollar offers.

1. RESEARCH THE MARKET FOR SIMILAR VEHICLES

Unless you’re selling your car to friends or family members, you’re going to have to figure out where to list your car and how much to ask for it.

Many of the car sites, including Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds, have appraisal tools you can use to get a suggested sale price based on other similar sales in your area. You can choose to list your car there, or use the price and list elsewhere. Craigslist, Facebook, and eBay are other popular options that can help you get your ad in front of car shoppers.

2. MAKE IT SHINE

Most buyers aren’t going to agree to buy your vehicle without taking a look under the hood (even if they’re not entirely sure what they’re looking for) and taking a test drive around the block. Prepare for the sale with a thorough inside-and-out cleaning job.

Not only will the car look more appealing, but you’re also signaling to the potential buyer that you’re someone who has taken care of the vehicle. If you’ve kept paperwork from any maintenance or repairs you’ve done, also organize those ahead of time so you can hand them over to the buyer to review.

Buyers may be put at ease if they think you took great care and pride in the car and be willing to offer you a better price. At a minimum, you’re giving them less reason to try and negotiate the price down.

3. CONSIDER PAYING FOR SIMPLE REPAIRS BEFORE THE SALE

If there are a few dings, dents, or simple maintenance that needs to be done, you may be able to improve your car’s value by taking care of these issues beforehand. You could get a touch-up paint pen for small scratches, ask a body shop for a quote to fix small dents, and visit the mechanic for the maintenance work.

Even if you wind up spending a few hundred dollars, you might be able to ask for more than that because your car will look and run better. You can also use the fact that you just spent the money on maintenance as a bargaining chip.

4. BE READY TO NEGOTIATE

Americans aren’t inclined to negotiate many purchases, but most people won’t hesitate to start lowballing as soon as they’re serious about buying your car. You can prepare for this ahead of time by listing the price a little higher than you truly want, such as $12,000 instead of $10,500. This gives you room to offer a discount and still be happy with the sale.

The downside of pricing high is that you might scare away some people who know you’re asking price is above the market value. Additionally, many potential buyers may sort through options using online price filtering tools, so your ad might not even appear in their search results.

5. WATCH OUT FOR SCAMS

Unfortunately, if you’re selling a high-price item online, you almost certainly have to be wary of scams. Some of the most common include buyers who try to pay with a fake check or money order, tell you someone else will pay for the car, or “accidentally” overpay with a check and ask you to send the difference back, but after you do — surprise! — the original check doesn’t clear.

You may come across some telltale signs of a scammer before the transaction, such as someone who seems overeager to buy the car and even offers to do so without seeing it in person. Or, someone who starts asking you for your personal information with the intent of stealing your identity.

PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND CONFIDENCE

While you have to be wary of scams and put in a little extra work, selling your car yourself rather than opting for the simple trade-in option could be well worth your effort. Especially if you have an in-demand vehicle that’s in good condition.

Here Are the Right Ways (And the Wrong Ways) to Use a Personal Loan

Credit cards make it easy to borrow money in a pinch, but they aren’t ideal when you need time to pay the money back. The average credit card interest rate is currently over 17% APR, after all. That’s a ton of money in interest to fork over for no real benefit, and the cost can be even more crushing if you need months or years to repay.

For that reason — and really, for plenty of others — many consumers turn to personal loans for their borrowing needs. Unlike credit cards with variable interest rates, personal loans come with a fixed interest rate that can be as low as 4.99% APR. Personal loans also come with a fixed repayment timeline and a fixed monthly payment that will never catch you by surprise. If you need to borrow a large sum of money and pay it back over 24, 48, 60 months, or longer, a personal loan can make the experience a lot less expensive and much more predictable.

How you should (and shouldn’t) use a personal loan

Personal loans come with many of the same pitfalls as credit cards, including how you can easily bite off more than you can chew. You can overspend and send your finances into a tailspin with credit cards or a personal loan if you don’t know your limits.

Really, there are savvy ways to use a personal loan and disastrous ways that can leave you worse off in the end. Here are some ways to use a personal loan, and some to avoid at all costs.

Smart ways to use a personal loan

If you’re going to apply for a personal loan, make sure you use it the correct way.

Consolidating high-interest debt

If you have high-interest debt that’s making it difficult to get ahead, consolidating with a personal loan can make a lot of sense. Imagine your credit cards have the average APR of 17% or higher and you’re able to consolidate with a personal loan that boasts an APR of 5% or 6%. Not only will you save big money on interest payments, but you can simplify your life by going from multiple payments each month down to just one.

Updating your home

A mid-range bathroom model cost $20,420 while a mid-range kitchen overhaul cost an average of $66,196, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2019 Cost vs. Value report. A personal loan lets you borrow a large lump sum of money for a home remodeling project and repay it slowly over time with a competitive APR.

Paying for pricey home repairs

Replacing a leaky roof with asphalt shingles cost an average of $22,636, but how would you come up with that money if you had to? Of course, there are other expensive components of a home that need to be replaced or fixed from time to time, including HVAC systems, plumbing, electrical, and more. An unsecured personal loan could provide you with the cash you need with a monthly payment you’d probably be able to afford.

Fixing your car

If the car you drive to work breaks down and needs thousands of dollars in repairs, a personal loan could help you finance the job so you can get back on the road.

Starting a business

Finally, a personal loan can be used if you need startup costs to buy supplies or invest in a new business. As your business grows and becomes profitable, you can repay your loan and reinvest your company’s profits.

Disastrous ways to use a personal loan

Don’t apply for a personal loan if you plan on using it the following ways.

Paying for a vacation you can’t really afford

If you need to borrow money to go on vacation, you’re can’t afford to take one. That’s a painful truth, but it’s one many people refuse to acknowledge. Paying for a vacation with a personal loan may seem like a good idea, but you’ll regret it once you’re making payments on that trip for years to come.

Covering college tuition

Going to college is a smart way to invest in yourself, but you should use federal student loans before you use a personal loan. Not only do federal student loans come with affordable interest rates, but they grant you access to government benefits and protections including deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans.

Buying a car

Buying a car with a personal loan isn’t the world’s worst idea, but it’s certainly not the best. An auto loan that is secured by the car you’re buying will likely come with a lower interest rate and better terms.

Gambling

Using personal loan money to gamble is never a good idea. If you lose your shirt (which you likely will!), you will still have to make payments on your personal loan until it’s paid off. Never gamble unless you have the money to lose.

Investing

Gambling your personal loan funds is a bad idea, but so is using them to invest. You may believe you can earn more money investing than you pay in interest on your personal loan, but there are no guarantees when you invest your money — no matter how experienced you are. If you invest and take a big loss, you’ll be out your personal loan funds plus interest.

How to Keep Your Insurance Premiums Down After an Accident

The following is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

If you get into a car accident, expect your car insurance premium to go up. While the amount of a potential yearly premium spike following an accident can vary by state and your insurer, the national average is $446 if you are the at-fault driver in an accident, according to NerdWallet. (Note: If you aren’t at fault, your insurer might still raise your rates.) “You may be forced to purchase a high-risk policy if you have one or more accidents on your record,” says Nathan Barber, an insurance expert at QuoteWizard. “This can last anywhere from three to five years, depending on where you live.”

And as auto insurance premiums have continually been on the rise, you’ll most likely want to keep your premiums as low as possible.

Here’s what you can do to keep your car insurance bill in check after a crash:

SWITCH INSURANCE COMPANIES

Because you aren’t under any contractual obligations for car insurance, you can hop to another company at any time with minimal or no fees, points out Barber. “While certain companies are more lenient for high-risk drivers than others, the best way to bring costs down is to compare rates and get quotes from different companies,” he says. “After you’ve compared offers, you can see which insurer offers the best rates.”

Each auto insurance company has a unique way of determining risk—it’s not an exact science, explains Barber. Some companies are more lenient toward accidents than others, and there are a few insurers who even have accident forgiveness. The best way to find the cheapest rates is to shop and compare.

What should you do if you have multiple policies through the same company? For instance, let’s say that both your renters and car insurance policies are through the same insurer and you get a bundled discount. If you’re considering changing insurers, note that the change could affect the rate of other types of insurance policies that are bundled with your auto insurance. If you discover a less-expensive policy elsewhere for both insurance types, consider also switching both policies to the new company.

TAKE A DEFENSIVE DRIVER COURSE

Investing the time and money into a defensive driver course could knock a few points off your license and lower your insurance premium. Courses are available both online and on-site, and usually last anywhere from four to eight hours. The cost can vary, and may be anywhere from $15 to $100. While you’d probably much rather be spending your time on other pursuits, the investment now will pay for itself over time, says Barber.

INCREASE YOUR DEDUCTIBLE

If you’ve gotten into a fender bender and your insurance premium increases as a result, consider bumping up your deductible. According to the Insurance Information Institute, a higher deductible can lower your bill drastically. Bumping up your deductible from $200 to $500 could lower the cost of your collision and comprehensive cost by 15 to 30 percent.

Ask your insurer for quotes on how much your payment would be if you lowered your deductible. As the trade-off is paying more out of pocket for repairs before your insurance kicks in, you’ll want to make sure you have enough in your piggy bank to cover your deductible.

HUNT FOR DISCOUNTS

There are a number of ways you can snag a discount on your car insurance premium. Besides bundling different types of insurance with the same company for reduced rates, you might be eligible for group discounts through professional or military affiliations. You could also get a discount for having good credit, installing an anti-theft device in your car, or for having a low annual mileage.

REDUCE OR REMOVE OPTIONAL INSURANCE ON OLDER CARS

Review the insurance policies of older cars in your household to see if there are any types of insurance for which you can either reduce the existing coverage, bump up the deductible, or remove the coverage entirely. In turn, it could lower your premium.

ALWAYS REPORT YOUR ACCIDENT TO YOUR INSURER

If you’re afraid of your car insurance premium being sky high after an auto accident and are reluctant to report it, know that it’s in your best interest to report it. Yes, that goes for even minor accidents. If you fail to report a fender bender and the other party ends up suing you, it’ll be that much more difficult for your insurance company to gather information and supporting documents. What’s more, if you don’t report the accident, your insurer might decide to drop you from the policy entirely.

Everything You Need to Know About Medical Debt

Suffering a major physical injury, accident, or onset of sudden illness can send one spiraling into medical debt. According to a CNBC report, two-thirds of Americans say that medical issues are the leading reason why they filed for bankruptcy. These financial issues were the result of staggeringly high medical bills or income lost due to time out of work.

What’s more, one in five Americans report that medical bills have caused severe financial issues in the past year, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times.

So what should one know about medical debt? We’ll lay out all the key facts about medical debt, from how it’s different than other types of debt, to what can happen if you don’t pay it, and how it affects your credit.

HOW MEDICAL DEBT IS DIFFERENT THAN OTHER FORMS OF DEBT

Medical debt is different than other debt because it’s debt for a service or treatments that you needed to undergo out of necessity, explains Leslie Tayne, Esq., founder of the Leslie Tayne Law Group, P.C.

“It’s generally owed to a medical service provider, rather than a lender of some kind, such as a bank,” says Tayne. “In many cases, medical debt can come as the result of an unexpected circumstance, rather than a purposeful decision to use a credit card or take out a loan.”

PAYING OFF MEDICAL DEBT

On the totem pole of debt, medical debt is considered low priority. That’s partly because medical debt typically carries low to no interest charges. You’ll want to prioritize all your other types of debt first, such as your car loan, personal loans, credit card bills, or your mortgage.

Also, even if you haven’t paid off your existing medical debt, you should still be able to receive medical treatment at a hospital. If you are turned away, you can try seeking treatment at another medical facility. Whether you have medical debt or not, under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), federal law assures that you’ll be able to be seen for emergency room treatment.

It might be a different story for a private health provider, such as a private dentist, explains Tayne. “They might deny you treatment if you haven’t paid, whereas a hospital typically won’t deny you treatment based on unpaid debt.”

DEALING WITH DEBT COLLECTORS

Hospitals and private health care providers might pass your medical debt on to third-party debt collection agencies, which will work hard to get you to pay. If this is the case, you can expect to be contacted frequently as they attempt to collect your debt.

The debt collection agency may suggest that you pay your medical debt with a credit card or by taking out a personal loan. It’s best not to use a credit card to pay off debt unless you can pay off your balance in full at the end of your pay cycle. Taking on another type of debt to pay off your medical debt usually isn’t a good idea. That’s because a personal loan or a payday loan, which is considered a predatory type of financing, will bear interest fees, and bump up the total cost of your debt.

HOW MEDICAL DEBT AFFECTS YOUR CREDIT

Medical debt can certainly cause your credit score to take a dip. If you’re not paying off your medical debt, depending on the laws in your state, you may not be hit with a late fee for not paying your bill, explains Tayne. However, even if you don’t get dinged with a late fee, medical providers can still send your debt to collections.

“Like with all debt, medical debt collectors have to follow certain laws when it comes to contacting you about your unpaid debts,” says Tayne. “If you continue to leave your medical debt unpaid, the provider could take legal action against you.”

Tayne further explains: If the debt is sent to collections, it can end up on your credit and will negatively impact your credit score. The provider also has the right to potentially sue you, and the court can authorize wage garnishment or liens.

The good news is that National Consumer Assistance Plan (NCAP) prohibits the addition of medical debt to a credit report until after 180 days from the time the account was reported to the credit bureau. Also, medical-related collections that were previously reported to any of the three major consumer credit bureaus — Transunion, Experian, and Equifax — that were paid off or will be paid by your health insurance need to be removed from one’s credit report.

SEE IF YOU QUALIFY FOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE

Under federal law, nonprofit hospitals are required to create policies that offer financial assistance to qualifying patients. Financial assistance might include free or discounted medical services. The process of how to qualify needs to be posted online.

While there’s no federal law on the standards for financial assistance, about half of the states in the U.S. have medical debtor protection laws that lay out income requirements to qualify for financial assistance. These laws also provide details on what type of financial assistance a nonprofit hospital needs to offer.

ASK FOR A REPAYMENT PLAN

When you receive a medical bill, make sure the charges and services you’re being billed for are correct. Inaccurate info can cost you time and money.

If you aren’t able to pay the bill in full, contact the hospital or health care provider to explain your situation. See if the other party is willing to negotiate down your medical debt. Or perhaps they’re open to working with you on a repayment plan. You’ll then be able to make your payments in monthly installments, and repay your medical debt within a reasonable amount of time. You’ll want to contact the hospital or provider as soon as possible to avoid your debt going to collections.

You’ll also want to see how your medical debt repayment plan fits in with your overall debt repayment plan. As you might be juggling different forms of debt, it’s important to assess where your medical debt fits into your order of financial priorities.

If you have questions on how to manage your debt, Money Management International (MMI) can help. Our accredited financial counselors can help you come with a debt repayment plan (DMP) and answer any questions you have about medical debt.

9 Smart Home-Buying Tips From Real Estate Experts

Use best practices, however — as offered by real estate experts below — and you’ll walk away a winner with a smile on your face and cash still in your bank account.

1. Research agents before choosing one

Selecting the right real estate agent can make all the difference when it comes to finding your dream home and negotiating the best price. Carlos Miramontez, vice president of mortgage lending at a California credit union, offers a few pointers on narrowing down the agent pool.

“Doing your research upfront can help you make a wise decision and choose a well-qualified real estate agent who’s right for your needs,” he writes on the company blog. “Remember that you’re creating a business relationship. It’s important that you work well together, as it could be several months before the entire buying or selling process is complete. Enjoy a cup a coffee with a few agents before you make the decision on which partner is right for you.”

There also are specific questions you should be asking your agent, such as:

  • How often will you send me listings?
     
  • Will you show me homes when I’m available (e.g., after work or on the weekends)?
     
  • How long have you worked in real estate?
     
  • What type of property do you specialize in (e.g., condos, single-family, or town homes)?
     
  • Have you worked with other clients in my desired area and price range?

2. Search social media for local real estate groups

Social media is a great resource for connecting with real estate agents in an unfamiliar area, says Brady Hanna, president of Mill Creek Home Buyers in Kansas City, who has been buying, renting, and flipping houses for over a decade.

“Search on Facebook for real estate groups in your local area,” he says. “You will be surprised to find that there will probably be 10 or more. Join all of them, including investor and wholesaler groups. Then post across all of these groups that you are looking to buy a house in ABC area, what your criteria is, and if they have any off-market properties to send your way, and include your email address. You would be amazed at how many people will send you off-market properties using this technique. I have bought six properties in the last few months just from local Facebook groups.”

3. Add a personal touch when there are multiple offers

How do you stand out in a pool of potential buyers? Send a personal note to the seller with a creative story about yourself, why you’re the best buyer for the house, and your plan to make it a home.

“If you talk about your family in the letter, you will pull at the heartstrings of the seller and have a much better chance of being selected if you have a similar offer than another buyer,” Hanna says. “I have experienced this personally when selling houses and every time I picked the buyer that wrote the personal note when I had multiple similar offers.”

4. Don’t automatically settle on city living

Life in the city is attractive and convenient for a lot of people, especially if you’re the type that likes to have necessities within walking distance. But even though life’s essentials are easily accessible, the financial picture over time may rob you of a certain quality of life.

“Be sure to check out properties in the ‘burbs and take the cost and time of your commute into consideration,” suggests Shane Lee, data analyst for RealtyHop. “While the city life is always amazing, you might find a way better deal in the burbs. You can even find a fixer upper and make it your dream house with the money you save on the purchase.”

5. Run through all costs before starting the home-buying process

Most first-time home-buyers concentrate on the down payment — the largest of all the out-of-pocket expenses — but there are plenty of other fees required for a property purchase that you should be aware of before starting the process.

“Budget for down payment, closing costs, and other costs as early as possible,” Lee advises. “In addition to the 20 percent down payment (some lenders require less), origination fees are usually between 2 and 5 percent of the total loan amount, and it is crucial that you start saving early on, so you have enough cash to cover all mortgage-related payments, legal fees, as well as broker’s commission by the time you are ready to close the deal.”

Don’t forget about the often-overlooked hidden costs that’ll pop up before you know it, like property taxes, insurance premiums, and any Homeowners Association (HOA) dues. Taxes and HOA dues vary, so be sure to ask for details. Obtain an insurance premium estimate from your insurance agent.

