Why It’s Not Smart to Get a Big Tax Refund Each Year

Why let the government hold your money throughout the year when you can put that money to work today?

If you’re expecting a big tax refund this year, you’ve probably already decided what you’re going to do with that money. Whether it’s a vacation, a new jet ski or a nice boost to your retirement savings, you’re probably pretty excited about the extra cash. But here’s the deal: Getting a big tax refund each year isn’t necessarily a good thing. It means you haven’t been putting that money to work for you all year long.

“If you are receiving a refund this year, it means that you overpaid your taxes during the course of the year. Instead of giving the government your hard-earned money, think about all of the great things you could have done with that money,” says Ron Weber, a senior marketing manager with Quicken Inc. “You could have paid off credit accounts, invested it in your future, and/or spent it as you earned it. Money is always better in your pocket than in someone else’s — even if that someone else is the government.”

Here’s how you can make sure you boost your bottom line this year by not overpaying your taxes and also not getting a refund.

Review Your Withholdings

Sit down and review your paycheck withholdings and see if you can break even when it comes to the taxes you pay. You’re looking for your Goldilocks zone. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

“If you are unsure what to do, experiment until you get it right,” Weber advises. “Most people are unaware that you can change your number of payroll exemptions as many times as you wish.”

You can also try using a tool to help you find your Goldilocks zone. The Internal Revenue Service has a withholdings calculator that can help you see how much difference a change in your withholdings will make. Certainly, you don’t want to owe taxes next year if you can avoid it, but getting your tax refund as close to zero as possible means you can invest or spend the additional income on a regular basis instead of letting the Treasury Department store it for you.

As you review your withholdings, you’ll want to be sure you …

Don’t Forget Your House …

If you own your own home, you probably know you can claim mortgage interest and property tax deductions, so take into account how much that will reduce your tax burden.

… Or Your Investments

If you own investment property, you’ll also want to consider any expenses you can deduct that might affect your taxes for next year.

… Or Big Life Events

“There are certain life events that you want to keep in mind when changing your exemptions such as marriage, having children or any situation where you decrease the number of dependents, such as divorce,” Weber says. “Also, keep in mind that while you are able to change the number of withholdings as often as you wish, your employer doesn’t have to apply it until the first payroll ending 30 days after you submit the change, effectively limiting the number of times you actually can change. Other than these considerations, the ultimate goal each year is to get your refund close to zero. Make it a game and see how close you can come.”

But You’re Terrible at Saving Money, You Say?

Of course, if saving isn’t your forte and you’re going to just end up spending whatever additional income you get throughout the year, letting Uncle Sam hold it for you might not be such a bad idea if you plan to put your refund directly into a retirement account like an IRA. The IRS will even help you keep your promise to invest the money by direct depositing all or part of your refund into savings, an IRA or even toward buying savings bonds.

If that’s your situation, you can read our guide on how to maximize your tax refund. But investing that money into a 401K throughout the year could be a better alternative, especially if your employer provides matching funds.

Those savings can pile up, especially if you start young. If you’re planning to turn your refund into the start of a lifetime of saving, check out our list of 50 things young people can do to make sure they’re set when it’s time to retire.

Also remember that keeping your credit in good standing helps you save money throughout the year, on everything from loan and credit card interest rates to mortgages. A good way to check on how your credit is faring is by getting credit your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

Image: RapidEye

 

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Here’s What to Do the Next Time a Business Asks for Your Credit Card by Phone or Email

When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft. Here's why.

Recently, I was booking a hotel reservation for a family member and in the process was asked to provide certain information. It was a simple third-party credit card authorization. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty.

Beyond the fact that I am professionally paranoid — I wrote a book about it — there are so many ways for your information to wind up in the wrong hands, especially your credit card information. When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft by the authentication process itself.

There is no best way to conduct this sort of business remotely without putting ourselves in danger of becoming victims of identity theft, but there are better and worse ones. These days, it’s more expedient to focus on the very few ways sensitive information can be made available to third parties without creating unnecessary exposure.

A Better Way for Another Day?

If you are unfazed about sending your information via electronic means, consider something similar: paying for a meal with a credit card. We expose our data and send it on a journey every time we pay a bill at a restaurant.

I saw my first portable credit card reader on American soil the other day when paying the bill at a new restaurant. First, I want to say that the lunch was excellent, and I would have gone back even if the waiter hadn’t trotted out that marvelous handheld identity theft reduction device. I am scam-obsessed, and have long envied our friends on the other side of the Atlantic — and locations in other directions as well — for the ubiquity of at-table card payment.

The reason those machines are great is simple: The server has no opportunity to write down or photograph your card information.

Let that sink in … It’s unsettling now that you think about it, right? All those times a server has walked away with your credit card, what stopped him or her from snapping a quick pic of the front and back before returning to your table?

That reader is new technology. The service industry is finally (belatedly) getting hip to the challenge of protecting consumers from identity theft and other scams, but what should you do while it’s still in catch-up mode?

How to Send Your Stuff

The form that was emailed to me by the hotel made the threat of a sneaky waiter snapping pics of my credit card seem like amateur hour.

