6 Hotels Worth Visiting Just for the Shops

Here are six excellent shops worth a stop on your travels, including one based on a children's book.

Today’s gift shop hawks more than cheap toothpaste and forgettable postcards. Thanks to boutique hotels and upscale chains, everything from kimono robes to portable speakers are now up for grabs. We’ve rounded up six gift shops worth a stop on your travels, based on research and recommendations.

Hotel San José Store at Hotel San José, Austin, Texas

No trip to the live music capital would be complete without a South by Southwest onesie or a leather Baggu backpack roomy enough to fit your iPad Mini. You’ll find all this and more at the well-edited housewares shop — just make sure not to go over budget.

Madison Hall at Chicago Athletic Association, Chicago 

Take a trip back in time to the jazz-fueled 1930s, when Aesop skincare, Tatine candles and Monocle Magazine were all the rage. Oh wait, that’s today? Never mind, you’ll still find what you need — and don’t need — at this stylish extension of the Roman + Williams hotel.

Ballymaloe Shop at Ballymaloe House, Shangarry, Cork, Ireland 

Turns out Shangarry, once home of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, is a great place to stock up on bakeware. And kitchen utensils. And Irish cookbooks. After rolling out of bed from the Ballymaloe House next door, you can literally spend the day kitting out your kitchen in Celtic style. Who would blame you?

Drake General Store at The Drake, Toronto

Drake aptly bills itself as “a classic general store, a flea market stand and a museum shop all rolled into one,” where you’ll find practical and not-so-sensible gifts. Local goodies like Nicolas Vahe cake mix and Bata sneakers are tempting, but save your cash for the colorful Kreafunk headphones.

Eloise Shop at The Plaza, New York 

Little girls — and little girls at heart — will be delighted by The Plaza’s pink-and-black homage to its most famous resident. Cool your heels in the living room or stage an impromptu costume party in the fashion room. Either way, you’re sure to enjoy this glimpse into the world of author Kay Thompson’s heroine.

Thornwillow Press at The St. Regis, New York 

If your idea of a perfect weekend is thumbing through books in a wood-paneled library, hightail it to the “cognac room” off the St. Regis hotel’s lobby. There you’ll find the stately ambience of Thornwillow Press, where the selection of paper, ink and gilt are enough to make this writer’s eyes water. As you’d expect, all their printing is done at an old-fashioned factory.

Save on Your Next Trip 

Planning a trip to New York to visit Eloise? You should probably make a plan to save on your travels. Rewards cards are a great way to do it, and they can help you nab some freebies — hello, first class — if you swipe them wisely. Before you hit the tarmac, take time to check out our helpful roundups of the best airline miles cards and cards with no foreign transaction fees.

Remember, before you apply for any credit card, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re likely to qualify. You can do that right here on Credit.com, where you’ll get two of your credit scores for free.

Image: Eva-Katalin

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What Airbnb’s Hotel Tax Means for Guests & Hosts

Here's what to expect, how to avoid problems and how to keep the tax man happy.

The summer travel season is nearly upon us and if you’re a fan of staying with Airbnb hosts instead of hotels, you probably already know some locations charge some or all of the same taxes that hotels charge.

If you don’t already know that, surprise! The number of locations charging taxes for that spare room or whole house is only growing. Beginning May 1, Texas will join 30 other states where taxes are charged at either the local or state level or a combination of both.

Clearly, there’s a financial benefit for the communities levying these taxes. The Dallas Morning News estimates Airbnb would’ve remitted an estimated $8 million in Texas state taxes in 2016. However, it’s not the states and cities that initiated the effort. For that, you can thank the hotel industry, which has been lobbying hard for the taxes.

Why?

“Airbnb has brought hotel pricing down in many places during holidays, conventions and other big events when room rates should be at their highest and the industry generates a significant portion of its profits,” Vijay Dandapani, chief executive of the Hotel Association of New York City, told The New York Times in a recent article.

While Airbnb has said on its website it is happy to collect its fair share of taxes, there’s clearly some negative feelings about how it’s all gone down.

“The hotel hypocrisy is almost unbelievable,” Nick Papas, a spokesman for Airbnb, said in an email. “The hotel cartel wanted Airbnb to collect taxes and when we implemented a way to do so, they changed their position and lobbied cities to leave millions of dollars on the table.”

The continuing fight has led to a variety of tax schemes across states and municipalities, creating a confusing landscape for hosts and guests.

What It Means for Airbnb Hosts & Guests

For Hosts

If you’re considering becoming a host, be aware that the taxes present some confusion for some people renting out their spaces.

The reasons are numerous and varied. To start, no one really likes paying taxes. But additional layers of frustration can come with the Airbnb taxes. They can be levied and remitted in different ways depending on the tax laws in particular states or municipalities and Airbnb’s agreement with those entities. Then there are the host’s options of how to charge guests once taxes are implemented. Many hosts get confused when it comes to collecting the tax, where to note it on the listing and the bookkeeping process.

Jeff Cook, who owns several properties in Pennsylvania, said sales and use taxes were already in place when he started hosting with Airbnb several years ago. “The biggest issue here is that many people weren’t paying it simply because they didn’t think they had to,” he said. “I paid it from the get-go, because I wanted my business to be legitimate.”

But it wasn’t easy. Cook’s price for guests bakes in the 6% state and 3% local tax, so he doesn’t note it on his site and doesn’t have to worry about asking for local taxes when guests arrive. His revenue is submitted to Airbnb, but then it gets a little complicated.

Airbnb removes their 9% fee and sends him the remainder, he said. “And then I have to figure out what the tax amounts are independently. If something could be done better … perhaps if they distinguished between the tax and the regular revenue that would be helpful. The lump sum is sent to me, I figure out what the correct tax amounts are, and then I submit a return and payment to the appropriate authorities.”

Laura Jesse, a host in San Antonio, said she’s ambivalent about the tax that begins in Texas next week. “I live near projects that were funded in part with the [state’s occupancy] tax,” she said. “I get a fair amount of convention business as I live near downtown, etc.”

As for raising her rates to offset the taxes, Jesse said she has no plans to do so at this time.

