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    The airplane which is going to land
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    By Karla Bowsher

    Perhaps it's time to book that dream vacation.

    Not only are some states seeing their lowest gas prices in 12 years, but now the average domestic airfare is as cheap as it's been in six years.

    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's latest quarterly airfare data, released Wednesday, the average domestic airfare fell to $372 in the third quarter of last year. That's down 6.2 percent from $396 in the third quarter of 2014.

    When adjusting for inflation, the average domestic fare has not been this low in the third quarter since 2010, when it was $370.

    CNN Money reports that expansion of budget airlines has helped fuel the decline in airplane ticket prices.
    The founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, George Hobica, tells CNN that major airlines are being forced to reduce their rates to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier:

    The major airlines are flying scared and looking over their wing tips at these low-cost carriers that are definitely taking up market share, despite their horrible reputation. ... On some routes, they are matching prices dollar for dollar, so we are seeing fares 50 percent lower than a few years ago.

    Low oil prices have also helped airlines.

    According to Department of Transportation data, domestic airlines paid $1.44 per gallon in December. That's down from $2.32 in December 2014 - and the lowest it's been in any month since March 2005, when domestic airlines were also paying $1.44.

    In light of airlines paying less for fuel than they have in more than a decade, however, Money calls reports of cheaper airfare "misleading":

    When you look at it from that perspective, a 6 percent discount seems just a little bit stingy, especially when you consider that airlines hauled in a record-breaking amount of cash last year - almost $18 billion in profits in the first three quarters of 2015 alone.


    Find the best price on everything you buy on our deals page!

    The publication also points out that the $24 difference between the average domestic airfare in the third quarters of 2015 and 2014 "isn't a whopping difference" for passengers, as that savings could essentially be nullified by fees for checked bags, snacks and Wi-Fi.

    Money reports that, with few exceptions, the prices of such fees "aren't budging."
    If you're considering that dream vacation regardless, check out "17 Proven Ways to Save on Travel."

     

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    Can a Smart Thermostat Turn Up Your Savings?
    Did you know: Buying a smart thermostat could be a smart investment for your home?

    A smart thermostat automatically learns your habits and temperature preferences every time you adjust it.

    If you're someone who doesn't mind programming their thermostat manually, or if you're someone who moves often, a smart thermostat might not be for you. But if you're someone who might benefit from being able to program their thermostat remotely, investing $250 to $500 on a smart thermostat could be a sound investment.

    Plus, if you're someone who forgets to set their analog thermostat, a smart thermostat could save you up to $180 in energy bills!

    So just remember - a smart thermostat could be smart way to warm your home without burning your savings.

     

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    Home For Rent Sign
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    By Karla Bowsher

    There is some bad news for people hoping to find a good deal on a home to rent or buy: The vacancy rate for American homes fell by 9.3 percent over the past two quarters, a new report shows.

    RealtyTrac's analysis of residential property vacancies for the first quarter of this year, which was released this week, shows that only 1.6 percent of residential properties were vacant at the beginning of February.

    Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac vice president, says most U.S. real estate markets have too few vacant homes. In a press release, he explains the possible side effects of such a low vacancy rate:

    "The razor-thin vacancy rates in many markets are placing upward pressure on home prices and rents. While that may be good news for sellers and landlords, it is bad news for buyers and renters and could be bad news for all if prices and rents are inflated above tolerable affordability thresholds."

    RealtyTrac's analysis is based on the real estate website's address-level property data for nearly 85 million U.S. residential properties, defined as those with one to four units. This data - which includes foreclosure status, owner-occupancy status and equity - was then cross-checked against the U.S. Postal Service's updated data on properties that have been flagged as vacant by the postal carrier.


    The analysis included 147 metropolitan areas with at least 100,000 residential properties.

    The areas with the highest vacancy rates are:
    • Flint, Michigan (7.5 percent)
    • Detroit (5.3 percent)
    • Youngstown, Ohio (4.4 percent)
    • Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas (3.8 percent)
    • Atlantic City, New Jersey (3.7 percent)

    Other major metropolitan areas with vacancy rates above the national average include:
    • Indianapolis (3 percent)
    • Tampa , Florida (2.9 percent)
    • Miami (2.8 percent)
    • Cleveland (2.8 percent)
    • St. Louis (2.6 percent)

    At the other end of the spectrum, the areas with the lowest vacancy rates are:
    • San Jose, California (0.2 percent)
    • Fort Collins, Colorado (0.2 percent)
    • Manchester, New Hampshire (0.3 percent)
    • Provo, Utah (0.3 percent)
    • Lancaster, Pennsylvania (0.3 percent)
    • San Francisco (0.3 percent)

    Other major metropolitan areas with vacancy rates below the national average include:
    • Los Angeles (0.4 percent)
    • Boston (0.5 percent)
    • Denver (0.5 percent)
    • Washington, D.C. (0.5 percent)

     

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    By Karen Cordaway

    While 2016 is in full swing, if you haven't thought about a resolution yet, don't give up. Maybe it's time to make one that has the potential to stick. If you're often wondering how money slips out of your wallet, consider becoming the crash test dummy for better spending habits. Test drive some of these ideas below to develop better ones.

    Be your own cheerleader.

    Patting yourself on the back after following through on a behavior you want to increase goes a long way to help cement a behavior. Ginger Dean, psychotherapist and website owner of GirlsJustWannaHaveFunds.com explains the power of rewards: "When making smart money choices, celebrate them by rewarding yourself. Yes, make rewarding yourself a habit. For example, when you make it through a pay period and adhere to your spending plan, treat yourself to something nice that doesn't break the bank." She points out that this creates what we call positive reinforcement, which helps you connect good decisions with positive rewards.

    According to research by Wendy Wood, a social psychologist and provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, a behavior only has to be rewarded initially to form a habit. So once the habit is established, you can relax and let momentum take over.

    Cheat a little.

    While it's great to start the New Year off with a new idea, give yourself a lead and start with a familiar task. Repeat the task on a regular basis. Research shows you won't have to train yourself to do the task, you just train yourself to do it repeatedly. For example, if you like drinking water when you eat at a restaurant, choose to do it more frequently. Set rules for yourself, like, "When I eat out, I will order water." Before you know it, a small gesture will become a string of little actions that can have a big impact on how you spend. It can also do double duty for your bank account if you send the money you didn't spend straight to savings. Once you establish one good habit, move on to another like trimming a little bit of your grocery budget every time you shop. Start with as little as five dollars and put that in savings, as well.

    Keep using the Benjamins.

    Let your dollars see the light of day and allow the real thing to get some exercise. Fans of carrying cash can do this more so in the New Year if it helps you control your spending. If you know you tend to do major dollar damage in just one swipe of a credit card, then this tip might work for you. Curtail the urge to go on a spending free-for-all when using a credit card as a short term loan and pay in cash whenever possible. Make using cash a habit if you find it keeps you on track. Choose a dollar amount to withdraw on a regular basis and challenge yourself to not to go beyond that amount.

    Graduate from a spending spree.

    Limit how much time you spend in a store. Research shows the slower you shop, the more you spend. Get what you need and go. Set a timer if you have to or have your eyes stay glued to your shopping list, then pay and skedaddle. This way you can avoid impulse buys and filling every nook and cranny of your shopping cart with items you didn't plan to get. Side step a budget-busting aftermath and make it a habit to make short trips to stick with your spending plan.

    Do a happy dance after checking out.

    When you have carried out a small, smart money choice like spending less time in the store, celebrate it. As stated above, positive reinforcement can work wonders for habit formation. So if you accomplished all of your shopping in record time, celebrate your small win afterwards. So when you're looking to applaud yourself for getting out of the store quickly, think of what Han Solo said in The Force Awakens when Finn and Rey reunited: "Escape now, hug later."

    If you originally couldn't bear the thought of making a resolution, reconsider. Just know that people tend to stay with activities that are manageable. Consider following some of the ideas above to take a step in the right direction when it comes to spending this year. They can be beacons for long-term financial change and help you meet your goals. They can also help you shortcut your way to success by following research that gets results. Employ one of these tips to establish a money smart habit today.

     

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    A man using a digital Tablet for shopping.
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    By Melissa Neiman

    Food is among the most expensive costs in the average American family's budget. And we don't make it any easier on ourselves by dining out so often in restaurants.