Obviously, the reservations department asked for my credit card number and expiration date. They also wanted my billing address, work and home phone numbers, email address and signature. Then there was the outline of a box, under which were the words: “Copy front of the credit card” and “Copy of ID.”

Now, I’ve already confessed to being someone who looks for the angle crooks will try to use. The idea of sending, in addition to all the other information requested, an image of a valid form of identification — in my case, my driver’s license — was truly unthinkable. I’d sooner have my Social Security number puffed out by a skywriter over the House that Ruth Built during a Yankees-Red Sox playoff game. (Not convinced? Read up on the surprising ways identity theft can hurt you.)

The form gave me the option of sending my cornucopia of sensitive personal information via email or by way of fax. Which is the better choice?

Hackers Are Really Good at What They Do

Phone calls and faxes conducted over phone lines can be rerouted, emails can be intercepted. Phone calls can also be listened to, and therein lies another problem. When you call a service provider — any kind that costs a set amount every month— there will come a time during the call when you will have to provide your Social Security number so that the company can run a credit check. A service rep is going to ask you for it — the whole thing.

Remember the waiter? Same problem.

Absolutely nothing can stop that person from writing down your information. And before you ask why you can’t input the information on your keypad, remember: Phone calls are not secure, the tones can be intercepted. Encryption is both complex and costly. This is why the federal government has been investigating the possibility of a universal identifier. But in the meantime, those credit checks or authentications pose the same, if not greater, peril as your credit card’s journey at most restaurants.

Old Is New (But Not Fail-Safe)

As counterintuitive as it seems, using the fax in this scenario is the safer path, though it is not completely safe given the possibility of data interception.

Pro tip: Call before sending a fax that contains personally identifiable information or anything else that is for as few eyes as necessary, and ask the person on the phone if they are near the fax machine, or if not if they can be. Call again to make sure the transmission has been retrieved and isn’t just sitting in a tray waiting for a scam artist to come sauntering by with a smartphone and a shopping list of things they want to purchase using your information.

While we await better solutions, you are the ultimate guardian of your personal information, and your vigilance given the myriad threats out there will lead the way for change. In the meantime, get in the habit of monitoring your finances for any sign of mischief. You can view two of your free credit scores, with helpful updates every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.

Image: nyul

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3 Surprising Reasons to Attend Community College First

Here's why students should seriously consider spending the first two years of their undergraduate career in community college.

Community colleges are rarely perceived as having the same level of prestige as many four-year universities. Unfortunately, that can lead eager new students to pass them up despite their many benefits.

What are those benefits, exactly? Few people would be shocked to hear community colleges are less expensive than four-year universities. But you might be surprised at how much a student can really save.

The advantages don’t end there. Money is only part of the picture. Read on to find out why students should seriously consider spending the first two years of their undergraduate career in community college.

1. Average Savings of $11,377

The question of whether college is worth it is a big one these days. Considering that the average 2016 grad who took out loans for school walked away with $37,172 in debt, some young adults might be unsure whether they should attend college at all. (You can read more about the dangers of certain student loans here.)

However, the amount a student has to spend (or borrow) to complete a four-year degree is slashed when the first two years are completed at a community college.

A recent Student Loan Hero study on the cost of a college credit found that, on average, a college credit from a community college is 60% cheaper than one at a four-year public university. This translates to an average savings of $11,377 for a student who earns their first 60 credits at a two-year public school before transferring to an in-state public university. (If this sounds like your plan, be sure to read this guide to federal student loans.)

2. Make Up for Mediocre Grades

Not all teens have the ability or the attitude to do well in high school. Because academic success is largely determined by grades, students who earn poor grades have little chance of getting into a decent college.

There aren’t any do-overs — that is, unless they enroll in community college. “I was a smart kid, but I hated high school, so I didn’t do well. As I look back, I also wasn’t mature enough at the time to have succeeded at a four-year school,” said Roberto Santiago, a community college professor at Ohlone College in Freemont, California.

“Going to community college allowed me to grow into growing up,” Santiago said. “I became an ‘A’ student, was on the Dean’s List and eventually graduated cum laude. I also started to enjoy school. I enjoyed it so much I’m now writing my dissertation and expect to have a Ph.D. within a year.”

Not every high school graduate is ready to take on the demands of a four-year university. Some students need additional support in certain subjects. Others require more time to grow up. Community college allows fresh high school grads to work toward earning their degrees while providing some breathing room during the transition.

3. Flexibility

It’s not a stretch to assume that the typical 18-year-old doesn’t exactly have their life figured out. Even if they do, the plan is likely to change several times. Unfortunately, many four-year programs require students to enroll full time, even if they haven’t chosen a major.

Not all students are prepared to hit the ground running when it comes to pursuing their degrees. Alissa Carpenter, a career discovery and personal development coach who owns the business Everything’s Not OK and That’s OK, explained that it can be a “hard pill to swallow” if a student isn’t sure what they want to do and has to spend thousands of dollars to figure it out.

