RANKED: The 10 Best Options When You Need Cash Fast

What happens when your emergency fund isn’t enough?

Long-term unemployment or a medical emergency can easily dry up a once-healthy rainy day fund, leaving consumers wondering where to turn next. According to a recent consumer expectations survey by the New York Federal Reserve, only one in three Americans say they wouldn’t be able come up with $2,000 within a month to cover an unexpected expense.

It’s during times of vulnerability like this that it’s easy to jump at seemingly quick and easy sources of cash, like payday lenders, credit cards, or even your 401(k).

Unfortunately, practically every potential source of cash that doesn’t come from your own piggy bank is going to cost you in some way.

But at this point, it’s all about choosing the lesser of all evils — when all you have are crummy options, how do you decide which one is the best of the worst?

We’ve ranked common sources of emergency short-term cash from best to worst, which can help you sort through your borrowing options when your savings dry up.

#1 Personal loan from family and friends

It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have with a loved one, but asking a friend or relative for a small loan can be a far better idea than turning to high-interest credit debt, or worse, payday lenders. Unless they’re offering, it doesn’t have to be an interest-free loan. Agree on an interest rate that seems fair and is lower than what you’d find through a bank or other lender.

Because you have a relationship already, you may have an easier time convincing them to lend you money versus a bank that would make the decision after doing a credit check and evaluating other financial information.

#2 (tie) Lender-backed personal loan

A personal loan can be a solid borrowing option if you need money in a pinch or you’re looking to consolidate other debt. The process to apply for a personal loan is similar to applying for a credit card or auto loan, in that the lender will run your credit and offer you a certain rate based on your creditworthiness.

If your credit is poor, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the running for a personal loan, but it will cost you in the form of much higher interest charges. For example, Lending Club offers loans with APRs from 5.99% to 35.85%, but it’s willing to lend to people with a credit score as low as 600.

Why choose a personal loan over a credit card? It really comes down to math. If you can find a personal loan that will cost less in the long term than using a credit card, then go for it. Use this personal loan calculator to estimate how much a loan will cost you over time. Then, run the same figures through this credit card payoff calculator.

#2 (tie) Credit cards

If your need for cash is truly short-term and you have enough income to pay it off quickly, then credit card debt can be a decent option. This option gets even better if you can qualify for a card with a 0% interest offer. The card will let you buy some time by allowing you to cover your essentials while you work on paying off the balance.

Because the debt is unsecured, unlike an auto title loan, you aren’t putting your assets at risk if you can’t pay. Westlake, Ohio-based certified financial planner Edward Vargo says he would recommend using credit card debt first.

#3 Home equity line of credit (HELOC)

You may be able to leverage the equity in your home to cover short-term emergency needs. A HELOC, or home equity line of credit, is a revolving credit line extended to a homeowner using your home as collateral. How much you can take out will depend on your home’s value, your remaining mortgage balance, your household income, and your credit score. A home equity line of credit may allow you to borrow the maximum amount, or only as much as you need. You will also be responsible for the costs of establishing and maintaining the home equity line of credit. You can learn more about these here.

You’ll choose the repayment schedule and can set that for less than 10 years or more than 20 years, but the entire balance must be paid in full by the end of the loan term. You’ll pay interest on what you borrow, but you may be able to deduct it from your income taxes. Keep in mind that if you are unemployed, it will be unlikely that you’ll be approved for a HELOC.

HELOC vs. Personal loans

Because home equity lines of credit are secured against the borrower’s home, if you default on your home equity line of credit, your lender can foreclose on your home. Personal loans, on the other hand, are usually unsecured, so, while failure to make your payments on time will adversely impact your credit, none of your personal property is at risk.

#4 A 401(k) loan

A 401(k) loan may be a good borrowing option if you’re in a financial pinch and are still employed. And it is a far better bet than turning to a payday lender or pawn shop for a loan. Because you’re in effect borrowing from yourself, any interest you pay back to the account is money put back in your retirement fund. You are allowed to borrow up to $50,000 or half of the total amount of money in your account, whichever is less. Typically, 401(k) loans have to be repaid within five years, and you’ll need to make payments at least quarterly.

But there are some cons to consider. If you get laid off or change jobs, a 401(k) loan immediately becomes due, and you’ll have 60 days to repay the full loan amount or put the loan funds into an IRA or other eligible retirement plan. If you don’t make the deadline, the loan becomes taxable income and the IRS will charge you another 10% early withdrawal penalty.

#5 Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) withdrawal

Generally, withdrawing funds from your retirement savings is a big no-no, because you’re going to miss out on any gains you might have enjoyed had you kept your money in the market. On top of that, there are fees and tax penalties, which we’ll cover in the next section.

But there is an exception: the Roth IRA or Roth 401(k).

Because funds contributed to Roth accounts are taxed right away, you won’t face any additional tax or penalties for making a withdrawal early. The caveat is that you can only withdraw from the principal amount you’ve contributed — you’re not allowed to withdraw any of the investment gains your contributions have earned without facing taxes and penalties.

However, it is still true that any money you take out is money that will not have a chance to grow over time, so you will still miss out on those earnings.

#6 Traditional 401(k) or IRA withdrawal

Experts typically recommend against borrowing from your 401(K) or IRA, but when you’re in desperate need of cash, it may be your best option.

Just understand the risks.

If you withdraw funds from a traditional retirement account before age 59 1/2 , the money will be taxed as income, and you’ll be charged a 10% early distribution penalty tax by the IRS. You may want to speak with a tax professional to estimate how much you’ll have to pay in taxes and take out more than you need to compensate for that loss. There’s no exception to the income tax, but there are a number of exceptions to the 10% penalty, such as qualified education expenses or separation from service — when you leave a company, whether by retirement, quitting, or getting fired or laid off — at 55 years or older.