    In fact, the average U.S. consumer spends nearly one-third of his or her food dollars in restaurants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    By cutting back on dining out, and enjoying the occasional home-cooked meal - you remember those, right? - you can save a lot of money.

    Following are nine great websites and apps that can help you save at the grocery store, or that suggest ways to stretch your ingredients further.

    Cash-back and coupon websites and apps

    1. iBotta: This app is a frugal favorite, and it's no wonder why: The app pays you cash back for groceries you need to purchase anyway.

    Here is how it works: First, download the iBotta app. Then, look for deals on popular products. Once you find a deal you like, qualify for the offer by performing a simple activity, such as watching a video or filling out a survey.

    Then, go to an eligible store - including Walmart, Target and many major grocery chains and drugstores - and purchase the item. After you have done so, take a picture of the receipt and you will be credited.

    Once you have earned at least $5, you can ask iBotta to put cash in your PayPal account. This app takes couponing to the next level!

    2. Checkout 51. Similar to iBotta, this app/website presents grocery cash-back offers - updated every Thursday - that you can redeem for cash back after purchasing the item and uploading your receipt.
    However, unlike iBotta, you can shop at any store to redeem the offer. And you do not have to fill out surveys, watch videos or perform any other action.

    Two things to keep in mind, though: The offers usually are available in limited quantities. So make sure to both purchase the item and upload the receipt promptly. Also, you must earn at least $20 in offers before you can redeem for cash.

    3. Walmart Savings Catcher. Walmart is the retail giant that prides itself on its "unbeatable prices." With the Walmart Savings Catcher app, shoppers scan their Walmart receipt barcode and wait while the app quickly compares advertised prices at top competitors. If the items are available for less elsewhere, you get a refund in the form of an e-gift card.

    4. Ebates. Another very popular site and phone app with frugal shoppers, Ebates lets you get up to 25 percent cash back from more than 1,500 retailers. Foodies can save if they buy anything from retailers in the Ebates Food & Restaurants category.

    We recently told you how to get a free $10 Walmart gift card simply by signing up at Ebates. If you haven't done so, now is the time!

    5. Coupons.com. Attention bargain hunters: Coupons.com offers free printable coupons for a wide range of grocery items, ranging from coffee to fresh chicken breasts and everything in between.

    Simply install the site's coupon printer on your device, browse the extensive coupon gallery, select and "clip" the coupons you want, and print and redeem. Does it get any simpler?
    You can also install the the Coupons.com app for on-the-go savings.

    Apps that make grocery shopping easier

    6. Out of Milk. It has happened to all of us at some point: You buy a carton of milk only to discover that your spouse picked one up, too. The Out of Milk app helps you avoid this frustrating mistake by allowing you to create and categorize grocery lists and share them with others in your household.
    That way, you are less likely to "double buy" and waste your hard-earned cash.

    7. Grocery Pal. Wondering where all the sales are in your area? The Grocery Pal app notifies penny-pinching shoppers of weekly savings and sales at many leading supermarkets, retailers and pharmacies. Shoppers can even redeem digital coupons with the app.

    Find the best price on everything you buy on our deals page!

    Meal-planning websites

    8. Supercook. "Dinner's met its match" is the slogan at Supercook, which helps you create meals out of whatever ingredients happen to be lying around your house.

    Just input the ingredients in your fridge, and this clever culinary site suggests a meal. Supercook actually scans all the top cooking websites to find delicious recipes based on your available ingredients. You can even add cuisine preferences, dietary restrictions and meal types to customize your results.

    And yes, folks, an app is in the works! Sign up to be alerted when it is ready.

    9. $5 Dinners. Is your grocery budget spiraling out of control? If so, $5 Dinners is a smart site that may offer the frugal help you've been seeking. This site provides a wide selection of recipes for your family, all for under $5. And don't let the name fool you - $5 Dinners provides suggestions for breakfasts, lunches, snacks and desserts, too.

    Do you have a favorite website or app that helps you cut the cost of groceries and meals? Share it in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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    City Skyline, Hartford, Connecticut
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    By Karla Bowsher

    Residents of states with higher state tax burdens are more likely to want to move, a new study shows.

    Gallup's recently released State of the States 2015 study found that residents of states with the highest aggregated state tax burdens are 10 percent more likely to say they would like to move permanently to another state compared to residents of states with the lowest burdens.

    This aggregated state burden includes state income, property and sales tax rates and is based on data from the nonprofit Tax Foundation.

    Gallup concludes:

    Even after controlling for various demographic characteristics including age, gender, race and ethnicity, and education, there is still a strong relationship between total state tax burden and desire to leave one's current state of residence. ...


    These data suggest that even moderate reductions in the tax burden in these states could alleviate residents' desire to leave the state.

    From our Solutions Center: Help with tax debt

    For the study, Gallup polled about 500 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and categorized each state into one of five groupings, or quintiles, based on their aggregated state tax burdens.

    States in quintile 1 comprise the 20 percent of states with the lowest aggregated state tax burden, and states in quintile 5 comprise the 20 percent with the highest tax burden.

    The states whose residents are most likely to wish to move are:
    • New Jersey (which was categorized into quintile 5): 46 percent of residents would move to another state if they had the chance
    • Connecticut (quintile 5): 46 percent
    • Illinois (quintile 4): 42 percent

    The states whose residents are least likely to wish to move are:
    • Montana (which was categorized into quintile 1): 13 percent of residents would move to another state if they had the chance
    • Oregon (quintile 1): 17 percent
    • Washington (quintile 1): 19 percent

    For a list of each state's quintile and percentage, scroll down to the end of Gallup's study. According to Gallup:

    Despite having a desire to leave one's state, few actually report that they intend to move permanently to another state. For example, only 12% of Connecticut residents who report they would like to move say they plan to do so in the next 12 months.

    If you had the opportunity, would you like to move permanently to another state or would you prefer to continue living in your current state? Let us know in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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    Brilliant and Surprising Uses for Salt
    In the kitchen, you use salt in just about everything. But what most people don't realize is that salt can be used for a lot more than cooking. Here are a few unexpected ways you can use salt and save a few bucks at the same time.

    Hard-boiled eggs can be a tasty treat, but there's nothing more frustrating than having them fall apart when you try to peel them. Salt can help with that: If you add a teaspoon into the water before you heat things up, once they're done, those shells will slide right off.

    Now let's tackle grease and burnt-on food, which can be a real pain to clean. Again, here's where salt steps in to save the day. Sprinkle a thin layer on the inside of your pan, then add some water and let it sit for about ten minutes. Then grab a sponge, and that grease and grime should wipe right off.

    And finally, there's the dreaded fridge cleaning. But don't worry, you can ditch the chemicals for this one. Put 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of vinegar into a spray bottle, fill the rest with water, and shake! Using this solution will keep your fridge just as clean, and it won't scratch your glass either.

    So while too much salt may be bad for your health, it doesn't mean it can't help you in other ways. Start sprinkling, and you'll be surprised at how much time and money you can save.

     

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    Indianapolis Mall Shooting
    AP


    By Melissa Neiman

    If you really enjoy perusing the aisles at Target, you're not alone. In fact, Target is among America's favorite places to shop.

    The discount retailer ranks third among mass merchant sellers, behind Walmart and Costco and ahead of Amazon, according to the National Retail Federation.

    Shoppers turn to the famous Target bull's-eye because they aim to save money on everyday purchases. But there are many hidden ways to chip away at Target's already-low prices.

    Following are eight overlooked ways to save at Target.

    1.Buy discounted gift cards

    Buying gift cards at a discount can save you cash on every Target purchase. For example, Cardpool recently listed available Target gift cards that were discounted up to 6 percent.

    If you aren't particularly mathy, we'll break that down: In essence, it means you are getting an extra 6 percent off anything you buy at Target when you use the card. It's a no-brainer!

    2. Sign up for the REDcard

    Nod your head vigorously the next time the cashier asks you if you'd like to sign up for a Target card. The retail giant offers two Target REDcards - a debit card and a store credit card. Saying yes to either of these boasts three major benefits.
    • 5 percent off every purchase
    • Free shipping on every purchase at Target.com
    • 30 extra days on returns

    Of course, it's important to note that every time you open a new credit card account, you risk hurting your credit score slightly. And that is something you need to weigh before signing up for the REDcard, especially if you plan to take out a mortgage or another loan and need your credit score to be in tip-top shape.

    But also remember that the drop in your credit score is only temporary, and it may be worth the small ding to your credit if you shop at Target often. We're talking 5 percent off every purchase here, people!