“Community colleges give you the opportunity to take courses at your own pace,” Carpenter said. “This affords the student flexibility to have a job, decrease course loads and explore potential majors without the pressure and potential financial burden.”

Santiago echoed this sentiment. “The flexible schedule allowed me to work full time and attend school around my work schedule. I was also able to take a reduced course load with no penalties,” he said. “Without that flexibility, I would never have been able to succeed.”

There are a lot of good reasons to start off at a community college, regardless of a student’s situation. Even those who aced their Advanced Placement courses and have clear visions for their careers can stand to reap the financial benefits. By saving money in the first two years, students can accumulate less debt, pay off student loans faster and live their lives with less of a financial burden.

“I believe strongly in the community college mission,” said Santiago. “There are a lot of smart kids who, like me, had poor grades, or a poor attitude, or don’t have the money for a four-year school right after high school. Community college allows these kids to start exploring college at whatever pace they can manage. It can take more time, but it can be a boon for a great many students.”

Image: jhorrocks

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The Fastest Way to Save for a House

There are a few ways to expedite that down payment.

Once you’ve decided it’s time to buy your own home, saving for that 20% down payment is step one toward doing it. Instead of waiting years, here are six ways to help you save up for that down payment in a matter of months.

1. Explore the Market

If you are saving money to buy your dream home, consider taking a detour through a lower-priced neighborhood first. Buying a lower-cost home means you won’t have to save as long for the down payment. As the home’s value goes up, you can use the equity you’ve built to help you get into a higher-priced home later on, particularly if you find a fixer-upper and you’re good at repairs.

2. Keep Your Priorities in Focus

While it may be tempting to put off other priorities when trying to save for an important goal, Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations at Freedom Financial Network, says paying the rent should always be your first priority. Next, Gallegos says, pay down credit card debt.

“Few, if any, investments will return as much,” he explains. Additionally, having more available credit on your card will improve your debt-to-income ratio and creates a financial cushion that you may need for unexpected costs after moving in to your new home.

3. Automate Your Savings

You can create a budget based on your current expenses to determine how much you can save each month. Once you have determined how much you can afford to save, automatically transfer that amount from your checking account to a savings account.

“Save before you ever have the money in your hand,” Gallegos says. “Record this expense like a bill every month.”

4. Generate More Income

To raise money quickly, Gallegos says it pays off to turn your spare time into money-making opportunities. Look around your apartment for unneeded items to sell online or have a yard sale.

“Even small proceeds can accumulate surprisingly quickly,” he says. “Maybe you have skills where you can turn a hobby into a part-time, money-making enterprise. Babysit, tutor, do yard work or other part-time work.”

5. Track Your Daily Expenses

Before pulling out your wallet, ask yourself how badly you need to buy something. For example, if there is free coffee at work, do you really need to go to the coffee shop every morning? Gallegos admits it sounds cliché to ask such questions, “yet this is just the type of disciplined act that will get someone on track to saving as much as possible as quickly as possible,” he says.

To further reduce daily spending, Gallegos recommends paying with cash instead of using a debit or credit card. “Many studies report that people spend up to 15 to 20% less when paying with cash,” he says.

6. Reduce Household Expenses

There are many ways to reduce monthly expenses at home that can help build your savings for a down payment more quickly. Washing clothes in cold water saves up to 90% of the energy expended in the washing cycle, notes Gallegos. Switching to cold water will directly reduce next month’s utility bill. Plus, speaking of laundry, skip the dryer. That’ll eliminate carbon emissions and help you bank away extra dollars, he adds.

You should also eliminate drafts in your home and turn the hot water temperature down to 120 degrees, which will save you money. Per EnergyStar.gov, a house’s water heater “can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses and more than $400 in demand losses.”

Implementing only one of these ideas may not increase your savings significantly, but if you try a few of them, it can make a real difference to your savings account after a few months and get you on the right track to having enough for your new home.

[Editor’s Note: A good credit score can make buying a new home more affordable, too, since it’ll help you qualify for a low interest rate. You can see where your credit stands by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.]

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50 Things to Do If You Plan to Sell Your Home This Spring

Sure, it's a seller market. But getting the best price for your house involves more than just putting down For Sale sign stakes.

Have you heard? It’s a seller’s market. Well, in most zip codes at least. But a hopping homebuying season doesn’t necessarily mean your home will go well over asking price just by putting up a For Sale sign. There’s still plenty a seller must do if they want to get the best price for their soon-to-be-former digs.

Here are 50 things to do if you plan to sell your home this spring.

1. Learn the Market

The reports of a seller’s market are greatly exaggerated — which is to say every zip code is different. If you want to expedite a sale, your “property has to be marketed properly and be priced appropriately,” said Glenn S. Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. “The feeding frenzy of a few years ago has not returned, and buyers are better informed than ever.”

2. Avoid Over-Pricing

Gradual price drops signal to house hunters that more decreases are to come, Phillips says. Plus, if your home sits on the market long enough, prospective buyers will wonder what’s wrong with it. “In the end, most homes that start overpriced sell at a price lower than a home priced [appropriately] from the start,” he said. “And the deal happens much faster and without the pain of months trying to sell.”