It’s important to figure all this out before committing to a property to ensure you can afford the entire scope of fees associated with it.

6. Investigate the HOA to make sure you’re compatible

Homeowners Associations can be great for many communities because they provide a set of standards to ensure that all residents are living in a place that values beautification and resale value. On the other hand, some folks find the HOA to be too involved, and the decisions of the board may not always be best for everyone. 

Robert Nordlund, founder and CEO of Association Reserves, explains.

“‘Location’ is certainly one of the most influential factors in the value of a real estate transaction, but when it comes to buying a home in one of the 350,000 association-governed communities (AGCs) in the United States, home-buyers face two additional circumstances,” he says. “First, getting a good value on the front end will be influenced by largely unpublicized financial factors unique to that AGC. Second, the long-term fate of their investment will be permanently hitched to the decisions or whims of a group of volunteer board members. The vetting process is not complicated, but it does take time and should be completed before any offer is on the table.”

To help you find the right HOA for you, consider these tips:

  • Attend a board meeting.
     
  • If the association is professionally managed, meet with the manager.
     
  • Check the association’s annual budget and make sure it’s accurate and balanced.
     
  • Ask for a copy of the Reserve Study and take the time to understand it.
     
  • Check the curb appeal closely in daylight and in the evening.
     
  • Make note of any obvious deferred maintenance.
     
  • Ask about the history of special assessments.
     
  • Evaluate the transparency of the board and manager.
     
  • Read the association’s rules and standards.

7. Buy a home below your means

Real estate expert, Julie Gurner, makes a case for spending the least amount possible on a home that meets your needs and makes you happy — even when you have plenty more to spend on it.

“While your friends might struggle to pay for something at the top of their budget, shoot for a home that is 75 percent or less of what you’re approved for to be able to save more effectively for retirement, emergency repairs, travel, and generally enjoy your life far more without the fiscal burden,” she says.

How can you do that? Look for the most outdated home in the most desirable neighborhood.

“Look for a home where the style is outdated — it might need a new kitchen, there’s likely old wallpaper or carpets — but it’s well tended to and all the bones are solid,” Gurner adds. “With time and a bit of effort, the ugliest home on the block can almost always become your dream home. With so many people expecting move-in-ready homes, the outdated homes are often overlooked gems that can save you a fortune and put you in a position to build sweat equity from day one.”

Click Read More for two more tips.

9 States Where You Can File Your State Tax Return After the Deadline.

For most states with an income tax (there are nine states with no income tax), the state return is also due on April 15 this year. However, some states give you more time to file — up to an additional month in Louisiana, for instance. States’ filing deadlines may depend on how you file or pay your taxes, so pay close attention to the rules.

We recommend filing both federal and state returns at the same time – and as early as possible. State returns typically “piggyback” off the federal return, so it’s usually easier to do them at the same time. There’s also a better chance of avoiding discrepancies if you do them together. Plus, you’ll usually get any refund quicker and avoid tax identity theft problems if you file early.

However, we know there are procrastinators out there who will wait until the last minute to file their taxes. (And if you owe money to your state, why cough it up any sooner than necessary?) If you’re one of those people, having a couple of extra days, or weeks, to file your state return can help. It gives you more time to focus on getting your federal return off before the April 15 deadline and then to get your state return just right. Remember, it may take a little longer to work through your returns this year as you figure out the new tax rules.

If you still can’t file your state return by the due date, you can probably get a filing extension, but you’ll have to pay the tax owed (or at least most of it) by the original due date.

Here are the 9 states where the filing deadline for 2018 returns is after April 15, 2019 (from earliest due date to latest). Take a look.

MaineG

DUE DATE: April 17, 2019

RESIDENT TAX FORM: 1040ME

EXTENSION FORM: None

Residents of the Pine Tree State have until April 17, 2019, to file their state tax return on Form 1040ME. However, that’s actually the due date for filing federal tax returns in Maine, which the state simply adopts for its own filing deadline.

Why do Mainers get two extra days to file their federal return, you might ask. Well, it’s because the IRS can’t require returns to be filed on a legal holiday – even a state commemoration. Patriot’s Day, an official holiday in Maine that commemorates Revolutionary War battles, falls on April 15 this year. That means the federal due date is pushed to April 16. However, Emancipation Day is on April 16 in Washington, D.C. This holiday honors the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. Because D.C. holidays impact tax deadlines for everyone in the same way federal holidays do, Emancipation Day bumps the federal due date for Maine residents back an additional day to April 17.

Taxpayers in Maine who can’t file their state return by April 17 get an automatic six-month extension. But an extension only allows more time to file your return; it does not allow additional time to pay any tax due.

Massachusetts

DUE DATE: April 17, 2019

RESIDENT TAX FORM: 1

EXTENSION FORM: NoneG

The deadline for filing Massachusetts Form 1 for the 2018 tax year is also April 17, 2019. Like Maine, the Bay State celebrates Patriots’ Day, which commemorates Revolutionary War battles, on April 15. In addition, Emancipation Day, which marks the end of slavery in Washington, D.C., falls on April 16. Because the IRS doesn’t enforce filing deadlines on legal holidays, federal tax returns from Massachusetts residents aren’t due until April 17. Massachusetts is following along and allowing state returns to be filed by April 17 to coincide with the federal deadline.

Massachusetts taxpayers are automatically granted a six-month extension to file their state return as long as they pay by April 17 at least 80% of the total tax due.

Oklahomas

DUE DATE: April 22, 2019, if e-filed (April 15 for paper returns)

RESIDENT TAX FORM: 511

EXTENSION FORM: 504-I

If you want an extra week after the 2018 federal tax deadline to file Oklahoma Form 511, then e-file your state return. The due date for paper Oklahoma returns is April 15, 2019 (the same as the federal due date), but the deadline is shifted to April 22 if you file your return electronically.

Can’t hit the deadline? Don’t worry…the Sooner State will honor any federal filing extension if no Oklahoma tax is due. (You must attach a copy of the federal extension to your Oklahoma return.) If your federal return is not extended or Oklahoma tax is owed, a six-month state filing extension can still be requested using Form 504-I. Note, however, that 90% of your Oklahoma tax liability must be paid by the original due date to avoid penalties. Interest on any outstanding balance will be charged from the original due date of the return no matter what.

Louisiana

DUE DATE: May 15, 2019

RESIDENT TAX FORM: IT-540

EXTENSION FORM: R-2867

The Pelican State has the latest tax return deadline in the nation. For the 2018 tax year, Form IT-540 isn’t due until May 15, 2019. That’s a full month after the due date for federal returns.

There are four ways to ask for a six-month extension if you can’t file your Louisiana return by the deadline. You can request an extension (1) through the Louisiana Department of Revenue’s website, (2) by calling 225-922-3270 or 888-829-3071, (3) by checking the state extension box in your tax-preparation software, or (4) by mailing Form R-2867 with a copy of your federal extension to the LDR. Your request must be submitted by May 15. Also remember that a filing extension does not extend the time to pay any tax due. Interest and penalties will be applied to tax payments received after May 15.

Click Read More for the Other 5 States.

How to Prevent Old Debts from Coming Back to Life

In Texas, state legislators are considering a bill that would make it more difficult for debt collectors to trick consumers into reviving old debts. The Fair Consumer Debt Collection Act would do two things for Texas consumers:

  1. Prevent collectors from suing for a debt after four years, once the statute of limitations has expired, and
  2. Require that, following the expiration of the statute of limitations, the initial written communication from the collector to the consumer include the following text: THE LAW LIMITS HOW LONG YOU CAN BE SUED ON A DEBT. BECAUSE OF THE AGE OF YOUR DEBT, WE WILL NOT SUE YOU FOR IT.

The protections offered by this bill are valuable, but the fact the bill needs to exist at all speaks to the current state of debt collections. While many collection companies and most major creditors are more than happy to follow state and Federal guidelines, debt collection is a lucrative industry, and there will always be individuals and organizations willing to bend the rules.

In 2018 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 84,500 complaints about debt collectors. It’s important to remember that whether or not bills like the one in Texas ever become law, the first line of defense against debt collection fraud is knowledge and caution. You will always be your own best advocate and defender.

REVIVING OLD DEBTS

The proposed Fair Consumer Debt Collection Act in Texas seeks to address the practice of using threats of legal action to prompt consumers to make payments on debts they may no longer be legally obligated to pay.

Each state maintains its own statutes of limitations on debt. Once the appropriate statute has expired, then, theoretically, you can no longer be sued for the debt in question. (Should you be sued anyway, you would need to prove in court that the statute had expired.)

If a debt collector can get you to make a payment on the debt, or even simply claim responsibility for the debt, then the debt can be “revived” and the clock on the statute of limitations reset. In other words, a collector may threaten to sue you – even though you are no longer legally responsible for the debt – and if you comply, suddenly you are legally responsible once again.

KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS

Statutes of Limitations on debt vary wildly from state to state. If you default on a credit card debt in Texas, the risk of getting hit with a lawsuit generally ends after four years when the statute runs out. Default on a credit card in Ohio, on the other hand, and the statute doesn’t expire for 15 years.

Try to stay apprised of the statutes in your state, as well as any other applicable consumer protection laws. A dishonest collector is going to be banking on the fact that you don’t know your rights.

GET IT VERIFIED

If you’re unsure about a debt, you have the right to receive verification of the debt from the collector. You should request this verification in writing within 30 days of the initial contact. The verification should include the amount of the debt, where it came from (the original creditor), and information on your right to dispute the debt.

Meanwhile, it’s a good idea to pull a copy of your credit report and see what it says about the debt in question. And if you’re a little suspicious about the debt collector’s credibility, a quick internet search may be able to help you confirm if they’re legitimate or not.

BE ALERT FOR SIGNS OF FRAUD

As noted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, there are usually some telltale signs that a debt collector isn’t acting in good faith. Some of the most common signs include:

Not providing full details of the debt – If a collector doesn’t comply with your right to have the debt verified, or is especially evasive about key details of the debt (including where it came from), that’s a red flag.

Threatening jail or other legal repercussions – It is very unlikely that an unpaid debt will land you in jail. A debt collector may choose to sue you in an effort to collect the debt, but usually as a last resort. If the debt collector makes overly aggressive threats, consider reporting them to the FTC.

Asking for payment by money transfer – Beware of any collector asking for payment in a method that makes it difficult to reclaim the money should you discover you’ve been scammed.

Generally speaking, any collector that doesn’t abide by the rules laid out in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is breaking the law and may be acting fraudulently.

LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY VS. FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

Finally, it’s important to remember that the question of whether or not you can be sued for a debt is not the same as the question of whether or not you are responsible for the debt. For each debt, there are three things to consider:

  • Statute of Limitations – When this expires, you cannot technically be sued for the debt in question.
  • Credit Report – Most debts will remain on your credit report for seven years from the date of the last payment. Even after the statute of limitation expires, the debt may still remain on your credit report and factor into your credit score.
  • Collection Status – Debt itself never expires. The statute of limitations may expire and it may fall off of your credit report, but if the debt is never paid, it never goes away. As long as they follow the rules of the FDCPA, a collector may attempt to collect on a debt for the rest of recorded time. They probably won’t, of course, but it would be within their rights to do so. If you’d prefer they didn’t, you can always pay the debt (either in full or for less than the full balance), or you can send a written request asking the collector to not contact you again.

Laws and consumer protections are great, but they can only do so much for you if you don’t know what they are. When it comes to old debts, be cautious and know your rights.

If you’re struggling to balance old debts or find yourself dealing with more collection calls than you know what to do with, consider connecting with a debt and budget counselor from MMI. We can review your finances and help create a plan to get you back to where you want to be.

3 Things You Should Consider Before Selling Your House for Cash

In August of 2017, an investor called us and offered to buy our condo for cash. We didn’t have it listed for sale. The condo was in great condition, the rent we charged covered expenses, and it was in a very nice area that consistently attracted stable tenants. My husband and I took about five minutes to confer before deciding to accept the offer.

The offer was cash. We estimated it was about $10,000 less than we might have made through a traditional sale. After accounting for realtor commissions, taxes, and the time required to sell our condo; we felt the convenience of an as-is cash sale was worth it. The closing took less than two weeks. By the end of August, we had an extra $35,000 in the bank.

Selling your house for cash can be a dream come true. In these cases, investors are looking for a quick transaction. They aren’t generally concerned with repairs. Real estate agents are not involved, so the cost of a broker’s commission is waived. In my case, the inspection walkthrough was merely a formality. The as-is cash closing was also a piece of cake.

The investors who contacted us were the building’s property managers. They already owned other rental units in the building, so we were able to verify their legitimacy quickly. However, all that glitters is not gold. This industry is rife with scammers looking to swindle you, and you should be careful working with people who advertise a service to buy houses for cash on traditional media sources, online, or even street corners (we’ve all seen the signs nailed to light posts).

If you’re considering selling your house for cash to an investor, make sure you do your homework, and back away if you detect any of the following red flags.

It’s a foreign investor

People who contact you from foreign countries offering to buy your house sight unseen should set off alarm bells. In some cases, scammers submit legal-looking documents or send you to websites that look professional. They might say they’re moving to another country for work. However, these people are either never available to speak in person or don’t have a local representative to work with directly. In some cases, the scam artists will send a foreign check with a mistaken overpayment. They ask unsuspecting homeowners to refund the overpayment only to find that the check doesn’t clear. This will leave the homeowner on the hook for whatever monies were transferred out.

Be wary of dealing with buyers in foreign countries who aren’t readily available by phone or video conference. And never take any action with funds deposited until you’ve waited the requisite time for a check to clear.

They only communicate via email

Investors may contact you through a variety of methods. However, once a deal is reached, someone should want to inspect the property in person. If you’re dealing with a potential investor who only wants to communicate via email, you might be dealing with a scammer. Legitimate buyers have no problem showing up and walking through a property they intend to purchase.

The investor doesn’t negotiate

As-is cash home buyers are in this market to find deals. They aren’t interested in paying the market rate for any property. The investors will negotiate the price down to account for any repairs needed so they can sell the home again for a profit. Homeowners willing to sell to an as-is cash buyer must be willing to accept a significant reduction in their asking price.

If you’re communicating with a potential buyer who requires no repairs and is willing to pay top dollar for your home, run. Anyone offering full price for a house without requiring any work on your end is likely trying to rip you off. 

How to avoid a scam

There are plenty of legitimate investors or buyers who are willing to pay cash for your home as-is. This type of transaction works well for those who don’t have the money to make repairs or renovations needed. You may also like the idea of a fast, hassle-free closing. Maybe you’ve become an accidental landlord after relocating, or you’ve inherited a house from a family member and you want out of the arrangement.

There are plenty of good reasons to approach a quick-buy investor, and homeowners can still make smart choices in pursuing this type of transaction. Here’s how to do it right.

Google the investor

Always do a Google search and look for independent reviews online. Angry people who are swindled out of money tend to leave a trail in cyberspace. Start with a quick search on the company’s or investor’s name. You should also check to see if they’re members of the Better Business Bureau, or if there are any complaints with the State Attorney’s office.

Hire a lawyer

While not required, hiring an attorney can help ensure that the process is followed correctly and legally. Legitimate investors will welcome this process.

Check references

Follow up with their references. Legitimate investors will have worked with other homeowners who can share their experience — good or bad.

Pay attention to how they present themselves

Keep an eye on their professionalism. If their correspondence is laden with typos, or their forms of advertising are sketchy (illegal posters nailed to light posts, for example), you should avoid them. If an investor doesn’t present professionally and you want to sell your home for as-is for cash, find someone who does.

3 Steps to Reset Your Budget After a Period of Heavy Spending

… and, of course, from time to time, it’s a mixture of all of the above happening all at once. Ugh. That’s when you know it’s time to regroup, which isn’t exactly an inviting prospect. I mean, who wants to confirm that, yeah, it’s probably a good time to go on a PB&J diet for a month?

But, remember, your budget is your friend. Really. It’s not there to judge your past decisions or make you feel bad—it’s only objective is to help.

Your budget is there to show you the path from where you are to where you want to be. So, if you’ve slid off-track (a position that nobody wants to be in), then it’s a very good time to get nice and cozy with your budget. Here are three steps to get you started:

1 – Reconcile Your Accounts

This is probably the toughest step of them all, but it’s the one that sets you free. That’s right, it’s time to face reality. So, grab a cup of coffee and fire up your budget. It’s time to reconcile with your bank account(s). In other words, make sure that your budget and bank balance(s) match. (It’s times like these when you’ll thank yourself for simplifying accounts!)

If it’s been a while since you reconciled, this might be a good time for a fresh start.

2 – Cover Overspending

Next, cover your overspending. And, no shame! You’re not a failure because you didn’t perfectly stick to your budget, you’re human! Make some adjustments, and keep going!

3 – Be Honest About Your Needs

With Steps 1 and 2, complete, you’re back in a power position because you know exactly how many dollars you’re working with. Now, it’s time for a heart-to-budget talk. Ask yourself:

  1. Was my heavy spending mostly the ripple effect of a one-off circumstance? (e.g., You moved, had to pay for a moving truck, packing supplies, security deposit and several nights of take-out because your kitchen was in boxes.)
  2. Was my heavy spending just the accumulation of habits that don’t fit well in my budget? (e.g., You started a new job and it’s been difficult to pass up the daily invitation to eat out at lunch hour. Plus, you’ve been spending more on gas, too, because your new commute is twice as long.)

Pinpointing why you spent more money than usual helps you adjust your budget, going forward, to help you avoid future cash flow crunches.

Using the first example, above, you might pad your moving fund category more for next time, or even break it out under its own category group with categories for the actual move (truck, packing supplies), move-in costs (security deposit, utility deposit, pet fees) and incidentals (lunch on the road, eating dinners out for the first week).

Or, in the second example, you might realize that you’d rather pack your lunch and save some cash—especially now that you need to budget more money for gas to cover your new drive to work.