    Find the best price on everything you buy on our deals page!

    3. Check the Target.com Samples Spot

    Cheap is nice, but "free" is tough to beat. Listen carefully, because we're about to unearth a well-kept secret: Target.com offers free samples of items at its Samples Spot page. To qualify, you simply have to answer a few survey questions. Then, Target will send the item to your home.

    The biggest drawback here is that you have to work for your freebie. Target samples are only available for a limited time, so you need to check the page frequently.

    4. Shop clearance first

    If you are going to buy something, why not get it at its cheapest price? Hunting around the store for items marked at clearance rates is a fun challenge for some. For others, it's a headache.

    But don't worry. You won't have to sacrifice savings if you fall into the latter camp. Savvy buyers can find all of Target's clearance items at one page on the website. You also will find other special offers here. For example, through Feb. 20, you can get a $10 Target gift card if you buy a Chromecast.

    5. Use the Target Cartwheel app correctly

    Just about every bargain shopper now realizes that signing up for Target's Carwheel app can save them money every week. However, not everyone knows how to fully exploit this savings tool.

    For starters, you don't even need a smartphone to redeem Cartwheel offers. Simply go to the website to browse and assign offers to a unique barcode that you can print out and bring into the store for savings.

    Target also notes that you can even take Cartwheel offers and "pile them on top of other coupons, sales and your debit or credit REDcard savings."

    Use the app often for even greater savings. Shoppers are initially allowed 10 offers per transaction, but those who use Cartwheel regularly can unlock "badges," which translate to extra offers.

    Be sure to check Cartwheel offers frequently. New offers come out on Sundays, but many limited-time, high-value offers pop up randomly throughout the week.


    6. Bring a reusable bag

    Did you know that every time you shop at Target and carry items out in a reusable bag, you save 5 cents off your purchase? Even better, Target says it gives customers "a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag they use."

    Use 10 bags each week (a conservative estimate if you're buying groceries and other items for a family of four), and you've saved 50 cents. Although that may not sound like much, it adds up to $26 over the course of a year. And you're helping to protect the environment. Talk about a win-win!

    7. Sign up at the Target registry

    If you have a big upcoming event in your life, sign up at the Target gift registry and you can earn additional savings on the items you need.

    Sign up in the baby registry and eight weeks prior to your event date, you'll get a 15 percent discount for you, friends and family to complete your registry.

    Those who use the wedding registry get their discounts after the event date - 15 percent off the items remaining on the registry, plus coupons for family and friends.

    Finally, the college registry offers a coupon for 15 percent off when you shop for remaining registry gifts online. It kicks in two weeks before the event date.

    8. Use a cash-back website to shop

    If you plan to shop from home by visiting Target.com, make sure to stop at your favorite cash-back website before making any purchases. For example, log on to the popular cash-back site Ebates.com and you'll earn an additional 2 percent cash back on your Target purchases.

    Do you have other tips for saving at Target? Share them in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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  • 02/17/16--05:58: Insuring Jewelry 101
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    Jewelry box with keep sakes and jewelry
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    For Valentine's Day, we hope you bought a thoughtful gift for your significant other. It's the thought that counts, of course, but let us give you a tip or two: women like jewelry. And, when it comes to fine jewelry, you should give thought to insurance.

    Fortunately, your family's everyday jewelry is probably covered by standard homeowner's or renter's insurance (at current market value less any deductible), assuming you carry such insurance. However, if you have valuable or very sentimental pieces of jewelry, the coverage may be lacking.

    How can you tell whether your coverage is adequate? The following steps can help you reach the best decision.
    • Inventory and Appraisal - You cannot figure out if your coverage is sufficient if you do not assess what you have. You need a list of items and their current value for any insurance claim, as well as for a police report in case of theft.

    Create a spreadsheet with each piece listed, along with the corresponding dollar value. Take separate photographs of all special or valuable pieces, and a "group picture" of the rest. Store the pictures in a safe place, along with all original receipts and certificates of gemstone quality - and, of course, your list. If you have a safety deposit box for some of your jewels, keep these papers with the jewels.

    For heirlooms and more valuable pieces of jewelry, it is best to have them professionally appraised. Depending on the specific piece, the time and research involved, and where you live, the cost will vary. A good starting expectation is $50-$200 per piece. However, if you have made multiple purchases at a good jewelry store - and they consider you a valuable customer - they may provide appraisals at little or no cost.
    • Assess Current Coverage - Homeowner's or rental insurance policies can be constructed several ways. There may be blanket coverage on all valuables, a separate blanket for all jewelry, or coverage on specific pieces of jewelry. All types of coverage go up to a specific dollar value, so check your limits in all cases.

    Limits vary, but ballpark figures are $1,000 to $1,500 for any single item, with blanket coverage running between $2,500 and $10,000.

    You can usually obtain a rider on your existing policy to cover specific, high-value pieces of jewelry. These are known as Scheduled Personal Property coverage, or "floater" policies. They may allow a higher dollar value, fewer exclusions, and different replacement options - with appropriately scaled premiums.

    Along with the dollar value, check the other policy details. For example, what exclusions apply? Is accidental loss covered as well as theft? If so, what is required to prove loss?
    • Replacement and Repair Options - What do you consider a proper replacement to be? Is a cash value replacement acceptable, or are there specific pieces you want to have replaced by as close of a duplicate as is possible - for example, a wedding ring handed down by generations of your family, or a customized ring or necklace from your spouse?

    A policy may direct you to a specific jeweler, or allow you to select your own. If that is important to you, verify the policy terms regarding jeweler options.

    Verify if appreciation is included, and what happens in case appraisal costs do not cover your desired duplication.
    • Check Alternatives - If your current insurance company does not offer suitable coverage through an addition to your existing policy or a comprehensive replacement, consider a homeowner's policy through a different insurer, or a completely separate policy for your jewelry.

    Some insurers specialize in jewelry coverage. They may work with jewelry stores, and offer coverage to their customers, or offer independent individual jewelry coverage. You will likely pay more for this coverage, but you will probably have greater control over the replacement. If replacing customized pieces with detailed exact duplicates is important to you, these policies may be more to your liking.

    We hope that these tips will provide you with guidance on choosing the best policy for your needs. At the very least, you will have a proper inventory and appraisal should you need it. Also, why not take the time this week to confirm that the women in your life have suitable insurance in place to protect their jewelry and other valuable items? Your inquiry will certainly prove more valuable and last longer than a pretty bouquet.

     

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    By Allison Martin

    One day, you may decide to retrieve your FICO score, only to discover it has taken a tumble because of a seemingly small mishap on your part.

    This happened to me a few years back because I misplaced a bill for a whopping $12.70 that ended up being reported to the credit bureaus. Worst of all, the problem stemmed from a charge through automatic billing on a credit card I no longer used.

    The result was an 80-point decrease and several months of regret. My credit score has rebounded since then, but thinking about this small oversight still haunts me.

    With my precautionary tale in mind, here are some additional mishaps that can damage your FICO score:

    1. Car rental reservations

    Planning to rent a car? If you use a debit card to make the reservation, the rental car company might require a credit screening, which can ding your credit score.

    Here's a better option: Confirm the reservation with your credit card to avoid the unnecessary credit inquiry and settle the final bill with your debit card upon returning the vehicle.

    2. Past-due rent payments

    Paying rent on your own time frame may not immediately earn you an eviction notice. But that doesn't mean the landlord won't report your delinquency to each of the three credit bureaus.

    My advice: If you're having trouble with rent, meet with the landlord and propose an alternative payment plan until you're caught up. That way, you can salvage your good name and credit rating.

    From our Solutions Center: Free help with your credit score

    3. Library delinquency

    When you check out a stack of books or DVDs, it's easy to forget to return them by the appointed time. But the consequences for this oversight can be worse than you'd think.

    My local library assesses a fee of 25 cents per day for outstanding items. Once the account reaches $25, an additional fine of $7.95 is tacked on, and the entire account is forwarded to a collection agency.
    Get your materials in on time. And if you lose them, fess up and pay the fees. Otherwise, you'll take a hit to your wallet in the form of fines and, potentially, a lower credit score.

    4. Outstanding medical bills

    We've reported on the option of making payments to ease the financial burden of major medical bills. But if you sign up and don't hold up your end of the bargain, expect to receive a call from a collection agency.