3. Hire a Realtor

Yes, you’ll have to pay them a commission. (Side note: You’ll be expected to cover the buyer’s agent, too.) Still, a good Realtor can be instrumental when it comes to the whole “learn-the-market, price-it-right” stuff. Plus, they’ll do the heavy lifting when showing the house and negotiating offers. Of course, be sure to …

4. Vet Prospective Agents

“Find someone who is in the business full time and who can demonstrate their skill at listing a house,” Reba Haas, CEO of Team Reba at RE/MAX Metro Inc. in Seattle, said. “This will show up in their print materials, online photos, services provided marketing presentation and ability to find the right price range to help you sell in a reasonable amount of time.”

5. Get a Home Estimate …

Yes, your real estate agent can help you set the right price on your home, but it doesn’t hurt to get a general idea of the pricing in your area on your own. There are plenty of sites online that can help you get an idea of your home’s current value.

6. Or, Better Yet, a Pre-Listing Appraisal

That’ll help preclude any problems during the bank appraisal. “An independent appraisal performed prior to listing can determine the value that a lender would assign your home,” Bruce Elliott, president of the Orlando Regional REALTOR Association, said. “While the process is never scientific, many buyers do find an independent appraisal to be a credible source for judging a home’s value.”

7. Determine How Much the Sale Will Cost You

Because there are plenty of expenses associated with selling a home. “A lot of sellers are not aware of what their costs are, including attorney, commission to broker and any other closing costs, including potential repairs before putting the home on the market,” says Kobi Lahav, managing director, Mdrn. Residential, a real estate brokerage in New York City. Fortunately, your broker or listing agent can help you pin down a rough estimate of what you might have to shell out.

8. Hire an Attorney

They’ll be instrumental when it comes time to negotiate the purchase contract with your chosen buyer, but you’ll, of course, want to …

9. Research Their Reputations (& Fees)

Ask friends and family for recommendations, or do a search online to find an affordable real estate attorney you can trust.

10. Ask for a Mortgage Pay Off Quote

You may think you know how much you owe on your mortgage. However, “it is not always what you see on your lender’s website,” Denise Supplee, co-founder of SparkRental and Pennsylvania Realtor, says. “And it is a good idea to have that information, especially if the money from your sale is going towards another sale.”

11. Build Your Coffers

Like we said, selling your home can be very costly. Be sure you’ve got an adequate emergency fund on hand to cover the costs, moving expenses and mortgage or rent associated with your next abode.

12. Check State Tax Records

“Make sure any debts you thought you paid off, were, in fact, posted in municipality tax records [and] satisfied,” Janice B. Leis, Accredited Buyer’s Representative and associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway, says. “Otherwise, you will have an arduous task getting issues resolved if faced with either a quick closing or finding out by the title company near closing, when life is hectic.”

13. Consult an Accountant

Or a trusted financial adviser before putting down For Sale stakes. They can fill you in on any tax deductions or bills associated with the sale that you’ll be expected to pay next year, Leis says.

14. Pull Your Credit Reports

In addition to liens, look for any judgments because those can go against the title of your home. “I have seen … people who thought they were getting X amount of dollars find out that they owe back taxes from many years ago,” Supplee says. (You can pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.) If you’re also searching for a new home while you’re trying to sell yours, well, then, you’ll want to …

15. Get Your Full Credit Check On

Because the better your credit score, the more affordable your new mortgage will be. Check for credit report errors, because they may be needlessly weighing you down. If you find one, be sure to …

16. Dispute Any Errors …

You can go here to learn how to handle errors on your credit report.

17. … & Otherwise Shore Up Your Scores

Beyond that, pay down high credit card balances, limit new credit inquiries and address any other credit-score killers to improve your credit scores. You can monitor your progress using your free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

18. Set Realistic Deadlines

“It takes a lot of time to prepare a home for sale,” Haas says. “Be realistic in what you can do, and consider where you may need help from family, friends or by hiring professionals.”

19. Map Out Your Move

“If coinciding with a closing and purchase, make sure there is a contingency in your purchase contract,” Reis says. “Otherwise you owe on two properties or will be in default on new purchase due to lack of proceeds from the sale of your existing home.”

20. Get a Pre-Home Inspection Home Inspection

Sure, it’ll cost you. Still, “spending a few hundred dollars on a thorough home inspection can help you get a better idea of what repairs need to be made, and more importantly, what your net proceeds will be from the sale of your home,” Emile L’Eplattenier, a New York City real estate agent and member of the Real Estate Board of New York, says.

21. Make Any Major Repairs …

Pay particular attention to roof and air conditioning issues, as buyers tend to shy from expensive repairs, Elliott says. “Completing as many repairs as your budget allows will pay off when potential buyers are not put off by the amount of time or money they would need to bring the home up to speed,” he adds.