Of course, taxes aren’t the only costs Airbnb hosts face. Check out a few others. But the spare money can still help you do things like pay off debt (you can see how your debt affects your credit with a credit report snapshot on Credit.com). It’s also good to keep in mind that many of the expenses involved with renting out your space are tax-deductible. See which ones you can write off here.

For Guests

Taxes mean your stays are probably costing more – anywhere from 3% to 15% depending on locale and host. On top of that, the process can become confusing depending on how the host applies those taxes to your bill.

Airbnb addresses how that can be done on its Airbnb Citizen site, but there are no clear-cut guidelines available, so many hosts are left scratching their heads and conferring with other hosts on how they alert guests and even charge them.

Airbnb offers guidance thusly:

“If you determine that you need to collect tax, you can usually either add it within a Special Offer or ask your guests to pay it in person. In each case, it’s important that guests are informed of the exact tax amount prior to booking. If you choose to collect tax outside of your listing’s rates, please note that it should be collected only upon arrival and that we are unable to assist with collection.”

So, if your host suddenly asks you to hand over a little cash to cover the taxes, it’s probably not a scam. As Airbnb explains on its site, “this needs to be clearly stated on the listing prior to booking.” So, if the host can’t show you where that’s stated, you should be wary.

Hopefully, however, most hosts will bake in the taxes like Cook does, and you will see only a price increase at your favorite Airbnb homes. (Travel often? These travel rewards credit cards could be right for you.)

“I think separating taxes as a line item [on guest bills] would help clarify the issue for people,” Cook said. “I’m a big supporter of Airbnb. I think they are an awesome company, and as they evolve and grow, distinguishing tax through line items would be beneficial to everyone.”

Image: PeopleImages

The post What Airbnb’s Hotel Tax Means for Guests & Hosts appeared first on Credit.com.

What Happens to Loans When We Die?

You may not have to pay loans after you pass away, but that doesn’t mean they disappear into thin air. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer as to what happens to your loans when you die, but there are many factors that can affect them. Where you live, the types of loans you have, as well as who applied for them can determine what happens.

While it’s not fun to think about your eventual demise, it’s necessary to know if your debt could be passed onto another person.

Gathering Up Loans

When you pass on, your executor will notify creditors, hopefully as soon as possible. Whatever known creditors you have, the executor will notify them and forward a copy of your death certificate and request that they update their files. He or she will also notify the three major credit reporting agencies to notify them that you are no longer alive, which will help prevent identity theft. As well, the executor will then get a copy of your credit report to figure out what debts are outstanding.

When that is completed, the executor will go through probate, which means that your estate goes through a process of paying off bills and dividing what’s left to the state or whoever you named in your will.

When Someone May Be Responsible for Paying Back Your Loans

Simply put, your loans are the responsibility of your estate, which means everything that you owned up until your death. Whoever is responsible for dealing with your estate (usually your executor) will use those assets to pay off your debts. This could involve selling off property to get money to pay it off or writing checks to do so. The rest of it then will distributed according to the wishes in your will. If there isn’t enough money to pay off the debtors, then they’re usually out of luck.

However, this isn’t always the case. If you co-signed a loan or have joint accounts (like credit cards), then the account holders may be fully responsible to pay off the whole debt, no matter who incurred it.

If you live in a community property state, then your spouse could be responsible for paying off your loans. If you have property in Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin, your spouse may have to pay back half of any community property from a marriage. This doesn’t include any loans you have that came before the marriage. However, Alaska only holds a spouse responsible if they enter into a community property agreement. All states have different rules, so it’s best to check what will apply to your situation.

There is also the “filial responsibility” law that could hold your adult children responsible for paying back loans that are related to medical or long-term care. The same works in reverse. Currently, there are around 30 states that enforce this law, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Some enforce this law pretty strictly, so it’s best to check with your state to see what could happen.

For more details on the different types of loans, read on to find out about what could happen to each when you pass on.

Credit Card Debt

If the credit card debt was yours and yours alone, then your estate is responsible for paying off the debt. Depending on which state you live in, creditors may only have a limited time to file a claim after you have died. If your estate goes through probate, then the executor will look at your assets and debts and determine which bills should be paid first, according to the law.

If there isn’t money left when it comes time to pay off your credit cards, those companies unfortunately have to call it a loss. Credit card companies cannot legally force family, friends, or heirs to pay back your debt unless you live in a community property state. In that case, your surviving spouse may be liable.

However, if the credit card is joint, the other account holder is responsible for it. That means if a family member or business partner signed the card application as a joint account owner, then he or she will need to help pay back the loan along with your estate. However, if your partner is just an authorized user (meaning he or she didn’t sign the application), then they’re not held responsible.

Mortgages and Home Equity Loans

There are several options for dealing with an outstanding mortgage after you have passed away. Due to the complexity of these options, it may be worth speaking with a local estate attorney.

If you are the sole owner and your mortgage has a due-on-sale clause, your lender may try to collect the entire balance of the loan or foreclose on the property. However, the CFPB has expanded protection for heirs who have inherited a home. The transfer of property after your death won’t trigger the Bureau’s ability-to-repay rule, making it easier for your heirs to pay off your loan or refinance.

In contrast, a home equity loan against your home is different. A lender may have the right to force someone who inherits the home to pay back the loan right away. Some lenders may work with your heirs to take over the payments or work out a plan, but you shouldn’t assume that will be the case. In a worst-case scenario, your heirs may have to sell your property to pay back your home equity loan.

Car Loans

Car loans are similar to the other types of debt we have discussed. The steps for handling this type of debt will depend on whose name is on the loan and where you live. If your heirs or co-signer are willing to take over your payments, the lender won’t need to take any action. However, the lender can repossess the car if the loan isn’t paid back.

Student Loans

If you have federal student loans, these will be discharged when you die. It will not be passed onto anyone else. If you were a student recipient of Parent PLUS loans, you’re also eligible for a death discharge. These loans will not be the responsibility of your estate. Your executor simply has to present an original death certificate or certified copy of your death certificate to your loan servicer.