When you take that money out, not only will you lose out on potential tax-deferred investment growth, but you’ll also lose a huge chunk of your retirement savings to taxes and penalties.

#7 Reverse mortgage

Homeowners 62 years old and older have another option for cash in a pinch: a reverse mortgage. With a reverse mortgage, your property’s equity is converted into (usually) tax-free payments for you. You can take the money up front as a line of credit, receive monthly payments for a fixed term or for as long as you live in the home, or choose a mix of the options. You keep the title, but the lender pays you each month to buy your home over time.

In most cases, you won’t be required to repay the loan as long as you’re still living in your home. You’ll also need to stay current on obligations like homeowners insurance, real estate taxes, and basic maintenance. If you don’t take care of those things, the lender may require you to pay back the loan.

The loan becomes due when you pass away or move out, and the home must be sold to repay the loan. If you pass away, and your spouse is still living in the home but didn’t sign the loan agreement, they’ll be allowed to continue living on the property, but won’t receive any more monthly payments. When they pass away or move out, the home will be sold to repay the loan.

The reverse mortgage may take a month or longer to set up, but once you get the paperwork set you can choose to take a line of credit, which could serve as an emergency fund, advises Columbus, Ohio-based certified financial planner Tom Davison.

He says the reverse mortgage’s advantages lie in the fact that it doesn’t need to be paid back until the homeowner permanently leaves the house, and it can be paid down whenever the homeowner is able. You can also borrow more money later if you need it, as the line of credit will grow at the loan’s borrowing rate.

Take care to look at the fine print before you sign. Under current federal law, you’ll only have three days, called a right of rescission, to cancel the loan. Reverse mortgage lenders also usually charge fees for origination, closing, and servicing over the life of the mortgage. Some even charge mortgage insurance premiums. Also, if you pass away before the loan is paid back, your heirs will have to handle it.

#8 Payday loan alternatives

While regulators work to reign in the payday lending industry, a new crop of payday loan alternatives is beginning to crop up.

Services like Activehours or DailyPay allow hourly wage earners to get paid early based on the hours they’ve already worked. Activehours allows you to withdraw up to $100 each day and $500 per pay period, while DailyPay, which caters to delivery workers, has no cap. DailyPay tracks the hours logged by workers and sends a single payment with the day’s earnings, minus a fee ranging from 99 cents to $1.49.

Another alternative could be the Build Card by FS Card. The product targets customers with subprime credit scores and offers an initial low, unsecured $500 credit limit to borrowers, which increases as they prove creditworthiness. The card will cost you a $72 annual membership fee, a one-time account setup fee of $53, plus $6 per month just to keep it in your wallet. It also comes with a steep interest rate — 29.9%. After all of the initial fees, your initial available limit should be about $375.

#9 Pawn shop loans

Pawn shop loan interest charges can get up to 36% in some states and there are other fees you’ll have to pay on top of the original loan.

Pawn shops get a shady rap, but they are a safer bet than payday lenders and auto title loans. Here’s why: Because you are putting up an item as collateral for a payday loan, the worst that can happen is that they take possession of the item if you skip out on payments. That can be devastating, especially if you’ve pawned something of sentimental value. But that’s the end of the ordeal — no debt collectors chasing you (payday loans) and no getting locked out of your car and losing your only mode of transportation (title loans).

#10 Payday loans and auto title loans

We have, of course, saved the worst of the worst options for last.

When you borrow with a payday loan but can’t afford to pay it back within the standard two-week time frame, it can quickly become a debt trap thanks to triple-digit interest rates. According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 14% of payday loan borrowers can afford enough out of their monthly budgets to repay an average payday loan. Some payday lenders offer installment loans, which require a link to your bank account and gives them access to your funds if you don’t pay.

Some payday lenders today require access to a checking account, meaning they can dip in and take money from your bank account if you miss a payment. Also, your payday loan will be reflected on your credit report. So if things end badly, your credit will suffer as well. They have no collateral, so payday lenders will continue to hound you if you miss payments.

And, of course, auto title lenders require you to put up your wheels as collateral for a loan. And if you rely heavily on your car to get to and from work, having it repossessed by a title lender could hurt you financially in more ways than one. The loans are usually short-term — less than 30 days — so this might not be a good option for you if you don’t foresee a quick turnaround time for repayment. If your household depends on your car for transportation, you may not want to try this option as there is a chance you could lose your car. If you don’t repay the loan, the lender can take your vehicle and sell it to cover the loan amount.

One more thing to watch out for is the advertised interest rate. Auto title lenders will often advertise the monthly rate, not the annualized one. So a 20% interest rate for the month is actually 240% APR.

The post RANKED: The 10 Best Options When You Need Cash Fast appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What Does Medicare Really Cover?

Approaching retirement and curious to know how you’ll handle health care expenses? Medicare will likely play a role in helping you mitigate those costs in your golden years.

The federal government offers Medicare as an insurance program for permanently disabled Americans and those 65 or older. The Social Security Administration is responsible for funding the program, and most of its funding comes from a Medicare payroll tax you might have noticed on your pay stubs (it ranges from 1.45% to 3.8%, depending on your employment status and income level).

But what does Medicare actually cover? Read on for a quick overview.

Who’s Eligible for Medicare Coverage?

The majority of working Americans become eligible for Medicare coverage when they turn 65. You may also qualify if you’re younger and have been disabled for at least two years and receive Social Security benefits, if you receive kidney dialysis treatment, or if you are in end-stage renal failure.

In most cases, you’re automatically enrolled into Medicare once you start receiving Social Security payments. You need to opt out if you don’t want the coverage.

John K. Ross IV, an elder law attorney and partner at Ross & Shoalmire with multiple offices in Texas says eligibility is straightforward because it’s simply based on age. But the program does become much more complicated when you start digging into the details of what specific benefits make the most sense for you.