The point is, cutting back isn’t always the right solution. It might be the solution, but it’s also OK to increase your budget for the categories where you overspent. Sometimes you have to spend more, sometimes it’s a quality of life issue, and both are totally OK! You’re the boss of your money. This exercise is a chance to shift your budget around and reprioritize your dollars, accordingly.

Don’t Feel Down, Take Action!

It’s never fun to be at the tail-end of a period of heavy spending. Money feels tight, paychecks feel slow and you’re probably dreading the lean days ahead while you catch up. But, if you follow these three steps, you’ll funnel all of that frustration and overwhelm into an action plan that puts you back in control. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel a sense of empowerment the moment you start.

Tips to Buy or Sell Your Home in 2019

Episode Length: 00:27:43 | Links and resources mentioned in this episode

Ryan: Are you considering selling your home? Buying a new one? Buying your first one? On today’s show, Sandy and I find money habits to break during Lent and wrap up with a game of Financial Fact or Fiction. That’s all ahead on this episode of Your Money’s Worth. Stick around.

Ryan: Welcome to Your Money’s Worth, I’m Kiplinger Staff Writer Ryan Ermey, joined as always by Senior Editor Sandy Block . Sandy, how are you?

Sandy: Good.

Ryan: This goes out on a Monday. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and specifically it is Fat Tuesday-

Click Read More for Full Transcript, or click above to listen.

When Will This Fall Off My Credit Report?

If you’ve ever dinged your credit, you might feel like you’re in consumer purgatory. Waves of anxiety might sweep over you, especially if you’ve been working hard at rebuilding your credit. And you’re afraid that you might be denied financing when you need it.

How much damage has already been done to your credit? As your credit health largely affects your ability to qualify for a credit card, car loan, or mortgage with favorable terms and conditions, you’ll want to know.

Getting your head around exactly how credit works can be intimidating. Not to worry. We got you covered. In this post, we’ll give a rundown of what goes on a credit report, how long each piece of information stays there, and how it might impact you:

CREDIT REPORT 101: WHAT’S INCLUDED ON A CREDIT REPORT?

Also known as a credit file, a credit report provides a detailed history of how you’ve used credit. It usually includes:

Your personal information: Basic details about your identity, such as your full name, including aliases; birth date, addresses of places you’ve lived, both past and present; phone numbers; employment history; and Social Security number. Your personal information doesn’t affect your credit score.

Trade lines: Information about all your accounts. These involve what’s called revolving credit, such as credit cards, retail credit cards, and home equity lines of credit; and installment credit: car loans, personal loans, student loans, and mortgages.

This section in your credit report will also include names of the lenders and creditors, account numbers, your credit limit or loan amount, balances, and payment history.

Public record and collections: Yup, your bankruptcies, liens, and court judgments are included in your credit report.

Recent inquiries: A list of parties who have asked to see your credit report. Here’s where you’ll see lenders, landlords, employers, and insurance companies. It also includes the date of these inquiries. This section includes inquiries from the last two years, and includes both ones you’ve made (voluntary inquiries), and ones made from lenders (involuntary inquiries).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED ON A CREDIT REPORT?

Oftentimes there’s a bit of confusion as to what isn’t on a credit report. Marital status, bank account information, and most utility payments aren’t part of your credit profile. However, utility payments that have been passed to collections or defaulted most likely will be reported to the credit agencies.

A note about credit scores: The two most largely used credit scoring models are FICO® and VantageScore®. And while many people think there’s only one credit score, it turns out there are many. There’s also what’s called an Auto Credit Score, which is calculated by FICO. It’s used by automobile lenders to gauge your creditworthiness.

WHAT CAN NEGATIVELY IMPACT MY CREDIT SCORE?

There’s a number of things that can negatively affect your score, and how long they stay on your credit profile:

Late or missed payments. This is pretty straightforward, but being tardy or missing payments altogether on your credit cards, loans, or utilities can hurt your credit. This can stay on credit profile for up to seven years from the date of delinquency.

Charge-off. This is when a creditor has determined that they won’t be receiving payment from you, and considers your account as a loss. The account is then closed. The past due date and outstanding balance might still be reported. What’s more, many times the amount owed goes to a collection agency. Charge-offs can stay on your credit report for seven years.

Repossession. Can’t make the payments on a vehicle you have a loan on? The lender might try to take back collateral, such as a car with a default loan. This will stay on your credit for seven years.

Foreclosure. If you are struggling to pay your mortgage, and the lender takes back the house, you’ll go into foreclosure. Like repossession, this stays on your credit file for seven years.

Voluntary surrender. Let’s say you’re unable to continue to make the agreed-upon payments on a car loan. With hands up in the air, you ask the lender take it back. This voluntary surrender will show up on your credit file. The amount owed might be turned to a collections agency.

Bankruptcy. If you’re debt load becomes unmanageable, you could declare bankruptcy. Bankruptcies can stay on a report for up to 10 years. There are two main types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. While you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it stays on your credit report for 10 years. That’s because none of the debt will get repaid.

When you file Chapter 13 bankruptcy, because it entails a three to five year debt payment plan in which you’ll repay at least part of the amount owed, it’ll stay on your credit report for seven years.

Debt in collections. This is when a creditor passes debt you owe to a collection agency, which then attempts to secure payment from you. This can stay on your credit profile for up to seven years.

Settled accounts. Your debt is considered settled when the creditor agrees to accept payment for less than you owe. These stay on your credit file for seven years.

Hard inquiries. Hard inquiries are instances when you apply for credit and lenders request to see your credit. While they stay on your credit profile for two years, they only affect your credit score and credit history for 12 months.

TIME HEALS ALL WOUNDS

An important factor to keep in mind is time – exactly how much a negative item on your credit report impacts your score will change with time. A missed payment that happened in the past six months is much more impactful than a missed payment from six years ago.

So while many items will stick around on your report for years and years, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to seven years of terrible credit. The sooner you get back the basics of good credit, the sooner you’ll find your score back on the rise.

WHAT IF THERE’S AN ERROR ON MY CREDIT REPORT?

When you order a credit report, it might come from each of the three major credit bureaus—ExperianEquifax, or TransUnion. And each credit report might have slightly different information. If you spot any errors, you’ll need to file a dispute with the respective credit bureau. You only need to contact all three if it’s an error that shows up on all your reports.

EXPERIAN

You can file a dispute online, by phone at 1 (888) EXPERIAN or via mail:

Experian 
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013

EQUIFAX

There’s information on the Equifax website on how to file a dispute online. You an also file a dispute by phone at 1 (888) 548-7878, or mail in a form:

Equifax Information Services LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374

TRANSUNION

You can file a dispute online, by phone at 1 (800) 916-8800 or by mailing a dispute request to:

TransUnion LLC
Consumer Dispute Center
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016

HOW CAN I ORDER A CREDIT REPORT?

There are more ways than ever to check your credit score. Popular credit monitoring services such as Credit Karma and Credit Sesame enable you to track your credit score for free. Plus, a handful of money management apps and credit card networks also now offer free credit scores.

But when it comes to a full credit report, you can order one for free from each of the three major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—during a 12-month cycle. Just visit AnnualCreditReport.com. Beware of sites that look very similar and ask for payment. It shouldn’t cost you anything if you order it from the official site.

If you would like help understanding how credit works, how your past actions might impact your score, or how to begin repaying your credit card debt, talk to us. Our counselors are here to help, 24/7.

How to Prepare for Volatility and a Possible Recession in 2019

Trade wars, government shutdowns, Brexit. About the only thing market watchers can predict with any certainty about 2019 is that we are in for more surprises, and that means high volatility in the new year. For the average investor, this is a terrifying state of affairs.

Making matters worse, speculations of a recession in 2019 has investors up at night. Many think that, after more than nine years, the bull market has been played out. The two 10% corrections seen in 2018 indicate this thinking is becoming more widespread. Some take the inversion of the yield curve during the first week of December as confirmation that a recession is coming. 

An inverted yield curve occurs when investor uncertainty pushes the yields on long-term treasuries below short-term treasury yields. Though a yield curve inversion doesn’t mean a recession is imminent, investors consider it a reliable leading indicator of trouble ahead. 

Whether or not a recession materializes, investors must expect high volatility through 2019. Now is the time to rebalance your portfolio. The goal is to minimize exposure to the downturns while setting yourself up to profit when volatility works to your advantage.

Strategies for a volatile 2019

Investors have enjoyed fat profits in growth stocks over the past decade. These volatile investments outperform more stable stocks in bull markets, but they also go south very fast when trouble starts. Amazon (AMZN), for example, has relentlessly grown and became like a money machine for investors. When the market turned south last autumn, Amazon tanked. Investors who failed to take profits earlier in the year had a reason for regret. 

The environment of 2019 will require a different outlook than when owning the FAANG stocks (which stands for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google’s parent, Alphabet) was a sure way to beat the market. In this new environment, value stocks will be the ones that outpace the S&P 500. Low-volatility instruments are now primed to increase in value as investors rebalance their portfolios. Value stocks and low-volatility instruments may serve as a hedge for investors to consider if they expect more volatile investments to tank. 

Seek professional advice

Financial advisers understand the products that are designed to perform well during volatile markets. A qualified investment adviser can help to provide access to products that are suitable for your specific risk tolerance. 

Annuities and bull spreads are good examples, as they contain hedging components. In bad times, their smaller returns look a lot better than the crash of the highfliers.

It’s not all doom and gloom

It’s easy to lose perspective when high volatility continually shocks the markets. Though the S&P 500 has enjoyed a 333% gain since the 2009 start of the bull market, its gain is still below the dot-com boom’s 417% gain. 

Jeff Saut, the chief investment strategist at Raymond James predicts another 10 years of bull market gains, though he fully expects a number of short-term pullbacks. “That’s usually how bottoms are formed,” he said in an interview on CNBC. He expects the market to bottom and then surge to new all-time highs during earnings season. 

The bottom line

The year 2019 is unlikely to sail along smoothly. There is just too much uncertainty for a steady bull market. But, as Saut notes, there has been no fundamental change in the economy. As a result, the bull market can continue in 2019, though it is likely to be volatile.

12 States That Won’t Tax Your Retirement Income

You’ve worked hard all your life, and now you’re retired (or will soon retire). Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance that Uncle Sam is going to take a cut of your 401(k), traditional IRA or pension income. But what about your state? Will it take a bite out of your retirement income, too?

Most states tax at least a portion of retirement income (not counting Social Security benefits). Your state might offer some tax breaks, but those breaks usually have limitations based on your age and/or income. Twelve states, however, completely exempt the most common types of retirement income—401(k)s, IRAs and pensions—from taxation. That’s a huge plus for retirees living in those states. Take a look at the list.

Florida

Retirement Income: Sunshine, palm trees, sandy beaches … what more could you want in a retirement destination? How about no taxes on your 401(k), IRA or pension income? That’s what you get in Florida, because the Sunshine State doesn’t have an income tax.

Social Security Benefits: Florida doesn’t tax Social Security benefits, either.

Income Tax Range: Not applicable (no income tax).

Inheritance and Estate Taxes: There are no inheritance or estate taxes in Florida.

Illinois

Retirement Income:Midwesterners looking for a tax-smart place to retire should check out Illinois. It’s the only state in the region that completely exempts 401(k), IRA and pension income from tax. Pension and 401(k) income must be from a qualified employee benefit plan to be tax-free, though.

Social Security Benefits: The Prairie State doesn’t tax Social Security benefits, either.

Income Tax Range: The Illinois income tax rate is a relatively low, flat 4.95%.

Inheritance and Estate Taxes: Illinois has an estate tax for estates worth more than $4 million

Mississippi

Retirement Income: If you’re at least 59½ years old, the Magnolia State won’t tax your retirement income. However, the state will take its share of 401(k), IRA or pension income received by those who retire early. 

Social Security Benefits:Mississippi won’t tax your Social Security benefits.

Income Tax Range: For the 2018 tax year, Mississippi’s lowest tax rate is 3% (on taxable income of $1,000 or more), and its top rate is 5% (on taxable income of more than $10,000). (Note: The 3% rate is gradually being phased out. Starting in 2022 , the lowest rate will be 4%, which will be applied to taxable income from $5,001 to $10,000.)

Inheritance and Estate Taxes: Don’t worry about inheritance or estate taxes if you live in Mississippi. The state doesn’t impose those taxes.

Nevada

Retirement Income: Why gamble with your finances in your golden years? Move to Nevada, where the state won’t tax your 401(k), IRA or pension income—or any of your other income, for that matter, because it doesn’t have an income tax.

Social Security Benefits: Your Social Security check is tax-free in Nevada, too. So, you’ll have more cash for the poker and blackjack tables … if that’s your sort of thing.

Income Tax Range: Not applicable (no income tax).

Inheritance and Estate Taxes: Nope—those taxes don’t exist in Nevada.

Click Read More for the rest of the states.

Here’s one financial resolution people plan to keep in 2019

Here’s one New Year’s resolution people think they’ll stick to in 2019: Clearing their credit card debts.

More than 6 out of 10 participants in a recent survey by CompareCards.comsaid they are confident they will pay off their monthly credit card balances in full this year.

The personal finance site polled 1,066 people online in early January.

In particular, millennials are pretty confident they’ll be able to pay off their card balances.

Seven out of 10 of these respondents say they anticipate being able to make their full payments more often this year.

“People are upbeat about paying their credit card bills because they feel comfortable in their jobs,” said Matt Schulz, CompareCards’ chief industry analyst, who conducted and analyzed the survey.

The overall unemployment rate — which was 4 percent in January — and rising wages are likely causes behind the upbeat attitudes, he said.

Positive sentiment aside, people’s finances are still pretty grim: Only about 40 percent of participants in a survey by Bankrate.com said they would be able to cover a $1,000 surprise expense.

That personal finance site polled more than 1,000 people in January.

“The shutdown highlighted just how slim the financial margin of error is for many American families,” Schulz said. “The sad fact is that many Americans are treading water when it comes to debt.”

But how does this debt accumulate so quickly?

“There is a huge lack of education by the credit card companies on how quickly credit card debt can accumulate and how difficult it is to pay off,” said Pamela Capalad, a certified financial planner and founder of Brunch & Budget in Brooklyn, New York.

“No one really understood how the annual percentage rate works,” she said.

The annual percentage rate is the interest rate you’re charged on a loan or credit card. A credit card can have multiple APRs, charging different rates for credit card purchases, cash advances and penalties.

Interest is not calculated based on a fixed balance; rather, it is calculated based on your average daily balance, said Capalad.

In other words, the balance you maintain on your card factors into how your interest is calculated.

Borrowers who are unable to make their monthly payments may be living beyond their means. They are also accumulating balances on their credit cards and accruing interest.

Slash those Numbers

If you’re set on paying off your credit card balance, be sure to stop habitually whipping out the plastic to make your purchases, said Capalad.

“Not using your credit card stabilizes the amount of debt you actually owe,” she said.

Consider a strategy to pay off your credit card.

With the debt snowball method, you pay the minimum balances on each card and commit the extra cash to pay off your smallest debt first. This way, you eliminate the smallest balances first, which can help you free up resources to pay larger debts.

“I prefer the debt snowball method because even though it might technically cost a little more in interest, you see results much more quickly,” Capalad said.

“It’s much easier, especially when you’re just starting to pay off debt, to tackle a $1,000 balance versus a $10,000 balance,” she said.

10 Surprising Ways to Negatively Affect Your Credit Score

A credit score is supposed to be about how you handle credit, so it seems counterintuitive that non-loan actions can bring your credit score down.

Unfortunately, the reality is that even if you aren’t borrowing money, you could still be hurting your credit score. Here are 10 actions that can bring down your score even though they have nothing to do with applying for or receiving credit.

1. Skip the Rent

Even though Experian recently started reporting on-time rent payments on consumers’ credit reports, you probably aren’t going to get credit score brownie points for paying the rent right when you should.

Don’t let that fool you into thinking that you can skip rent payments or pay your rent late on a regular basis without a negative impact on your score, though. If your landlord decides that he or she is sick of your slow payments, you can be reported to the credit bureaus.

On top of that, your landlord can ask a collection agency to attempt to collect on your delinquent payments. Once that happens, the credit bureaus find out and report it. Now your non-credit rent payment is dragging your credit score lower.

2. Failure to Pay Medical Bills

With the rising costs of health care, even those with health insurance can find themselves facing high medical bills. Don’t ignore these bills, though. Health care service providers can decide to report your unpaid bills to the credit bureaus or send your account to collection. Collection accounts look especially bad on a credit report.

Many hospitals and other health care providers are willing to work with you on large bills. If you can pay a large portion of the bill immediately, you might be able to get a discount on your health care. Or, if you can’t pay a large portion, you might be able to work out a payment plan. Realize, though, that you might be charged interest, or a fee, for a payment plan.

3. Ignore Library Fines

For many people, the idea that a $5 library fine could be harmful to their financial situation seems silly. However, not paying could cost you even more than what you owe. In order to collect more money and help ease strained local budgets, some libraries have been sending unpaid fines to collection agencies.

Once your library fines go to the collection agency, it appears on your credit report. On top of that, the collection agency might add its own fees to the fine. Your $5 library fine could easily balloon into a $20 or $30 cost — and bring down your credit rating on top of it all.

4. Rack Up the Back Taxes

Your unpaid back taxes aren’t just a matter between you and the government. If you end up racking up unpaid taxes, the government can place a lien against you. A tax lien is one of those public records items that appears on your credit report and can drag down your score.

A tax lien can be especially aggravating, since it will remain on your report for up to 15 years.

5. Miss Utility Payments (or Don’t Completely Close Accounts)

Utility bills represent another of those non-credit payments you make regularly that aren’t likely to help your credit score. While there are alternative credit reporting agencies that you can ask to collect information on your utility payments, the credit scores that most financial services companies look at don’t include on-time utility payments.

However, like medical bills and rent payments, if you habitually pay late, or miss a payment altogether, the utility company can report your delinquency to the credit bureaus — and turn your account over to a collection agency.

This happened to me once. When I moved from New York, the final bill slipped through the cracks. I didn’t realize I wasn’t up to date on the account until I got a collection notice a year later and I doubled-checked my records. My credit score headed temporarily lower on the news.

