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Tuesday
Jan132015

9 Financial Skills Everyone Needs

1. MAKE A BUDGET — AND STICK TO IT

It's tough to barely cover bills month after month, but if you make a budget and look for little ways to save some money, a little advance planning pays off big time — it can mean the difference between living comfortably and looking for change between the cushions to buy your next meal.

The first step to managing your money is to know how it's coming in, and where it's going. Use an accounting tool, whether it's paper and pencil or an online program like Mint, to keep tab of your income and expenses. Total all your expenses for the month and compare that to how much you earn every month. If current expenses exceed income, then you need to figure out where to cut.

2. WHEN IT COMES TO SAVING, EVERY PENNY COUNTS

There's always going to be something to spend on, whether it's your faltering car engine or a costly toothache. Living on a small income can make it hard to save for a roof repair or a retirement fund, but it can be done.

  • Ask your bank to automatically transfer funds each month — even as little as $10 — from your checking to your savings account.
  • Put all your loose change into a piggy bank, then transfer it into your savings account. A nickel a day, plus $10 from your checking-account transfer, adds up to $140 a year — and over a lifetime can total many thousands of dollars.

3. SEEK MORE MODEST HOUSING

Too many of us have larger (or more expensive) homes than we actually need. Consider downsizing to the least costly home that will meet your family's needs. If you own a home, check with your lender whether you can refinance your mortgage at a lower rate. Mortgage interest rates are at historic lows, so refinancing could save you years of payments and a good deal of money that you can stash away into savings. Or, consider renting out a room in your home or finding a roommate to reduce costs.

4. REDUCE YOUR CAR USE

When you're on a tight budget, you're attuned to minimizing your driving as much as possible in order to cut gas costs. The best way? Combine multiple shopping trips into one. Of course, you save even more on gas and auto maintenance if you can ditch the car and walk, bike, rollerblade, or even skateboard to the store or work.

5. MAKE USE OF AVAILABLE BENEFITS

Low and moderate-income workers can qualify every year for an Earned Income Credit on their tax returns, which can refund up to $496 for an individual and $5,450 for a family of four. You can find out if you're eligible by using the IRS's EITC Assistant website.

And don't forget to make use of health care benefits — an unexpected medical emergency can be costly, so make use of Medicaid, or hospital financial assistance, if you qualify. Also, remember that the Affordable Care Act offers government subsidies that can offset all or part of the cost of private health insurance. HealthCare.gov is a good place to start.

There are plenty of other useful programs that provide help with a variety of things, such as utility bills or advancing your job skills. Start at the Benefits.gov website to see what you could be eligible for.

6. FIND A SIDE GIG

As many people with tight budgets know, one paycheck is rarely enough. Even if you already have a full-time job, a little extra income can come in handy to pay off debt, cover bills, and save for emergencies. And there are plenty of money-making ideas that won't detract from your 9-to-5 job, such as selling items on eBay or renting out your extra room on Airbnb. If you have desirable skills, freelance or consult on the side. Many side jobs have little to no start-up costs and can be done during your down time.

7. BE SAVVY ABOUT HEALTH CARE COSTS

People on tight budgets use these methods to lower medical costs:

  • Find the lowest-cost place to purchase prescription drugs. Call and do a price check at ethnic supermarkets and discount centers, and look online at mail-order pharmacies.
  • Ask your physician to consider prescribing generic drugs. Generics can cost several hundred dollars less to purchase annually than brand-name drugs — and they're thoroughly regulated by the FDA.
  • If you've got a minor ailment (like the flu or an achy muscle) check out low-cost retail clinics in your area. CVS, Walgreen's, and Walmart often offer these.

8. NEVER PAY FULL PRICE IF YOU DON'T HAVE TO

People with limited incomes usually can't afford to pay full price. And you should get in the habit of never doing so, either. If you're shopping retail, wait until the end of a season to buy items once they're priced half off or more. And save your receipts: Most stores will refund the difference if your purchased item's price declines within 30 days of purchase.

9. POOL RESOURCES

Carpooling, sharing baby-sitting duties, and cooking pot-luck dinners are examples of ways to reduce costs by pooling resources. Can other family members live in your home and pitch in for rent? Can older kids make a few extra bucks by mowing lawns on the weekend that can be used to pay for school lunches? Communal living not only brings us closer, but also reduces expenses and creates a sense of common purpose.