However, if you and your spouse co-signed Parent PLUS loans on behalf of a student, your spouse will still be responsible for the balance.

Some private lenders may also offer a death discharge if you don’t have a co-signer. However, these policies vary by institution. You should review the terms of your loan for the specifics. Wells Fargo is an example of a company that may allow student loan forgiveness in the case of death.

However, if your private loan has a co-signer, your co-signer may be legally responsible to pay back your debts. Some companies may ask for the balance immediately. Also, if you live in a community property state, your spouse may be held responsible for your student loans if the debt was acquired during the marriage.

Medical Bills

If you have outstanding medical bills, nursing home bills, or any expense related to your long-term care, your spouse or family members may be responsible for paying it back per your state’s filial responsibility laws.

Your children could be held responsible for your medical bills if the following scenarios are true:

  • You receive care in a state with a filial responsibility law.
  • You don’t qualify for Medicaid while receiving care.
  • You can’t afford your bills, but your children can.
  • Your caregiver sues your children to collect on your unpaid bills.

Final Thoughts

The last thing your family members want to think about after you have died is outstanding loans. This is why it is essential to get organized in advance. It may be worth speaking with a financial planner regarding the specifics of your individual situation. They can help you review which options could best protect your heirs from your unpaid debt. Once you have passed away, your heirs should seek assistance from a qualified estate attorney.

The post What Happens to Loans When We Die? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Why Even Full-Time Workers Struggle With Expenses

A new book based on extensive research of U.S. households says income instability is to blame.

Unemployment is low, inflation is historically low and even wages are perking up, leading many observers to believe the U.S. economy is humming along nicely. So why do many Americans say they are struggling?

A new book born of meticulous, years-long research offers a fresh insight into this burning question. Month-to-month swings in income, even for those with full-time jobs, are often the cause of Americans” financial anxiety, claim the authors of “The Financial Diaries: How Americans Cope in a World of Uncertainty.”

For a stunning number of American households, both income and expenses swing 25% or more in either direction on a regular basis, leaving many families scrambling on a month-to-month basis, even if things don’t look so bad annually, the authors argue in their book and a Harvard Business Reviews essay.

Economic data tends to examine broad movements; even at its most micro, it tends to identify years-long trends. Researchers Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider had a sense government statistics were missing things, so they went nano. They spent 12 months getting 235 families to track every single dollar going in and out — 300,000 cash flow events in all. The product of their painstaking research offers perhaps the clearest view yet of why even middle-class Americans find themselves living with deep economic anxiety. The book even offers up a new term — “precarity,” or precarious economic volatility — to describe the plight of everyday Americans.

One of the more bold claims made in the book: Despite all the talk about income inequality, the authors say income instability has risen even faster and is the more immediate problem.

What’s Income Instability? 

Many readers are familiar with the idea that unexpected expenses — like a health scare or major auto repair bill — can derail many households. But the book establishes another reality that might be new to many: income volatility, even among those with full-time jobs.

The book’s opening anecdote cites a research subject who works as a truck mechanic in Ohio. While he works full time, his pay relies largely on commissions and can vary from $1,800 to $3,400 each month. In bad weather, trucks break down more often. That means in the spring and fall months, mortgage payments aren’t made, and the electricity bill goes unpaid. Later, for a fee, the family catches up. (You can see how any missed loan payments may be affecting your credit scores by viewing your free credit report summary on Credit.com.)

This same problem is repeated again and again among the families studied. Morduch and Schneider found that the term “average income” is a bit of a farce, as typical families lived through five months each year with income that swings either 25% above or below “average.”

“This is creating a lot of anxiety and uncertainty that is impossible to see in the usual data,” Morduch said in an interview. About five months out of each year, incomes “weren’t even close” to average.

“Often we see the (financial) problems as a discipline problem, a failure of personal responsibility. What we’re trying to say is there’s something else going on,” he said. “The underlying conditions are really hard. It probably isn’t just about self-discipline.”

Income swings are to be expected among families suffering job loss, the self-employed or those who rely on tips, like waiters. But the researchers found a stunning rate of income volatility even among those with traditional-sounding full-time jobs.

“This was the single biggest surprise (in the research),” Morduch said. “There’s insecurity that’s because you are going to lose your job, but that’s not what’s driving anxiety for these folks … What we see is that when paychecks bounce from month to month, people can be making good financial choices but are still struggling.”

As a result, even earners who are safely in the middle class spent a month or two living as poor or “near poor,” the book says. The problem for many is better described as a lack of liquidity — getting enough cash to pay the mortgage this month — than as insolvency, or a hopeless difference between income and expenses.

“Not balancing on a high wire, driving on a rocky road,” the book says. “(There’s a) distinction between not having money at the right time vs. never having the money.”

While economists might just be becoming aware of this month-to-month struggle, the financial industry has known about it for some time. That’s one reason there are more payday lending storefronts in America than McDonald’s restaurants. (You can find tips for escaping payday loan debt here.)

Trouble Saving for a Rainy Day

The volatility problem is closely related to Americans’ lack of emergency savings. Study after study shows a large percentage of Americans don’t have the recommended three months of living expenses stored in short-term savings. Some studies show even more dire data. A stunning 46% of Americans told the Federal Reserve in 2015 they could not cover an emergency $400 expense without selling something or borrowing the money. Income and expense volatility, combined with no savings, is a perilous combination.

“Households don’t have a big cushion. Into this mix is the reality that levels of income have not risen – the bottom 50% has seen no income growth since 1980 — then you are really squeezed,” said Morduch. As a result, even in good months, earners don’t have any extra left over to build a rainy-day fund – economists say their budgets have no “slack.”

“There is a knock-on effect of diminished slack so when the budget gets hit by a car repair or the house needs a new roof, it’s just that much harder,” Murdoch said.

How did this income volatility come to pass? The authors blame what they call “the Great Job Shift.” Employers are increasingly sharing risk with their workers. That means cutting back hours, often on the spot, when times are slow. Or basing a large portion of pay on commission, as in the case of the truck mechanic. In other cases, workers rely on tipping to top-up wages that otherwise aren’t livable. In one of the book’s more frustrating scenes, as casino blackjack dealer in Mississippi describes how her income relies on events as whimsical as the nearby college football team schedule.