    Promptly tending to the matter bolsters your chances that the payment privileges will be reinstated. However, muting the ringer or sending the calls to voice mail will eventually result in a blemish - in the form of a collection account - to your credit report. Those marks stick around for at least seven years.

    5. Delinquent tax obligations

    Did you receive a hefty bill from Uncle Sam's headquarters or the local tax collector for unpaid taxes? You can run, but you can't hide. They will eventually track you down and demand what they're owed.
    If you fail to respond and work something out, expect your credit score to take a dive.

    6. Defaulting on recurring bills

    If you are slightly past due on a bill from cellphone, utility or other providers of recurring services, chances are you'll receive several notices before services are terminated.

    But when they've had enough, expect to be turned over to collections and subsequently reported to the three credit bureaus. So, don't ignore correspondence or fail to settle your outstanding obligations.

    7. Breached gym membership contracts

    Tired of forking over your hard-earned cash each month for a gym membership you aren't using?
    Understandable. But walking away without properly closing the account could cost you in the form of early termination penalties and a damaged credit score.

    8. Unpaid traffic citations

    Most of us are aware of the consequences associated with ignoring tickets issued by law enforcement. But what about those random tickets issued by parking services at the local university or the downtown street patrol?

    Ignoring them and failing to pay probably won't land you in the slammer, but you may be taken aback when the amount - plus a host of fees - shows up as a collection in your credit profile.

    9. Closing credit cards

    Now that your credit is in stellar condition, you may decide to cancel all credit cards with zero balances. Or maybe your credit card issuer will close the account because of inactivity.

    However, the effect on your credit score may not be pretty, because you lose a portion of your available credit. That increases your credit utilization ratio, which accounts for 30 percent of your credit score. An increase in this ratio has a negative effect on your score.

    And closing credit cards with outstanding balances won't help you either, because it doesn't make the debt magically disappear from your credit report.

    10. Too many credit card applications

    Ten percent of your FICO score is determined by how you shop for credit. According to MyFICO:

    If you have been managing credit for a short time, don't open a lot of new accounts too rapidly. New accounts will lower your average account age, which will have a larger effect on your FICO(R) scores if you don't have a lot of other credit information. Even if you have used credit for a long time, opening a new account can still lower your FICO scores.


    So, remember that the next time you're offered a credit card at the checkout counter that can save you a decent amount of cash on the purchase. The price of that one-time savings may be a lower credit score.

    11. Inadequate credit mix

    If you're looking to establish or rebuild your credit, it may be necessary to apply for a credit card unless you plan to go another route. (See "7 Ways to Build Your Credit Score Without a Credit Card"). But opening a single credit card account is likely to have only a modest impact on your score.

    According to myFICO:

    The credit mix usually won't be a key factor in determining your FICO Scores - but it will be more important if your credit report does not have a lot of other information on which to base a score.


    12. In-house zero-interest financing

    Strapped for cash but in desperate need of that new mattress or laptop? It may be tempting to take advantage of zero-interest financing if it's offered by the seller. But if the credit line is only equal to the total purchase amount, be prepared for a spike in your debt-to-available-credit ratio.

    Simply put, your credit score will take a tumble because 30 percent of your FICO score is calculated by the amount owed to creditors.

    13. Maxed out credit cards

    Have you ever swiped your magic plastic to cover an expense, knowing full well it was maxed out? Chances are you incurred a penalty and a reduction in points to your FICO score because of an inflated utilization ratio.

    Have you experienced a surprise hit to your credit score? Tell us about it in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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    Three happy young men in casual wear talking and drinking beer while sitting in bar together
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    By Maria Lalonde

    After a long week at work, come Friday you may be aching to unwind with a nice dinner and maybe a martini or two.

    But nights on the town can be an expensive indulgence. Dinner, drinks and Uber rides can add up quickly, taking a big chunk of money out of your hard-earned paycheck.

    That doesn't mean you have to spend your nights at home alone, watching Hugh Grant movies with a box of wine and a sleeve of Thin Mints. With a solid plan of action, it's possible to paint the town red without going broke. Learn more by checking out our guide to going out on a budget:

    Withdraw cash for the night. Decide how much you can afford to spend on your night out beforehand. Withdraw the amount of cash you've allocated for the night so you won't lose track of how much you spent later on. When your wallet is empty, you'll know it's time to stop spending.

    Find a designated driver. Cab rides and ride sharing can be one of the most expensive parts of going out. Look out for both your safety and wallet by finding a designated driver who can drive you and your friends to and from the bar. Of course, it's not always easy to convince a friend to be a designated driver - try arranging an alternating system with your friends, where one person agrees to be the designated driver each week.

    Start at home. You can save money by starting your night at home. Invite your friends over to share a few beers, and you'll end up spending less money on drinks when you're out. Drinks at a restaurant or bar can cost upwards of $8, but a six-pack from your local grocery store can cost as little as $6.

    Hunt down restaurant deals. On restaurant deal sites like Restaurant.com, you can purchase gift certificates to local restaurants at more than 50 percent off. Simply plug in your ZIP code and you'll be presented with a variety of deals for restaurants in your area. You can also check out discounted gift card sites like Raise and Cardpool to score gift cards to popular chains at a discount.

    Split meals. Many restaurant dishes fall well beyond the range of the USDA's recommendations for sodium, fat and calories. Splitting a meal is not only a healthy choice, it's a cost-conscious one. Consider ordering a salad and a main course to share with a friend. Pack up leftovers, and you'll have lunch taken care of tomorrow.

    Look for specials. Once you're finished with dinner and ready to hit the bars, do a bit of homework beforehand to find out which bars have the best drink specials. Search local event guides to find listings of promotions and specials, and plan your night accordingly. At a bar, don't be shy about asking the bartender if they're running any drink specials you might have missed.

    Stick to beer. Cocktails, wine and shots are typically marked up anywhere from 350 to 500 percent at bars. With beer, you often get the best value for your money - especially if you can buy beers on tap or by the pitcher.

    Avoid brand-name liquors. If you prefer liquor to beer, make sure to specify that you would like the house alcohol rather than the brand-name in your mixed drinks. Many bars will charge more for premium spirits, so it's a good idea to be specific about your house alcohol preferences to avoid being charged top-shelf prices.

    Finish at home. Instead of staying out late and shelling out more money at the bar, consider bringing the party back to your house. You can continue to enjoy each other's company (and continue to drink) in the safety of your own home - where the drinks aren't marked up, you don't have to tip and there's never a cover charge.

    Stay in. Your friends won't be devastated if you turn down an invitation to go out every once in a while, and they're likely to be understanding if you explain your reasons. Next time your friend asks you to come out, try saying something like, "I've really had fun going out with you before, but I can't make it tonight. I'm really trying to stick to my budget." Everyone can identify with wanting to be more responsible with their spending habits. By deciding to stay in one night, you allow yourself a little more wiggle room next time you go out. You're bound to enjoy your next night out much more when you're not pinching pennies.

    Remember just because you stay home doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself. Take the time to relax with a bubble bath, cook a delicious dinner or read that book you've been meaning to finish.

     

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    By Marilyn Lewis

    f you have focused all your retirement planning energy on your 401(k), you may be missing a key piece of the puzzle: Social Security.

    You can influence your eventual payout from this safe, dull old-age safety net to a surprising degree by making some adjustments and changes in your planning.

    The time to get started pumping up your Social Security checks is now, even if you've got decades to go before retirement. Here are some ways to do just that.

    From our Solutions Center: Maximize your Social Security benefits


    1. Work more years


    You must work at least 10 years to collect Social Security. The size of your benefit checks is decided by a formula that is based on your 35 highest-earning years of work. If you didn't work 35 years, the formula uses zeros for the missing years. Zero years lower your benefits, so add as many more years of work as you can.

    SocialSecurity.gov explains the details and shows how benefits are calculated.


    2. Avoid claiming too early


    The age at which you start collecting Social Security makes a big difference in the size of your checks. (This chart shows how.) You can start as early as age 62, but your checks will be forever 25 percent to 30 percent less than you're due, depending on when you were born. And if you die first, your spouse's Social Security survivor benefits will be smaller than if you'd waited.

    Some people have no choice. Many retirees stop work earlier than they planned because of illness or unemployment, or to be caregivers. In that case, try to use other sources of income if possible, so you can hold off claiming until you're older.