Source: Wisebread.com

Saturday
Dec272014

Trade in Gift Cards at Walmart

Starting Christmas Day, Wal-Mart is letting customers exchange gift cards from more than 200 retailers, airlines and restaurants for a Wal-Mart card. The cards don't expire and can be used in stores and online.

It's a test program, but if it's successful, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said the card swap could become a permanent service. Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala said the chain doesn't have specific metrics to evaluate that but will watch how shoppers react.

Shoppers won't get the full value of their gift cards to use at Wal-Mart. For example, with Amazon.com, customers can redeem up to 95 percent, while for Staples that figure is up to 90 percent and for Gap, up to 85 percent. For some brands, a Wal-Mart gift card will be worth just 70 percent of the original card.

To exchange a card, go to http://walmart.cardcash.com and input your information. The Wal-Mart eGift cards should be emailed to you within an hour.

Saturday
Dec272014

Keurig Mini Recall- Free Repair Kit

Keurig Green Mountain is recalling more than 6 million hot beverage-brewing machines in the United States that could overheat liquids and burn users (apparently, this event is more likely to occur if the brewer is used to brew more than two cups in quick succession). The systems being recalled are the MINI Plus Brewing System units with model number K10 (formerly identified as B31) produced prior to July 2014 – note that no other brewer models have been affected.

To determine if your brewer is among those units potentially affected based on its serial number displayed on the bottom of the unit (pictured above), head over here or call 1-844-255-7886 Monday through Friday from 8AM-8PM ET and Saturday and Sunday from 8AM-3PM ET or email keurig@inmar.com (call center will be closed December 25, 2014 and January 1, 2015). If your brewer is affected, you will be able to obtain a free repair kit which resolves the potential issue. Go HERE for more information.

Saturday
Dec272014

13 Ways to Use Unwanted Gift Cards

 

1. Sell the card for cash. Go to GiftCardGranny.com and see which secondary market will give you the most for your unwanted plastic. You can expect up to 94 percent, but some will bring a lot less.

2. Trade the card. Sites like GiftCardZen.com and Cardpool.com let you trade vs. sell.

3. Regift! Not everyone believes in the practice, but in the case of a gift card who’s gonna know?

4. Use it elsewhere. A card may be usable at a different store owned by the same company. For example, the parent company of Gap also owns Banana Republic, Old Navy and Piperline.

5. Stack it with a sale. Stretch that scrip by watching for low prices online or in-store. “Getting as much value as possible is a great way to honor the gift you received,” Johnson says.

6. Give it away. A shelter, a foster home program, a senior center – whoever you think can use it.

7. Workplace incentive. Make it a prize for a great business suggestion, or stage a random drawing during a staff meeting.

8. Young person incentive. Hang on to the card until the next report card is handed out. If your son, daughter, niece, nephew or grandkid surprises you (in a good way), you can surprise him or her with a reward. (That is, if this is a card a child would covet. Don’t expect excitement if you hand over $25 worth of Lane Bryant purchasing power.)

9. Teacher present. No, it’s not required to give a holiday or end-of-year gift to your child’s teacher. But it’s a nice gesture. (Hint: Teachers have enough mugs and “Hug a teacher today!” plaques.)

10. Door prize. Belong to a service group, the PTA, a neighborhood watch organization? People might be more likely to show up to a meeting if there’s a chance to win something.

11. Graduation gift. Anybody in your family de-matriculating in the spring? A general-interest card, or one specific to the grad’s needs, would likely be welcomed.

12. Help somebody. Got a relative or a friend who’s having tough times? Offer the gift card or maybe just drop it off anonymously.

13. Blog prize. If you’re trying to build readership, have giveaways. I can personally attest that response to gift card giveaways is pretty epic.

Source: Donna Freedman

Thursday
Dec182014

11 Great Donations to Make

If you're feeling charitable or just have some stuff you want to unload, consider these simple donations you can make before 2015 comes around. (Just make sure you keep good records for the tax man!)