The subjects in the book are anonymized. Their names changes and a few other personally identifiable data points have been obscured, but otherwise, their financial diaries are disturbingly real.

How Do We Fix it? 

When asked for policy recommendations, Morduch leaps to the defense of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which he says is working hard to regulate many of the short-term lending products that have emerged to services workers with volatile incomes. He says there’s also been constructive conversations with large firms about making hourly wage worker schedules more predictable, and moving away from so-called on-call workers. The “Schedules That Work Act” that would have promised some workers two-weeks scheduling notices was considered but tabled by Congress under President Barack Obama.

Other changes would help, too. Many social benefits programs are cumbersome to apply for and don’t offer much help for families who are only occasionally “near poor,” and might need help one or two months per year.

Changes that could encourage saving for short-term events would help, too. Tax-advantaged products like 401K accounts help families plan for decades in the future, but families living on the margins are afraid to use them for emergency savings because of the severe early withdrawal penalties. (You can learn more about withdrawing from your 401K here.) More flexible rules would encourage greater use of retirement accounts, Morduch believes.

“A lot of Americans wisely don’t want to lock up their money,” he said. “There isn’t enough attention paid to shorter-term policies.”

In a larger sense, Americans should probably change the way they think about income and spending, Morduch said, and many could learn from research subjects described in the book.

“The families we got to know, they think a lot about liquidity. They have a lot to tell other Americans. Mainly, prepare for a life of ups and downs,” he said.

If you’re looking for ways to keep your finances in check, we’ve got a full 50 ways you can curb and stay out of debt here

Image: lovro77

The post Why Even Full-Time Workers Struggle With Expenses appeared first on Credit.com.

50 Free Things You Can Get This Year

You want some free stuff? Come and get it!

What’s that you say? You like free things? Well, you’re in luck. We’ve rounded up 50 of our favorite things that you can get absolutely free. A few are tied to specific dates and age groups, but for the most part, everything here is free (at least as of press time) for the taking whenever you want it.

So, without further ado, here are 50 things that are totally free and totally awesome that you can get right now or anytime this year.

1. Free Chocolate

We wanted to start this list off right, so, yes, free chocolate. Join the Godiva Rewards Club and you will be eligible for a free piece of chocolate. Every. Single. Month.

2. Free Food at Grocery Stores

Take advantage of the free samples at your local grocer to not only get a free meal while you shop, but to also become familiar with new products. Most stores bring in sample tables during their busiest times – usually on weekends. So skip lunch and head to the grocery store. And check out other things grocery stores will do for you for free right here.

3. Free Food at Restaurants

Lots of restaurants and other food retailers have an annual freebie day. Think free pancakes from IHOP on National Pancake Day, a free doughnut from Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme and others on National Doughnut Day and even a free Slurpee from 7-Eleven on July 11 (that’s 7/11 if you missed it.)

4. Free Kid Meals

A lot of restaurants, especially chains, offer free or close-to-free kids meals. For a list of restaurants in your area, type “kids eat free” into your search engine.

5. Free Admission to National Parks

Throughout the year certain national parks do not charge entry fees. But each year there are free admission days to all of the national parks. You can check out the free-admission schedule here.

6. Free Admission to Museums & Cultural Events

Washington, D.C., is filled with free art and cultural events thanks to government funding. Head to the Smithsonian American Art Museum or the Phillips Collection and admission will be free. The monuments? Free. National Portrait Gallery? National Air and Space Museum? Free, free, free.

7. Free Credit Scores

Knowing where your credit stands and the impact your financial actions have on your them is important. You can get two absolutely free credit scores right here on Credit.com.

8. Free Credit Reports

Like your credit score, it’s important to keep track of your credit reports as well. They can affect your interest and insurance rates, as well as your ability to land a job or apartment, so it pays to make sure they’re accurate. You can get your free credit reports from all three credit bureaus every year at AnnualCreditReport.com.

9. Free Books

You can download digital copies of thousands of books at Gutenberg.org or the University of Pennsylvania online books page, and you won’t pay a penny to do so. That’s because the copyrights on these books have expired, so they’ve entered the public domain. Some of these books also are available for free through online retailers like Amazon.com and iTunes.com.

10. Free Audiobooks

Likewise, LibriVox.org offers public domain audiobooks for free for anyone to listen to, on their computers, iPods or other mobile devices or to burn onto a CD. And if you’d like to record a reading of one of the books for others to listen to, LibriVox is always looking for volunteers.

11. Free Music, for Listening …

You probably already know you can listen to as much free music as you like (with advertisements, of course) with apps like Pandora and Spotify, but it’s worth mentioning because they’re FREE.

12. … & for Creative Use

The Free Music Archive is an interactive library of audio downloads provided by WFMU. Inspired by Creative Commons and the open source software movement, the FMA provides a legal and technological framework for curators, artists and listeners to harness the potential of music sharing. Each MP3 has varying copyright laws, so you’ll need to check out each rights holders terms of use, but there’s a lot of amazing music to be had.

13. Free Coding Classes

Whether you’re looking at a career change or just self-edification, if you’ve ever wanted to learn to code, FreeCodeCamp.com is offering you the chance to do so.

14. Free Design Content

Are you a photographer, designer or other creative looking for free fonts, software add-ons and graphic elements for your projects? Creative Market offers a rotating basket of freebies each week available for your creative endeavors.

15. Free Font Help

Ever wonder what font is being used for that logo or sign? If so, What the Font can help. You can upload the logo and in a few simple steps, this app will show you a list of possible fonts.

16. Free Online Fundraising

If you’re looking to finance your product or startup and are considering crowdsourcing the funds but want to keep 100% of the money you raise, you might want to check out Redbasket, the crowdsourcing site that charges no fees and doesn’t take a cut of your donations.

17. Free Credit Calculators

These interactive calculators can help you prepare for everything from getting an auto or home loan to planning for retirement and setting savings goals. Our calculators provide instant results with no need to fill out complicated forms.