    3. Aim for full retirement age


    Social Security calculates monthly checks based on your "full retirement age." That's when you are eligible for 100 percent of your Social Security benefit.

    Full retirement age varies: It's age 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954, increasing gradually to 67 for those born after 1959. To get all the benefits you can, use this Social Security calculator to find your full retirement age and plan your retirement around it.

    The longer you wait, the larger your checks and cost-of-living adjustments, which are based on your monthly checks. Waiting to age 70 is even better than collecting at your full retirement age. But more on that later.


    4. Raise your income


    Doing what you can do now to grow your income will fatten your Social Security checks in the future. Use the Social Security Retirement Estimator to see the effects of more income on your benefits. The estimator taps into your personal work history to give a reasonably accurate estimate of benefits.

    Some ways to boost your income:

    5. Go for the gold


    The average Social Security check for 2016 is $1,341 for those who collect at full retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration. But you may be able to do better - much better.

    Planning ahead counts. Use the Social Security Retirement Estimator to see what you'd need to do - such as retire later or earn more now - to max out your eventual monthly benefit.


    6. Hold on until age 70


    Delaying Social Security as long as possible is not for everyone. If you have reason to believe you won't live long, perhaps you should collect early. But the value of waiting beyond full retirement age and collecting at age 70 is obvious in this example from the SSA:

    The maximum benefit depends on the age you retire. For example, if you retire at full retirement age in 2016, your maximum benefit would be $2,787.80. However, if you retire at age 62 in 2016, your maximum benefit would be $2,102. If you retire at age 70 in 2016, your maximum benefit would be $3,576.

    There's no benefit, though, in waiting past age 70. Learn the facts of your case by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213. Or find an office near you and pay a visit.



    7. Get professional help


    In many instances an informed decision about when to claim which Social Security benefits can boost benefits by tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime, especially for couples.

    Various companies will prepare a customized analysis revealing exactly when to claim Social Security benefits to receive the maximum lifetime payout.

    Social Security Choices sells one such product for $39.99 and, in partnership with Money Talks News, offers a $10 reduction (use coupon code "moneytalks").​

    Because the claiming strategies for couples can be complex, an inexpensive analysis showing the exact dates when each of you should claim could be well worth the cost.


    8. Look into spousal benefits


    Married people have an advantage in the Social Security system. Even a spouse who never worked can claim benefits. Married people can receive half their spouse's Social Security benefit, and that may be more than they'll make on their own.

    Divorced people (here are the rules) married 10 years or longer qualify, too. Here is the SSA explanation of same-sex couples' benefits and rights.

    To get spousal benefits you must be at least 62 and your spouse, the primary worker earner (government jargon for the one with the biggest benefit), must be receiving Social Security checks or be eligible for them.


    9. Pump up your spouse's survivor benefit


    When you die, your Social Security benefits end. But your widow or widower may earn survivor benefits, possibly as much as half of your full retirement amount. (Here is some SSA information about survivors.) The bigger your benefit, the more your spouse will receive when you're gone. So do all you can now to increase your benefit checks.


    10. Weigh the cost of working while claiming benefits


    The government reduces your Social Security checks by $1 for every $2 you earn if you start your benefits before full retirement age and make more than a specific amount, which is $15,720 in 2016. (The penalty stops on earnings above $41,880.)

    See the rules to weigh the pros and cons of working while collecting Social Security. You might decide it's better to hold off collecting, given the penalty and the fact that your benefits will keep growing while untouched. And, remember: You'll get all the money back in bigger checks after you hit full retirement age, the SSA says.


    11. Watch out for taxes


    If your only income in retirement is from Social Security, you probably won't have to worry about paying income tax. But if you have additional income from other sources, try to reduce your total income to minimize the tax bite. Depending on your income, up to 85 percent of your benefits can be taxed.

    Taxes are based on your combined income: your adjusted gross income plus half of your Social Security benefit plus non-taxable interest. The SSA explains in detail.

    If combined income is more than $34,000 ($44,000 for couples), as much as 85 percent of your benefits may be taxable. You can reduce your tax bill in retirement by cutting expenses so you need less income and​ choosing investments with an eye to reducing taxes​.


    12. Pay off debts


    Certain debts - including federal taxes, child support or alimony and federal student loan balances - can be garnished from Social Security checks. Pay them off before retirement so you can keep your entire benefit check.


    13. Check for errors


    Keep an eye out for your Social Security statement in the mail each year or find your statement online. Look it over to ensure your income is reported correctly. Get credit for every penny you've earned to boost your eventual benefit checks.


    14. Collect benefits for minor children


    Once you start collecting benefits, your unmarried dependent children 18 or younger can receive benefits (see details here) too. Biological children, adopted children, stepchildren and grandchildren are eligible, as are full-time high-school students aged 18 to 19 and children disabled before age 22 (details here).

    When do you expect to start collecting Social Security? Let us know in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

     

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    By Sarah Winfrey

    Are you engaged? Getting engaged soon? Hoping to get engaged someday? No matter where you are in the process, it's worth thinking about how you want to make the statement.

    Many couples are finding that they don't want to go the traditional route of offering the bride-to-be a diamond ring. Some choose something else because they want to make a statement, others because they disapprove of the diamond industry - and even others because they simply like another option better.

    If you're considering doing something non-traditional, there are many ways to personalize your engagement and make it stand out from others. Here are some frugal ideas for you. (See also: 7 Smart Ways to Save on a Wedding Dress)

    1. Rings

    Even if you choose to use a ring to symbolize your engagement, it doesn't have to be a diamond. These options work if you like the symbolism of the ring but want more flexibility in the material.
    • Wooden Rings
      • There are so many wooden ring options to choose from! Many people like the fact that wood is a natural material and that trees symbolize both growth and rootedness - two ideas that are foundational to a marriage. Wooden rings sound like they might be big and clunky, but they can actually be delicate, with mother-of-pearl inlays and more. If you want a unique engagement ring, these might be for you.
    • Other Clear Gems
      • If you like the look of a traditional diamond engagement ring but you don't want to spend the money on a stone, don't want to support the diamond industry, or you want to be able to get a new ring in a few years, consider a cheaper clear gem. Moissanite is the most common diamond alternative, but there are actually quite a few other choices.
    • No-Stone Rings
      • If you are fine with a stoneless ring, there are about a million options out there. You can get something delicate - maybe simply a knotted piece of gold - or something much more elaborate. Really, you can make the ring look like anything you choose! The only downside of this option is that people often use rings without stones for promise rings. If you don't mind explaining your engagement ring to people you meet, though, it can be an awesome choice.
    2. Other Jewelry

    Don't like rings, but like the idea of a gorgeous piece of jewelry as an engagement gift? Consider a different piece of jewelry. Really, the options here are endless, but here are two of my favorites.
    • Lockets
      • A locket is a great choice for a piece of engagement jewelry because the idea is so romantic. No matter what you put inside of it, the recipient will keep it close to their heart. It can also be a great choice for folks who can't wear rings at work, or for keeping your engagement quiet for a while. You can use a traditional locket, with a photo or something special inside, or you can get a more modern clear one, so that everyone can see the symbols of your love.
    • Personalized Bracelets
      • Bracelets are a great, inexpensive engagement option. You can choose from various metal options or engraved leather. Have one etched with a short handwritten message, so your own words in your own writing are always visible on your beloved's wrist.
    3. Non-Jewelry Items

    Maybe jewelry really isn't your thing. That's okay, too, because there are some fun engagement options that don't involve jewelry at all. These are great for people who cannot wear any jewelry when they work, so they can keep a symbol of love with them even when they're on the job.
    • Engraved Wallet Cards
      • These engraved wallet cards fit easily into a wallet, allowing a beloved to see your loving words anytime they take it out. They are highly discreet and can make for a fun secret between lovers. They are also a great choice for people who want to say more than can be engraved onto a ring. Give your lover all your words of love when you get engaged, and let them carry your love with them.
    • Tattoos
      • These have become increasingly mainstream over the last few years, but they are still a great engagement option. If you want your love to last forever, why not tattoo it onto your skin? Tattoos also give you the ultimate in creative options for how you want to declare you love. Pick something that is meaningful to the two of you.
    Do you have an alternative to a diamond engagement ring? How did you express your love when you got engaged?

     

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    What are a few financial goals you're aspiring to reach?

    Perhaps you want to pay off debt, save $2 million for retirement, or give more than you ever thought possible.