1. CLOTHES AND HOUSEHOLD ITEMS

There's a good chance you'll get some new clothes and other stuff for the holiday season. Now may be a time to donate some of your older (but still usable) items to a thrift shop or charity such as Goodwill. You'll free up some closet space and get a 2014 tax deduction in the process. This time of year, coats and other warm-weather items are especially needed.

2. FOOD

Local food pantries are always in need of donations, especially during the winter months. Drop off a few bags of canned goods, or get in touch with a charity such as Meals on Wheels to donate food to a shut-in. You're probably cooking a ton for the holiday feast anyway, so set some aside for a needy family.

3. SHARES OF STOCK

If you've seen portions of your investment portfolio rise in 2014, why not share the wealth? Donating shares of stock is a great way to help out a charity because unlike a cash donation, the contribution may rise in value. You get a tax deduction by donating, and also avoid any capital gains fees you might have otherwise incurred by selling.

4. A CAR

If you're thinking of buying a new car in 2015, consider donating your car to charity this year to get the tax benefits. Many charities will accept donations of cars, which they then sell at auctions and pocket the proceeds. Other charities turn the cars over directly to needy families. A car donation is tax deductible, and many charities will even go through the effort to pick up the car from your house free. Donating your car makes sense if you feel like you wouldn't get much for a trade-in anyway.

5. NEW TOYS

It's almost impossible to avoid seeing the U.S Marines manning Toys For Tots stations all over the country. A donation of a new toy will help ensure a great Christmas for an underprivileged child. This year, Toys For Tots is looking to collect 7 million toys. Go toToysfortots.com to find a drop-off location near you.

6. OLD BUILDING MATERIALS

When my family built a new addition to our house, we donated some old windows and a sliding glass door to a local charity that recycles such things. It was a stress-free way to unload the items, and we got a sizable tax deduction. Contact the Building Materials ReUse Association to see if there's a charity near you.

7. YOUR TIME

Rather than spending a day at a mall indulging in retail excess, consider taking time to help out at a soup kitchen, food pantry, or other charity. Better yet, consider making a commitment to volunteer not only during this holiday season but throughout the year.

8. YOUR ARTISTIC TALENT

This time of year, it's common for organizations to have parties featuring silent auctions as fundraisers. If you're an artist or photographer, why not donate a painting or photograph? It's a great way to direct money to a charity and perhaps also get some exposure for your skills. Similarly, a musician could volunteer to perform holiday music at a charitable event, or even offer free lessons.

9. CASH

This may seem lazy, but most charities are more than happy to receive monetary donations. In fact, sometimes money is the best gift to a charity because they know better than anyone what specific items they need. Donating cash could be as easy as dropping some coins into a Salvation Army pot, or writing a sizable check to another non-profit group.

10. BLOOD

This time of year, blood donations are often low because people are so busy. But it's a great way to give back in a way that won't cost you a dime. I make a point of donating blood every December 24 at my local Red Cross donation center. It gets me in the Christmas spirit, and there are usually free cookies. Go to RedCross.org to locate a blood drive or donation center near you.

11. MONEY TO YOUR FUTURE SELF

This may not be a "donation" in the classic sense. But it's still a great idea to try to max out your retirement accounts by the end of the year. If you have an IRA, you can contribute up to $5,500 for 2014. Any contribution up until April 15, 2015 counts toward 2014, but why wait?

Source: Wisebread.com

Thursday
Dec112014

Tips for an Affordable Holiday Party

Holiday parties are a fun part of the season, and hosting one can be a blast. The trick is to throw a fun party without spending your gift shopping budget to make it happen. Luckily, there are some easy ways to make your party fun without breaking the bank. (See also: 7 Budget Gifts You Can Bring to a Holiday Party)

PARE DOWN THE GUEST LIST

The more the merrier, right? It's not quite that simple if you're the host (AKA the treasurer). Consider whittling down your guest list for the party and you'll save a good chunk of change while providing a more intimate gathering. If you still want to invite that old co-worker, fitness instructor, and the mailman, then go for a potluck or BYOB (more on that in a moment).