22. … & Consider Some Small Upgrades

“Replacing old curtains and blinds or even appliances and fixtures will make your home look better in pictures and on showings,” L’Eplattenier says. At the very least …

23. Paint

So long as you don’t use one of these four colors, of course. By the way …

24. Carefully Consider Major Home Improvement Projects

Fix the roof, sure. Have the AC serviced, but consult with your Realtor or stager before blinging out the bathroom or wallpapering the basement. Certain home improvements that seem like a good idea may not actually bring any value to your home — or, worse, could be a turnoff to potential buyers. (We’re looking at you, outdoor bathtub.)

25. Get Your Disclosures Ready

Though there are variations by city or state, some types of seller’s disclosure are generally mandated by law. “If you know of an issue in your home, write it down on the disclosure form provided by your Realtor,” Elliott says. “Nothing is too small to disclose, and failing to disclose is a serious breach of real estate law that can undermine the sale or worse.”

26. Trim the (Furniture) Fat

“Too much furniture makes a home look smaller than it really is, so sell or move out furniture to make the home feel more spacious,” Phillips says.

27. Tap a Photographer …

And consider hiring a professional. Solid listing photos make a big difference when it comes to getting buyers over to your house.

28. … But Clean Your Windows Before Showings

“Multi-exposure photography … will make the photos really stand out, but if the windows are dirty, you don’t get the best shots,” Haas says. “Plus, cleanliness in general just makes for a better showing.”

29. Actually, Clean Everything

We’re spelling this out just in case you hadn’t taken the initiative to do so already. “Nothing turns buyers off like grime, odor and general dinginess,” Elliott says.

30. Grout & Glaze

“How does the bathroom look?” Max says. “Do you need to reglaze the tub or put new grout on the tile?”

31. Set the Stage

Your Realtor can provide some valuable insights into how to organize your (leftover) furniture. “Stagers can also help you organize your furniture, and they can bring in just a few pieces that accentuate the positives of your home,” Kathryn Bishop, Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, California, says.

32. Change the Light Bulbs

Lighting can be just as important as furniture feng shui when it comes to attracting homebuyers.

33. Up Your Curb Appeal

“Neatly trimmed bushes, fresh mulch and a colorful pot of flowers work wonders on that all-important first impression,” Elliott says. “Repainting (or washing) the front door and pressure cleaning the driveway and sidewalks are also simple tasks that provide eye-catching results.”

34. Find a Place for Fido

Sure, Sparky is cute and all, but you’ll want your pets out of the house during any showings. Plus, “it will always bring questions about any pet damage or difficult-to-remove smells,” Phillips says. Speaking of smells …

35. Deodorize …

Homeowners become smell blind and don’t realize how powerful smell is to homebuyers,” he says. “The home should smell fresh and clean, not perfumed and not like cats, dogs, cigarette smoke, old furniture, mothballs, mold, old food, gym locker or just plain stale.”

36. … De-Personalize …

Pack away those personal pictures and mementos. “Removing these items helps buyers imagine themselves in the home,” Phillips says.

37. … De-Clutter …

That goes beyond offloading some excess furniture and your picture words. Bottom line: It’s time to put all those books, toys, video games and figurines away. “The more crowded the apartment is, the smaller it appears,” Stacey Max, the sales manager of BOND New York, a residential brokerage, says.

38. … & Detach

“Sellers are usually emotionally attached to their homes, which is natural,” Lahav says. “However, they have to remember that any potential buyer is looking at it without the emotional aspect that the owner has for his own property.”

39. Clean Out Your Closets …

“They should look roomy,” Max says.

40. … & Your Drawers

“We all say that one day we will go into all the rooms and drawers and throw out a lot of old items,” Lahav says. “Selling your home is the best time to do it.” In fact, while you’re at it, go ahead and …

41. Start Packing

You’ll have to do it sooner or later. Might as well get a head start.

42. Store

You don’t have to junk all your belongings — or avoid decluttering just because you don’t want to part with your old Buffy the Vampire Slayer box sets. Consider renting out a storage space or keeping some stuff over at a friend’s or family member’s place while you’re trying to sell.

43. Talk to Your Neighbors

Consider this part of your curb appeal project — especially if you’re selling an apartment, co-op or condo. “You want your neighbors to be aware that there will be open houses,” Lahav says. “Buyers coming to view your home and see unhappy neighbors who look mad that the elevator [doesn’t] work or the driveway is blocked will assume that the neighbors are nasty, and that can affect their decision.”

44. Do a Final Walk-Through

Just to be sure there’s nothing you missed with regard to repairs, curb appeal or staging your home.

45. Advertise Amply

“Some sellers believe that it is OK to not put the home on the local MLS, that the agents in the area will just bring the perfect buyer,” Phillips says. “While this could happen, it rarely does. Doing this is like trying to sell a secret. The price does not matter because few buyers know the house is even for sale.”

46. Host an Open House

“Recently, my listings have all sold to buyers who came to the open houses,” Bishop says. Beyond that …

47. Be Available

“Appointments often come with only an hour’s notice,” she adds. “Work as smoothly as possible with your Realtor to accommodate showings.”

48. Adjust …

If you find you did list your home for more than it’s worth, go ahead and change your listing. (Again, consulting with your Realtor can come in handy here.)