18. Free Credit Consultation

If you need help getting your credit back on track, or getting rid of some errors on your credit reports, a credit consultation might be just the thing. You can get a free credit consultation at Lexington Law. (Full Disclosure: Lexington Law is a Credit.com partner.) You can learn more about disputing errors on your credit report here.

19. Free Credit Card Perks

If you have a credit card, you may want to take a look at your cardholder agreement to ensure you’re getting the most value out of your card that you can. Many cards offer perks like rental car insurance coverage, extended warranties on purchases made with the card and other valuable offers. If your card doesn’t offer these things, you might want to comparison shop some other credit cards.

20. Free Hotel Stays

Want free hotel stays? One of the fastest ways to get them is by using a hotel rewards credit card. Here’s a roundup of some of the our favorite hotel rewards credit cards. If that’s not your thing, you could always join a hotel loyalty program and earn points that will ultimately earn you free stays. (It’s faster with the credit card, though.)

21. Free Flights

Same goes for airlines. An airline miles credit card is your fastest route to earning free airline travel, but you can also join your preferred carrier’s rewards program to earn points. Doing both, however, is the fastest way to rack up points.

22. Free Carry-On Luggage

Tired of paying to take your bag on the plane with you? Consider flying with Southwest Airlines, which allows two free carry-on bags per customer, or with JetBlue, which allows one free carry-on.

23. Free Tour Guides

Want to see your next travel destination through the eyes of a local? And not pay for it? Well, you’re in luck. Global Greeter Network’s vetted volunteers can show you the area for free with a strict no-tips-allowed policy. They can show you the sites they love or plan an excursion centered around things you want to see and do.

24. Free Travel Planning

Have a road trip in your near future? You’ll want to check out Roadtrippers before you put on your driving gloves. Just tell them your starting point and destination, and the site will provide information on must-see attractions and budget-friendly accommodations along the way.

25. Free Tax Preparation

If you need help preparing your income taxes, check out the IRS’s Free File program. You’ll qualify for free tax preparation software if your adjusted gross income is $64,000 or less. And if you made less than $54,000 last year, you could qualify for tax help through the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Want to know more? Check out our ultimate guide to filing your taxes for free here.

26. Free Financial Tools

Want to track your net worth, plan for your retirement and even analyze your portfolio? All in one place? And all for free? Personal Capital has the tools to let you do that. As they say on their website, “Our free financial tools make it easy to manage your entire financial life in one place.”

27. Free Oil & Battery Recycling

If you change your oil yourself, you know it can be a hassle to dispose of the oil you’ve drained from your car. Advance Auto Parts makes it easy. And free. For your used battery as well.

28. Free Mulch & Compost

Many municipalities offer free mulch and compost for home gardeners. Contact your city’s parks and recreation department to see what options are available.

29. Free Pest Inspection

Got bugs? Terminix will do a free pest inspection of your home, as well as a termite inspection. Be sure to ask about any available discounts if you decide to go with their recommended treatment plan.

30. Free Package Pickup

Need to ship a package but don’t have time or transportation to get to the post office? A postal carrier will pick up your package for you, free of charge. You’ll still have to pay for the shipping, but at least you don’t have to stand in line at the post office.

31. Free College Tuition

It’s a growing movement in the United States, with New York being the latest state to offer free tuition to state universities. Check out what options are available to you through your state’s education department or by using a tool like Get Schooled’s free tuition finder.

32. Free Career Training

The Student Career Experience Program is a paid student program that lets participants get work experience directly related to their academic field of study. According to Benefits.gov, “it provides formal periods of work and study while you are attending school. It requires a commitment by you, your school, and the U.S. Department of Commerce. You may be eligible for permanent employment after successfully completing your education and meeting work requirements.”

33. Free Assistance for Starting a Small Business

The Small Business Administration offers numerous resources to help you learn about what it takes to start a business and keep it growing.

34. Free Pet Care

If you’re having trouble affording your pet, whether feeding or medical care, the Humane Society has a list of resources that can help. Some even offer services free of charge.

35. Free Pet Safety Stickers

If your home is ever on fire or there is some other life-threatening situation, these stickers from the ASPCA will let neighbors and rescue workers know that your furry loved ones are in the house so they can take appropriate action.

36. Free Digital Estate Planning

You’re going to die someday. We all will, so might as well prepare for the inevitable. Dead Man’s Switch lets you create a secure email that will be sent out to your designated family and/or friends so you can make sure they have all of your important information, like usernames, passwords, bank account and other details. How does it work? The company sends you periodic messages asking if you’re still alive. If you someday don’t respond, it activates your email.

37. Free Price Checking

Ever wonder if you’re really saving on that Amazon purchase, but don’t feel like driving all the way to the store just to see? Services like Honey or CamelCamelCamel can help you compare prices quickly to ensure you’re getting the very best deal.

38. Free Broadband Speed Test

If you’re experiencing some slowness on your computer you may want to check to see just how fast your connection is. You can do that for free using the broadband speed test at Speedtest.net.

39. Free Samples

Want to try some new products, or get teeny-tiny tubes you can travel with? You can get everything from toothpaste and shampoo to mouthwash and more by visiting blogs and sites that compile free offers. Some to consider are Hey, It’s Free!, Mr. Free Stuff and FreeStuffFinder.com.

There’s also a Freebies Subreddit that does much the same thing for all Redditors out there in search of free stuff.

40. Free Used Items

In need of some wooden pallets? Maybe a garden rake or a lamp that needs to be rewired? Craigslist has a “Free Stuff” category that lets people post their unwanted items that are free for the taking. Check out the listings in your area.

41. Free Beauty Kit

If you like makeup, you probably like Sephora. And if you become a “Beauty Insider” you’ll have your choice of a free beauty gift each year.

42. Free Hearing Test

AARP members (only people age 50 or older are eligible for membership) can get a free hearing test over the phone. Membership to AARP is $16 per year and comes with multiple other benefits and discounts that more than pay for the membership costs.

43. Free Phone for Hearing Impaired

This service, funded by the Federal Communications Commission, gives free phones to people who have medically recognized hearing loss. Users are able to read what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Learn more at CaptionCall.com.