GET THE TIMING RIGHT

If you don't want to serve a full meal and deal with all of the requirements it brings, try having your party at a non-eating time. Eight at night or later is acceptable for not providing dinner unless you state otherwise. Plus, many people will go out to eat just before, and therefore won't need a snack until later. If you'd like to have a less boozy gathering that won't last until the wee hours, a Sunday evening party is perfect. For a (nearly) booze-less gathering, host a cookie or tree-trimming party in the afternoon, and you can squeeze by with warm cider and cookies.

DECORATE RESOURCEFULLY

There's no need to blow your budget on party decorations. For lighting, simply gather all of the candles you own and cluster them on a main table before lighting them. Or buy a couple of strings of cheap holiday lights and stick them in jars. Instead of buying expensive flowers, take trimmings from an evergreen tree, branches with berries, and pine cones and make a seasonal arrangement.

One of the easiest ways to decorate for a party is to use food. Put those pretty cookies you made (or your nice friend brought over) on a platter. Put pretty citrus on plates and in bowls for decoration, and then use them for cocktails or snacking. Fill bowls with candy that guests can snack on and take home.

You can even make decorating the central theme. Have a tree-trimming party and either have everyone make decorations as an activity when they arrive or bring an ornament with them as their contribution to the party.

BYO ALL SORTS OF THINGS

Don't be afraid to ask guests to bring key items with them to your party. The most common example is to have people bring their own drinks, such as wine. This tried-and-true method can majorly cut down on a big party budget eater: alcohol. You can get more creative with BYOB and have people bring a mixer and you supply the liquor for a nice cocktail bar (or reverse it and have your guests bring the booze). Or have a holiday wine tasting, and have everyone bring a bottle to share.

Throw a cookie party this year — ask guests to bring cookies to share and create a sweet display. Supply a salty snack or two and something to drink and you're done! If you're having a smaller gathering, have guests specifically bring cookies for decorating andprovide the icing and sprinkles for a fun afternoon.

FEED YOUR GUESTS (WITHOUT GOING BROKE)

Food can be a major expense for holiday parties, but you don't have to spend big to have a great time. A potluck is a classic way to nearly eliminate this expense, and it's a fun way to socialize and sample new dishes. Try basing your potluck party around a theme, even if that's just "holiday meal," and let everyone know what you're making as the main course so they can plan accordingly.

It's no secret that when it comes to food, it's almost always cheaper to do it yourself. So forget catering, and get thee to the kitchen! Even if you're not a cook, you can whip up some easy but satisfying snacks. Try swapping a pricey cheese platter for a homemade cheese ball with crackers and crudites (slice the veggies yourself — it's much cheaper than buying them cut up at the grocery). Bread fills people up, so put out a variety of crostini to nibble on. And a bowl of homemade popcorn is super cheap and always a hit.

If you can stand the clean up, use your own "real" dishes, utensils and glasses. If your crowd is too big or the lack of a dishwasher makes it all feel impossible, head to your local dollar store for disposables.

FESTIVE DRINKING THE CHEAP WAY

If you're offering up drinks as part of your party deal, a great way to please a crowd is with punch. It frees you up to use cheaper booze without anyone being the wiser, and you can stretch the alcohol with mixers. An apple cider punch or mulled wine are great for a winter party and can go a long way.

If you want to serve a proper cocktail, consider using prosecco. It tastes and looks festive, but for the taste and the bubbles, it costs much less than it's counterparts.

FREE ENTERTAINMENT

No party is complete without a soundtrack. Find holiday playlists on an online streaming or radio service and just press play. Put Christmas movies that you own or are streaming for free on your TV in the background (or perhaps a crackling fireplace). Mix things up by playing games like Celebrity, Who Am I? and Mafia, all of which are totally free and great fun with a group.

AFFORDABLE GIFTING

If you'd like to include a gifting element, an always fun and budget-friendly game of Secret Santa is an easy solution. Set a spending limit as low as you like and let people get creative. That way, everyone (including you) only has to buy one gift instead of 15, and it's a fun party game. You can also send your guests home with gifts, but make them dual purpose: gift your party decorations (such as ornaments), or pack everyone little gift bags with an assortment of the cookies they brought.

Source: Wisebread.com

Monday
Dec082014

What to Buy (And Avoid Buying) in December

FIRST, WHAT TO BUY…

So, it's that time; the Christmas and holiday shopping lists are being made, and it's time to start digging out the best deals to keep everyone happy and your wallet in check. Here are the deals you should pounce on this month.