49. … & Stay Flexible

“We’ve seen purchases fall apart over very small amounts of money, over a single appliance and over attitudes,” Phillips says. “Remember the big picture and how much it will cost to start over finding another willing and capable buyer. [Getting] the deal closed is often the best financial (and emotional) choice, even if you have to give up a little more than you wanted.”

50. Brush Up on Your Homebuying Skills

Chances are, you’ll be buying a new abode before or after you sell your current one, so you’ll want to go refamiliarize yourself with that process as well. Fortunately, we’ve got 50 things you should do as a house hunter right here.

Got more questions about the homebuying process? Ask away in the comments section, and one of our experts will try to help!

Image: Feverpitched

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6 Hacks for Using the Citi ThankYou Points Program

Here's how to get the most out of your Citi rewards credit card points.

If you surveyed a group of people about credit cards, it’s likely they would say pretty much the same thing: Their favorite cards are part of a transferable points program. That’s because these cards tend to have the most flexibility when it comes to redeeming rewards. One of these programs is Citi ThankYou. (Full Disclosure: Citibank advertises on Credit.com, but that results in no preferential editorial treatment.)

Over the past several years, Citi has made several changes to the ThankYou program to help it keep up with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards. Two of the most noticeable changes are the selection of credit cards that allow you to earn ThankYou points and the airline transfer partners. Let’s take a look at how you can hack your Citi ThankYou points for maximum value.

1. Transfer Points to Loyalty Partners

One area where the Citi ThankYou program has improved over the past couple of years is with the quality of transfer partners. Unless noted below all partners transfer at a 1:1 ratio.

  • Jetblue (1,000:500)
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Etihad
  • Eva Air
  • Air France/KLM
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Quantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Hilton (1,000:1,500)

While the list of partners continues to grow, not all of them are a good use of your points. To get the most value, you could redeem points for one of these rewards:

Continental U.S. to Hawaii on Singapore Airlines

From the United States, one of the best uses for Singapore Airlines miles is to fly to Hawaii. One-way flights in coach, business class, and first class cost 17,500, 30,000 and 40,000 miles, respectively. Compare this to United Airlines, which charges 22,500, 40,000 and 50,000 miles.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue Promo Awards

One of the best ways to use Flying Blue miles is to book their promo awards. Each month, they release new promo routes and you can save 20% to 50% off normal redemption rates.

Continental U.S. to Mexico on Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Flying Blue includes Mexico in the same flight region as the United States, which means flights cost only 12,500 miles each way in coach.

TransAtlantic in Singapore Suites

If you’re tired of always flying coach, you can splurge and spend 57,375 Singapore Krisflyer Miles to fly Singapore Suites from New York to Frankfurt, Germany. If you’d like to continue, you can go all the way to Singapore for a total of 93,500 miles. But be warned: Flying in coach might never be the same.

Use Etihad Guest Miles from New York to Brussels in Business Class

Most airlines are part of large alliances or have partner airlines. This is great for consumers because it opens up a lot of options when using your miles. If you know where to look, you can find a lot of value when flying. One of the best ways to fly to Europe is to use Etihad Guest miles to fly Brussels Airlines from New York to Brussels. Traveling round-trip in economy will cost you 21,972 miles and business class will be 36,620 miles. If you want a card that earns you direct airline miles, here are our picks for some of the best airline miles credit cards out there.

2. Book Travel on Citi Travel Center

Another way to use your ThankYou points is to book your travel through the Citi Travel Center. This is where the specific card you have will dictate the value you receive. If you have a Citi ThankYou Premier card you can redeem your points for 1.25 cents each. Through July 23, those with a Citi ThankYou Prestige card can redeem points on American Airlines for 1.6 cents each and on all other airlines for 1.33 cents. Afterward, redemptions are 1.33 cents on all airlines. For any card that is not Premier or Prestige, you can book travel at just 1 cent per point.

3. Redeem for Cash

You can redeem your points for cash, but this is a pretty weak valuation. You will only receive 0.5 cents per point, but…

4. Pay Your Mortgage or Student Loans

You’ll receive 1 cent of value when you use your points to pay off your mortgage or student loans.

5. Shopping With Points

Citi has partnered with several retailers, making it possible to shop with your points. However, values fluctuate from 0.6 cents to around 1 cent per point, so unless it’s necessary for you to redeem through shopping, there are better ways to redeem points.

6. Gift Cards

Finally, you can also redeem your points for gift cards for select retailers and restaurants. Most of the time you will be able to receive 1 cent per point with this method.

Earning Citi ThankYou Points

Earning Citi ThankYou points is fairly simple. You can use one of a few different Citi credit cards or have select Citi banking products.

Citi Prestige

When you sign up for the Citi Prestige card, you receive 40,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. Then, when you use your card for airfare or hotels, you receive 3 points per dollar. You will also receive 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants and on entertainment. Any other purchase made will earn 1 points per dollar. This card has a steep $450 annual fee, but you will receive several travel benefits, including a $250 air travel credit, which you can use for airfare, upgrades, baggage fees and more. You will also receive a $100 statement credit to cover the cost of either Global Entry or TSA Precheck. If that’s not enough, you also receive your fourth night free when booking hotels through Citi Prestige Concierge. Plus, you can travel in comfort knowing you have complimentary access to more than 900 Priority Pass Select airport lounges.