Make sure you pay your utility bills on time. And, if you move, make sure you are completely settled with the company. Even an address forward might not be enough to catch all your final bills; 30 days after your move, call the utility companies and make sure everything is squared away.

6. Buy a New Cell Phone (or Sign Up for Utilities)

Increasingly, cell phone providers are checking your credit when you sign up for a contract. In some cases, the company performs a soft inquiry, and your score isn’t damaged. Other times, though, the provider runs a hard credit check. It looks as though you are applying for credit — even though you don’t think that you are.

These types of hard credit inquires can weigh on your credit score, pulling it down. A similar effect can be seen when you sign up for cable or satellite TV services, as well as for Internet service. When you sign up for a new telecommunications service and the company asks if they can run a credit check, ask if it’s possible for a soft inquiry instead of a hard inquiry.

7. Open a Bank Account

Not all financial institutions check your credit before you open an account, but some banks and credit unions do. Indeed, one of the reasons that your checking account might be denied is due to your credit report.

Once again, you need to find out whether the bank is performing a hard credit pull or a soft credit pull. A soft pull isn’t going to bring your score down, but if the bank performs a hard inquiry that looks like you are applying for credit (even though you are just trying to open a checking or savings account), it could ding your credit score.

8 Tax Deductions Eliminated (or Reduced) Under the New Tax Law

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act lowered tax rates and nearly doubled the standard deduction, which is expected to reduce taxes for about 65% of taxpayers, according to the Tax Policy Center. But an estimated 29% of Americans will see no change to their tax bill, and 6% of you will pay more. If you’re one of the unfortunate taxpayers who don’t get a lower tax bill, it might be because the tax overhaul scrapped or capped some popular tax breaks.

Personal Exemptions

Deductions for personal exemptions, worth $4,050 for each exemption claimed on your 2017 tax return (for you, your spouse and each of your dependents), were eliminated by the new tax law in favor of a larger standard deduction and an expanded child tax credit.

The former deductions were phased out for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeded a certain threshold amount. For 2017, the personal exemption deduction was completely phased out for single taxpayers with an AGI of $384,000, head of household filers with an AGI of $410,150, married couples filing a joint return with an AGI of $436,300, and married taxpayers filing a separate return with an AGI of $218,150.

Moving Expenses

In the past, people who relocated for a job and paid the moving costs could deduct most of their expenses, even if they didn’t itemize. The tax overhaul eliminated that deduction unless you’re an active-duty member of the military.

Alimony

If you’re paying alimony under the terms of a divorce agreement finalized by December 31, 2018, go ahead and deduct your payments. For divorce agreements reached after 2018, though, alimony is no longer deductible, which is why courthouses were very busy at the end of last year. The deduction is also lost if an existing agreement is changed after 2018 to exclude the alimony from your former spouse’s income.

Ex-spouses who receive alimony payments under an agreement finalized or modified after 2018 will no longer have to pay taxes on the money.

Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions

These deductions included the write-off for tax preparation fees, investment fees, hobby losses, job search expenses, safe deposit boxes and unreimbursed business expenses. Previously, taxpayers could deduct these expenses if they exceeded 2% of their adjusted gross income.

The loss of these deductions could be particularly costly for employees with significant unreimbursed business expenses. For example, an employee who uses his or her own car to visit clients—and isn’t reimbursed for the mileage—could end up with a higher tax bill this year. The change could also prove costly for employees who work remotely, since they’ll no longer be allowed to deduct the cost of maintaining a home office. (The new tax law doesn’t affect the ability of self-employed workers to claim a home-office deduction.)

Click “Read More” for the other four.

How All 50 States Tax Retirees

Retirees relocate for lots of different reasons, from the weather to proximity to grandchildren. Moving from a pricey part of the country to one with low housing prices could also lower your expenses and make your retirement savings last longer. But as you consider the cost of living in potential retirement destinations, don’t overlook the impact of state taxes on your bottom line.

Arizona

OUR RANKING: Mixed tax picture

STATE INCOME TAX: 2.59% (on up to $20,690 of taxable income for married joint filers and up to $10,346 for all others) — 4.54% (on more than $310,317 of taxable income for married joint filers and more than $155,159 for all others)

AVERAGE STATE AND LOCAL SALES TAXES: 8.33%

ESTATE TAX/INHERITANCE TAX: No/No

GO TO ARIZONA’S FULL STATE TAX PROFILE

The Grand Canyon State is a major retirement destination, with plenty of sunshine and a low personal income tax rate that tops out at 4.54%. Social Security benefits are exempt, as is up to $2,500 of some retirement income. The shadow on this picture? Stiff sales taxes, which in many places are also levied on groceries.

Florida

OUR RANKING: Most tax-friendly

STATE INCOME TAX: None

AVERAGE STATE AND LOCAL SALES TAXES: 6.80%

ESTATE TAX/INHERITANCE TAX: No/No

GO TO FLORIDA’S FULL STATE TAX PROFILE

One of Kiplinger’ top ten most tax-friendly states for retirees, the Sunshine State is very popular with retirees, not just because of its abundant sunshine but also because of the absence of a state income tax. Permanent residents are entitled to a homestead exemption of up to $50,000, regardless of age, and seniors may qualify for an additional exemption.

Texas

OUR RANKING: Tax-friendly

STATE INCOME TAX: None

AVERAGE STATE AND LOCAL SALES TAXES: 8.17%

ESTATE TAX/INHERITANCE TAX: No/No

GO TO TEXAS’ FULL STATE TAX PROFILE

The Lone Star State is a no-income-tax state, so Social Security benefits and all forms of retirement income escape taxes in Texas. The state offers a homestead exemption for all homeowners, as well as a homestead exemption for seniors. But, sales taxes run high.

Click “Read More” for a list of the full 50 states, plus DC.

When Is the Earliest You Can File Your Tax Return in 2019?

The sooner you file your tax return, the sooner you’ll receive any refund due. But if you were worried that the partial government shutdown was going to push back the start of tax filing season, don’t be. The IRS just announced that it will start accepting 2018 tax returns on January 28, 2019, a day earlier than last year, and provide tax refunds on time according to its normal schedule.

If you have a federal tax refund coming, you could get your money back in as little as three weeks. In the past, the IRS has issued over 90% of refunds in less than 21 days. It remains to be seen if the IRS can keep this up in the event of a prolonged government shutdown.

If you want to speed up the refund process, e-file your 2018 tax return and select the direct deposit payment method. That’s the fastest way. Paper returns and checks slow things down considerable.

However, don’t expect your refund before mid-February if you claim the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit. By law, refunds for returns claiming these credits must be delayed. This applies to the entire refund, not just the portion associated with the credits.

How to Sell Your Home When You’re Underwater on Your Mortgage

It’s no fun selling a home when you’re underwater on your mortgage. Being “underwater” is when you owe more on your mortgage loan than your home is worth.

Unfortunately, there are times when homeowners have no choice. Your employer might transfer you to a new job across the country. Or your home might be too small for a growing family. If you’re in this situation, the odds are high that you’ll have to write a check to your lender once your home sale closes. But you might be able to reduce the amount you owe by setting the right asking price and staging your home so that it looks its very best. Here’s how to sell your home when you’re underwater on your mortgage.

The challenge

Why is selling a home with negative equity such a financial hit? Instead of making money on your home sale, you’ll lose it.

Say you owe $200,000 on your mortgage, but your home is worth only $180,000. You’ll struggle to sell your home for more than that $180,000 value. And even if you do sell at that figure, you’ll still owe your lender $20,000 after you close your sale. This means you’ll have to write your lender a check for $20,000 at closing. That’s not the outcome any home seller wants.

Wait to sell

What if you are underwater on your mortgage? The best advice is to hold off on selling your home, if possible. That way, you can hope that your home gains value — hopefully enough so you no longer have negative equity.

You can also wait until you make enough monthly mortgage payments so you no longer owe more on your home loan than it’s worth. If you can send extra money to your lender to be applied directly to reducing your loan’s principal balance, you might be able to build equity at a faster pace.

It’s becoming less and less common

The good news is that the number of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages is falling, compared to what it was a few years ago. CoreLogic reported that in the first quarter of 2018, the number of homes with negative equity had fallen 3 percent to under 2.5 million, which represents 4.7 percent of all properties with a mortgage.

How to set the right asking price

If you have no choice but to sell, the key is to set the right asking price for your property. If you’re underwater, you might want to set an asking price that’s higher than what the market says your home is worth. Resist this temptation.

Buyers know what a home is worth today. If you set your asking price too high, most will pass your home by, looking at other properties instead. You can’t force buyers to pay more for your home because you’re underwater, because buyers don’t care what you originally paid for your home.

You need to set an asking price that’s fair, but also the highest possible amount you can sell it for. The best way to find this price is to work with a real estate agent who is familiar with your neighborhood. They can help you set an asking price that draws the biggest number of potential buyers, increasing your odds of selling your home for the highest price.

Staging your home

If you’re underwater and plan to sell, you’ll want to spend the least amount of money possible to sell your home. But investing in a home stager can pay off. A stager will rearrange your furniture and home décor so that your home looks more spacious, bright, and airy. This will help your home make a strong first impression on buyers. You want buyers to be excited about your home and to make offers that are close to your listing price.

Make all necessary repairs

In order to sell your home, you’ll have to repair any broken appliances, torn carpets, dinged walls, or stuck windows. You can’t list your home with any defects if you expect buyers to pay top dollar for it.

Don’t forget the outside

Spend time on your home’s exterior, too. Make sure the lawn is neatly trimmed, all weeds are pulled, and you add pops of color with some bright plants. You want buyers to be excited when they pull up. If they see a well-maintained and inviting exterior, they’ll be more eager to tour the inside of your home.

The key here is to squeeze the highest possible offer out of buyers. To do that, your home must be in top condition, both inside and out.

5 Things Keeping You From a Life of Financial Independence

Financial independence can mean different things to everyone. A 2013 survey from Capital One 360 found that 44 percent of American adults feel that financial independence means not having any debt, 26 percent said it means having an emergency savings fund, and 10 percent link financial independence with being able to retire early.

I define financial independence as the time in life when my assets produce enough income to cover a comfortable lifestyle. At that point, working a day job will be optional.

But what about the rest of America? How would you define financial independence? If freedom from debt is what you’re seeking, here are five areas that could be holding you back.

1. Not having clear, financial goals

If you’re not planning for financial independence, chances are you won’t reach it. The future is full of unknowns, but having an idea of when you’d like to achieve financial freedom should be your first step.

Do you want to retire before you turn 65? Do you want to travel the world with your spouse once you reach early retirement? Both goals will require a significant amount of cash stashed away, so it’s important to start saving ASAP to make those dreams come true.

2. Not saving enough

It’s important to identify how much you’re currently saving, and how much you need to save in order to retire when you want to, or reach another major financial goal. Using a calculator like Networthify can help you play with various money-saving scenarios and make realistic projections about retirement.

Another way to make saving money easier is to automate it. Setting up an automatic weekly or monthly transfer from your checking account into your savings account will take the extra task off your already full plate. Even if it’s as little as $5 a week, it’s enough to start building that nest egg.

3. Not paying off consumer debt

If you’re carrying a credit card balance each month, financing cars, or just paying the minimum on your student loans, compound interest is working against you. Creating an aggressive plan to pay off debt quickly should be a number one priority for anyone who is serious about achieving financial independence. Otherwise, your money is working for your creditors, not you.

If you prefer to tackle credit card debt first, there are several debt management methods you can try, including the Debt Snowball Method and the Debt Avalanche Method. The Debt Snowball Method has you paying off the card with the smallest balance first, working your way up to the card with the largest balance. The Debt Avalanche Method is similar, but here you would pay more than the monthly minimum on the card with the highest interest rate first, working towards paying off the card with the lowest interest rate. Both are highly effective methods, and choosing one really just depends on your preference.

4. Giving into lifestyle creep

A high income does not automatically make you wealthy. As you move up in your career, the temptation to upgrade your lifestyle to match your income will be ever-present. After all, you work hard, so why not reward yourself with the latest gadgets and toys?

However, if you continue to spend and live modestly, you can put more money away for travel or retirement with every pay raise you earn. Financial freedom will be just around the corner if you resist that temptation to upgrade your home, car, and electronics to match your income bracket.

5. Being driven by FOMO

Fear Of Missing Out, aka FOMO, is the modern version of keeping up with the Joneses. Except now you have access to the Joneses’ social media platforms, and they go on all kinds of fun adventures. Social media is a great tool for keeping in touch, but it can also make you want to spend all your money on lavish vacations, clothes, spa treatments, and other extravagent things. Resist that urge. And block the Joneses on social media if needed.

6 Tips to Get Your 2019 Financial House in Order

On New Year’s Day, my husband and I sit down at the kitchen table and map out our financial plan for the year. We have three children, so whether it’s deciding on our travel plans or allocating money for retirement, we make decisions that divvy up how we will spend and invest our money over the next 12 months.

This annual planning session achieves two goals: It helps us balance our family planning activities while providing a quick review of our current investments. On one hand, it’s fun to consider a trip to Disney or a Caribbean cruise for our family vacation. On the other hand, we check on the progress of our cash and investment accounts to make certain we’ll have enough money to live comfortably now, as well as 20 years from now, while paying for three college educations in between.

If you want to get a jump on your 2019 finances, here are six tips on how to allocate your time and money to help ensure you are saving and investing in the right places:

No. 1: Pay off all Holiday Bills.

My husband and I enjoy giving gifts to family, friends and our community, especially this time of year, and it does add up. While we use cash for some gifts, we pay for others with credit cards to earn the rewards before paying off any debt in January. Our goal is to quickly pay off these credit cards and start 2019 free of any credit card or other consumer debt.

No. 2: Plan the Family Vacation Schedule.

This task accomplishes two things. First, it provides a timeline so we can set aside the money to pay for the vacations. For example, if we want to take a summer vacation once the school year is over, we have roughly six months to budget for that. Second, I can block out time on my work calendar. This has been the No. 1 reason our vacation plans have fallen apart in the past — and it doesn’t make me very popular at home!

No. 3: Set Aside Money to Fund our Individual Retirement Accounts.

In 2019, individuals can contribute $6,000 if they are under age 50 and $7,000 if over age 50. That’s a $500 increase from 2018. I like the discipline and challenge of saving the maximum each year, since you can’t go back and make up for missed years of IRA contributions. Remember you need to have earned income in order to contribute to an IRA.

No. 4: Fund 529 College Education Savings Plans for our Children.

In addition to giving families a way to save, many states provide a tax deduction for these contributions. We live in Georgia, which allows a married couple to deduct the first $4,000 they contribute for each child on their state income tax. Education is a priority for our family, and we know we need to sock away much more than $4,000 per child each year to reach our goals.

No. 5: Fund Our Health Savings Account.

We choose a high-deductible health insurance plan, which means we can contribute before-tax money to a health savings account to pay for doctor visits and other medical bills. The amount people can contribute to these accounts in 2019 is $3,500 for singles and $7,000 for families, with an extra $1,000 for those over age 55. Our goal is to not touch the money in our HSA each year, and let it build up for retirement or any unforeseen large family medical expense we might encounter down the road.

No. 6: Increase Our 401(k) Retirement Fund contributions.

I’m a big advocate of contributing the maximum amount to this account each year, which will be $19,000 in 2019 for those under age 50 and $25,000 for those ages 50 and over. Like IRAs, you can’t go back and make up for missed years of 401(k) savings, so make this a priority now.

Because we want to set aside money for all of these accounts, we budget monthly savings for the 401(k) and 529 plans, and periodic lump sum deposits into our IRAs and HSA during the year as we have extra cashflow. All the while making sure our vacations can be paid for without lingering credit card bills.

Don’t be intimidated by the planning process. It may take time to mix the fun part (planning the family vacation) with the hard part (saving all of that money now instead of spending it). But taking a few hours each January to knock out a plan will help pay dividends for many years to come.

7 Things You Can Downsize Right Now

When we think of the term “downsizing,” we often think of trading a larger home for a smaller one. But downsizing isn’t just for houses. Look around you. What’s consuming too much of your time, your money, your space, or your energy? In a nation that famously supersizes everything, downsizing just might be the key to a more fulfilling life. Here are seven things you can downsize right now.

1. Car

Advertisers work hard to convince us that what we drive defines who we are. But that trick costs all of us money (after all, who wants to be a 1974 Pinto?).

Don’t fall for it. Instead, embrace this revolutionary truth: Cars are simply tools to get us from Point A to Point B. Unburden yourself from an auto loan you can’t afford and insurance premiums that bust your budget. Downsize to the safest, most fuel-efficient pre-owned model you can afford.

2. Wardrobe

My sister-in-law once had so many clothes that she purchased three commercial clothes racks and expanded her closet into the basement. If your wardrobe is gobbling up more square footage every year, it might be time to downsize.

Consider donating items you no longer wear to charities like Dress for Success, Career Gear, or a local community outreach center. You could also sell your clothing, shoes, and accessories to an online consignment shop and make a little extra cash.

3. Cable and cellphone plans

Once we’ve signed up for cellphone plans and cable packages, we seldom give them a critical review. That inattention means we could be missing out on cheaper options that better match our lifestyle, or special offers that provide the same level of service for less money. Take 30 minutes to see if you can downsize your cable and cellphone plans — and the costs that go with them.

4. Subscription services

From gourmet cheeses to beauty supplies, subscription services deliver the world to our doorstep. But all that convenience comes at a price.

Take a hard look at your bank statement and your spending habits. Are multiple subscription services nickel-and-diming your budget to death? Is most of that gourmet cheese growing fuzz the fridge? If the answer is “yes,” switch to a less expensive subscription package or cancel altogether.

5. Spending

Forget about the idea of cutting corners for a month or two. When you downsize your spending, you’re finding permanent ways to minimize your expenditures. It’s a mental and behavioral shift that’s the first step in living more frugally. Explore ways to reduce your monthly spending by 10 percent, and then use that money to pay down debt or boost your retirement savings.

6. Debt

Once you’ve downsized your spending, attack the three-headed monster it created — debt. While it makes perfect sense to pay off debt with the highest interest rates first, many people find more success using the debt snowball method. In this approach, you pay off your smallest debt first (regardless of the interest rate), which gives you a motivational boost to stick with your downsizing plan until everything is paid off.