“Retirees need to make decisions around whether they’ll choose the traditional Medicare program versus Medicare Advantage,” he says. He adds that disputing Medicare’s coverage refusals is something most participants in the program will deal with at some point.

How Do You Enroll in Medicare Coverage?

You’ll be automatically enrolled into Medicare if you:

  • Already receive Social Security benefits
  • Are under 65 and are disabled, or have ALS
  • Receive benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board

But you need to sign up for Medicare if:

  • You don’t get Social Security benefits (which could be the case if you’re 65 or older but still working)
  • You have end-stage renal disease

If you need to manually apply, you can do so online here. You also have the option of going to your local Social Security office or calling to apply at 1-800-772-1213.

The Basics of What Medicare Really Covers (and What It Doesn’t)

The main part of Medicare is broken down into two parts: A and B.

What Medicare Part A Covers

It covers several broad categories of hospital care and services you receive while hospitalized.

That includes:

  • Hospital care limited to 90 days each benefit period and a lifetime reserve of 60 additional days for those who exhausted the initial 90 days coverage
  • Skilled nursing care
  • Home health services
  • Care in hospice for those with a life expectancy of less than six months

You can receive this coverage for free as long as you paid at least 10 years into Social Security.

“If you’re not eligible for free Part A coverage, the cost in 2017 is $413 per month if you paid into Medicare for less than 30 quarters while working,” says Desmond Henry, CFP® and founder of Afflora Financial Life Planning. “It costs $227 per month if you paid in between 30 and 39 quarters.”

What Medicare Part B Covers

Medicare Part B covers doctor’s visits and outpatient care. This can include medical equipment and physical therapy. It may cover some preventive care services, too, like screening for certain diseases including cancer and glaucoma.

Here’s a full list of what Part B provides for:

  • All outpatient services
  • Doctor’s visits and home health visits that don’t require a hospital stay
  • Medical equipment
  • Clinical research
  • Ambulance services
  • Durable medical equipment
  • Mental health and preventative services
  • Second option prior to surgery
  • Limited outpatient prescription drugs and drugs that cannot be self administered
  • Diagnostic tests

The costs for Part B are more complicated than Part A. “The standard Part B premium for 2017 is $134 per month, but this may be higher based upon your income level,” says Henry.

And as important as it is to understand what Medicare really covers, it’s also essential to know what the program does not offer to those on the plan.

“Medicaid does not pay for long-term care such as in-home sitters services, and assisted living and nursing-home costs,” says Ross.

Henry goes into even greater detail. “Medicare won’t pick up the tab for hearing aids, eye exams and glasses, and dental care,” he says.

Henry explains other services like cosmetic surgery and alternative medicine get excluded from coverage, too. “People don’t typically realize that Medicare generally does not cover medical expenses when you are outside the United States or territories, either,” he adds.

What Medicare Part C Covers

Medicare coverage gets more complicated when you look at additional parts of the program. There’s also Medicare Part C, which is also known as Medicare Advantage Plans.

Whereas Medicare is a program offered by the federal government, private insurance companies offer coverage with Medicare Advantage Plans (which the government still regulates).

Medicare Advantage must provide services that are comparable or “equivalent” to what’s covered by Medicare Parts A and B. Some Part C plans offer more services not included in traditional Medicare, including prescription drug coverage.

That might help you get the coverage you need if Medicare Parts A and B aren’t sufficient for you — but that also means there’s a huge variation between all the Medicare Part C plans available, both in terms of services provided as well as the costs of the plans.

Prices also depend on the state you live in, the provider you choose, and whether you choose an HMO or PPO plan. eHealthInsurance has a tool that can help you compare a variety of Medicare Advantage plans to see which one may work best for you.

Don’t Forget About Medicare Part D

Parts A and B of Medicare provide for both hospital care as well as outpatient services and doctor’s visits — but it doesn’t cover prescription drugs. That’s where Medicare Part D comes in.

Part D plans are also offered by private insurers and are separate policies from Medicare Parts A and B. Just like Part C coverage, Part D plans vary widely in what they cover and their costs.

What’s the Future for Medicare Under the Trump Administration?

The White House and Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act and are in the process of proposing radical changes to the current health care system.

But most of the proposed changes affect Medicaid, not Medicare. There are proposals that would change the “funding mechanism” for the Medicare program, but beneficiaries are unlikely to feel those changes directly.

And there’s disagreement between the Trump administration and House Republicans over how Medicare should be handled moving forward. Trump has merely said he wouldn’t cut the program.

But Speaker Paul Ryan has talked about making the following changes:

  • Introducing exchanges to Medicare, allowing private insurers to compete with the traditional, government-run program.
  • Providing subsidies to help people pay their premiums, based on income.
  • Requiring insurers to offer coverage to all to ensure everyone in Medicare retained access to benefits.

Again, this is all just talk for now. The House’s initial bill to change the Affordable Care Act failed to pass, and any suggested changes are a long way from implementation.

The post What Does Medicare Really Cover? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

6 Brand Loyalty Programs That Are Actually Worth Joining

These brand loyalty programs are worth the extra emails.

There are probably a lot of things that draw you to your favorite stores. The products, obviously, the sales and the friendly salespeople all might be part of it, but a seriously rocking loyalty or rewards program is probably not far behind. Whether a loyalty program is free or has a small fee, if the benefits are plenty, it can be worth all the extra mail and email you’ll likely receive — or even a small yearly charge. (If you tend to pay balances off in full and want to maximize your earning potential, you may want to consider a rewards credit card as well.)

Here are some of the best loyalty programs we’ve seen around.

