12 Places Your Data May Not Be Safe (And What You Can Do)

Someone could be spying on you right now and you might not even know about it.

Data compromises and the identity-related crimes that flow from them are now the third certainty in life, right behind death and taxes. That said, there is plenty you can do to stay as crime-proof as possible.

According to Risk Based Security, more than 4.2 billion records were compromised worldwide in 2016 alone. In truth, the total number of compromised records is unknowable. Here’s what you do need to know: it is a near certainty that most, if not all, of your personal identity portfolio is already “out there.”

How to Keep Your Personal Information Safe

Identity theft is a catch-as-catch-can endeavor. Where there is a will, there is almost always a way. In fact, many, if not most, of us have already been compromised either by a breach or as a result of obsessive (and excessive) overexposure on social media. Enough of our personally identifiable information (PII) is readily available on the web to make us easy targets for phishing attacks and identity-related crimes.

Thankfully, identity theft is often a crime of opportunity. All that vulnerable information still needs to be accessed, which may require more effort than your average identity thief is willing to expend. This is why it’s important to keep your data safe from those opportunistic hands.

Here’s what you need to bear in mind at every turn: It’s likely that you’re going to “get got” with PII that hasn’t been compromised . . . yet.

Though it may seem like a lost cause, you can make yourself a harder target to hit. First, you should follow the three Ms:

Minimize your exposure. Don’t authenticate yourself to anyone unless you are in control of the interaction, don’t overshare on social media, be a good steward of your passwords, safeguard any documents that can be used to hijack your identity, and consider freezing your credit.
Monitor your accounts. Check your credit report regularly, keep track of your credit score, and review major accounts daily if possible. If you prefer a more laidback approach, sign up for free transaction alerts from financial services institutions and credit card companies or purchase a sophisticated credit and identity monitoring program.
Manage the damage. Make sure you quickly get on top of any incursion into your identity and enroll in a program where professionals help you navigate and resolve identity compromises—oftentimes available for free, or at minimal cost, through insurance companies, financial services institutions, and HR departments.

Where to Check Your PII

To minimize your exposure to identity thieves, you’ll want to evaluate places that may not be making the security of your PII a priority. Here are twelve places that may not be keeping your personal data safe.

1. Small businesses: Mom-and-pop shop owners have a lot on their plates, and managing your personal data isn’t necessarily on the front burner. Whether it’s the company that fills your oil tanks, a lawn service, or a local store where you have a tab, ask how they store your information. If they give you a vague answer, ask them to erase whatever they have—and watch them do it, if possible.
2. Children’s sports leagues: Children’s sports leagues need basic information to enroll your child, including medical contacts, names, addresses, emergency contact information, and other data points that can be used in identity-related crime. If you get a vague answer about data storage, ask them to erase whatever they have.
3. Doctors and dentists: You ever see those color-coded files sticking out of open metal cabinets at a medical provider’s office? They contain all the information needed to steal your healthcare services, compromise your financial accounts, or file fake tax returns and divert your refunds. If you see something, say something. Either way, ask your medical professionals how they store your records and request that they be stored securely.
4. Veterinarians: You might not think that your vet’s office could be a point of vulnerability. Worse yet, the possibility of data compromise may not have occurred to your vet, either. Ask how they store your data. Chances are good they will improve their methods once they understand the immediate consequence of lost business for failing to do so. If they don’t respond, ask for your file and vamoose.
5. Gyms and fitness clubs: Increasingly, fitness clubs are on the ball when it comes to data security, but you’ll still want to ask how they store your information. If they don’t have a satisfactory answer, you may want to consider looking for a different gym.
6. Educational institutions: Many people contribute to the care and education of our children. Unfortunately, not all of them are educated in the ways of cyber hygiene, which is why it matters how your child’s information is stored by these institutions. Always ask about it and request that your child’s information be stored securely. Once it no longer makes sense for a particular institution to have personal information about your children, ask that they delete their records.
7. Accountants: While bigger accounting firms are liability-minded, smaller firms and one-person operations may not be as up to date on cybersecurity best practices. In addition to having hard copies of your files, which contain extremely sensitive personal data, your accountant has to send electronic files to the IRS and other state agencies that collect your taxes. Make sure they are using secure networks and store your files securely. If they don’t, it’s in your best interest to look for a more secure accountant.
8. Lawyers: If you’re worried about the amount of sensitive data residing with your accountant, take a moment to reflect upon the sort of personal information that resides with your attorney. It’s okay to have a direct conversation about their data security practices. If there is any pushback, take your business (and your data) elsewhere.
9. Real estate agents: While they may not have a lot of your PII, real estate agents have enough for a thief to get a foothold into your mineable credit. If your agent gives you a vague answer about how they handle sensitive information, don’t give them any—or limit what you share to the bare minimum required.
10. Car dealerships: Car dealerships are focused organizations. While their employees know a great deal about closing deals, they may not know how to close the gates to ID thieves—and because they offer credit, they are in possession of the skeleton key to all your finances: your Social Security number. Make sure it’s safe. You’ll want to check with any other retailers that offer credit as well, since they will also have access to your SSN.
11. Travel agencies: In order for travel agents to do their job, they likely need your name, address, date of birth, contact info, emergency contact information, license or passport number, and credit or debit card number. You need to know how long they will keep it and how they will store it. If you are not satisfied with their explanation, cruise on over to someone else.
12. Home: Your domicile is an El Dorado of personal information, and you need to be able to protect those riches. Store all of your most-sensitive documents in a secure, fireproof location. Better yet, scan and store them in an encrypted, password-protected thumb drive.