7. Schedule and commitments

A dear friend of mine recently started a new job with a college on the East Coast. In addition to this full-time administrative role, he’s teaching two classes and interviewing students for a grant program. I love him to death, but saying “no” is not his strong suit.

Sound like you? Remember, your time is a rare resource. If you’re constantly moving and always stressed, downsize your schedule. Life is short; carve out some time to simply be.

4 Ways to Turn Your Generational Gripe into Greater Financial Security

If you came across the following headlines while browsing the internet, would you be able to identify the generation for which the author was forecasting near-certain doom?

“America’s [Insert Generation] Waking Up to a Grim Financial Future” … [answer: Millennials]

“[Insert Generation] Face Reality They Might Never Retire” … [answer: Baby Boomers]

“[Insert Generation] Isn’t Financially Prepared for Retirement” … [answer: Baby Boomers]

No matter how differently Baby Boomers and Millennials view the world, we find common ground on at least issue: our daunting financial futures. As an early-30s Certified Financial Planner™ who built a financial planning company specifically for my generation, I’m attuned to both generations’ perspectives: many of my clients have dealt with significant financial stress since they entered adulthood, and they’re concerned that they will experience the same retirement challenges as their parents.

Despite this shared plight, both groups still devote too much energy to debating each other’s faults and mistakes, from the American institutions that Millennials have killed to the self-centered economic decisions that Baby Boomers have made. No matter how well-founded some of the complaints may be, this focus just perpetuates an unproductive blame-and-complain cycle. Our parents’ generation may disagree with some of our habits and preferences, and we may feel angry about the financial system that we have inherited, but I’m inclined to believe that we’re all ready to move past this point.

The present reality feels stressful for both groups, and I imagine that almost everyone wonders when we can transition from bleak navel-gazing to proactive, hopeful strategizing. But how do we get there?

That answer starts with empowerment. My generation may be fatigued from the economic hurdles that we encountered out of the gate, but we’re still very young. If society has shifted an increasing amount of financial burden on to our shoulders, then we’ll at least need to focus for now on the circumstance we can control. We can strengthen our long-term financial security with the right combination of knowledge, skills and attitude — and this is precisely where our two distinct generations can embrace our differences.

Baby Boomers have perspective and experience that we can’t even begin to appreciate, and we’ll need that insight to make better decisions for ourselves and our own children. Our generations should focus on interacting with more mutually beneficial purpose, starting with the following four actions:

No. 1: Engage in Skill Exchanges

With each new scooter app and Kanye meme, Baby Boomers lean more heavily on younger generations for help with technology and cultural shifts. Millennials, meanwhile, need help identifying and building a unique skill set to protect themselves from wage stagnation and job insecurity. Our life stages may differ, but both groups need to constantly update their knowledge and skills to boost their financial security. We need to become more open and intentional about devoting time to developing and sharing our skills.

No. 2: Share Networks

For the Baby Boomers in leadership roles, evolving economic trends require access to qualified job candidates who can quickly fill a hiring need. For the young people who seek more control over their income and schedules, the leap from a company salary to self-employment revenue actually isn’t that huge — even if they don’t inherently think of themselves as entrepreneurs. Both generations ultimately depend on strong networks for success with these objectives. Instead of just defaulting to happy-hour networking, Millennials should ask more often for specific help, and Baby Boomers should brainstorm who among their contacts might offer relevant guidance.

No. 3: Prioritize Policies over Perks

Baby Boomer executives have graciously embraced perks like ping pong tables and free cold brew as a way to appeal to my generation. These perks are nice, but they’re a commodity now, and, frankly, were pretty trivial from the start. Research suggests that employees actually bring the most energy and focus to the office when they can count on flexible schedules, progressive parental leave, affordable child care and mandatory vacation time. We may enjoy showing off that office slide on Instagram, but my generation isn’t much different in the benefits that we prefer.

No. 4: Encourage Salary Transparency

Employers long have treated salary information as secretly as parents approach household finances with their children. As gender and racial pay disparities have drawn more attention, though, young and old generations alike have started to realize that current workplace norms are not — and shouldn’t be — sustainable. Baby Boomers who embrace salary transparency stand to generate both goodwill and better effort from younger employees, who ultimately are just seeking fair, equal pay for the tasks they complete for their employer.

Baby Boomers, think back to the goals that you had in your late 20s and early 30s. Perhaps you wanted to purchase your first house, start a family, or become an expert within a certain industry. While I assume you weren’t using terms like “FOMO,” you probably weren’t all that different from us and our desire to achieve financial security. These similarities give me hope that we soon will start to reframe the tired narratives around our generations to inspire new, more uplifting headlines.

Money Moves to Make Now

Many people wait until the new year—and the annual ritual of New Year’s resolutions—to take stock of their finances. But there are compelling reasons to attend to some financial tasks before December 31.

Health care

Spend your FSA money

If you have a health care or dependent care flexible spending account, check its balance and rules. In many cases, you’ll lose anything left in the account at year-end—although some accounts allow you to carry over up to $500 or offer a grace period for claiming expenses from the previous year. If you still have cash in the account that needs to be spent, start by reimbursing yourself for any eligible health or dependent care expenses that you overlooked earlier in the year, including deductibles and co-pays as well as uncovered expenses for glasses or contacts, prescription drugs, or dental care. Beyond that, stock up on FSA-eligible products, such as contact lens solution, first aid items and thermometers. For a list of FSA-eligible items, visit fsastore.com.

Round up HSA-eligible expenses

Unlike FSAs, health savings accounts offer an unlimited amount of time to reimburse yourself for eligible medical expenses and don’t have a use-it-or-lose-it rule, so you can let the money grow tax-free until you need it. Gather the receipts for any medical expenses that you paid out of pocket. If you didn’t reimburse yourself for those expenses this year, file the receipts so you can reimburse yourself for the expenses, tax-free, any time in the future—even in retirement.

Fund a health savings account

Were you enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan this year? If you haven’t already opened an HSA, there’s still time. Most policies with deductibles of at least $1,350 for single coverage or $2,700 for family coverage qualify for an account. The account will give you a triple tax break: Contributions are made pretax or are deductible on your tax return, the money grows tax-free, and the funds can be withdrawn tax-free for medical expenses. If you had an HSA-eligible policy throughout 2018, you can contribute up to $3,450 if you had single coverage or up to $6,900 if you had family coverage. People who are 55 or older anytime during the year can make an additional $1,000 contribution.

Squeeze in appointments

If you’ve met your health insurance deductible for 2018, you may save money by scheduling appointments and procedures before the end of the year—rather than in the new year after your deductible kicks in again. And most dental insurance plans cover two cleanings and have a maximum dollar amount that they will pay toward your dental care each year. If you have benefits remaining or your dentist has recommended treatments that you haven’t completed, schedule an appointment before your unused benefits disappear.

Qualify for a health care subsidy in 2019

Premiums for many insurance policies you purchase on a health care exchange are high enough to induce sticker shock, especially if you don’t qualify for a subsidy. But if you’re near the cutoff to receive a subsidy (400% of the federal poverty level, or $48,560 for singles, $65,840 for couples and $100,400 for a family of four), you can take steps before year-end to lower your income—and the amount you’ll pay for your 2019 coverage. Contributions to a 401(k), a health or dependent care flexible spending account or a health savings account, or selling stock at a loss, help reduce your modified adjusted gross income, which is used to calculate subsidies. Early retirees may also be able to qualify for a subsidy if they have the flexibility to reduce withdrawals from tax-deferred IRAs or 401(k)s.

Credit and rewards

Freeze your credit reports

A freeze is the best way to prevent identity thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name because it blocks new lenders from viewing your credit reports, reducing the chances that someone will successfully pose as you when applying for credit. Thanks to a new federal law that took effect on September 21, both placing and lifting a freeze on your credit reports is now free. (Previously, consumers in most states paid fees.) Given the pileup of data breaches in recent years, a freeze is a wise move even if you haven’t suffered ID theft because your personal data may sit for years before someone attempts to use it.

When you request a freeze with each of the three major credit agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—by phone or online, they must place the freeze within one business day. And if you ask them to lift a freeze, they must act within an hour.

Run a credit checkup

If you haven’t checked your credit reports in the past 12 months, visit www.annualcreditreport.com to get a free copy from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Review each for errors or signs of identity theft, such as an incorrect address, a credit account that you never opened, or a collection account that you don’t recognize. If you spot an error, contact any lender that’s involved to resolve the issue and file a dispute with each credit agency that’s reporting the mistake. Identity-theft victims can follow the steps at IdentityTheft.gov to have fraudulent information blocked from their credit reports.

Keep tabs on your credit reports throughout the year by signing up for a credit-monitoring service, which regularly scans your reports and notifies you of significant changes. You can cover all three credit agencies by enrolling in free monitoring at CreditKarma.com, which tracks your Equifax and TransUnion reports, and at FreeCreditScore.com, which monitors your Experian report. Each service also offers free credit-score updates and access to information in your credit reports from the corresponding agencies.

Debt Collectors Are Calling My Family — Now What?

The answer is a bit complicated.

The types of calls that debt collectors can make is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. This act provides protection to consumers who owe debts. It says, for instance, that debt collectors can’t threaten you with jail time or call you early in the morning or late at night. The act also says that collectors can’t call you multiple times a day. The act also regulates the communication that debt collectors can have with your family members.

Calling family members

Debt collectors are hired to get you to pay up the money you owe to their clients. To do this, they’ll reach out to you by mail or phone to convince you to come up with the cash. But if debt collectors can’t find you? Then they can contact your family members. In fact, they can contact anyone who knows you, including friends or co-workers.

However, what they can say to these third parties, and how often they can contact them, is extremely limited. The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act states that debt collectors can only contact family members, friends, or co-workers to find your location. If they have already contacted you, they are not allowed to reach out to others. They can also only contact family members or friends once.

What they can say

Debt collectors are also limited in what they can say to your family members. They must identify themselves and state that they are confirming your contact information or looking for correct contact information. If your family members ask, they are required to identify who is employing them, but only if they are expressly asked this question.

Debt collectors are not allowed to tell family members that you owe any debt. Collectors also can’t threaten family members or call them more than once unless the debt collector reasonably believes that the family member’s earlier responses were incorrect or incomplete, and that the person now has correct or complete info.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says that debt collectors can’t discuss your debt with anyone besides you, your spouse, or your attorney — if that attorney is representing you regarding your debt. If you’re a minor, debt collectors can speak with your parents about your debt. They can also discuss your debt with your guardian, executor, or administrator, if you have them.

What to do if debt collectors aren’t following the rules?

If debt collectors are violating the rules of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act when they contact your family members, you should contact the Federal Trade Commission with your complaint. You can file a complaint online by using the commission’s Complaint Assistant.

You can also contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can file a complaint online with this this agency, too.

Additionally, you have the option of suing a debt collection agency in state court or small claims court. Be warned, though. You might have to hire an attorney to succeed, and this can be a time-consuming and frustrating challenge.

9 Questions To Ask Financial Advisors Before Hiring One

You wouldn’t trust just anyone with your kids, your mental health or even your hair, so you should be just as picky when it comes to the person who manages your money. But with so many financial advisors out there, it can be tough to know if you hired the right person for the job.

One way to find out: Before you sign on, ask advisors a few probing questions to find out if they have your best interests at heart and understand what you need as a client. Here are nine to get you started.

1. How do you get paid?

There are many ways financial advisors get paid for their services, including commissions from selling certain funds, insurance commissions, charging a percentage of assets under management, flat fees and hourly fees.

“Understanding of how a financial advisor gets paid will help clear up whether they are working in your best interests or not,” said Charles Ho, a certified financial planner and the founder and CEO of Legacy Builders Financial. That’s because advisors who earn money by selling you certain investments or products will likely give you biased advice that benefits their wallet above yours. Fee-only advisors, on the other hand, don’t have any conflict of interest when it comes to managing your portfolio.

He added that asking advisors how they’re paid can help you weed out inexperienced professionals. “There are many financial advisors who are so new and still drinking the Kool-Aid of whatever firm they are at that they don’t have a clear understanding of how clients are being charged fees,” he said.

2. How many clients do you work with?

Finding out the size of an advisor’s client base can tell you a lot about what kind of service you can expect to receive. For instance, if advisors have a lot of clients ― say, over 200 ― they’re most likely financial salespeople and not financial planners, said Michael Mustian, an accredited asset management specialist and the founder of WisePath Advisors. They need to continually get more clients in order to make a living, which he said poses a conflict when trying to do what is in the best interest of the client.

On the other hand, if advisors don’t have many clients ― fewer than 40 ― they may be just getting started and may not have much experience. He said the sweet spot is 75 to 100 clients for one advisor, though a person can handle closer to 150 with a team for support.

“The big reason this is important is … if you are having someone put together a plan for you today, you really want them for the long haul to make the necessary adjustments,” Mustian said. “You don’t want to be seen as just a commission check for someone in sales or a guinea pig for someone brand new to the industry.”

3. How do you track success for your clients?

If you pay an advisor to manage your investments and grow your wealth, you want to make sure you’re getting results. When meeting with potential advisors, you should find out how they measure and track client success over time.

Jirayr R. Kembikian, a certified financial planner with Citrine Capital, said it’s important to look at not only the quantitative financial metrics but also the behavioral changes you’re working together to improve. “Review these metrics at least on an annual basis to determine if the relationship is successful or needs to be modified,” he said.

4. How is your money invested?

You probably wouldn’t want to visit a nutritionist who eats nothing but pizza and fries or a doctor who smokes two packs a day. So when it comes to financial advisors, you want to know that they practice what they preach. That’s why you should ask advisors how their money is invested.

“If they are not willing to tell you or show you how their own money is invested, then maybe they don’t completely believe what it is that they are telling you,” said Michael Troxell, the principal and founder of Modern Financial Planning. “That would be a good indicator whether to continue the discussion or not.”

Retirees, Year-End Moves to Trim Your Tax Tab

And the new, lower tax rates are in full effect. If the 2019 filing season were a reality show, no doubt it would be the most dramatic season yet.

But with 2018 quickly drawing to a close, now is the time to look for last-minute tax-saving moves and tamp down your tax tab for the year. With tax reform in place, this year’s tax-trimming moves may be quite different from moves you made in the past. “One of the old tried-and-true methods was to bunch deductions,” says Bill Smith, managing director for CBIZ MHM’s national tax office. You may “still want to accelerate deductions, but not many are left.”

Here are some last-minute moves to consider as you try to outwit Uncle Sam and hold on to as much of your cash as you can.

Crunch Numbers

To assess where you stand with Uncle Sam, estimate your 2018 tax burden. Tally up your taxable income streams, and estimate the amount of taxable income you expect for the rest of the year. Up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable, for instance. Retirement account distributions and income from pensions and annuities are generally taxable, too. (If your income is hefty, consider whether any of it can be pushed off to a future tax year.)

Then consider what tax breaks you expect to use and how they affect your income tax bracket and estimated tax bill.

Run the numbers using the standard deduction and by itemizing deductions to see which route saves you more money. Your most effective tax-saving moves may depend on the route you plan to take. The hurdle is higher to itemize this year because the standard deduction nearly doubled, to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. Taxpayers age 65 and older get a higher deduction—joint filers add $1,300 per spouse and single filers add $1,600.

The closer it is to the end of the year, the more precise your estimate will be. But some tax-saving moves may take a little time to execute, so don’t procrastinate on projecting your tax burden.

Next, estimate any withholding you’ve requested through year-end, and add it to the tax you’ve already paid for 2018. Depending on how that figure matches up to your expected tax burden, you may need to adjust either your withholding or estimated tax payments. By year-end, your remaining tax burden should be less than $1,000 to avoid an unnecessary underpayment penalty.

Identify Your Bracket

Here are the new 2018 marginal tax rates and corresponding taxable income ranges for married taxpayers filing jointly:

  • 10%: $0-$19,050
  • 12%: $19,051-$77,400
  • 22%: $77,401-$165,000
  • 24%: $165,001-$315,000
  • 32%: $315,001-$400,000
  • 35%: $400,001-$600,000
  • 37%: Over $600,000

And here are the new 2018 tax brackets for single taxpayers:

  • 10%: $0-$9,525
  • 12%: $9,526-$38,700
  • 22%: $38,701-$82,500
  • 24%: $82,501-$157,500
  • 32%: $$157,501-$200,000
  • 35%: $200,001-$500,000
  • 37%: Over $500,000

Turbo Charge Your Retirement Savings

Maxing out savings can lower your taxable income. If you’re still working, stash as much as you can in tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Those who are 50 and older can put up to $6,500 into a traditional IRA for 2018. A working spouse can contribute the same amount to a spousal IRA for a nonworking spouse, as long as the worker’s earnings cover the total contributions. (Workers age 70½ or older can’t contribute to a traditional IRA, but they can still stash money in a Roth IRA.)

If you are contributing to an IRA for a tax deduction, you’ll need to determine how much of your contributions are deductible. But the good news is that deductible contributions can trim your tax bill whether you itemize or not. And if you need a super last-minute tax saver, you can contribute to an IRA for 2018 up until the tax-filing deadline, which is April 15, 2019.

Workers can stash much more in a traditional 401(k)—up to $24,500 for those 50 or older—but contributions must be made by the end of the year. The more a worker can put in, the lower his or her taxable income will be. There’s no age cap, so older workers can choose to max out their contribution.

If you contribute to a health savings account, maxing out contributions to that tax-advantaged account can lower your taxable income. In 2018, taxpayers can make tax-deductible HSA contributions of up to $3,450 for single coverage and up to $6,900 for family coverage.

Protect Your Online Purchases

Ship to a store. Some retailers let you send online purchases to one of their stores for pickup. The service is usually free.

Send to a locker. UPS, FedEx and Amazon all operate locations where packages can be delivered. Amazon provides lockers in Whole Foods Markets and convenience stores. When you place your order, search for your nearest locker, add it to your address book and select it for deliveries.

For items shipped via UPS or FedEx, you’ll need to register for a free UPS MyChoice or FedEx Delivery Manager account. You can ask to have your purchases delivered to one of their participating retailers. UPS doesn’t charge for the service, but FedEx may charge up to $15 to deliver to a different address.