1. CVS

If not all pharmacies are created equal, then not all pharmacy rewards programs are created equal either. CVS’ ExtraCare Rewards stands out, for starters, because it’s free. Customers earn 2% back in ExtraBuck Rewards every single time they use their ExtraCare card, and additional savings are easy to find through ExtraCare emails, the CVS Pharmacy app and the weekly ad or throughout the store. You can save paper by using the “send to card” option to send selected offers from online directly to your ExtraCare card rather than printing them off to bring to the store.

2. Barnes & Noble

Becoming a B&N member isn’t free — it’ll cost you $25 a year — but if you’re an avid reader, the fee will likely be worth it. For starters, new members receive $50 in bonus coupons for joining. (Use ‘em all and you’ve already made up your initiation fee!) Members also receive member-exclusive savings options, free express shipping online with no minimum purchase, plus 40% off the list prices of current hardcover bestsellers and 10% off the price of other eligible items.

3. PetSmart

Animal owners can join the PetSmart PetPerks rewards program to start saving more on their pet purchases. Membership is free, and members receive discounts on in-store purchases, as well as special coupons sent directly to them in the mail. For more ways to save on your furbabies, sign up for the brand’s auto-ship plan, which provides 20% off and free shipping on the first auto ship order, plus 5% off and free shipping every time after. (Some exclusions apply.)

4. Sephora

For product lovers, the Sephora Beauty Insider Program is a dream come true. Sign up for free on the Sephora site and every dollar you spend earns a point that can be put towards free beauty products. (The points you need to purchase certain products can be found online.) Members also get a birthday gift, access to free beauty classes, and for an extra $10/year members get access to flash two-day shipping on all online orders.

5. Bed Bath & Beyond

Home goods superstore BB&B doesn’t have a specific rewards program, per se, but creating a free account online and providing your home address at the store will supply you with endless coupon offers. The best part? The store usually accepts coupons even after they’ve expired — though you probably won’t need to bother since you’ll likely have a new one waiting for you in your mailbox or inbox by your next purchase, anyway.

6. Starbucks

Pricey as their drinks may be, Starbucks does have a smashing (and free) rewards program. Starbucks Rewards members earn two “stars” for every $1 spent with your registered card to put towards future drinks. There are four ways to enroll in the program (online, through the mobile app, directly from a retailer or through a business affiliate), and you can earn also stars by entering star codes found inside specially marked packaged of Starbucks products as well. Starbucks fans can find more ways to save on their daily cup of coffee (or two) here.

Remember, you don’t want the lure of rewards to lead you to overspend. High levels of debt can affect your bank account and credit score. You can see where your credit currently stands by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

Note: It’s important to remember that prices for products and services frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms cited in this article may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with the company directly.

Image: oneinchpunch

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Meet the Man Who Makes $600 a Month Selling Crickets

When Jeff Neal’s wife told him she wanted to quit her job to stay at home with their kids, he had to think about how to make one income work.

When Jeff Neal’s wife told him she wanted to quit her job to stay at home with their kids, he had to think about how to make one income work. With over $21,000 in student loans, there wasn’t much extra money lying around. Losing another income stream would be difficult.

But rather than give up hope, Neal did something no one expected. He launched a side business that helped bring in extra money: selling crickets online.

Yes, you heard that right. Crickets.

Now, Neal makes $600 a month selling bugs online at The Critter Depot, which helps him pay off his debt. Read on to learn more about this odd side hustle and how Neal has turned it into a steady income stream.

Searching for a Side Hustle

Neal graduated from Temple University and got a job as a project manager. While he made a good salary, he had student loan debt and a growing family. When his wife decided she wanted to stay home with the kids, Neal knew he had to make changes.

“My wife wanted to stay home, so I had to take full responsibility as the sole provider,” he says.

Since his full-time job involves e-commerce, he focused his side-hustle search on online jobs. After doing extensive research, he decided to put all of his efforts on one specific niche.

The area that he identified was in the pet industry; reptile and exotic animal owners need live crickets to feed their pets, but getting them can be difficult — and expensive. So, Neal’s site caters to pet owners, selling crickets of various sizes in bulk.

But before you rush out and buy tanks and crickets to replicate Neal’s success, you should know his approach is even more interesting. He actually doesn’t deal with the crickets at all. Instead, his business is a drop shipping company.

What Is Drop Shipping?

Drop shipping is a business model where the store doesn’t stock any of the items it sells. Instead, when a customer purchases a product, the drop shipper works with a manufacturer — or in this case, a cricket supplier — to fulfill the order. The drop shipper never comes into contact with the product, so wrangling crickets isn’t part of Neal’s day.

“I don’t know anything about raising crickets,” he admits. “They have short life spans and unique nutritional and environmental needs. It’s a lot of work that takes a lot of knowledge. When I set up my business, I found someone who breeds crickets. He takes care of them and ships them; I just handle the orders.”

For customers, drop shipping is a seamless process, whether it’s through Amazon or a private site. Most of the time, you don’t know when you’re buying from a drop shipper. Once your order is placed, the drop shipper works with the supplier to place the order, and you receive the item like you normally would.

Drop shipping can be a mutually beneficial relationship between the seller and supplier. In Neal’s case, he has the marketing expertise and skills to build a successful website and business. That gets the cricket farmer more exposure and more orders than he would get on his own. Neal estimates that he generates about $3,000 in sales each month from The Critter Depot and his cut is $600.

Previously, Neal primarily sold crickets on Amazon. But meeting Amazon’s strict standards is hard when you’re shipping live insects. He ended up taking his sales to just his website, which requires more work for him each day to build traffic.

His new income stream allows him to take advantage of other opportunities, too. He recently purchased the site Jason Coupon King, which generates another $700 a month in revenue.

Balancing a Side Gig With Life & Work

While Neal’s side hustle is successful, he has to balance his work with his full-time job and his family. But that’s why he says drop shipping is a great option. It gives him the flexibility he needs while still allowing him to earn extra money.