    One of the best ways to get where you want to go in life is to look at the lives of those who have arrived. How did they accomplish these goals? What made the difference for them? Are these things you can do, too?

    Sometimes, it's easy to put limitations on ourselves. We think that because of this or that circumstance, we'll never reach our goals. Why think like that? Is that helpful? Of course not.

    The truth is, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But it's not just what they choose to do that matters, it's what they refuse to do that matters as well.

    Let's take a look at some things enormously financially successful people refuse to do.

    1. They refuse to dwell on their success.

    Imagine you've done something and seen some success. Maybe you started a business and are making decent money. Perhaps you built something nobody has ever built before. You might have even landed your dream job.

    It can be tempting to dwell on success to the point that innovation comes to a screeching halt. After all, you've made it, right? Well, not quite yet. If your goal is to be enormously successful with your finances, it's best to take this advice from Steve Jobs:

    I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what's next.

    The founder of Apple certainly lived up to his advice. He also built an incredible team at Apple that was motivated to work on the something new all the time - motivated to innovate and not settle for even for the great success they discovered.

    2. They refuse to let disappointment destroy their dreams.

    When you are disappointed, do you feel like giving up? Probably. Should you feel that way? No way!

    Let disappointment encourage you to try harder at becoming successful.

    Jerry Seinfeld has been said to have been booed off stage the first time he walked out in front of an audience at a comedy club. Imagine that! This is Jerry Seinfeld, someone who today is enormously successful because he refused to give up. Amazing.

    What are your dreams? What would you love to do in your life? Chances are, you can think of a couple of disappointing circumstances that might discourage you from reaching your goals - but why let them weigh you down?

    3. They refuse to become disorganized.

    Look around at your office right now. Is it organized? Is it nice and tidy, or is it a mess?

    Organizing your office space - and your home - can help clear your mind and allow you to focus on reaching your ultimate goals.

    Think about it. When you sit down to write a masterpiece, are you distracted by clutter? The truth is, when you have a pile of papers on your desk or your email inbox is a mess, it's difficult to focus on the things that matter most.

    You might be wondering why it's difficult to focus when you're surrounded by clutter. Good question. You see, if you're thinking to yourself that you should really be cleaning up the clutter or you're wondering what that stack of papers on your desk means (because it might represent unknown work to do), it's going to be tremendously difficult to push those thoughts aside and focus on the task at hand. They're distractions.

    In other words, you need mental space to think.

    David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, often talks about the importance of capturing everything on your desk and in your mind that needs attention and organizing it. Many successful entrepreneurs have followed this advice and found success. You probably would too.

    4. They refuse to sacrifice quality for speed.

    Apple, here, is another good example. They were not the first to come out with a smartphone. Remember BlackBerry smartphones?

    You see, Apple could have seen other companies in the smartphone market and felt in a rush to create something for their customers. They could have whipped something together in a flash. Did they? Oh no.

    Instead, Apple took quite a long time to craft their smartphone. They wanted something that was easy to use and fun. They wanted something that would themselves enjoy using. Then, they made it: iPhone.

    Yes, in order to be financially successful as a businessperson, you eventually have to put your product or service out into the world, but you should never do so because you feel pressure. Instead, take the time necessary to make something great. Make something that sells itself. You'll be really glad you did.

    5. They refuse to let their current knowledge be good enough.

    You have access to knowledge at your fingertips. Why not use it?

    One common trait you'll find in those who are enormously successful is that they want to learn everything they can about their business and beyond. They are lifelong learners and thinkers. They believe that they can do incredible things with their minds.

    Tim Ferriss is one of those amazing entrepreneurs who has a passion for learning. In fact, Tim not only believes in learning, he practices accelerated learning. He has been able to learn how to dance, cook, and so much more. He has even written on how to learn (but not master) any language in one hour. Crazy amazing.

    Tim took his love for learning and created a business teaching others how to do the same thing. He refused to let his current knowledge be good enough and pushed himself to the max. Why not try something similar?

    6. They refuse to continue tradition without questioning it.

    Have you heard of John Legere? He's the CEO of T-Mobile USA.

    Under his leadership, he has truly shaken up the cellular service industry with new plans and unique offerings. T-Mobile no longer has two-year contracts and abolished overage fees. Amazing.

    Still, other carriers have good offerings, but T-Mobile has truly questioned the traditions of carriers and given customers something different to consider.

    What can be learned here? If your business is struggling, why not question the traditions and processes that have been put in place and see if you can discover something new? It doesn't hurt to try, and it might just make you enormously successful.

    7. They refuse let fear hold them back.

    Fear. It's what can hold you back from a successful, prosperous life.

    There are so many things to be afraid of, folks. I don't need to remind you of them. But you know what? It's unlikely that most of your worries and concerns will ever happen. Don't be afraid.

    One way to get past fear is to write down your fears on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and write on the front: "Do not open until [year from now]." Then, put it somewhere safe where you'll remember to take a look.

    Then, for the next year, attack your fears. Do those good things you ought to do. Strive for success. When the year is over, open the letter and see if any of your fears came true. You'll probably be surprised to find that not many of them did come true - if any of them at all!

    Remember: It's not just what you do that matters, it's what you refuse to do that matters as well. Learn from those who are successful. Take them out for lunch. Read their material. Develop some grit. You'll be better off for it.

     

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    The average American credit score varies by age. The 25 to 34 crowd has the lowest scores on average, likely because they're getting established and paying off student loans. Credit scores steadily climb with age, as consumers become more stable and focus on saving rather than spending. The 55+ crowd has the highest average score of nearly 700.

    The irony here is that 25 to 34 year olds are in the most need of a good score. It's during this time that many are trying to buy a home for the first time, when a good credit score is critical. They are also paying of debt, where a high score could help them refinance student loans and credit cards to a lower rate.

    With that said, you can take some steps to raise your credit score quickly, especially if you're nearer to the bottom credit score range than the top. The first step, of course, is to make sure you know your score. There are several ways to get your score online for free.

    Here are five easy steps to take:

    1. Get rid of errors: Approximately five percent of consumers have an error on their credit report from at least one of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Sometimes these errors are as minor as your current address. In some instances, however, they actually affect your credit score.

    If you need to boost your score fast, take the time to pull all three of your individual credit reports. Check the accounts, credit limits, current balances, and payment records carefully. If you notice any issues, take these steps to get the error corrected as soon as possible.

    2. Ask for goodwill adjustments: Even one missed payment can significantly lower your credit score. Missed payments also stay on your credit report for as long as seven years. Sometimes, though, you can get your creditor to take that missed payment off of your record.

    This is known as a goodwill adjustment. A goodwill letter to a creditor explains the situation that caused the late payment. You can ask your creditor to remove negative records from your credit report, which can quickly increase your credit score.

    3. Get a higher limit: One major factor of your credit score is called credit utilization. It measures how much debt you carry in relation to your overall credit limits. If, for instance, you have a $1,000 credit limit on your Chase card and are carrying a $100 balance, your credit utilization is 10%. The lower your credit utilization, the better in terms of your FICO score.

    If you're carrying credit card balances that you're diligently paying down, you could increase your credit score by applying for a higher credit limit. With a good payment history, many credit card companies will give you a modest limit increase, even if you're currently carrying a balance.

    4. Pay down your balances: One of the smartest ways to boost your credit score is to pay down your balances. Similar to seeking a credit increase, reducing your balance on an existing credit card decreases your credit utilization. This approach has the added bonus of reducing your debt.

    5. Auto-schedule your bills: The credit reporting company doesn't know how you pay your bills, and they don't really care. As noted above, however, they very much are concerned about late payments. One simple approach to avoiding late payments is to auto-schedule your bill payments.

    With credit cards, keep in mind that most card issuers allow you to set the due date of your payment. Set the due date to a few days after payday, and then set up an automatic payment with the credit card company. The result is that you'll never miss a payment.

    Improving your credit score is a little like losing weight. There are a few "crash diet" type tricks you can use to boost your score by a few points pretty quickly. But the best bet is to implement healthy habits over the long term. With your credit score, this means keeping credit card balances low, paying all your debts on time, and letting longstanding accounts stay on your record as long as possible. Over time, you'll build your score to a high level, which puts you in a great place any time you want to buy a car, buy a home, or take out a home equity loan.