If a package is declared lost or undelivered by any carrier, your best bet is to contact both the carrier and the merchant to figure out who’s responsible for your refund. Some merchants may refund your purchase.

8 Steps to Picking the Right Medicare Plans During Open Enrollment

Most people fill Medicare’s coverage gaps by buying a Medicare supplement (medigap) plan and a Part D prescription-drug plan, or they get both medical and drug coverage from a private insurer with a Medicare Advantage plan. You have from October 15 to December 7 each year to pick a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan for the year ahead. You can switch from one Part D plan to another, or from one Medicare Advantage plan to another. You can also switch into a Medicare Advantage plan. However, if you have Medicare Advantage and want to switch to a medigap plan plus a Part D plan, you may have limited medigap options depending on your health—although you can choose any Part D plan during open enrollment.

The plan that was best for you over the past year may not be the best one next year. That may be because the drugs you take or the doctors you see have changed. Or it may be because the coverage has changed under your plan for next year—your drugs may be moving to a more expensive pricing tier with higher co-payments, or your doctors may be leaving your Medicare Advantage plan’s network. Or new plans may be introduced in your area that are a better match for you. Mutual of Omaha is entering the Part D market in several states, for example, and more insurers are introducing prescription drug plans or Medicare Advantage plans with lower premiums. Because you can change plans every year, you can focus specifically on your drugs and dosages or the type of health care you need now; you can switch again next year if your needs or your options change.

Let’s get started.

Forecast Your 2019 Health-Care Needs

Gather a list of your drugs and dosages that you’ll continue to take in 2019. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, review the types of medical care you received over the past year, and try to predict the types of care you’ll receive in 2019. You never know what will happen to your health, but you may have some regular expenses that you know will continue – such as visits to certain specialists – and may anticipate some special medical needs for the upcoming year. All of this information will help you choose a plan for next year.

Review Your Current Plan’s Annual Notice of Change

You should have received this form around the end of September. It will indicate any changes for 2019 to the cost and coverage of your current plan. Pay particular attention to changes to drug formularies, drug tiers and co-pays that affect drugs you take. For instance, a drug that had been in a preferred co-pay tier — with a $10 co-pay, for example — may have moved to a nonpreferred tier for 2019, now with a co-pay of $20 or more.

Fire Up Medicare’s Plan Finder

Even if your current coverage isn’t changing, it’s still a good idea to compare all of your options during open enrollment, and a great way to do this is with the Plan Finder at Medicare.gov, which posted details about all of the 2019 plans starting on October 1. The tool makes it easy to compare the premiums and co-payments for all of the plans available in your area, and it also estimates your total out-of-pocket costs for your drugs and dosages (and also for your general health condition, if you have a Medicare Advantage plan). This is the best place to start shopping.

For Part D, type in your zip code, the drugs you take and the dosages to compare plans. The online tool will calculate your total costs (premiums plus out-of-pocket costs for your drugs) for each plan in your area.

For Medicare Advantage plans (called “Medicare Health Plans” in the tool), you’ll add your general health condition (the default is “good,” but you can also choose “poor” or “excellent”) in the “refine your search” column to estimate the total costs for the year for someone with your general health status.

Compare Plan Costs

The Part D plan with the lowest premiums may not be the least expensive overall if you have high co-payments for your drugs. The average Part D premium for 2019 will be $32.50 per month. That’s actually $1 less than 2018’s average, primarily because several large insurers are offering low-premium plans (sometimes less than $20 per month) with preferred pharmacies. (More on preferred pharmacies in a moment.) Co-payments can vary a lot depending on your drugs and the pharmacy you use. The Medicare Plan Finder will reveal how much you’re likely to pay for premiums plus co-payments over the year.

Likewise, if you’re shopping for a Medicare Advantage plan instead, look carefully at plans’ coverage and co-payments for the types of medical care you usually use. The average Medicare Advantage premium is about $30 per month, but some plans have $0 premiums because they may have some of the smallest provider networks and generally require higher co-payments for doctor’s visits, hospital stays and other types of care.

6 Steps to Getting a Credit Card When You Have Bad Credit

It may not be easy to get a credit card with bad credit, but the effort you put forth to do so will be worth it in the end. Good credit is the key to being able to buy a home or finance a car, after all. When your credit rises to the “very good” or “excellent” level (typically a FICO score of 740+), you’ll qualify for loans with the best interest rates and terms.

But how do you get a credit card with poor credit? It takes time and perseverance to get approved when you haven’t yet proven yourself, or if you’ve struggled with credit in the past, but it’s also hard to prove yourself when no one will give you a chance.

Still, you can get a credit card with bad credit if you’re willing to spend time fixing your credit first. Here are the most important steps you should take along the way.

Step 1: Find out how bad things really are

Your credit may be terrible, or you might just assume it is. Either way, you need to find out for sure. Gerri Detweiler, education director for Nav, a company that helps business owners build and monitor strong business credit for free, says step one is checking your credit score — but not just any credit score.

Specifically, Detweiler says you should strive to check your FICO 8 score — one of the many credit score types lenders use. Typically, this is the one card issuers check before approving people for a credit card, she says.

Seeing your FICO 8 score is “not crucial, but it’s helpful to see where you fall using this scoring system that card issuers actually use,” she says. Another option is checking a free credit score offered through your bank (if applicable) or signing up for a free account with a service like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma to see an estimate of your credit score there.

Step 2: Consider other credit factors

In addition to your credit score, Detweiler says card issuers want to make sure you don’t have an open bankruptcy. “If you have an open tax lien, that could also be a disqualifier,” she says. In either of these cases, a credit card might not be possible until the situation is far enough in the rearview mirror.

Another common reason you’ll get denied is the fact that issuers don’t want to see more than six inquiries within the last six months, according to Detweiler. If you’ve been applying for a bunch of cards, wait to apply again until all your current inquiries are more than six months old.

Also, many card issuers don’t want to see credit utilization higher than 60 percent — and they would prefer you have at least one credit card already.

“Most issuers want to see that you already have at least $500 or $1,000 in credit limits on other credit cards, which is a Catch-22,” says Detweiler. If you do have high credit card balances already, paying down some of your debt should help your case.

Step 3: Take a close look at secured credit cards

If you have checked your credit and know you can’t get approved for an unsecured credit card, you should consider getting a secured credit card. What’s the difference? Where unsecured credit cards extend a line of credit without collateral, secured credit cards require you to put down a cash deposit upfront.

This may not be ideal, but secured cards do report your credit movements to the three credit reporting agencies. Ultimately, this is what you want. If you decide to go this route, make sure you’re comparing secured cards to find an option with no annual fee, no ongoing fees, and other perks.

Step 4: Look into credit repair options

Detweiler says you can still work on your credit in other ways whether you get a secured credit card or not. “If you don’t feel confident trying to figure out what’s not accurate or complete on your credit report, then you could look into some inexpensive credit repair with an agency,” she says.

You Can Now Freeze – and Unfreeze – Your Credit Report for Free

The law providing free credit freezes took effect on September 21. The three big credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—can no longer charge a fee to place or lift a credit freeze. In the past, the cost to freeze your credit report varied by state. Some states required free credit freezes for their residents, but others let the credit bureaus charge $5 to $10 every time someone wanted to freeze their credit record or lift the freeze (when applying for a loan, for instance).

A credit freeze prevents new creditors from reviewing your credit report, making it harder for identity thieves to take out credit in your name. For it to be effective, you’ll need to contact each of the credit bureaus separately to initiate a freeze. To see what steps you need to take, go to the Equifax freeze page, the Experian freeze page and the TransUnion freeze page.

Once you request a freeze either online or by phone, the new law requires the credit bureaus to implement it within one day. And if you ask for the freeze to be lifted, the credit bureaus have one hour to do it. “That is the law’s maximum time, but for most people setting the freeze online or by phone, it will be pretty close to instantaneous,” says Francis Creighton, the president of the Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade organization for credit bureaus and other consumer reporting agencies.

Some states have additional consumer protections. In Utah, for example, the credit bureaus must initiate or lift the freeze within 15 minutes of the request for a freeze on a mobile app, says Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who sponsored the credit freeze legislation in the Utah House of Representatives (Utah’s law took effect in May). You can find out about additional consumer protections in your state from its division of consumer protection or the state attorney general’s office.

The freeze remains in effect until you take steps to remove it—either temporarily or permanently. “Understanding the correct terminology is important,” says Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. “A thaw (or unfreezing) of one’s credit allows them to temporarily remove the freeze for a specified period of time. For example, if a consumer knows they will be applying for credit, they can request a thaw for a day, or a week or another specified time period. And after that time period has elapsed, the credit will freeze again—no additional action is necessary on the part of the consumer.” Lifting a credit freeze, on the other hand, removes the freeze until the consumer actively requests the freeze from the credit bureau again. It’s free whether you lift or thaw a freeze.

The new law also lengthens the duration of a fraud alert that you can place on your credit file from 90 days to one year. A fraud alert signals to businesses that you may have been a victim of identity theft and that they should verify your identity before opening any new accounts. You need only place a fraud alert with one credit bureau, which will notify the others.

How to Boost Your Credit Score in Just 30 Days

Most financial experts suggest reviewing a copy of your credit report at least once a year. Luckily, doing so is fairly easy thanks to an agreement the federal government has with AnnualCreditReport.com. By signing up through this website, you can get a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — once a year.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), checking your credit report is the best way to find actual errors and mistakes. They even note that you could spread your free credit reports from the three agencies throughout the year so you can check for errors every few months — for example, getting your Experian report in May, your Equifax report in August, and your TransUnion report in December.

Get errors fixed immediately

By checking the details on your credit report frequently, you could discover mistakes early and before they do much damage. If you do find a mistake and get it corrected, you could also see your credit score rise at a rapid pace.

But how fast can the needle move? It really depends. Recently, I chatted with someone whose credit score surged 42 points within a month after they discovered incorrect late payments on their credit report. They took the steps outlined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to dispute the incorrect data, then watched their score bounce back once it was removed. As the FTC notes, credit reporting agencies have 30 days to investigate disputes, which is likely why this person’s score bounced back so fast.

Barry Paperno, a former consumer affairs manager for FICO and founder of the blog SpeakingofCredit.com, says that this scenario — where someone’s score goes up within a matter of weeks — isn’t that surprising.

Your credit score doesn’t have a memory, meaning that each time it’s requested, current information is used to present your score for that day. “So if you remove negative information, it’s as it if never happened,” Paperno said.

Whatever negative information or marks against you don’t exist anymore, so they don’t drag your score down. Paperno also says that, in this particular case, it’s no wonder her score was 42 points lower than it should have been. Since your payment history makes up the biggest chunk of your FICO score at 35 percent, this kind of false reporting can make a bigger impact than other types.

“A late payment can cause your score to plummet,” he said, adding that it depends on how recently it occurred and other information on the credit report.

While disputing information on your credit report is a smart move if something is off, this isn’t a strategy that will work for everyone. You aren’t going to get negative information removed from your report just for asking, says Paperno. If you dispute information that’s actually right, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

But if information is incorrect, such as a falsely reported late payment or an account that isn’t even yours, take the steps to dispute the information with the credit reporting agency and the creditor. Disputing false information can help your credit score in a huge way.

“Accuracy is important,” he says. Since your credit score is a predictor of future risk, you want to make sure everything included in your credit report is correct. The good, the bad, and the ugly — it should all be in there. Once you start watching your credit report with an eagle eye, however, you will hopefully learn how to get your credit score in the “very good” or “excellent” range and keep it there.

8 Things You Need to Know About Debt Management Plans

If you’re in debt and struggling to dig your way out, you’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to come up with a fix. Maybe you transferred your balance to a balance transfer card to score zero interest, and wound up racking up even more debt. Perhaps you’ve resorted to selling stuff to raise extra funds. Maybe you picked up a part-time job or extra hours at work to keep up with your monthly payments.

Whatever you’ve tried, it’s possible it’s just not enough. Enter debt management, which is an arrangement to consider if you need outside help to manage your bills.

What’s a debt management plan?

With a debt management plan, you work with a credit counseling agency who creates a realistic plan that can help you get out of debt. Typically, you deposit money each month with this agency, who in turn uses it to pay your unsecured debts on your behalf according to a payment schedule you agree upon.

When you get on a debt management plan, your creditors may also agree to waive certain fees or lower your interest rate. Obviously, these concessions could help you get out of debt even faster.

Still, there are details you should know and understand before you sign up for a debt management plan. These plans can be a lifesaver if you’re struggling, but they’re not for everyone. Here are some pros and cons you should be aware of.

1. Debt management is not a loan

While debt consolidation requires you to take out a new loan to consolidate your existing debts, debt management doesn’t require a loan at all. “Debt management is a process for paying off debt through creditor concessions like interest rate reductions and late fee forgiveness,” says Mike Sullivan, Director of Education and a personal finance consultant with Take Charge America, a national nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency.

You’re not taking out a new loan, but instead creating a long-term plan to pay off the loans you already have.

2. It can take up to five years to complete

Since debt management requires you to work with a credit counselor to create a realistic repayment plan, it can take a while to work your way through one of these plans. Sean Fox, co-president and CRO of Freedom Debt Relief, says debt management can take two to five years to complete, with the longer timelines typically reserved for those with the most debt.

That may seem like a long time, but remember that debt management intends to help you repay all the money you owe. If you owe a ton on credit cards and other loans, you can’t expect your problems go away overnight.

3. Debt management can save you money each month

You may be wondering how debt management can help you become debt-free when you’re barely keeping up with bills as it is. Fox says it’s important to remember that you’ll typically make just one monthly payment with a debt management plan, and that payment should be less than the total of all your debt payments now.

The lower payment is often the result of waived fees and negotiated interest rates, he says. Most of the time, your debt management plan will have you move excess funds resulting from lower monthly payments into a savings account.

4. It isn’t free

While debt management is a solution that works for many debt-saddled consumers, credit counseling agencies that offer these plans do charge for their services — even if they’re a nonprofit.

Fox says the monthly fees collected by enrolled consumers typically fall in the $10-$15 range. However, these fees are typically offset and more than made up for via savings gleaned from reduced interest rates.

5. Debt management should increase your credit score

One common alternative to debt management plans is something called debt settlement. With debt settlement, you work with a company (typically a for-profit) that offers to negotiate your debts down so you pay less than what you owe. One of the biggest downsides to debt settlement is the fact that debt settlement plans usually ask you to stop paying your bills, and that can cause your credit score to plummet.

“Debt settlement will always create a credit rating free fall,” says Sullivan.

With debt management, on the other hand, your credit score should actually increase as the process moves along. This is because, over time, your credit utilization will go down as you pay off debt. Not only that, but the on-time payments made by your credit counseling agency (as you make your own payments on time) will make a positive impact as well. Since your utilization is the second biggest determinant of your FICO score and your payment history is the biggest factor, debt management can help you raise your score by default.

Health Savings Account Limits for 2019

To qualify to contribute to a health savings account in 2019, you must have a health insurance policy with a deductible of at least $1,350 for single coverage or $2,700 for family coverage (the same requirement as in 2018). You can contribute up to $3,500 to an HSA if you have single coverage or up to $7,000 for family coverage in 2019, which is slightly more than the 2018 limits. If you’re 55 or older anytime in 2019, you’ll continue to be able to contribute an extra $1,000.

Any amount your employer puts into your HSA counts toward the contribution maximum. So if you have family coverage and your employer adds $500 to your account, you’ll be able to contribute the remaining $6,500 for the year, says Steve Christenson, executive vice president of Ascensus, which educates employers and consumers about HSAs.

Anyone who has an HSA-eligible health insurance policy can contribute to an HSA, whether they get insurance through their employer or on their own. (You cannot contribute to an HSA after you enroll in Medicare, however.) To make sure your policy is HSA-eligible, ask the insurer before buying it. “It is not always easy to tell whether your plan makes you eligible to contribute to an HSA,” says Roy Ramthun, president of HSA Consulting Services. “You should always ask to be certain.”

In addition to the deductible limit requirements—at least $1,350 for single coverage, $2,700 for families—an HSA-eligible policy must meet other criteria. For instance, the deductible must be applied to all in-network covered benefits, including prescription drugs. (The only exception is preventive care, which can be provided without paying the deductible first, says Ramthun.) The plan must also have an annual limit on out-of-pocket expenses—not including premiums—that cannot be more than $6,750 for single coverage in 2019, or $13,500 for family coverage. All deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance for in-network covered benefits must count toward the policy’s out-of-pocket limits, Ramthun says. Be aware that the out-of-pocket spending limits to be eligible for an HSA are lower than the limits required for health insurance policies by the Affordable Care Act. “So all HSA-qualified plans meet the ACA requirements, but not all ACA-qualified plans meet the HSA requirements,” he says.

The House of Representatives passed two bills in July that would raise HSA contribution limits to the same amount as the out-of-pocket spending cap, as well as make other changes to HSAs for 2019. Neither bill has been passed by the Senate.

10 Must-Have Items for Your Emergency Kit

Americans always should be prepared for an emergency situation. Floods, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes — you name it — can be ruinous, especially if you’re not prepared.

Every home should have a survival kit: a self-contained collection of gear that can be grabbed and thrown in the car (or carried if need be), with everything you and your family need to survive on your own in the event of a disaster.

Durable Backpack

You need something to hold your survival kit, after all. It needs to be large (but not overwhelming), comfortable to wear and tough.

The established outdoor companies offer plenty of choices, but I’d recommend something like L.L. Bean’s Maine Warden Day Pack. The company says this backpack is standard issue to all Maine State Game Wardens. It’s water-resistant with a waterproof bottom. It has waterproof and padded compartments and plenty of room, so it will hold all your survival gear and keep electronics safe.

Portable Water Filter

If disaster strikes and you’re forced to leave your home, access to clean, drinkable water is critical. You can only carry so many bottles, and it can take time for fresh water to reach survivors.

The Sawyer Mini ($25) is a portable water filter that weighs just 2 ounces and costs only $25. You can thread it right onto a standard bottle or fill the included pouch. The filter removes “99.99999%” of all bacteria and protozoa, including salmonella, cholera and E. coli.