Keep in mind before signing up for this or any rewards card that your credit will need to be in very good shape to qualify. If you’re not sure where your credit stands you can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, right here on Credit.com.

Citi ThankYou Premier

With the Citi ThankYou Premier card, you receive 30,000 ThankYou points after signing up and spending $3,000 in the first three months. You then earn 3 points per dollar spent on travel expenses, which includes gas. Plus, you can earn 2x points when you use your card at restaurants and on entertainment. All other purchases will earn 1x points. There is a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year.

Citi ThankYou Preferred

If you prefer a card with no annual fee, then the Citi ThankYou Preferred card might be the best fit. You will earn 15,000 ThankYou points after signing up and spending $1,000 in the first three months. When you use this card at restaurants and on entertainment, you receive 2x points. All other purchases earn 1x points. This card also has an introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers.

Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students

If you’re a college student you can also earn ThankYou points with the Citi ThankYou Preferred card for College Students. With this card, you will earn 2,500 ThankYou points after spending $500 within the first three months. When you use your card at restaurants and on entertainment, you receive 2x points. All other purchases receive 1x points. After signing up for this card you receive an introductory 0% APR for the first seven months on purchases. There is no annual fee to carry this card.

Citi Banking Accounts

While you won’t be able to earn a huge number of points through this method, you can take advantage of the banking relationships you have with Citi. Depending on the product, you could earn up to 19,200 points per year.

Image: freemixer

At publishing time, the Citi Prestige, Citi ThankYou Premier, Citi ThankYou Preferred and Citi ThankYou Preferred for College Students cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for this card. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

 

 

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Got Extra Cash? Here Are 11 Smart Purchases Under $400

Here's a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying.

There’s always a lot of talk about how to be financially responsible and increase wealth with very little money. Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. But put some real numbers behind that generic statement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey of 2015 reports an average household income per consumer unit (think entire household of family members or single, financially independent people living alone or with other people) is $69,629. And the consumer’s unit average yearly expenses is $55,978.

Let’s say you dedicate those yearly expenses to standard things, such as food, housing, transportation and insurance. While the actual percentage breakdown per expense differs from household to household, depending on your family picture, you’ll still be dedicating a good chunk of your income to various necessities each month.

If we continue with this logic, the money you have left over — that unreasonably small portion of your salary that remains after paying bills — is what many would dub “play money.” The average consumer unit will have about $13,000 a year to play. (Speaking of “play money,” here’s how to stop buying stuff you can’t afford.)

With all that extra cash, what can we do? Of course, we could blow it on a steak dinner or splurge for the newest tech gadget. But what are a few smart items we should buy when we have the opportunity? We’ve compiled a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying. And the best part? They’re all less than $400.

1. Student Loans

The average recent graduate has about $37,172 in student loan debt and pays about $351 per month toward the loan, according to Student Loan Hero. For those who are super strapped for cash, they might choose to defer their loans to a later date or skate by paying just the minimum. But the interest will kill you. One of the smartest things you can do with extra cash is to pay more into your loans when you can afford to do so. It’s a solid bet that added expenses will pop up eventually, and staying ahead of the curve means one less financial burden down the road. (Check out some tips for paying off your student loans here.)

2. An Interview Suit

Even if you’re not in the job market, investing in an interview suit is a wise decision. You never know when you’ll need a go-to outfit for networking events, conferences or a random “I’ve got someone I want you to connect with” meeting. Shopping for the perfect outfit is a lot more bearable when you’re not under duress or in a time crunch. Instead, you can browse for sales. You’ll find cheaper options in many locations, but a nice suit should put you right around that $400 mark. (What else can you do to get yourself ready for a job interview? Check your credit — many employers look at a version of your credit as part of the application process, so it’s helpful to know where yours stands. You can see two of your credit scores — absolutely free — on Credit.com.)

3. A Durable Mattress

What does anything matter if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? When you have extra cash at the end of the month, put it toward a high-quality mattress that will ensure you wake up ready to tackle each morning with spunk. High-quality mattresses come at a price. But they also last for years. You could spend thousands on a name-brand mattress, but a foam mattress from IKEA could work just as well.

4. Digital File Protection

External hard drives and online storage are perfect for backing up all those vacation shots, your wedding album and imperative side-business files. Hard drives are easy to find online, and they’ll run you about $82 for one with worthwhile storage capacity. Online storage pricing varies when it comes to options and personal preferences, but you can choose between services, such as Mozy, Dropbox or SugarSync. These cloud-storage providers charge a monthly fee but give discounts for yearly subscriptions. Expect to pay between $28.98 and $99.99 per year.