44. Free Prescription Drugs

Some supermarket pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies offer generic drugs for free to low-income patients without prescription drug insurance. Contact your pharmacy or search the RxAssist database to find free medication through drug companies’ patient assistance programs.

45. Residential Repair Services

Seniors needing minor work done around their house can reach out to their local government offices for the aging to see what services might be available. Keep in mind that the labor through these programs is offered for free but all necessary supplies will need to be paid for by the resident.

46. Free Baby Supplies

Babies are expensive, but lots of companies offer assistance for families who need a little help. Need formula? Similac offers free infant formula samples. You also can sign up with diaper manufacturers like Pampers to get free samples.

47. Free Birthday Treats

There are literally hundreds of restaurants and retailers that give away free birthday goodies, especially for loyalty club members. Offerings include everything from free desserts and surprise gifts to full meals, all for free. Check out your favorite company’s website to see what’s available.

48. Free Shipping

If you’re still paying for shipping on purchases, well, why? There are dozens of retailers that offer free shipping on all items year ‘round.

49. Free Uber Rides

Next time you need a ride, first check for the latest promo codes to see if any of them will offer you a sweet deal on getting to your destination. Groupon and other online coupon sites also offer deeply discounted fares when you buy in advance.

50. Free Wedding Swag

Planning a wedding? Check out sites like WeddingVibe, which offers giveaways for all sorts of free stuff for your wedding. From photo sessions for you and your spouse-to-be to shopping sprees and more.

Taking advantage of free stuff is one way to stay on budget. We’ve got 50 more ways to stay out of debt right here

Note: It’s important to remember that terms and conditions on 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 providers directly.

 

Image: Eva-Katalin

The post 50 Free Things You Can Get This Year appeared first on Credit.com.

7 Credit Card Tips for Soon-to-Be College Grads

A credit card is one of the best ways to start building credit. Here's a plastic primer for soon-to-be college grads.

We get it, soon-to-be-grad, you’re busy. Finals need to be taken; dorm rooms need to be cleared out. Jobs need to be procured — as does your very first apartment. But amid all these big changes, you’ll also want to make time for some good old fashioned financial literacy. After all, money management is critical to your success in the so-called real world. And, believe it or not, having a credit card can help your overall financial health. Of course, that’s only if you use that little piece of plastic responsibly, so, to help you come out ahead, here are 7 credit card tips for soon-to-be college grads.

1. Get One

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of plastic. But a credit card is one of the best ways to start building credit — and you’ll need a solid credit score when it comes time to get an affordable auto loan, mortgage, insurance policy or more. If you don’t have a credit card already, you’ll probably need to look into secured credit cards, which require an upfront deposit that serves as your credit limit and are designed specifically for people with thin or bad credit. If you were using plastic while in school, you may be eligible for an unsecured card with better terms and conditions. Of course, that’ll come down to what your credit looks like already. (You can see where you stand by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

2. Pay Your Bills on Time …

The number one rule of credit cards? Pay your bills on-time each and every month. If you don’t, you’ll likely be hit with a late fee, face a penalty annual percentage rate (APR) and damage your credit — seriously. A first missed payment can cause a score to drop 100 points or more.

3. … & in Full Each Month

Or, at the very least, keep the total amount of debt you’re carrying on the card below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit limit. Any balance over that could hurt your credit utilization rate, which is the second most important factor among credit scores.

4. Monitor Your Statements

Do it even if you’ve signed up for auto-pay, because fraud, unfortunately, can occur at any time. Plus, you’ll want to be sure your balances aren’t burgeoning out of control. Check statements every day or at least once a week. Make small payments if those balances are starting to climb too high and be sure to report any suspicious activity your spot right away to your issuer.

5. Upgrade When You Can …

The better secured credit cards on the market (go here to check those out) usually provide cardholders with automatic reviews after 6 to 12 months of use that’ll determine whether they can get their deposit back and possibly receive a credit limit increase. Make a note of when you’ll be eligible for that type of upgrade and keep an eye on your credit as you use your card. You may be able to build a score solid enough to qualify for not just an unsecured credit card but a rewards or low-interest piece of plastic.

6.  … But Resist the Urge to Churn

Be prepared to encounter big signup bonuses as you shop around for new plastic. (Example: Earn $150 when you spend $3,000 or more in your first three months as an accountholder.) But refrain from applying for every offer you see. Yes, an extra $150 or a boatload of bonus miles are nice, but too many new credit inquiries (which are generated each time you fill out a credit card application) can damage your credit score and make it harder to qualify for important financing down the line.

7. Know When to Stop Charging

If your spending starts to get out of control, put your card on ice. Literally, if you have to. (That’s actually a better bet than formally closing the card, which can hurt your credit score, though you can do that, too, if absolutely necessary.) Next, come up with a plan to pay down those debts. Rework your budget to come up with some extra dollars you can put toward your balance and, if you’re carrying debt on multiple cards, prioritize payments. Make the minimum payment on all your cards but put the most money toward the balance with the highest APR (which can lower the total cost of your debt.) Alternately, you can pay off the smallest balance first, which could keep you motivated as you work to get back into the black. You can find more strategies for paying down credit card debt right here.

Looking to do some more financial planning pre-diploma? We’ve got 50 money moves you should make before graduation

Image: pixelfit

The post 7 Credit Card Tips for Soon-to-Be College Grads appeared first on Credit.com.

What To Do if Your Insurance Doesn’t Cover a Health Care Provider

Smiling senior man having measured blood pressure

It’s a pretty common scenario: you’re looking to book a medical appointment, so you go to your insurance company’s website to find an in-network doctor. You book the appointment, see the doctor, and all seems well — until you get a whopping bill. Apparently, that doctor wasn’t in your network after all, and now you’re faced with out-of-network charges.

This happens more often than we think. Unfortunately, insurance company websites are notoriously fallible. Not only that, but they change so frequently that it can be difficult to nail down just who is and isn’t covered. At some point or another, just about everyone will have to deal with a situation where their insurance doesn’t cover a provider.