“I don’t have a television, so when I come home from work, I just spend time playing with the kids and catching up with my wife,” says Neal. “Once they’re in bed, I work on optimizing my websites, contributing to forums and building links to my sites.”

Neal says he spends an hour or two a day after work on his side hustle and that his business is still growing. The extra income is substantial enough to help him pay off his student loans early and give his family more wiggle room in their monthly budget. (You can keep tabs on your own finances by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Making Extra Money

While selling crickets might not be for you, Neal’s story is just another example of the many ways you can make money on the side. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, or need more income to pay down debt or boost your emergency fund, launching a side hustle can be the right approach.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal 

The post Meet the Man Who Makes $600 a Month Selling Crickets appeared first on Credit.com.

How Your Smartphone Can Help Pay for Itself

Turns out, there is a way to earn a small return for simply possessing and using a smartphone.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your phone could help pay for itself? Or at least help ease the burden of monthly bills and other expenses? Turns out, there is a way to earn a small return for simply possessing and using a smartphone.

A handful of companies pay you to install their market-research apps on your phone or other electronic device and pay you for every month the app remains installed. Some even kick in bonus loyalty payments along the way.

Some of the leading names in this arena are Verto Analytics, The Nielsen Company and Survey Savvy, each of which have their own research programs and associated apps that reward consumers for participation.

The payments and rewards are by no means gigantic — averaging around $5 per month — but in some cases there are sign-up bonuses and increased bonuses for remaining a participant over an extended period of time. For example, Smart Panel, the Verto Analytics program adds up to about $110 in 12 months, or $230 in 24 months, when you factor in loyalty payments.

Here’s a closer look at each program and what digital experts say to consider before installing market-research apps of any type on your devices. (Only Verto Analytics responded to our requests for comment.)

Smart Panel by Verto Analytics

Launched in 2012, Smart Panel is a research project run by Verto Analytics focused on collecting information about how people use the internet through computers, smartphones and tablets. The goal is to understand how people interact with each other, as well as with websites, apps and devices. The program relies on participants agreeing to install the Smart App.

“Smart App runs in the background while anonymously and securely collecting statistical data about how devices are used,” said Verto Analytics’ senior vice president of marketing, Alison Murdock. “The data collected relates to the general usage of devices, device features, apps and services.”

Since its creation, more than 1 million people have participated in Smart Panel, said Murdock.

Participants are paid $5 for signing up and $5 for every month of involvement. After 90 days, they receive a $5 loyalty bonus. After six months, the loyalty bonus increases to $10, and after nine months it becomes $15. Every quarter after that, there’s another $15 loyalty bonus. Payments are made via PayPal, or you can opt for Amazon gift cards.

Survey Savvy Software by Savvy Connect

Savvy Connect, founded in 1999, pays people for downloading its Survey Savvy software. The software monitors your internet habits to identify trends, particularly those tied to online shopping, searches and entertainment. (Here are some tips for better internet safety.)

The company pays $5 per month, per device, for installing its software on web-connected devices. (This is a departure from Smart Panel’s payment structure, which does not pay per device). Payments are made by check.

In addition to having an extensive privacy policy that must be reviewed before signing on, Survey Savvy’s website says participants can opt to occasionally use private browsing mode on their devices, which blocks data from being collected when in use. However, extensive private browsing can impact your participation status.

Nielsen Mobile Panel by The Nielsen Company

If you watch television, you’ve likely heard of The Nielsen Company and its ratings system. In addition to measuring how many people watch a particular television show, Nielsen measures your activity on your phone, tablet or other mobile device with Nielsen Mobile Panel. Participation in the program involves downloading the Nielsen Mobile app and then using your mobile device as you normally would.

All the data collected and transmitted as part of the Nielsen Mobile Panel program is encrypted and anonymous, according to Nielsen’s website. The program pays up to $50 annually. Payment is made in the form of Nielsen Mobile Rewards points that can be spent at the Nielsen Mobile Rewards online store, which sells gift cards from Amazon.com, Target and Starbucks. Participants can also opt to save rewards for bigger purchases such as flatscreen televisions and digital cameras.

A Few Words of Caution

“Before you install these types of apps, a consumer should really understand what data it is collecting,” said Thomas Fischer, global security advocate for Digital Guardian, a Massachusetts-based data-loss prevention software company. “Read the description and make sure you understand what will be sent back to the company.”

Fischer, who had not specifically reviewed any of the apps in this story but offered general advice about the security of such programs, also noted the apps’ potential to invade your privacy. (You can check your free credit scores for signs of mischief on Credit.com.)

“One example might be capturing your contact data, which they could use to see who you contact on a regular basis and then begin building patterns of your contacts, or worse, taking those contacts and sending marketing messages that look like they’re coming from you,” said Fischer.

In response to such concerns, Murdock of Verto Analytics said the company only provides aggregated, projected, non-personal information to the market and fully protects consumers’ personal data. Further, she said, Verto secures all data with 256-bit encryption, and stores information in a siloed system that includes multiple physical parts. The result is that company employees cannot connect consumers to specific research data.

Image: Cecilie_Arcurs

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12 Ways to Save at DSW

For anyone with a gold medal in shoe-shopping.

If Carrie Bradshaw has a gold medal in buying shoes, I happen to know a good many other people (this writer included) who would earn a close silver. Any shoe lover is bound to have checked out designer shoe warehouse DSW for their footwear needs, but next time you find yourself feeling a little foot fancy, try these suggestions to save a bit on your haul.

Here are 12 ways to save at DSW.

1. Enroll in DSW Rewards

Membership is free, and you’ll earn 10 points for every $1 you spend at the store. You should also be on the lookout for Double Point Days and free birthday offers.

2. Become a Premier Member

Premier membership is actually based on how much you spend: DSW Rewards members who earn 6,000 qualifying points by spending $600 in a calendar year qualify for Premier membership. If that’s you, be sure to ask about the program, which offers free next-day shipping, five more points earned per every dollar spent at DSW and access to the Premier Choice Card, which earns you a Triple Points day every six months, (you get to pick the day).