Sawyer says the filter is good for 100,000 gallons of water. Given that humans need under a gallon of water per day to survive, this filter will keep you going for a very long time.

First Aid Kit

No survival kit is complete without a well-stocked first aid kit. You may have injuries to deal with before emergency responders can get to you. And leaving in a hurry — sometimes through treacherous terrain — can result in scrapes and sprains. Getting open wounds sterilized and bandaged gains more urgency when they might be exposed to contaminants like those commonly found in floodwater.

The American Red Cross offers a Deluxe Family First Aid Kit that packs everything you’ll need to treat common injuries, including cuts, scrapes, swelling and sprains. It also includes a binder with instructions on how to properly treat these injuries.

Emergency Radio

An emergency radio is a must-have in any survival kit. Cellular networks may be down, but an old-school radio gives you access to critical information without an internet connection.

The Midland ER310 Emergency Crank Radio is an excellent choice. It’s compact at under 1.5 pounds. It receives AM and FM radio, as well as all seven NOAA weather bands. If a weather emergency is broadcast (reporting a tornado, for example), it can sound an alert so you’re not caught off guard. Its battery is good for up to 32 hours of use, and you can charge it with the built-in hand crank, or using its integrated solar cells.

Back to School: What You Need to Know about College 529 Savings Plans

It’s that time of year again: To the collective relief of parents nationwide, the school year is about to begin. And with that, now is as good a time as any to review 529 education savings plans. After all, the 529 plan remains extremely popular, with over $319 billion in assets, according to some estimates. But 529 plans are also complicated, with very specific rules and regulations, and mistakes in the form of penalties or taxes are costly.

Here’s what you need to know about 529 plans:

What is a 529 plan? The name 529 comes from a section in the IRS tax code. Section 529 Qualified Tuition Programs are investment accounts administered by each state and intended to be used for qualified education expenses.

What are the tax benefits? Generally speaking, the earnings on 529 plan contributions can grow free from federal income tax, and withdrawals used to pay for qualified education expenses are free from federal income tax as well. Contributions are with after-tax money; however, most states offer a state income tax deduction for contributions, but this varies for each state.

Do I have to use my state’s plan? No, you do not have to be a resident of that state to use another state’s plan. However, there may tax advantages to using your own state. It’s best to discuss with your accountant or financial adviser before opening an account.

What are “qualified” education expenses? Qualified education expenses include tuition, mandatory fees, textbooks, computers and software, supplies, required equipment and room and board if enrolled at least half-time. Room and board costs may not exceed certain amounts, either the actual invoiced cost of living on-campus or, if off-campus, the applicable rate determined by the qualified college or institution. Special needs services for a special needs beneficiary are also considered a qualified expense.

Does a 529 account have to be used for college? What about other schools, like a trade or vocation? 529 assets can be used at any eligible institution of higher learning. That includes four-year colleges, universities, qualifying two-year programs, trade schools and vocational schools. To qualify as an eligible institution, a school must be eligible to participate in student financial aid programs offered by the Department of Education.

Can 529 money be used for K-12 schools? A relatively new provision allows 529 account owners to withdraw up to $10,000 per year per student for private primary or secondary education. Unlike for college, this only applies to tuition, not to textbooks, computers or other fees or activities.

What if money is withdrawn for any other expense that isn’t considered “qualified”? Any earnings on a non-qualified withdraw are subject to a 10% federal tax penalty. In addition, the earnings are subject to federal and, if applicable, state income taxes.

Are there any exceptions to the 10% penalty? What if my child receives a scholarship? Withdrawals following a beneficiary’s death, disability or receipt of a scholarship (to the extent of the scholarship award) will not be subject to the 10% penalty. However, you will have to pay taxes on the earnings.

Who can open an account? Any individual who is of legal age to open an account and is a U.S. citizen or legal resident. In addition, U.S. trusts, corporations, partnerships and non-profit organizations may open an account.

Who is the owner? Typically, the parent is the owner. There can only be one owner, no joint ownership. However, there is an option for a successor owner if the account owner dies.

Who is the beneficiary? Usually the child, but it can be anyone — including yourself — and the beneficiary must be either a U.S. citizen or legal U.S. resident.

Who can contribute to the account? Any person or entity may make contributions to the account for the benefit of a beneficiary at any time.

What are the contribution limits? The IRS doesn’t specify an annual contribution limit. However, contributions are considered gifts for tax purposes. In 2018, gifts totaling up to $15,000 per individual will qualify for the annual exclusion. This means if you and your spouse have three children you can gift $90,000 without gift-tax consequences since each child can receive $15,000 in gifts from you and $15,000 in gifts from your spouse. Remember, this also includes non-529 gifts (such as gifts to a life insurance trust) so be sure to account for those.

Is there an overall limit to 529 plan accounts? Technically there are overall limits to 529 plan account balances. But limits can vary from state to state, generally from $235,000 to $520,000. Once the balance on a 529 plan reaches its limit, the plan will not accept new contributions. It’s worth mentioning some plans will consider balances in other 529 plans for an overall aggregate limit. For instance, if the owner has more than one 529 for the same beneficiary, the plan may aggregate all the plan’s balances to determine if the maximum limit has been reached.

14 Ways for Everyone to Save on Taxes Under the New Tax Law

Max Out Your Tax-Deferred Savings

One of the best ways to cut your taxes is to set money aside in a tax-deferred retirement account. Not only are you doing the wise thing by saving for a winning retirement – you could trim your income enough to fall into a lower tax bracket.

So if your employer offers a tax-deferred program like a 401(k), make sure that you are:

  • Participating, so that you don’t miss out on any match your employer provides.
  • Putting in as much money as you can.

If you have your own business, you have several choices of tax-favored retirement accounts, including Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) and individual 401(k)s. Contributions cut your tax bill now while earnings grow tax-deferred for your retirement.

Tap Into the Good Old IRA

Individual Retirement Accounts are a straightforward, easily accessible way to cut your taxes the same way the 401(k) does. But they do have strict rules.

If neither you nor your spouse participate in a workplace retirement plan, then you can contribute $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older) to an IRA and wham, take that off your taxable income – even if you don’t itemize deductions.

If you or your spouse do have a plan at work, your deduction might be limited. It depends on your income. This IRS document has more details.

Take Advantage of a Health Savings Account

See if your workplace offers an insurance plan that you could combine with a Health Savings Account, or consider opening one yourself if you buy your own coverage. A health savings account lets you put money pre-tax for a wide range of medical bills, including deductibles, co-pays and other medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance, such as vision and dental care.

An HSA offers a triple tax break: The money you put in escapes all tax–no federal income tax, no state or local taxes, and no FICA taxes), the balance grows tax-deferred (and can be invested in mutual funds), and withdrawals used to pay medical expenses are tax-free.

If you really want to swing for the fences with the tax-savings potential of an HSA, go ahead and fund it with pre-tax money, but pay for your out of pocket health costs with cash in your pocket rather than drawing down HSA funds. It takes real financial discipline (and good health) to pull this off, but it will let your HSA money continue to grow tax-deferred.

Give Away Money the Tax-Wise Way

If you plan to make a significant gift to charity, consider giving appreciated stocks or mutual fund shares that you’ve owned for more than one year instead of cash.

Doing so supercharges the saving power of your generosity. Your charitable contribution deduction is the fair market value of the securities on the date of the gift, not the amount you paid for the asset, and you never have to pay tax on the profit. However, don’t donate stocks or fund shares that lost money. You’d be better off selling the asset, claiming the loss on your taxes, and donating cash to the charity.

Start Up that Business

Tax reform created a powerful incentive for people to hang out their own shingle and participate in the gig economy. Under the new tax law, sole proprietors who use Schedule C, as well as pass-through entities—such as S corporations, partnerships and LLCs—which pass their income to their owners for tax purposes, get to deduct 20% of their qualifying income before figuring their tax bill.

For a sole proprietor in the 24% bracket, for example, excluding 20% of income from taxation has the same effect of lowering the tax rate to 19.2%.

There are limitations, though: For many pass-through businesses, for example, the 20% deduction phases out for taxpayers with incomes in excess of $157,500 on an individual return and $315,000 on a joint return.

5 Websites to Book Cheaper Travel Packages

Which one is right for you will largely depend on the type of travel you’re trying to book and your flexibility.

One of the best ways to save money, time, and hassle when booking a getaway is to opt for an all-inclusive bundle. These can include a combination of hotel, flights, and car rentals, and sometimes even attraction entrance passes. For this type of package, there are certain sites and stores that are guaranteed to present you with some great bargains. Here are five sites to book cheaper travel packages.

1. Costco

Costco isn’t just a chain of warehouses where people load up on wholesale goods at bargain prices. They also have an in-house travel agency called Costco Travel that you can use to find deals on cruises, hotel stays, rental cars, and also full vacation packages. They use the buying power accrued from being one of the largest retailers in the world to negotiate big savings on vacations for their customers.

As with their stores, you have to be a member to access Costco’s travel deals. A standard yearly membership is $60. However, you’re still able to search without being a member, so you can check out the deals before committing. An added benefit of Costco packages is that many come with complimentary amenities that can range from credit to be redeemed at the resort to multiday attraction passes, so you’re getting even more bang for your buck.

2. Expedia

While you can book flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and activities individually on Expedia, you can really score good deals on this site with travel packages. They have a specific option to “Bundle and Save” that allows you to bundle bookings for any combination of flights, hotels, and car rentals. Not only does this save you the time and hassle of having to organize all of these elements separately, it also enables you to save money.

The interface is really user-friendly, and rather than offering preset bundles, it allows you to build your own package with numerous options at each stage. They also have a selection of what they call “Unreal Deals” that are usually exceptional value packages where you might get the cost of your airfare covered completely from the savings. At each stage of the process, you can see exactly what the price is and the savings you’re getting from bundling your package together.

3. Travelocity

At first glance, you might think Travelocity is remarkably similar to Expedia, with the search box on the front page looking almost identical. And you’d be absolutely right, as they’re both owned by the Expedia Group; so the interface, look, and feel of the two sites is almost indistinguishable. However, they’re actually run independently, which still allows and even encourages them to compete with each other.

The upshot of this is that while the search functions, the focus on bundled packages, and even the deals may be very similar, the prices might not be. Each company has access to the same metadata as the basis of their deals, but they negotiate with the partners separately, so it pays to use Expedia and Travelocity in conjunction when searching to see which has the best price for the specific package you’re looking for.

4. Priceline

The site used to be famous for the “Name Your Own Price” feature that allowed you to bid on flights, hotels, and car rental deals by entering what you wanted to pay in a process similar to an auction. This has now been phased out, but Priceline still offers great discounts to be found on hotel, flight, and car packages. Priceline’s site says you can achieve savings of up to $625 when you bundle your hotel and flight together.

They also have a feature called “Express Deals” that allows you to score great prices on hotel rooms, getting up to 60 percent off by purchasing them without knowing the name of the hotel. The reason for this is that hotels don’t want to advertise the fact that they’re making such big reductions. So while you can see general details on the hotel, like its star rating, general location, and amenities, you only find out its name when you actually book.

5. CheapOair

Like the other sites on this list, CheapOair allows you to build your own travel packages to include flights, hotels, and cars. They call their package deals “Vacations” and can secure you fantastic savings by booking elements together instead of individually. But what sets CheapOair apart from the other booking sites is that they place a large emphasis on group bookings, and catering to large groups.

Most booking sites have a limit of around six adults, whereas CheapOair’s limit stands at nine. If you’re looking to book for even more people, you can get in touch with their dedicated team of travel agents who will assist you with building the package you require. You can do this by giving them a call directly.

How to Snowball Your Debt & Reclaim Your Paycheck

Maybe you regret all those late-night Amazon splurges and trips to the mall. Or perhaps you’re strapped (and stressed) from student loans that present-day you wishes 20-something you hadn’t borrowed in the first place. Or maybe you’ve just hit some rough patches and had nowhere to turn but plastic.

It doesn’t matter how it happened, debt is the worst. And it’s reasonable to feel anxious, sad and even angry about it—but how about forgiving yourself (or your circumstances) and channeling all of that energy into a better tomorrow, instead?

If you’re ready to stop worrying and take action, you’re in the right place. Today, we’re going to look at a common debt repayment strategy, the snowball.

Don’t Let Debt Take You Down:
Make a Snowball

Now, before you grab your mittens, there are a few things you need to do, first:

#1 BREAK UP WITH BAD HABITS

First, you must draw a line in the snow. From this day, forward, commit to spending less than you earn—that means no more debt-funded expenditures!

And, I can already hear the backlash: But what about a mortgage? Or what if you use your credit card to earn rewards, but pay it in full every month? Look, there are advantages, disadvantages and exceptions to nearly everything in life … but if you’re stuck with a pile of debt that could rival a snow-capped mountain, then ”no” is the way to go!

#2 KNOW YOUR ENEMY

Now it’s time to face the damage, head-on. Make a list of every debt that you owe, including the balance owed, minimum monthly payment and interest rate for each.

#3 EMBRACE YOUR POWER

Finally, determine how much money you’re able to throw at your debt each month. This is where your budget comes into play.

#4 SLAY YOUR DEBT WITH A SNOWBALL

OK, are you done with Steps #1 through #3? Then, snowsuit up, my friend. It’s time to begin your snowball. The way this works is simple:

  1. Grab the list of debts that you created, above.
  2. Put your debts in order of size, starting with the lowest balance.
  3. Every month, pay the minimum amount due for each loan.
  4. Determine how much extra cash you can allocate towards your debt for the month, and put those dollars towards the smallest loan balance. Get creative. Where else can you cut back to free up extra dollars?
  5. Continue this process until all of your loans are paid.

So, let’s say that you’ve got a $500 credit card balance, a $15,000 student loan balance and a $1,000 credit card balance. Your debt snowball would look like this:

Balance Owed Interest Rate Minimum Due
Credit Card #1 $500 18% $20
Credit Card #2 $1,000 15% $80
Student Loan $15,000 3% $100
Minimum Payments Total: $200

Your minimum monthly payments come to $200, so if you’re able to budget $250 for debt repayment, you would send the extra $50 to Credit Card #1, your smallest debt.

Repeat this process, every month, until Credit Card #1 is paid off—when that happens, move all of your extra dollars towards paying off Credit Card #2, the second smallest debt. (This includes the $20 that was previously allocated to the minimum payment on Credit Card #1).

It’s called the snowball method because every time you pay off a debt, you have more dollars available to put towards the next debt. So, like a snowball rolling downhill, your payments get larger as you go.

Free, Online Snowball Calculators

You can set up your debt snowball using a spreadsheet, or use one of the many free, online debt snowball calculators.

The advantage of using a calculator is that, after you input all of your data, most of them allow you to toggle between different variations of the snowball method to find the payoff plan that works best for you. (For example, you might prefer the avalanche method, in which you allocate your extra dollars towards the loan with the highest interest rate, instead of the smallest balance.)

Here are a handful to choose from:

  • Undebt.it – The free version offers all of the features you need to set up a debt snowball and pay off your balances. You can also make extra payments towards your debt and view your progress, percentage of available credit used, and projected payoff date.
  • Unbury.me – You can try this super-simple calculator without setting up an account (although, if you want to revisit your data in the future, you’ll need an account).
  • Vertex 42 – This is actually a spreadsheet. Just download the file to your computer (no account required), and manage up to ten of your debts with the free version—which includes the ability to toggle between different payoff strategies to see which one is right for you.
  • DoughRoller.net – You can try this one out, without giving up your name, email, or any other sensitive information. After you input your debt balances, interest rates and minimum payments—voila!—the calculator tells you which repayment method is, from a numbers perspective, best for you.

Your Efforts Shall Be Rewarded

Now, you’ve got everything you need to tackle your debt. So, get to it. Time is literally money (think of the interest!).

Plus, as your debts grow smaller, your credit health will improve. The ratio of how much you owe to how much available credit you have accounts for 30 percent of your FICO score. The less available credit you’re using, the better your credit health—and that means easier approval if you’re applying to lease an apartment, better rates when it comes to security deposits, utility deposits and even car insurance rates.

Not only that, but you deserve a life that is free from the stress of debt. Imagine getting paid and not owing one single penny to a lender or creditor. You pay your bills, buy some groceries and have money left to invest … or save … or spend. It’s up to you!

Sweet (Debt) Relief

The best part is, once you’ve got a plan to tackle your debt for a better tomorrow, today starts feeling much more enjoyable, too. When you organize all of your numbers into a snowball, it’s like setting them down. Your mental baggage lightens. It’s actually hard to believe how much a plan can change your outlook, no matter how deep your debt.

If you followed the steps above, now you’ve got a budget that gives you a crystal-clear view of your priorities, and your spending is aligned to support them. You might not enjoy cutting back to put extra cash towards your debt, but it’s a lot easier to downgrade and cancel ‘extras’ when you see the effect that those dollars have on your debt snowball—they could literally shave years off of your repayment time, saving you thousands of dollars in interest!

And, don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of budget-friendly ways to enjoy life, even if money is tight. You might find that you don’t even miss your old spending habits. Life feels pretty great when you’re intentional with your money.

9 Times Life Can Throw Retirement Off Course

Saving for retirement requires discipline. Ideally, you are able to amass a nice nest egg by putting aside a big chunk of money each month and investing it wisely. But it doesn’t take much for you to get off track. Life happens, and you are often faced with expenses and other burdens that make saving for retirement less of a priority.

But you needn’t let life get in the way of your long-term financial goals. With some planning and good decision making, you can continue to save regardless of what comes your way.

Here are some things that can throw your retirement planning out of whack, and how to deal with them.

1. Job loss

If you suddenly find yourself out of work, it can be a huge blow to your retirement savings because you no longer have income you can set aside. You are no longer able to contribute to that company’s 401(k) plan, and you lose any matching or direct contributions that were coming from your employer.

An extended job loss could result in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in retirement savings over time. However, you can always contribute more to your 401(k) plan later to catch up once you get back to working, and if you have a large enough emergency fund (at least three to six months’ worth of income), you may still be able to contribute to retirement through individual retirement accounts (IRAs) or taxable brokerage accounts.