It’s easy to feel duped in this scenario. Navigating the ins and outs of insurance is hard enough, but there’s nothing more frustrating than being fed incorrect information.

So what should you do?

What to Do If You’ve Already Gotten the Bill

Call the doctor

Doctors don’t usually consider themselves responsible for significant out-of-pocket costs resulting from a lack of research on the part of the patient.

But if you asked the doctor or their representative about insurance coverage beforehand, you should contact them immediately if that information ends up being false. Many physicians will honor the price they initially told you or at least give a hefty discount. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t get back to you right away. Keep calling to see if you can get a lower price.

Negotiate and ask for a better rate

Most doctors have two different rates: one for insurance companies and one for self-pay individuals. If your doctor’s visit isn’t going to be covered by your insurance, call the doctor’s billing department to ask for the self-pay cost.

“Most physician offices will accept a lesser amount, especially if they know the service is not going toward a deductible,” said health insurance agent Natalie Cooper of Best Quote Insurance of Ohio.

Ask about a payment plan if you can’t afford to pay the bill in one go. Most medical offices would rather get the money a little bit at a time than not at all.

“Most physician and hospital groups will accept a small payment of $25 or $50 per month until it’s paid off,” Cooper said.

Use a health savings account

If you’re struggling to pay a medical bill out of pocket, see if you can open an HSA and use those funds to pay for it. If you owe $2,000, you can transfer $2,000 to an HSA and then pay the doctor directly from that account.

What’s the benefit? HSA contributions are deductible on your taxes. Unfortunately, only people with high-deductible plans are eligible to start an HSA. Individuals can only contribute up to $3,400 a year or $6,750 in an HSA. You can start an HSA anytime if you have an eligible healthcare plan.

The IRS says you can only use your HSA to pay for qualified medical expenses, a list of which you can find here. Funds in an HSA roll over from year to year, and you can contribute up to $3,400 annually or $6,750 for families.

You can also open a Flex Spending Account, which works similarly to an HSA. However, funds don’t roll over to the next year and users can only contribute $2,550 a year.

How to Prevent Out-of-Pocket Expenses

Ask beforehand

Many people use the insurance company’s website to find a doctor, but those lists are often out of date. Insurance information can even change daily. The only way to confirm a doctor’s status with an insurance company is to call them directly and ask if they’re a network provider — not just if they accept your insurance.

“When they are a network provider, they are contractually required to accept no more than the negotiated contracted rate as payment in full, which is usually less than the billed rate,” said human resources expert Laurie A. Brednich. “When they say they ‘accept xyz insurance,’ they are usually not a network provider, but will file the claims on your behalf, and you are responsible for the full billed charges.”

It can also be helpful to give them your insurance group and account numbers beforehand so there’s no question about your specific policy. The more specific you can be, the more accurately you’ll be able to navigate the insurance labyrinth.

Find out if all procedures and doctors are covered

Have you ever been to a doctor who’s recommended you see a specialist for a certain procedure — only to find out that the specialist isn’t covered by your insurance, even though they’re in the same building?

When a doctor recommends you to a colleague, they’re not confirming that the other physician is covered in-network. Before you make the appointment, talk to the billing department to see what their policies are. You can request an estimate in writing beforehand so you’ll have an idea of what the costs will be.

Some procedures might not be covered even if they’re being ordered by your in-network doctor. If your doctor sends your results to a lab, that lab might be out of network, even if your insurance covers the doctor who ordered them.

Confirm the lab’s status before you go in. If it’s too late, call your insurance and ask if they can bill the service as in-network. Cite the fact that you weren’t aware the lab would not be covered.

If they refuse, contact the doctor’s office and explain your situation. Ask them why they used an out-of-network provider and see if they’re willing to write off the bill. Be polite, but firm.

Ask the doctor to apply

When Julie Rains’ insurance changed to a preferred provider plan, she discovered her trusted doctor was now going to be out of network. Instead of searching for a replacement, she asked if her physician would apply to the insurance company to be covered by her new plan. He agreed.

It took almost two months for him to be accepted, Rains said. If you’re going this route, it’s best to start as soon as you find out your insurance company has changed policies. Rains said between the time she found out about the changes and when they went into effect, her doctor had already been approved.

You might have less luck with a doctor you’ve only been seeing for a short time, but most medical professionals take long-term patient relationships seriously — especially if your whole family goes to the same office. As always, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

The post What To Do if Your Insurance Doesn’t Cover a Health Care Provider appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

5 Ways to Catch Up on Retirement Savings

Whether you haven’t started or life got in the way and you needed to dip into your nest egg, don’t stress because it’s not too late to catch up!

Worried about your retirement nest egg? It’s normal for someone nearing retirement to question how much they have saved — and wonder if their savings will last. Whether you haven’t started or life got in the way and you dipped into your nest egg, don’t stress, because it’s not too late to catch up. Here are a few tips for topping up your retirement fund.

1. Maximize Contributions

If you have access to a company retirement plan, such as a 401K, consider contributing enough to capitalize on a company match. Losing out on a company match can mean missing extra money over the span of one’s working career. On top of taking advantage of the company match, you may want to consider maximizing your contributions. Increasing your contributions may seem intimidating, but putting away a little more each year can boost your nest egg when you factor in the effects of compound interest.

2. Invest Found Money

Of course, not everyone can contribute more to their retirement funds on a regular basis, which makes investing found money a great opportunity. If you’re lucky enough to come into some money, whether from a tax refund, a bonus or money from your wedding, consider directly depositing this money into your retirement account. This way it will never touch your hands or be spent on personal items. For example, if you’re getting by comfortably on your income and receive a bonus, you may want to deposit the difference to help you catch up on saving for retirement.

3. Open an IRA

If you do not have an individual retirement account, opening one can be a great vehicle for stashing away money. Used along with a company plan, a traditional or Roth IRA can mean more income in retirement when the day to hang up your hat finally comes. With both accounts, an individual can contribute up to $5,500 annually, and an extra $1,000 for those over 50. (The extra allowance can help those who are a bit older catch up on saving.) While both savings accounts offer tax incentives at different times, it’s important to understand these tax breaks, along with their income limits, before you decide which account to open.