Gift Cards

If you're smart, you can grab yourself some free money by buying select gift cards that come with incentives. You can get $25 to $50 in free gift cards by spending $150 to $200 on them. If you were planning to shop at those stores anyway, you've just bagged free money. Even places like Chipotle will give you a free burrito for buying a certain amount in gift cards. If you eat their food often, you're golden.

Thanksgiving Merchandise

When Thanksgiving ends, the stores are desperate to dump their stock to fill the shelves with Christmas goodies. Make a space in your basement or attic for the killer deals you'll find on decorations, cards, cookware and much more. There are also going to be huge discounts on Thanksgiving themed food and drink. It's still fresh; it's just got a dated theme. Who cares?!

Thrift Store Goodies

If you aren't shopping in thrift stores, you're missing out on some unbelievable bargains. Most people are too busy with the upcoming holidays to bother listing unwanted items on eBay or Craigslist, so they drop them off at the local ARC or Goodwill. Not only will you find some items in like new condition, you'll also get incredible bargains on items you can resell on eBay for a massive profit. One great find could pay for your whole shopping list, if you know what you're looking for.

Christmas Decorations and Goods

Wait a second. Don't go rushing out for these now. You need to wait until after December 25th. But after that, go hog wild! The stores do not want all that merchandise clogging up their shelves. Expect to see 50% to 90% savings on everything from trees and lights to yard decorations, cards, and gift-wrap. Remember, Christmas will be here again next year, so buy now to save later.

Champagne

It's odd, putting champagne on the discount list when this is the peak month to buy it. But, liquor stores are smart. They know that by making champagne a loss leader, they'll make it back on the other booze you'll buy. However, you don't have to buy anything else — just grab the cheap champagne and celebrate in style.

Cars

As the year comes to a close, and the bad weather comes rushing in, car dealerships are clearing out inventory. They'll drop their prices to do it, and offer huge incentives. If you don't mind braving the weather on those cold, open lots, you could drive into 2014 with a great bargain. However, it's always better to buy used, even if it's just a year old. New cars depreciate quickly.

Homes

Just like car dealerships, sellers of homes have it tough at this time of year. Most just take their homes off the market to ride out the winter months. So if houses are on the market, the sellers are very motivated. Now is the time to do some home hunting, and dare to undercut asking prices by a chunk.

Kitchen Supplies

Manufacturers know this is the season for cooking impulse buys, and they'll do what they can to lure you in. A nicely timed discount will tip people from "maybe next month" to "I'll take it." So with all the different holidays and events coming, you can stock up on new kitchen gadgets and save more than a few bucks. Also, consider wedding gifts, which may be coming up in the spring.

Toys Go Cheap

Deals on lots of toys pop up in December every year, even though they're in high demand. There is insane competition between all the different toys, and so manufacturers are cutting prices to grab your attention. It's good news for you and the kids, but there is a catch — you'll have to wait until Mid-December.

Tool Prices Are Cut

It's not a great time to be doing DIY, but it's a great time to stock up on the essentials everyone needs to get the jobs done. You'll see prices cut on all sorts of tools and equipment, from power drills (go for Lithium batteries) and bench saws to screwdrivers, wrench sets, and sanders.

AND, WHAT TO AVOID…

With the exception of Cyber Monday, there are some deals that are too good to be true in December. With 2015 quickly approaching, you may see some good offers on older equipment, gadgets, and appliances. Make sure you're okay with dated products before you dive in. Here are other things to avoid this month.

Gym Memberships

I said it last year, and I'll say it again. Gym memberships and subscriptions hit a peak in the New Year, and they are starting to see those increase in December. A lot of people like to have the membership in place, so that they can get straight down to the hard work in the first week of January. It's going to be this way for a while, so just find another way to stay fit. Craigslist will have some killer deals thanks to new equipment for Christmas.

Electronics

Aside from Cyber Monday, the best deals for your electronic gadgets have come and gone. What's more, any deals you may find will be on the 2014 stock that retailers are trying to clear out before the 2015 goodies arrive in the New Year. Do yourself a favor, and wait it out.