5. Online Classes

The most successful people will tell you learning never stops. As workforce trends continue to change, the need for specialized expertise grows. Devoting a few extra bucks to improving your knowledge is a practical expense. Maybe you want to become a better public speaker. Or pick up a new hobby to clear your head at night. And maybe you’ve heard tech gurus ramble about an increasing demand for coding professionals. Buy books, go online and enroll in a course. Do whatever you can to set yourself up for future success.

6. A Commuter Bike

Why spend what you could save? One of the smartest purchases you can make with $400 or less is a commuter bike. When considering what you’d also pay for gas, maintenance and car insurance, a commuter bike will pay for itself. There are definitely good, better and best when it comes to bikes, but you could find a quality road bike for around $300.

7. An Emergency Fund

It’s never a bad idea to start establishing an emergency fund. Experts say three months’ worth of expenses is a reasonable amount of cash to stash away just in case. A good trick is to make your savings automatic. Once you’re unable to see your money coming in, it’s easier to get by without it and find ways to work with what you have. Then, when you break your arm doing back flips off a boat or blow a radiator in your car, it’s covered.

8. Retirement Savings

Expanding on the previous point, try to accumulate as much wealth as you can for early retirement. Consider creating a moderately aggressive investment plan by opening IRAs, 401K accounts, brokerage accounts, etc. Take advantage of your employer opportunities and set up automatic contributions to your company’s 401K plan. Start at a respectable 3% contribution, and gradually increase it until you get to at least 10%. When in doubt, seek a fiduciary financial planner.

9. Solid Clothing

Some of us find it absolutely insane to buy a pair of jeans that cost more than $39.99. However, quality clothing items, such as boots and winter coats, hold up over time. And the money you shell out is worth it later. Reddit’s Buy It for Life adheres to this philosophy. This subreddit aims to “emphasize products that are durable, practical, proven and made to last.” It might seem insane to pay $219 for insulated L.L. Bean Duck Boots, but you’ll be grateful when they’re still keeping your toes warm and dry 10 years later.

10. A Coffee Maker

Does life really exist without coffee? Another smart purchase is to invest in a solid coffee maker. If you fancy those specialty drinks, you could buy a combination machine from DeLonghi for $162 on Amazon. Considering the price of specialty drinks from coffee shops — and our dependency on caffeine — this is a purchase that will pay for itself in a matter of weeks.

11. Various Fitness Programs

There’s no safer bet than to invest in your health. Health equals wealth, right? Whether you buy a treadmill for $399.99 or invest in various meal prep services popular for those always on the go, they’re all worthwhile expenses.

Depending on your employer, you might also be eligible to receive reimbursements for health-related expenses, such as gym memberships, fitness classes or playing in sports leagues. While you’re at it, look into other reimbursement programs you might be eligible for, such as cellphone plans, moving costs or professional-development classes.

This article originally appeared on The Cheat Sheet.  

Image: kovaciclea

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This Common Mistake Can Kill Your Mortgage

If you're thinking about buying a home, you'll want to avoid this common mortgage mistake.

In order to qualify for a mortgage, you need to show your lender that you have a down payment and access to funds for closing. This money needs to come from documentable sources prior to moving it from your bank account to your escrow account. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do this, which can end up creating unnecessary challenges during the underwriting process.

Lenders are going to require at least 60 days of asset documentation from each source that your money comes from. This is required because your mortgage lender will need to verify that the money promised does exist and is eligible for use.

Let’s say you’ve put your money into escrow and, as requested, are doing your best to document the movement of money from the account going to escrow. This entails providing a bank statement specifically showing the money leaving your account and the money being accepted by escrow through an EMD (earnest money deposit).

If you can’t get a bank statement, though — say it’s the middle of the month and new statements are not out yet — the next best thing is to get a bank printout confirming the transaction and confirming the amount of money remaining in the account. (There are literally dozens of other things you also should be thinking about during the home buying process. Here are 50 ways you can get ready for buying your home.)

How a Bank Printout Can Help You Close

The bank printout must show the date of the transaction and the current timestamp of the printout, confirming that the money has been moved prior to the printout date. If the bank printout does not have this information, it will automatically halt the closing process of your loan and delay your loan contingency removal or extend your close of escrow date.

This method can be used for both your down payment and funds for cash to close. This is to provide authenticity for your account and to show clearly on paper that the account is yours and the money is yours to use. Banks and lenders require this information to be clear cut and “in your face.” Never assume that “common sense” will be enough.

Documents & Other Items You’ll Want to Avoid

Providing any of the following items in lieu of the bank printout will not work:

  • A bank statement with someone else’s name on it
  • Bank statement in trust
  • Pictures of bank statements taken from a smartphone or snapshot application
  • Bank printout with no timestamp and date

In addition, the bank printout and timestamp must show the remaining balance that is left in your account. For example, if you had $130,000 in assets and your down payment from this account was $50,000, your account statement should now show $80,000 remaining.

If you are looking to purchase a home, talk to a seasoned loan professional who can walk you through properly documenting the money required to buy your home. Also, take a few minutes to check your credit scores so you’ll know going in what kinds of terms you’re eligible for. You can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, at Credit.com.

Image: GlobalStock

 

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