4. Work Longer

While delaying your retirement may not sound appealing, it can mean more time to build up your retirement funds — and a shorter retirement for which to save. It can also mean delaying Social Security and receiving a bigger monthly check in the future. If you wish to continue working but want to take on fewer hours, consider picking up a part-time job or starting a side hustle. While this may affect your Social Security, it can also mean extra money in your pocket during retirement, less stress and more time to do what you want. Keep in mind, unless otherwise specified, there may be a required minimum retirement distribution, which requires you to withdraw money at a certain age.

5. Pay off Debts

While saving and maxing out your retirement fund is ideal, it will do you no good if you have high-interest debt that continues to build. (See how debt is affecting your finances with a free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.) Your debts can feel like chains tied to your ankles if you don’t get rid of them before you retire. You may want to continue saving for retirement as well, but consider paying down high-interest debt first. Taking debt into retirement can mean less money for your golden years. So if you’re nearing retirement and worried about debt, consider speaking to a debt attorney to see how they can help.

Image: Peopleimages

The post 5 Ways to Catch Up on Retirement Savings appeared first on Credit.com.

7 Effective Ways to Lower Your Student Loan Payments

Here are seven ways you can pay less on your student loans each month.

Nobody takes out student loans expecting to have trouble repaying them. But once the realities of post-college life set in, many borrowers do find that keeping up on payments is a struggle.

In fact, more Americans are burdened by student loan debt than ever, with a delinquency rate of 11.2%. And that doesn’t include many more who are barely keeping up.

Student loan payments can become unmanageable for a number of reasons: a job loss, pay cut, unexpected expense or simply too much student loan debt to begin with. If you’re struggling to make your payments, know that missing them can lead to disastrous consequences for your finances. (You can see how your student loans are affecting your credit by viewing two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)

Fortunately, there are several ways to get your payments lowered to a more manageable amount. Here are seven ways you can pay less on your student loans each month.

1. Income-Driven Repayment Plans

For federal student loans, income-driven repayment (IDR) plans can be a smart way to manage student loans. There are currently four IDR plans available for federal student loans:

  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
  • Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

Borrowers who enroll in income-driven repayment have their student loan payments lowered to a percentage of their income — 10 to 20%, depending on the plan. Payments can even be as low as $0 under IDR.

Some income-driven repayment plans also take local living costs into consideration when calculating the lower payment. This gives extra relief to payers in pricey cities.

Income-driven plans also offer student loan forgiveness on any remaining balance after 20 to 25 years of loan payments.

To enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, contact your federal student loan servicer. They can discuss your options with you and give you the correct forms to apply for IDR.

2. Student Loan Refinancing

If you have private student loans, one of the only ways to lower payments is to refinance.

By refinancing, you replace your old student loan(s) with a new one through a private student loan refinancing lender. This allows you to lower your monthly payments by getting a lower interest rate, extending the repayment period, or both.

For borrowers who have older federal loans with high interest rates (such as Grad or Parent PLUS loans), it can be worth it to refinance to lower interest rates. Keep in mind you will lose federal benefits, like access to IDR, if you refinance with a private lender. Extending the repayment period can also result in lower monthly payments, but might end up costing more in interest over time.

If you’re not sure if student loan refinancing could benefit you, shop around and get some rate estimates from private student loan companies. Most will perform a soft credit check to pre-qualify you, which won’t affect your credit. (You can learn more about soft credit checks here.)

3. Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs

Another option to manage student loan payments is to get help through a student loan repayment assistance program (LRAP). This is free help with your student loans. Many states, government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations offer student loan assistance, usually as a way to attract qualified employees.

This student loan repayment assistance tool can help you filter LRAPs by your occupation, state and type of assistance. It’s worth checking to see if you can get free help with your student loans.

4. Deferment or Forbearance

If you need a break from your student loan payments altogether, deferment and forbearance can help by pausing payments.

Deferment can be a good option for federal student loans. It can be granted for disability, unemployment, financial hardship, a return to college or military service. Subsidized student loans won’t accrue interest while in deferment.

Forbearance can also be granted to pause student loan payments. However, all student loans will continue to accrue interest while in forbearance.

With either option, make sure you understand how your loans will accrue interest. If necessary, consider making interest-only payments so your balance doesn’t grow to be bigger than when you started.

5. Graduated Repayment Plan

A graduated repayment plan can help set payments low to start with, then increase every two years (hopefully as your income also rises) over 10 years.

This can be a good fit if you can’t afford full student loan payments now — but you expect to be able to afford to pay more later. If you want to stick to paying student loans off in 10 years, a graduated repayment plan can help you do it.

6. Extended Repayment Plan

The standard student loan repayment schedule is 10 years. But if you stretch your student loan repayment out over more time, this will lower the amount you pay each month.

The extended repayment plan can help you do this by extending repayment to up to 25 years, with either fixed or graduated payments. You’ll need to have more than $30,000 in student loans to get on the extended repayment plan.

This can be a good option if you want to extend your repayment schedule to between 10 to 20 years. However, if you expect to be repaying student loans for 20 or more years, the forgiveness that comes with IDR plans could make those a better option. Again, extending the repayment period can also cost you more in interest over time, so consider this option carefully.

7. Consolidate Federal Student Loans

Federal student loan consolidation combines federal student loans into a single Direct Consolidation Loan. The new interest rate is a weighted average of the previous rates on your consolidated loans.

Consolidating also gives you the option to choose a repayment period of at least 10 years and up to 30 years, which can greatly lower your monthly payments. Some other repayment plans might also require you to consolidate federal student loans to make them eligible for participation.

Keep in mind that unlike refinancing, federal consolidation does not result in a lower interest rate or savings of any kind. It can, however, simplify the repayment process and help open up monthly cash flow with lower payments.

Getting Student Loans Under Control

There are several ways to manage both private and federal student loans. With these options to lower student loan payments, there’s no reason to keep struggling every month.

Remember, you owe it to yourself and your financial health to investigate your student debt repayment choices and move forward with the right one.

Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

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