Never forget, the ultimate guardian of the consumer is the consumer. No one cares more about the protection of your personally identifiable information and your financial security than you do.

Image: shapecharge

The post 12 Places Your Data May Not Be Safe (And What You Can Do) appeared first on Credit.com.

Best Credit Cards for Fair Credit

Having fair credit doesn’t mean you’re ineligible for great credit cards. We’ve rounded up the top credit cards with the best offers in a range of different categories that you’re still likely to be approved for, even with fair credit. These credit cards can help you build credit as long as you use them wisely. In this guide, we’ll show you the best credit cards for fair credit scores as well as how to use them to boost your credit score even higher.

Here are some of the products we will be discussing today:

Check If You’re Pre-qualified

Before applying for any credit card it’s helpful to check if you’re pre-qualified from a variety of institutions. The soft credit check the institutions perform does not harm your credit score and allows you to compare credit options. Sites such as CreditCards.com provide good tools that can match you to offers from multiple credit card companies without impacting your credit score. You can read our complete guide to getting pre-qualified for a credit card here.

Build Credit with Secured Cards

A great approach to rebuilding credit is to get a secured credit card. In order to get the card, you will have to deposit money that will be your line of credit. To effectively rebuild your credit, you must use the card, and we recommend not charging more than 20% of your credit line. For example, if you have a $500 credit line, you should not charge more than $100. Then, pay off your balance in full every single month. You can even build credit with $10 a month on a secured card and see your credit score rise.

After you’ve consistently managed your secured card well over a period of time, you may be able to increase your credit line beyond your initial deposit or migrate to an unsecured credit card.

We’ve reviewed the best secured cards in the market and found our top pick — the Discover it® Secured Card. This card has no annual fee, a reasonable security deposit and offers an easy transition to an unsecured card. In addition, Discover offers a rewards program and free access to your FICO score. These reasons are why we recommend the Discover it® Secured Card for people with fair credit.

Build Credit with Secured Cards

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee

APPLY NOW Secured

on Discover’s secure website

Read Full Review

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee

Annual fee
$0 For First Year
$0 Ongoing
Minimum Deposit
$200
APR
23.99% APR

Variable

Credit required
zero-credit
No credit, 670 or less

Best for Cash Back

If you have fair credit and want a cash back card the QuicksilverOne® Rewards credit card from Capital One® is a good option. As a consumer with fair credit you may not qualify for all cash back cards, but you may qualify for the QuicksilverOne® Rewards card since it is made for those with fair credit. With this card you will earn unlimited cash back, with no changing categories, and the rewards never expire.

However, this card comes with a high APR and annual fee. To earn enough cash back rewards to pay for the card itself each year you’ll need to spend $2,600 annually ($217 per month). To net a cash back of $50 you need to spend $5,933 in a year ($494 per month). This card may be an option for you if you want to earn more than 1% cash back.