     

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    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Retiring comfortably - never mind wealthy - may seem out of reach to many people, given current savings rates. Consider that median savings accumulated by workers ages 51 through 60 years is $49,000, while the number for people ages 30 through 40 is $30,000, according to professional services firm Towers Watson.

    Don't let the statistics scare you. With a little advance planning and self-discipline, you can have a golden nest egg at retirement. Here's how:

    Rule 1: Spend less than you earn

    The formula for retiring rich starts with you actually putting money in the bank. Social Security alone isn't enough to have you living the good life during your golden years.

    Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson recommends you spend only 90 percent of the money you make and sock away the remaining 10 percent.

    If you have zero savings right now, concentrate on building up an emergency fund in a savings account first. Once your rainy-day fund is full, put that 10 percent you're not spending into a dedicated retirement fund.

    If you're currently spending more than 90 percent of your income each month, you may want to read about how to save $1,000 by summer.

    Rule 2: Start saving early

    Thanks to the power of compounding interest, a little money saved now can go a long way at retirement time. But to get the most benefit, you'll want to start saving as early as possible.

    Let's say you're 20 years old and can manage to put away only $100 a month into your retirement fund. Assuming you average 8 percent returns, you'll be closing in on having half a million dollars - $463,806 to be exact - by age 65. Even better, over that 45-year period, you'll only have invested $54,000 of your money to get all that cash in return.

    If you wait until you're 40 to start saving $100 a month, and get that same rate of return, you'll put in $30,000 of your money and get $87,727 in return by age 65. Not bad, but wouldn't you rather have half a million?

    Rule 3: If you start late, make up for lost time

    Maybe you're 55 and think you've missed your window of opportunity to retire rich. Don't wave the white flag just yet!

    The government allows those 50 or older at the end of the year to make catch-up contributions to their retirement funds. You can contribute an extra $6,000 to your workplace retirement program, such as a 401(k), for a total annual contribution of $24,000. IRA catch-up contributions are $1,000 for a total allowable contribution of $6,500 each year.

    You might think there's no way you'd ever have $6,500, let alone $23,000, to invest in a single year, but you could be surprised at when and how you come into extra cash. You may benefit from a loved one's estate, downsize your home or sell a boat or other large toy that no longer fits your lifestyle. When you find yourself on the receiving end of a windfall, don't blow it on a vacation; put it in a retirement account if you want to retire rich.

    Rule 4: Don't leave free money on the table

    If someone tried to hand you $100, would you say no?

    That's exactly what you're doing when you fail to take advantage of a 401(k) employer match. Your company is basically giving you free money with the only string being you need to pony up some of your own cash for the retirement fund too.

    You won't get rich by passing up golden opportunities like this for extra cash. If your employer offers a 401(k) match, make sure you are taking full advantage of it.

    Rule 5: Minimize your taxes

    The rich stay rich, in part, because they're savvy enough not to let Uncle Sam take too much of their money.

    When you're investing your retirement money, be sure to use tax-sheltered accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)'s whenever possible. In addition, be smart about which type of account you use.

    Traditional retirement accounts let you invest money tax-free now and pay the piper once you make withdrawals in retirement. Meanwhile, Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)'s tax you now and make the withdrawals tax-free.

    You'll probably want to discuss with a financial adviser the best option for your particular situation, but generally, Roth accounts are preferable for younger investors. In theory, you should be making more when you're 65 than when you're 25. As a result, your tax rate now may be lower than the rate you'd pay at retirement. However, if you're within a few years of retirement, you may want to consider a traditional account to get the tax benefits now.

    Rule 6: Take a little risk

    You could put all your money in bonds and sleep well at night knowing you'll probably never lose any of your money. But with that approach, you're not going to retire a millionaire either.

    Stocks and real estate are where the money is to be made, but then there is always the risk of a housing bubble bursting or the market crashing. Take heart, though, in knowing that stocks and real estate have historically appreciated in the long run.

    Rule 7: Stay informed about your investments

    Don't mistake taking a risk with being dumb.

    A smart risk may be investing in an emerging market fund. A dumb move may be pouring your life savings into a speculative currency.

    How do you know the difference? By researching available investments, weighing your options and selecting the amount of risk that works for your unique situation. For example, those nearing retirement age may want to minimize their level of risk, while recent college grads can be more daring because time is on their side.

    For more help on investing, read Stacy's advice on how to open a mutual fund and how to select a good investment adviser.

    Rule 8: Break free from the herd

    When the stock market crashed a few years ago, too many people freaked out and sold their investments.

    You know what? Those people took a bad situation and made it even worse. Many sold their investments right when the market was bottoming out, and then they missed the rebound.

    The people who are going to retire rich are those who snatched up stocks at bargain-basement prices in 2009 and then saw their value climb by double digits in the following years. Same thing goes with the housing market. When the bubble burst, the smart people were the ones who were buying houses, not selling.

    It's easy to follow the herd, but if you want to be rich, you need to keep a cool head and make rational money decisions even in the midst of a crisis.

    Rule 9: Work longer

    Or at least wait to file for Social Security. While you can file for Social Security benefits as early as age 62, you'll get a lot more money if you wait until you're 70.

    Once you hit your full retirement age, you can get an 8 percent bump in your benefits for every year you wait to start receiving payments. However, you'll want to file by age 70 because there is no benefit to waiting longer than that.

    You may be worried you'll have one foot in the grave at age 70, but don't fret. According to Social Security actuarial data, at age 70, you should still have an average of 14 to 16 years left to suck all the marrow out of life.

    Rule 10: Maximize your income potential

    Finally, if you want to retire rich, you need to maximize your earnings. That means no more settling for a dead-end job that pays pennies.

    Look for ways to increase your income, which can, in turn, increase the amount of money you are saving for retirement. Consider these options:
    • Does your current field offer some form of credentialing that could increase your opportunities for a raise or a transfer to a higher-paying position?
    • Is there someone in your workplace who could serve as a mentor and help advance your career?
    • Are you eligible for one of the government-funded workforce development training programs?
    • Did you start a college program and never finish it? Will those credits transfer?
    • Could you use an online degree program or vocational classes through a community college to earn a degree or upgrade your skills?

    Regardless of which option you choose, don't fall into the student loan trap. If you do decide to go back to school, look for ways to make college affordable and try to pay as you go rather than going into debt.

    Retiring rich may sound like something reserved for the one-percenters, but by making these smart money moves, you too can have plenty of cash to carry you through your golden years.

    How's your retirement saving going? Share with us in comments or on our Facebook page.

     

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    By Christa Avampato

    The economy's improving, but certain industries are experiencing a greater rebound than others. And the data can be confusing, because "job growth" in reports refers to the number of jobs, not higher wages.

    (See also: 9 Jobs You May Not Have Considered - But Should)

    Here are seven job sectors exhibiting salary increases according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    1. Home Health Care Services

    As people live longer and are faced with the outrageous expense of inpatient services, many are opting for home treatment or outpatient clinics. Home health care services are far less expensive than inpatient services, people can recuperate and maintain their health in the comfort of their own homes, and it provides a greater sense of independence. As a result, home health care services are experiencing increased demand that is also driving up wages.

    2. Individual and Family Services

    Jobs in the individual and family services sector include services that improve the quality of people's lives, such as youth centers, foster care and adoption agencies, and after-school and mentoring programs. Elderly services include senior centers, adult daycare, and support groups. Drug and alcohol abuse treatment and prevention programs, parental support groups, and abuse intervention are also part of this industry. Jobs in these sectors include counselors, teachers, social workers, and case workers who need to increasingly take a holistic view of care and treatment.

    3. Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services

    With many companies still shy to add full-time headcount to their payroll, and a robust freelance industry, it's no wonder that consultants with valuable business, science, and technical expertise are choosing to stay independent. They know how valuable they are and are demanding larger fees for their services as a result.

    4. Computer Systems Design and Related Services

    The line between our online and physical worlds is rapidly blurring. Computer systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and consumers have come to expect a beautiful, seamless online experience. It takes a lot of talent to create that elegance and keep our data safe at the same time. With an increased number of recent data breaches, cyber security is an ever more important aspect of design. The higher quality of design demanded, the higher the designer's salary.

    5. Cement and Concrete Product Manufacturing

    Construction in the residential and commercial sectors is booming, and that means cement and concrete are in high demand. What's interesting about this industry is that it's experiencing a fair amount of innovation, as well. Climate change is increasing sensitivity to our environmental footprint, and in constructing smart buildings that are energy efficient. As concrete and cement are a major component of construction, this boom is a rising tide that lifts all boats (and wages) for its workers.