3. Apply for a DSW Rewards Visa

Only Rewards members can apply for the DSW Rewards Visa, but once you do, you can really start racking up the savings. You’ll earn 20 points for every $1 you spend at DSW, two points for every $1 you spend outside of DSW, and when you reach 1,500 points you’ll earn a $10 Rewards certificate. You also get free return shipping, a one-time $25 offer when you spend $500 outside of DSW within 90 days of your first purchase and a $25 application offer when your card arrives in the mail. Just be sure not to revolve a balance — otherwise, you’ll lose those points to interest. (You can see how your credit card use if affecting your credit by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

4. Use a Rewards Credit Card

A general purpose rewards credit card can also give you some kickback on your kicks. Here are some of our favs for shoppers.

5. Search the Site for Bonus Point Offers

Scroll through the entire homepage of the site to be sure and catch any additional rewards or bonus offers that might be hiding throughout. For example, ahead of Father’s Day, DSW was offering 25% off men’s dress socks with purchase of any men’s footwear.

6. Shop the Clearance Section

Don’t forget to check out the online clearance section frequently for new markdowns available online.

7. Sign Up for Email Newsletters

For exclusive offers and news sent directly to your inbox, enter your email address in the box at the bottom of any page on the site.

8. Search for Coupons

Besides your inbox and mailbox, search online at places like Coupons.com, RetailMeNot and Groupon for additional promo codes to use when shopping.

9. Follow Them on Social

As with most brands, DSW loves to engage with its customers, and one way they do so is by making sure their social media followers are up-to-date on the latest deals and special offers. Be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter to stay in the know.

10. Go Where the Dots Are

The best way to save some cash when shopping in-store is to know what you’re looking for. At DSW, keep your eyes peeled for colorful dots that show up on clearance shoes — find them and you could score an extra percentage off the already marked down price. For example, a purple dot signifies 20% off, red is 30%, blue is 50% and green is 70%.

11. Ask for a Discount

Customers have also claimed success at saving by simply asking for a discount, especially on purchases with small defects. Why not give it a try — if nothing else it’ll help you practice your haggling skills.

12. Return Your Online Purchases in the Store

If you aren’t a rewards member, you’ll pay $8.50 in shipping to return (not exchange) purchases made online — unless you do it directly in the store, so skip the charge by hitting the streets.

Want more brand hacks? We’ve got you covered. Here are 19 ways to save at Target

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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9 Ways Save Money on Your Summer Reading List

Summer is the perfect season to tear through a stack of books. You might already be able to picture yourself sunbathing on a beach with a drink in one hand and a book in the other. Books are great but, like summer vacation, they aren’t free.

Books are already a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, but compared to a $15 movie ticket or $11.99 a month streaming subscription, spending around $20 on a book can be a hard sell. Luckily for you, and booklovers everywhere — there are plenty of ways you can save money on books.

Use these tips to save money as you cobble together your summer reading list.

Host a book swap

 

Get all of your favorite bookworms together with some cheese and crackers for a book swap at your place. Ask everyone to bring a few books that they wouldn’t mind parting with, and set them all out on a table. As you mix and mingle over food and drinks, you and your guests can browse the collection for new additions to your libraries. The best part about this party is you’ll have a great pool of candidates to ask for recommendations. When all’s said and done, you’ll have a number of new-to-you books to read, for next to nothing.

Read the classics

It takes 70 years after the author’s death for a book to enter the public domain, so many classic texts can be shared and copied for free. Check sites like The Public Domain Review and Project Gutenberg to get free copies of classic titles. Gutenberg even has user-recorded audio versions of books.

Use a subscription service

Subscription services can be a great way to save money on books after the free trial ends. Depending on your price level and how much you read, paying for a monthly subscription could end up significantly cheaper than buying a book each time you’d like to read one.

For example, as an Audible subscriber, you’ll pay $14.95 for access to the library, plus get one book credit per month, which you can use to buy any book. If you’re subscribed to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service for $9.99 a month, you can read an unlimited number of books in a month, but only keep 10 books on your device at a time. As another example, an $8.99 Scribd subscription gives credits for three books and one audiobook each month and unlimited access to magazines and documents.

If you’re a fan of subscription boxes, you can try a subscription box service like OwlCrate and or a number of book subscription boxes available on Quarterly. The prices and packages will range widely depending on your taste, and some boxes even add in goodies for booklovers. OwlCrate’s subscription boxes, for example, start at $29.99 and come with one new hardcover Young Adult novel and three to five items inside each monthly box. In contrast, Quarterly’s Literary Box sends once every three months and costs $50 per box, but it comes with at least three books hand-picked by the box’s featured author, and a handwritten note from that author.

Get a free advanced review copy

If you’re a particularly voracious reader, and don’t mind sharing your opinion, you may be interested in getting advance copies of books in exchange for reviews online. A number of book-related sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing host early review programs. Publishers do too, but you’ll need some insider knowledge. Sign up to receive newsletters from publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House for information on how to get advanced copies.

If you’re a book blogger, you may want to consider signing up for a blog tour — when authors go from blog to blog to promote their books or organize a mass posting by several book bloggers about the upcoming title — with a company like Blogging for Books or TLC Book Tours. Finally, if you’re interested in making a little money for your reviews, you can sign up with a publishing house or use websites like Online Book Club or Nothing Binding. You probably won’t make enough to quit your day job, but at least you’ll be paid to do something you enjoy. For example, Online Book Club’s site says you won’t be paid for your first review, but after that, you’ll be paid $5 to $60 per review.

The main downside to doing this is that you may not enjoy all of the books sent to you to read.