A job loss can hurt, but if you are relatively young and have a lot saved already, the loss of a few months of retirement contributions won’t make too much of a difference in the long run.

2. Divorce

Dissolving a marriage is a tough choice to make, and it’s one that can be fraught with financial implications. There could be large upfront legal costs associated with the divorce itself, and the long-term impact can be significant. Suddenly, your household income has been split in half while you each now have to pay for your own separate housing costs, utilities, and meals. You may be on the hook for child support or alimony payments. And now the combined retirement nest egg you were counting on has been slashed. When this happens, it’s hard to think about retirement savings.

You can protect your retirement, however, by avoiding the temptation to cash out accounts upon your divorce. Some couples have unfortunately been known to do this during the asset-splitting process, resulting in huge capital gains taxes and penalties (plus the loss of any potential earnings from that money).

If you and your spouse are considering divorce, be sure to think hard about the financial implications. If you do decide to separate, don’t lose sight of the importance of saving for retirement, despite the new challenge in doing so.

3. A major emergency

You suffered a significant injury and only part of your medical bills were covered by insurance. You totaled your car. Your house was gutted by fire. When these things happen, retirement saving may be the last thing on your mind. In fact, if you are not prepared, you may end up raiding your retirement funds to pay your bills. This could mean penalties and taxes and years of potential lost income.

You can continue to save for retirement, however, if you’ve built up a significant emergency fund. Three to six months’ worth of income is a good rule of thumb to cover whatever unexpected costs you may have. With a good emergency fund, you may not have to raid your retirement funds at all, and may even be able to continue contributing at the same level.

4. Having a child

You and your spouse are rolling in dough, pumping those retirement accounts to the max and watching the savings grow at a rapid pace. Then you decide to have a baby. In case you weren’t aware, kids add cost. The United States Department of Agriculture calculates the average cost of raising a child from birth through age 17 to be $233,610. So you can imagine how having a kid could throw your finances off track.

If you are thinking of having a child, you need to plan for it financially, by either boosting your income, cutting back on other expenses, or (ideally) both. If you think you can put off saving for retirement until the kids are out of the house, that’s a big mistake.

5. Going back to school

There may come a time in your life when you feel a desire to finish college or get an advanced degree. Certainly, education can be the key to developing a great career and stable finances. But you still need to be smart about it.

Our nation is filled with young people who are crushed by student debt and unable to even consider saving for retirement. If you’re heading back to school, make sure you’re pursuing something that can actually pay off in the form of a better career or higher-paying job. Try to avoid taking out burdensome student loans, if you can. Examine if it’s possible to continue working while pursuing the degree so you’re not losing income.

Your early years are the best time to save money for retirement, because your money has time to grow. Don’t let higher education be a burden in your efforts to save.

6 Things Buyers Will Hate About Your House

Selling a house can be a nerve-wracking experience. Not only do you have to deal with the daily stress of having prospective buyers in your home, but you also have to handle the potential feelings of rejection when no offers for your house are forthcoming.

Sellers may only see the lifetime of happy memories they built in their home, but buyers are usually focused on the (potentially expensive) negatives that come with the house.

Here are some of the biggest issues buyers may hate about your home. Fixing these things can help prospective buyers see themselves living in your house instead of moving on to the next one.

1. Outdated decorating styles

Some interior design is clearly the product of its time. Harvest gold and avocado appliances indicate that your last kitchen update occurred during the Nixon administration. Mauve and teal walls, tiles, or carpets will make buyers think you are still addicted to Miami Vice. And faux-finished paint jobs, such as sponge-painting, rag-rolling, and stippling, are about as current as Beanie Babies and the Macarena.

There are two reasons why it’s a mistake to leave up any outdated decorating when trying to sell your home. The first is that your buyers will see these style choices as something they need to undo. It will cost them money and time for updates, which will decrease their willingness to pay full price for your house.

In addition, if it’s clear that you haven’t done decorating work on your home in several decades, buyers may wonder if there is other home maintenance you have neglected in that time. Even if you’ve kept your house in tiptop shape but simply love the aesthetic of a specific decade, buyers might assume the other work in the house is just as outdated.

2. Wall-to-wall carpeting

Wall-to-wall carpeting used to be a touted feature of a home, but it has now become a definite negative for the majority of homebuyers. Even first-time homebuyers expect hardwood floors, and will be turned off if they find wall-to-wall carpeting.

There are a number of reasons why carpet has lost its hold as a positive feature. To start, carpet tends to hold onto stains and odors. Even if you have diligently cleaned your carpet to stay as fresh as the day it was installed, the expectation among buyers is that carpet will be dingy and stinky, even if it’s not.

In addition, carpets can hold allergens in a way that hardwood floors do not. Any homebuyers with severe allergies will see wall-to-wall carpeting as a perpetual sneeze machine until the carpet is removed and the floor underneath thoroughly cleaned.

This is why many sellers go ahead and pull up any carpeting before putting the house on the market. For many buyers, even unfinished hardwood floors are more desirable than wall-to-wall carpeting. If you are unable to remove the carpeting in your home, make sure you commit to getting it thoroughly and professionally cleaned before putting it on the market.

3. Unattractive yard

There’s something to the idea of “curb appeal.” You may have the world’s most gorgeous home on the inside, but if the yard is weedy, overgrown, bare in patches, or looks like the exterior of Sanford and Son, then your potential buyers will never get out of the car to see it.

It pays to spend some time and money to improve your landscaping before you put the house on the market. That means ensuring healthy plants and trees and green grass (or other ground cover, if your yard refuses to grow grass) — and removing any rusting RVs that may have set up camp on your front lawn.

4. Wallpaper

The popularity of wallpaper seems to ebb and flow, but each time around it comes with a different aesthetic. Wallpaper is coming back in style right now, but the styles are different from what came before.

Whether you have the cabbage rose wallpaper of the early 20th century, orange and brown plaid from the 1970s, or the dainty florals and paisleys of the 1990s, it’s likely that buyers will want to remove the wallpaper in your home, even if it’s just to put up new paper themselves. Remove the paper yourself so buyers won’t see your papered walls as a potential cost.

5. Odors

If you are a pet-owner or a smoker, you may have lost the ability to smell the scents that your pets or your habits have left behind. But your potential buyers will definitely notice the lingering scent of Rover’s accidents, Fifi’s litter box, and your ashtray — even if you do not.

Invest in a deep-clean of your home before putting it on the market — and then ask a non pet-owning and/or nonsmoking friend to sniff around your house afterward. They can let you know if the cleaning has taken care of the issue, or if you need to replace carpets, draperies, or other items that may have become irrevocably odoriferous.

6. Popcorn ceilings

Many homes built between the 1930s and the 1990s have this once-popular type of ceiling finish. Builders and DIY home improvers liked this type of finish because it covered up imperfections in ceiling plaster or drywall.

But popcorn ceilings are a major pain in the neck to paint, and they also collect dust in all of their peaks and valleys. In addition, popcorn ceilings that were installed before the late 1980s may contain asbestos, which requires special equipment to remove safely. Even if your home was built after that period, many people assume that a popcorn ceiling has asbestos.

Though removing a popcorn ceiling can help to attract buyers, it’s important to test your ceiling for asbestos before making plans to remove it. You can purchase a testing kit to help you figure out if removing the popcorn ceiling is something you can do on your own, or if you will need to call in a team equipped to handle asbestos removal.

 

4 Golden Rules of Investing in Retirement

After you’ve spent a lifetime investing for retirement, it can feel very different to invest in retirement. Many retirees are hesitant to start withdrawing from the nest eggs they’ve carefully built over the years. And, they sometimes feel especially nervous about managing that account, knowing it needs to last as long as they do.

Thankfully, there are some guidelines that can help. Here are four golden rules for investing in retirement.

1. Don’t be too conservative

Longevity is increasing. Your retirement could last for two decades or more. According to the Social Security Administration, a 65-year-old man today can expect to live to nearly age 85. A 65-year-old woman today can expect to live past age 86. And those are just averages. Many people will live well into their 90s.

Of course, given a choice, most people would prefer to live a long life. However, the more years you spend in retirement, the longer your nest egg will need to last. That’s why it’s important to avoid being overly conservative with your investments in your later years. Bond-like returns will only get you so far.

This reality is reflected in many of today’s target-date funds. For example, Vanguard’s Target Retirement 2020 fund, which is designed for people right on the cusp of retirement, currently has 54 percent of its assets invested in stocks. The lowest level of stock exposure Vanguard’s target-date funds ever hit is 30 percent, which occurs seven years after each fund’s target date. Thereafter, it remains fixed.

If you’re managing your own portfolio, you would be wise to take a page from these professionally managed portfolios and make sure you’re maintaining a healthy exposure to stocks.

2. Don’t be too aggressive

By the same token, you can’t afford to get carried away with risk. With the current long-running bull market showing few signs of running out of steam, it may be tempting to take on more risk than you should, especially if you feel somewhat behind on your retirement savings. But that would be dangerous to your portfolio and your peace of mind.

Instead, trust the rules of asset allocation. If your optimal asset allocation calls for a 50/50 stock/bond mix, stick with that. One day, the bull market will end and you’ll be glad you weren’t invested any more aggressively than you should have been. If you’re not sure what your optimal mix should be, Vanguard’s asset allocation questionnaire can help you figure it out.

Remember, if your nest egg isn’t as large as it should be, you have other options besides taking undue risk with your investments. For example, if you’re still in the workforce, pushing back your intended retirement date even by a few months or a year can make a noticeable difference in your financial health.

3. Consider maintaining a cash “bucket”

One of the biggest threats to your portfolio in retirement goes by the fancy name of sequence of returns risk. That refers to the possibility that the market could fall just as you enter retirement. While the market naturally ebbs and flows over time, a significant downturn right at the start of retirement can put a strain on your cash flow throughout retirement.

Especially if you lean toward the conservative side of the risk spectrum, one way to manage that risk is to implement the bucket strategy — creating a cash account containing two to three years’ worth of essential living expenses. That can help you avoid having to withdraw from your investment account in a bear market.

When the market is falling, you draw living expenses from your cash bucket, giving your investment account time to recover. When the market is growing, you draw from your investment account while also using a portion of your gains to refill your cash bucket.

4. Make sure you’re on the same page as your spouse

Within many marriages, there’s a division of labor, with each spouse taking the lead in different areas. If one of you has been managing the investments, now is the time to bring the other into the process. Otherwise, when the investment-manager spouse dies, it can leave the surviving spouse ill-equipped to take over.

If you handle the investments in your household, start talking about your investments with your spouse. How many accounts do you have and what’s the total balance? What are the online passwords? What strategy are you following with your investments? If you were to die first, how would you recommend your spouse manage the account? If you’re using a fairly involved approach, is there a simplified alternative?

One of the sweetest rewards of a life lived well is peace of mind in your later years. When it comes to experiencing financial peace of mind during retirement, the four steps described above should help.

Is Downsizing in Retirement Right for You?

Going through years of accumulated possessions and memories is probably not how you envisioned spending part of your retirement. It may sound like a daunting and emotionally draining task, but downsizing could be a savvy financial move, especially if you haven’t reached your retirement savings goals.

Before making any decisions, think about why you want to downsize in the first place.

  • Is it because you want to save on mortgage payments?
  • Are you looking to free up some cash to help pursue lifestyle goals in retirement?
  • Or perhaps you want to move to another state for health reasons, tax reasons or to be closer to family.
  • Maybe you want to move to an area with a low cost of living?
  • You’re planning ahead, making sure you will be OK if sometime down the road you can no longer deal with stairs or have to give up driving.

No matter what your goals, understanding the connection between them and downsizing will help motivate you to follow through.

Downsize Now or Later?

Choosing when to downsize is an important decision. One benefit of downsizing early in retirement is that mortgage payments and other related expenses, such as utilities and real estate taxes, could decrease, presuming that you’re downsizing to save money.

It can also free up your time if you move to a smaller property that requires less upkeep. In addition, the earlier that you downsize, say in your 60s rather than your 80s, the less of a toll the move may take on you.

On the other hand, there may also be advantages in certain cases to waiting to downsize. For example, you may be timing your downsizing plans for when there is a stronger real estate market to help you sell your current home at a better price. Or perhaps you are waiting for that last child to graduate from college and leave the nest before you move somewhere else.

The Price You Will Pay

Before you start boxing up your belongings, run the numbers to make sure the change makes financial sense. You want to make sure that after all costs are taken into consideration, you will end up achieving your financial or other goals.

In selling your home you may have costs related to moving your belongings, Realtor commissions, attorney fees and other costs related to your closing. Also, remember if you are buying a different home that you must account for the down payment, home inspection, closing costs and other associated charges.

Factoring all the numbers into the equation may reveal whether downsizing makes the most sense for you in your financial situation.

Clear the Clutter

Downsizing may involve not just your home, but also downsizing the stuff you have amassed over time.

When purging your home, don’t feel pressured to clear out your entire house in one fell swoop. Instead, make a plan to do one room or a section of your home at a time.

Maybe you’ve determined that not all of your furniture will fit into your new home. Consider having items appraised and selling them online or at an auction house, depending on how many items you are selling and their worth. You could wind up with extra money that could help cushion your relocation expenses.

Also, do not be afraid to discard accumulated items that you can’t give away or sell. If they serve no purpose other than taking up space, you might be surprised by how much room you could free up in your new home by simply throwing these items away.

One of the greatest hurdles to overcome in downsizing is separation from items that have sentimental value, ranging from the house itself to an old baseball glove. While it can be an emotional experience, it may be time to discard some of these items, perhaps doing a compromise of keeping some things that will fit nicely in your new, smaller home while ridding yourself of other items.

And let’s not forget items that you have been storing long-term for your adult children, like old term papers, books and other items they have never picked up. We worked with a widower downsizing his home who was having difficulty getting his kids to pick up old items that belonged to them that he had been keeping in his home for years. To solve the problem, he got them to agree to come by on a specific day to pick what they wanted to keep before the rest of the items were discarded.

Once you know it is the right time to downsize, do not wait too long. It is easy to get stuck in the status quo but then deny yourself newer experiences and a more manageable financial life.

How Much Money Is Enough to Retire?

The idea of what makes a comfortable or good retirement varies based on personal goals and preferences. But the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all amount each person needs to save shouldn’t deter you from figuring out the best possible plan for your retirement.

How can you determine what that magic number will look like for you? Use these three steps to get clarity and confidence about where you stand in relation to your ultimate goal:

1. Determine Your Net Worth

You can define what financial success looks like in terms of your net worth. You need to start with your net worth to understand where you currently are financially so that you can develop a plan to get to your goal.

Your net worth is all of your assets, minus all of your liabilities. Your assets are all your investments, bank accounts, cash, and could include your property (although some people leave out the value of their home from net worth calculations if they plan to live in it during retirement).

Your liabilities are your debts or anything that you owe: credit card balances, what’s left on your mortgage, other loans, and so on.

You can use a net worth calculator to help you, or you can talk to a financial planner who can review your finances and help you put together a comprehensive plan for your future.

The process can get overwhelming, especially if your net worth wasn’t what you were expecting. It often brings up a lot of questions about whether or not where you are today is good enough to get you to the financial future you want. It is important to be aware of these numbers so that you can start properly preparing for retirement.

2. Envision What Your Retirement Expenses Will Be

Now that you know your net worth, or what your wealth looks like today, you need to understand the other side of the coin: where you want that net worth to take you. You can only know how much money is enough to retire by laying out what you actually want that retirement to look like. In other words, how much will your retirement cost you? What does that look like on an annual basis?

It’s difficult to know exactly what your expenses will be (especially if retirement is still a decade or so away for you), but you can start estimating. You can create a mock retirement budget to get a better idea of what your expenses will look like. To do so, start with the easy stuff: your set costs like living expenses and necessary bills. These might include:

  • Housing and utilities: Where do you want to live? Will you downsize or move to a vacation hotspot? Do you want to travel a lot? What does that mean for your permanent residence?
  • Transportation: Can you downsize how many cars your household maintains once you retire? Will you move to a place that’s more walkable or accessible by public transportation or will you move farther away from the city and expect transportation costs to rise?
  • Insurance premiums: What’s your plan for health insurance? Will you drop term life because you no longer have financial dependents? Do you need other types of protection instead?
  • Healthcare: Based on the benefits you can receive, what do your healthcare costs look like? Do you have an Health Savings Account (HSA) you can tap into?

Thinking about what your retirement will look like day-to-day, along with what bills you expect to continue to pay and which ones you’ll no longer need to take care of can help you build out the foundation of your budget. From there, you can consider what you really want and not just what you have to pay for. Think through your answers to questions like:

  • Will you travel or do you want to spend lots of time in your community?
  • Do you want to provide financial support to family members?
  • What kind of activities or hobbies do you want to pursue?
  • Will your lifestyle change and, if so, how?

It is a good idea to pad your budget a little bit with a few extra hundred dollars per month for unexpected expenses or costs you forgot to include. Then, you can multiply that budget by 12 to estimate how much your retirement will cost you each year.

Then, multiply that number by the amount of years you expect to be in retirement. If you retire at 65 and reasonably expect to live to 90, for example, then you should multiply your annual budget over 25 years.

3. Compare Existing Savings With What You Need for Retirement

If you came up with a retirement budget of $50,000 in annual spending, then you’d need $1,250,000 in your investment portfolio in order to safely retire today without running out of money.

Run your own budget numbers and then compare to the wealth you have to determine if you have enough. If you need help, this calculator can help you determine how long your retirement savings are likely to last or if you might outlive your current savings.

If you feel like you don’t have enough to retire, don’t panic. You might still be years out from a realistic retirement age, so you have time. Make the most of the last decade of your career and optimize your savings and investment strategy to grow your wealth.

Remember that you have options. You may be able to:

  • Reduce your retirement expenses, so you need less in savings to live on.
  • Create other income streams, so you don’t rely 100% on your savings.
  • Work part-time or slowly phase out of your existing career so you extend the amount of time you earn a paycheck, which reduces the burden you put on your nest egg.
  • You can also develop a smarter investment strategy now that allows you to make the most of your opportunities to put your money to work for you.