    6. Office Administrative Services

    Office workers today are expected to do much more than answer phones and keep a calendar. They often function as an office manager, ensuring that productivity remains high for an entire team - or company. They must have sophisticated computer and technology skills, as well as knowledge of areas as varied as finance, accounting, and communications. And with greater knowledge comes higher wages.

    7. Offices of Health Practitioners

    As healthcare gets more technical and sophisticated, the offices of health care practitioners must follow. This means that the people who run these offices must also enhance their skills and knowledge to best communicate with patients, insurance companies, health care providers, and drug and medical equipment companies. This enhanced expertise and knowledge is highly valued in the market.

    If you're using the job market data when considering a career change, make sure to truly understand what data is being represented and what it means. Ideally, you want to match your interests to an industry with increasing wages and an increasing number of job opportunities. Happy hunting!

    Are you considering a career change?

     

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    By Dan Rafter

    It's a big temptation: Your pockets are empty, and you desperately need that morning coffee to get through that commute. But don't do it - don't take that credit card out of your pocket. If you can't pay for that latte with cash, skip it and drink from the free coffeepot at work.

    It's easy to pay for purchases with credit cards. Maybe too easy. But there are some items that you should never pay for with a credit card. Why? There are always better ways to pay for these items, whether they are small, everyday purchases or big-ticket buys.

    Here are five items for which you should never rely on plastic.

    1. Medical Bills

    Facing a big medical bill from your doctor? Don't use your credit card to pay for it. Instead, ask your medical provider to set up an installment payment plan for you. Most medical providers will do this, and the interest rates that they charge (if any) will be lower than the rates attached to your credit card.

    2. Income Taxes

    If you owe taxes, you do have the option of paying them with your credit card. Again, though, there's a better choice. If you owe thousands of dollars to the government, contact the IRS and ask for an installment plan.

    To be eligible for such a plan, you must owe less than $50,000 and be current on your income tax filings. You must also be able to pay what you owe within 72 months.

    This isn't free, of course. The IRS will charge you interest on the money you owe and a late payment penalty, usually at 0.5% a month. But even with these fees, you're better off financially than you would be if you turned to your credit card to pay your taxes.

    3. Unsecure Online Purchases

    The new EMV credit cards, embedded with a computer chip, are supposed to make in-person credit card transactions safer. But these cards don't offer much protection against online credit card fraud. So be careful when you use your card to make online purchases.

    And don't ever use your card on websites that aren't secured.

    Look for "https" at the beginning of a site's URL in your browser. If that's not present, and the site starts instead with "http" (with no "s" at the end), don't buy from it. Such websites aren't secure, and it's far easier for criminals to steal your credit card information from them.

    4. Big Vacations

    We all deserve a break from the working world. An exotic vacation can provide just that. But save the money for it first.

    It's easy to rack up thousands of dollars of credit card debt on a single trip if you charge hotels, gas, meals, and visits to museums and amusement parks. Don't fall into this trap: If you save for your vacation, and stick to a planned budget while you're traveling, you'll feel much more relaxed when you return.

    If you don't, opening that huge credit card bill will make you yearn for yet another vacation.

    5. College Tuition

    Worried about paying for your college tuition? Join the crowd. But don't rely on your credit cards to help foot the bill.

    The interest rates on student loans are typically lower than those attached to credit cards. Many schools will even charge you an additional fee when you pay your tuition with a credit card.

    If you're worried about paying for your college education, meet with your school's' financial aid office. In addition to helping you find low-interest-rate student loans, the staffers there should be able to help you hunt for scholarships or grants that could reduce your tuition burden.

    What do you refuse to purchase with a credit card?

     

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    By Tim Lemke

    When it comes to oil prices, there just doesn't seem to be a bottom these days. Crude oil is selling for about $30 a barrel, and that's having a major impact on both the global economy and Americans' pocketbooks.

    How are low oil prices affecting your finances?

    1. You're Saving on Fuel and Energy Costs

    It's simple: Low oil prices mean you pay less to fill up your car, or to heat and cool your home. IHS Global Insight predicted that Americans would save more than $100 billion, or $750 per household, due to low oil prices in 2015 - and savings are expected to continue this year. (See also: This Is How the High Cost of Cheap Gas Hurts You)

    2. Oil Stocks Have Been Hammered

    In case you didn't notice, any stock or mutual fund associated with the oil industry has been getting creamed for quite a while. I bought shares of the iShares Oil and Gas ETF last year, believing they were bottoming out and would go up in value in short order. I was wrong. Shares are down 25% in the last 12 months, and 43% in the last two years. If you have a 401K or IRA with energy stocks, you may have seen your portfolio drop quite a bit over the last year or so.

    3. You're Saving Everywhere Else, Too

    In America, we're currently in a period of low inflation, and the low price of oil has a lot to do with that. Low oil prices mean it's costing less to ship goods, or for plastics manufacturers to make their products. In fact, low oil prices have a ripple effect on the price of almost everything. As evidence, the consumer price index declined 0.1% in December, after rising just 0.2% in November. The CPI is up just 0.7% in the last year. (On average, it's gone up about 2% annually over the last decade.)

    4. Recycling Isn't a Cash Cow Anymore

    Petroleum is the key ingredient in plastics, and with oil so cheap, there's less demand for recycled plastics. After all, why buy used when new is cheaper? After decades of effort and investment, localities across the country have seen recycling rates rise, along with revenue to local coffers. For example, in 2015 the city of Washington, DC paid its waste management contractor $1.37M to take its plastics and other recyclable materials off its hands, but as recently as 2011, the city earned $550K for its reusable trash. "A real fear now," Michael Taylor of the Society of the Plastics Industry told the New York Times, "is that recycling rates might go down. That would be a horrible situation."

    5. Fuel Taxes Could Go Up

    Many lawmakers and even some business groups have been urging for an increase in federal and state gas taxes as a way of funding infrastructure improvements. And they say the time may be right for an increase, because a gallon of gasoline is selling for its lowest price in years. (Gas taxes are a harder sell when it's already expensive to fuel up.) President Obama recently proposed a $10 per barrel tax on oil in his latest budget, and Alabama, Alaska, and Indiana are among the states discussing a gas tax hike.

    6. You're Traveling and Eating Out More

    If you're paying less for gas, there's more money in your pocket. That means it's less of a financial challenge to take the family to a restaurant or on a vacation. The Wall Street Journal reported that spending on food and accommodations last summer was up 8% over 2014. Many tourists sites, including National Parks, saw good upticks in attendance last year and expect solid performances in 2016.

    7. Life Is Harder if You Live in West Texas or North Dakota

    For several years, places like North Dakota or Midland, TX were enjoying super-low unemployment and a migration of people looking to take advantage of the oil boom. But things aren't nearly as active there now. The state economy grew by only 1% last year, compared to 6% the year prior, according to Kiplinger's. North Dakota's governor recently presented a plan of budget cuts brought on by lower oil revenues. This has also impacted the budgets of other oil-dependent states, including Alaska and Louisiana.

    8. The Ruble and Other Currencies Are Down

    If you're Russian, or invest in currencies, you may have noticed that the value of a ruble against the euro and dollar has been sliding. Journalists reported in January that Russia was looking to cut 10% off its federal budget, which was originally made with $50 per barrel oil prices in mind.

    Russia is one of many countries that relies heavily on oil exports to drive their economy, so low prices can have a severe impact on economic growth. Low oil prices have also impacted the Canadian dollar and Mexican peso (both down about 20% in the last two years), and the Norwegian krone (down about 25%.) The one plus side for Americans is that the U.S. dollar has remained strong, and it's now relatively cheap to travel to some of these countries or consume their exports.

    Have you noticed any surprising effects of cheap oil? Lets us know in comments!

     

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    Why You Should Book Your Summer Vacation This Winter
    Did you know: Finding the perfect time to book your summer travel could land you big savings?

    Obviously, waiting until the last minute to book your plane ticket can get pretty expensive. But planning to buy too far in advance can also cost you.

    For the biggest savings on summer flights, try booking your ticket around 76 days prior to departure. Airlines start increasing prices after that, and the more you wait, the more you pay.

    If you're really looking to cut costs, try booking your flight mid-week. On average, a family of four can save nearly $300 by traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

    So remember, if you want to save more on your summer vacation, start looking this winter!

     

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