Share a Kindle library

If you use Amazon Kindle, you can share Kindle books, apps, games, and audiobooks with friends or family members pretty easily, and you don’t have to be an Amazon Prime member to use this feature. If you want to share with friends, you can lend a book from your Kindle library to theirs for up to 14 days. Just go to your Kindle Store and select the title you want to loan out. Then enter the borrower’s email address and hit send. Beware: They have to delete the book from their Kindle Library for you to get it back. Also keep in mind a Kindle book can only be loaned once, so if anyone else asks you to borrow the title, they’re out of luck.

If you want to get your entire family reading, try a Family Library. It requires at least two adults with Amazon accounts to join an Amazon Household, you both can then add child accounts. You and the other adult will see all of the books in the Library, while the children will only be able to see “shared” books. You can also share Kindle books borrowed from a public library and those loaned to you via personal lending.

Use the 72-hour rule

Journalist and money expert Carl Richards came up with the “72-hour rule” to hack his bad habit of buying every book he wanted on Amazon, ending up with a pile of unread titles.

Now, Richards says he lets a book sit in his shopping cart for at least 72 hours before hitting “buy.” The trick helps him save money on books because he only buys books he’ll actually read. You can apply a similar rule to your purchasing process to save on books yourself. The 72-hour time frame isn’t set in stone. You can set the wait for as long as you need, as long as it gives you enough buffer time to think about your purchase before you buy.

If you can empathize with Richards’ problem in other areas of your budget, you may want to check out what we wrote about how you can apply the 72-hour rule to your spending habits here.

Buy used books

Used books are a great way to save on popular titles. Try visiting used bookstores or online book retailers like Amazon, eBay, thriftbooks.com, or AbeBooks.com for used reads. They’re typically cheaper than brand new ones, but hold the same great content. The downside to this savings strategy is you’ll probably have to wait to get the physical book shipped to you before you can read it. In that case, always look for free shipping to save.

Unfortunately, this strategy may not work for you if you’re strictly a digital reader.

Get a book for free online

You could get several books for free this summer just by knowing your way around the web.

As of this writing, signing up for a subscription service like Audible or Scribd will usually earn you a free book or at least a couple of weeks on a free trial. These are great options if your budget is too tight to afford a subscription and you can knock out a book in the two weeks before the free trial ends. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get one free book a month from the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.

Visit a public library

You’re probably well aware of this resource since it’s funded with your tax dollars, but here’s a quick reminder to support your local library. You can visit your local library to borrow as many books as you want for free. All you need to borrow books is a library card, which is also free. If you don’t know where your local library is located, you can consult Google or check out the database on PublicLibraries.com.

You might not even need to leave your house to borrow a book from your local library. If your library offers e-book lending, you could log in to your account on their site and borrow a book for free from the comfort of your couch. Search OverDrive.com or the Libby app (by OverDrive) on any device to find and borrow e-books available for lending near you. You’ll need a student ID or library card number to borrow, then you can download the e-books to read offline on all of your devices, including the Kindle or Kindle app, Nook, or another e-reader for the lending period.

The post 9 Ways Save Money on Your Summer Reading List appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The Best Investment for Your Lump Sum

Whether your lump sum arrived as a tax return, a bonus, an inheritance or a larger-than-expected gift, here are some suggestions for what to do with it.

Money doesn’t usually come out of nowhere, but when it does, it’s nice to have some idea of how to use it. Whether your lump sum arrived as a tax return, a bonus, an inheritance or a larger-than-expected gift from a family member, Shelly-Ann Eweka, a Denver-based financial adviser with TIAA, has suggestions on what to do with it, depending on the amount and how much money you’ve already saved.

Her suggestions apply to two different scenarios: One, if you haven’t maxed out your savings potential and are carrying around some debt and two, if you’re debt-free and have managed to shore up adequate savings. Experts suggest tucking away enough to cover three to six months of expenses in case of emergency, as well as approximately 10% to 15% of your income in retirement savings. So if you’re behind, now’s the time to get started.

If You’re Trying to Save & Have Debt

Here’s how Eweka suggested investing various dollar amounts if you’re behind on your savings and carry debt:

$100

If you have no savings at all, Eweka said to either open an account using the lump sum or split it between a savings account and your favorite charity. Even $50 in an account will start you down the road to saving — sometimes all you need is a push. Be sure the charity is a 501(c)(3) for potential tax benefits, she said.

$500

To grow that $500, Eweka suggested opening an IRA. “Talk to a financial adviser about the benefits and whether your qualify for a Roth and traditional IRA,” she said. “An IRA can offer a great way to help build additional savings for retirement.” If you don’t have a financial adviser, you can learn more about IRAs here.

$1,000

This amount can go a long way when it comes to debt, so Eweka said to focus on that. “Allocate any extra cash directly toward paying down debt, whether from credit cards or student loans,” she said. “Paying down debt as quickly as possible, while also saving for retirement, is critical to avoid high interest.” (Paying down debt can also improve your credit standing. You can see how by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

$10,000

If you have no savings, plunking the full $10,000 into an account will make a great start. “To be safe, you should have enough money in your emergency fund to cover all your necessary expenses for [at least] three months,” Eweka said. “That amount will vary from person to person, but you should have enough saved up to cover your necessities in case of a financial catastrophe.”

If You Already Have Savings 

If you’ve maxed out your savings and retirement options, you have more flexibility. Eweka suggested putting the money toward things that will advance your career.

$100

Consider having your resume professionally written and critiqued. Getting ahead in your career is a way to jump-start your personal wealth, and creating the best resume possible can help you climb the corporate ladder.

$500

Use your $500 to have a professional photograph taken, especially if you have a professional website, use social media or need to submit your bio and photo for business purposes, .