Jewelry

People love giving jewelry at this time of year. And when people love doing something, retailers love charging them top dollar for it. So unless you really have to drop some of your cash on rings, necklaces, and other sparkling items, wait until next year for that pricey item.

Calendars

Unless you absolutely have to put a brand new calendar up on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, you should steer clear of calendars. They are expensive right now. Full price, everywhere you look. But come a few weeks into 2015, the prices will start to fall like the rain in Seattle. You can expect to save at least 50%, and when February comes around, stores everywhere will be almost giving them away. Really, with the smartphones and tablets, does anyone really need them as reminders anymore?

Winter Gear and Clothing

It's cold out there. Snow shovels, big coats, hats, gloves, boots, and all the other winter gear is marked at full price for the next few months. If you really need them now, consider Craigslist or thrift stores to save some cash.

Source: Wisebread.com

Wednesday
Dec032014

7 Ways to Lower Winter Heating Costs

1. TAME DRAFTS

The best way to keep the warm air in is to make sure it isn't flowing out. Take a tour around your home and examine windows and doors for any drafts. Our front door had a sizable gap at its base, so we installed weatherstripping and it took care of the cold air problem immediately.

There are many ways to fill in voids, including stripping, insulator kits, foam, silicone, etc. If you're in an apartment or just want a temporary fix, you can also use one of those draft guards. Here's a DIY tutorial using an old pair of tights, polyfill, and only a few stitches.

2. LOWER THE THERMOSTAT

How low can you go on your thermostat this winter? Start just one degree and you couldsave up to 5% (or around $10 per day) on your overall heating bill according to an analysis released by EnergyHub in 2012. The EPA recommends settings on 70 degrees during the eight hours most people are home turning it down to 62 degrees for the 16 hours when people are away or sleeping. And if you can get away with keeping your thermostat on lower (we keep ours on 67 during the day), that's great, too. Using a programmable thermostat also helps you save by taking out the manual temperature changing.

3. COVER YOURSELF

Feeling nervous about taking the plunge? Keeping comfortable at lower thermostat levels isn't difficult. Wear more clothing! Long sleeves, pants, thick socks, and layers are the fashion statements in our house during the winter. We also keep a fleece blanket on the couch to ward off chills in the evening. Our beds are topped with flannel sheets and wool covers for the nights when our thermostat is at its lowest setting. You don't want to be frigid all season long, but some common sense is employed here.

4. ZONE IT OUT

My family lives in a 4-bedroom home, but we're currently only using two of those bedrooms on a daily basis. So, we've closed the hot air vents in those rooms to redirect the heating to the spaces we're living in and keep the doors shut most hours of the day. If you have baseboard heating, see if there's a localized switch in your room so you can turn it off and shut the door. The savings here are hard to quantify because so many factors are involved (room size, etc.), however — the less area to heat, the more money that stays in your pockets.

5. USE CURTAINS

During the day, take advantage of the sun's rays by opening your curtains to let the light in. Even on the coldest days you'll get a boost, especially with those south-facing windows in the afternoon rays. Then in the evening, close your curtains to help keep the heat indoors. If your windows are bare (or you only have sheers), consider purchasing someinsulated curtains, which protect your home from heat loss through conduction, infiltration, convection, and radiation. They come in all colors and patterns, too!

6. SERVICE YOUR FURNACE

It's one of those annoying home maintenance tasks you don't think you should need to do, but getting your furnace cleaned and evaluated each year can help save you cash and unexpected breakdowns. (It's also a safety thing, as furnaces can leak carbon monoxide into your home without your knowledge.) You'll also need to change out the filter at least once per season — or whenever it's dirty — to keep everything flowing as it should. Check your local coupon books to see if any HVAC providers are offering promotions.

7. ADD INSULATION

If your house is still feeling quite cold, take a trip to your attic to assess the insulation situation. In our last home, we were surprised to find only a few inches of the stuff keeping our heat from flowing out the roof. (Insulation acts like a hat does on your body.) We added a thick fiberglass roll to the entire attic ourselves and could tell the difference in our second floor level almost immediately. How much insulation you add and where you add it is going to depend on your home. If you plan to stay there for quite a while, it certainly makes sense to evaluate and correct any issues that might cost you big dollars as the years go on.

Source: Wisebread.com