$1,000

Most people could stand to make updates to their wardrobe. If you’ve received a $1,000 lump sum, go through your closet and donate anything that no longer fits, is outdated or you haven’t worn in more than a year. Throw out things that are beyond repair or stained. Then use your lump sum to restock with clothing and accessories for a more polished and professional look.

$10,000

Enroll in research classes or certificate programs to enhance your career options. These will help you keep up with your skill set and look fantastic on your resume.

Image: StockRocket

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Travel Often? Make Sure Your Credit Card Has These 6 Features

While they aren’t as flashy as signup bonuses or travel credits, these features can drive down travel costs and offer protection in case of emergency.

Travel credit cards come in many forms and offer a variety of benefits. Some cards earn miles and points that can be redeemed for travel expenses, while others might be tied to specific hotel chains or airlines. The benefits and costs vary. Frequent travelers should choose a card that rewards the way they spend and the way they travel.

No matter what miles programs or travel perks you want, certain travel features can come in handy on any trip. While they aren’t as flashy as signup bonuses or travel credits, these features can drive down travel costs and offer protection in case of emergency. (You’ll need a solid credit score to qualify for a card with the best features. Check two of your scores on Credit.com.)

Here are six features to look for when evaluating a travel credit card.

1. Free Foreign Transactions

If you tend to travel abroad, you could be paying more than necessary every time you swipe your credit card. Many credit cards issue a foreign transaction fee every time you pay, usually around 3% of the transaction amount. If you use a credit card for most purchases when you travel, this can add significantly to the cost of your trip.

When evaluating travel cards, make sure they offer free foreign transactions.

2. Trip Cancellation Insurance

No travel plans can be set in stone. Emergencies or last-minute complications can wreck your itinerary. In many cases, changing or canceling a trip could cause you to forfeit some of your expenses. With trip cancellation or delay insurance, credit card providers will reimburse you any nonrefundable costs you paid for with your credit card.

3. Car Rental Collision Coverage

If you frequently rent cars during your travels, you’re likely used to car rental agencies trying to sell additional collision insurance. But many travel credit cards extend collision insurance to any car rentals you charge to your card, giving you the freedom to decline additional coverage and save on those costs.

4. Lost Luggage Reimbursement

Not all travel cards offer lost luggage reimbursement, and policies may differ between credit card companies. The total amount of coverage can vary and each policy may have different requirements. In any case, lost luggage is a risk any time you entrust your bags to an airline, cruise ship or other transportation provider. With this feature, credit card providers reimburse you for any lost luggage (up to a certain monetary amount).

5. Baggage Delay Insurance

If your baggage is misplaced, lost or otherwise delayed, baggage delay insurance covers the cost of any urgent needs created by the delay. Necessities covered may include clothes, toiletries and other essential items.

6. Emergency Travel Assistance

Travel assistance and emergency services can help you make last minute travel arrangements or respond to an emergency during your trip. This could include travel reservations, quick access to medical or legal professionals and roadside assistance. Some credit card companies offer 24/7 emergency service for these urgent requests.

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Here’s How to Make Sure You Don’t Fall for the Latest Tax Scam

You know never to respond to a phone call from the IRS, because — say it with me — they never call. Well, this latest scam has been taking taxpayers for a ride.

True or False: The time for IRS-related swindles and scams is behind us — until next tax season. If you’re still reading this, you probably guessed “false.” And yep, it’s sad but true: Those pesky swindlers are still at it.

Normally, when summer arrives with its parade of warm days and fewer demands on our attention, there is a quiet month or so when very little happens in the way of IRS-related activities (quarterly payments being the only thing you might expect on a list of tax-related things to do). So, you should be safe from the current scam making the rounds — but you’re not. The IRS recently issued a warning about a scam that’s been luring summertime tax-fraud victims.

You know never to respond to a phone call from the IRS, because — say it with me — they never call. (The agency does have debt collectors representing them now, but you’ll receive several notices before they call you and you can expect to be contacted by one of four firms —CBE Group, ConServe, Performant and Pioneer Credit Recovery — not an IRS agent, more on this below.) Well, this latest scam put a saddle on that old nag and has been taking taxpayers for a ride.

Here’s how: You get a call from the IRS telling you about official correspondence sent via snail mail — certified mail, no less. The letters were returned to the IRS as undeliverable. They tried to mail you the notice you needed. They have to call you.

So, what do you do? Hang up.

The thing about these scams is that they always have the ring of truth to them. (Remember, con man is short for confidence man.) If you stay on the phone, you will be informed that there was an issue with your tax return and you owe money that is extremely late in getting where it’s supposed to be. You have to pay with a card that is connected with the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS). Sounds legitimate, because the EFTPS is one of the ways you can pay your taxes. That said, you can’t do it with a gift card or any other kind of prepaid card, which is what the scam requires to pay out the fraudster. (You can also pay taxes with credit cards, which you can learn about here.)

The IRS never calls to bird-dog money, although there is one new exception. Congress has mandated that the IRS hire collection agencies to chase certain extremely delinquent taxpayers. If you receive such a call, get off the phone and contact the IRS directly to verify the situation.

Also bear in mind that taxpayers who owe the IRS money generally know it. They have received multiple notices, did not dispute the assessments and/or did not make the payments. If you get a surprise call asking for money, be doubtful. (You can see how unpaid taxes are impacting your credit by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Can You Scam-Proof Yourself?

In this particular instance, you actually can avoid getting got 100% of the time. It’s pretty simple: Simply hang up. But there is no way to absolutely scam-proof yourself.

There are more ways to get burned by tax scams than you can shake a beach umbrella at — bogus tax preparers, scam artists who file a tax return using your identity and steal the refund, sleazeballs who promise huge tax refunds for an extra fee, which is nothing compared to the penalty you will pay after the IRS audits you.

My book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves provides countless stories about how cyber criminals lure victims, but the best way to stay safe is to do what you’re doing now: Stay aware.

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