Best for Cash Back

QuicksilverOne® Rewards from Capital One

APPLY NOW Secured

on Capital One’s secure website

QuicksilverOne® Rewards from Capital One

Annual fee
$39 For First Year
$39 Ongoing
Cashback Rate
up to 1.5%
APR
24.99%

Variable

Credit required
fair-credit

Average

Best Low Ongoing APR

No one wants to carry a balance on their credit cards, but if you must, it’s best to get a card with a low ongoing APR. Many lenders charge high APRs around 25%, but you can potentially qualify for an APR as low as 9.15%. This card will charge you less money on your debt than the typical credit card, which can save you big dollars in the long run.

Best Low Ongoing APR

MasterCard Platinum from Aspire FCU

APPLY NOW Secured

on Aspire Credit Union’s secure website

Read Full Review

MasterCard Platinum from Aspire FCU

Intro Rate
0%

promotional rate

Intro Fee
2%
APR
8.90%-18.00%

Variable

Duration
6 months
Credit required
fair-credit

Average

Best for Small Business Owners

Running a business is hard. Small business credit cards can make it a bit easier for you by giving you rewards for everyday purchases. Nevertheless, be aware: Business credit cards forego certain protections that personal credit cards have under the Credit CARD Act. For example, card issuers can change the payment due date or interest rate without giving you prior notice.

Still, small business cards can be a great option for you to build your credit and save money, even if you don’t have a traditional brick-and-mortar business. You can apply for these cards with just a DBA or even your own name, if you’re a freelancer.

Best for Small Business Owners

Spark Classic for Business from Capital One

APPLY NOW Secured

on Capital One’s secure website

Read Full Review

Spark Classic for Business from Capital One

Annual fee
$0 For First Year
$0 Ongoing
Cashback Rate
1% on all spend
APR
23.99%
Credit required
fair-credit

Average

Best for Students

You may have a fair credit score because you are a student. Student cards provide a great way for you to build your credit score and establish good credit history. The Discover it® for Students card is made with students in mind and offers ways to help you build credit and also earn rewards.

Best for Students

Discover it® for Students

APPLY NOW Secured

on Discover’s secure website

Read Full Review

Discover it® for Students

Annual fee
$0 For First Year
$0 Ongoing
Cashback Rate
up to 5%
APR
13.99%-22.99%

Variable

Credit required
zero-credit
New to Credit

FAQ

There’s a lot of math that goes into computing your credit scores, but at the end of the day, a fair credit score is defined as being between 649 and 699. Here’s how a fair credit score sits in relation to other credit scoring classes:

  • Excellent: Above 760
  • Good: 700-759
  • Fair/Average: 649-699
  • Poor: 600-648
  • Very Poor: Under 599

You can check your credit score for free on sites like Credit Karma, Chase Credit Journey, or AnnualCreditReport.com.

Having a good or excellent credit score unlocks a lot of advantages, such as lower interest rates and better approval odds for high-value credit cards and other financial products. These advantages will result in more dollars in your wallet at the end of the day. For example, having a high credit score can save you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments over your lifetime, especially for big-ticket loans like a home mortgage.

But if you have a fair credit score, don’t fret! There is a reason that your score is less than optimal, and thus there are real, concrete steps you can take to boost your credit score into the good and excellent range.

If you play your cards right, you can even join the exclusive 800+ credit score club (unfortunately, it’s not an official club, and you don’t get a shower of balloons and confetti once you reach it — but you will get access to some of the most exclusive financial products).

There can be many reasons why your credit score is below 700. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • You have late payments on your credit report. Having even just one late payment on your credit report can seriously harm it because payment history makes up 35% of your credit score. Unfortunately, unless it’s an error, you’ll just need to wait for it to drop off of your credit report in seven years. To prevent this from happening, make sure all of your debt payments are set up on autopay. That way, you won’t have to worry about it.
  • You have a lot of credit card debt. Credit utilization ratio is one of the biggest factors in calculating your credit score — it affects 30% of the final score. It’s simply how much you owe relative to how much you are allowed to spend. For example, let’s say you have two credit cards with a $5,000 limit each, and you owe $2,000. Your credit utilization ratio is 20% because you owe $2,000 out of a possible $10,000. Luckily, this is one of the easiest factors to correct that will boost your credit score big time in the short run: Pay off your balance, and your score will bump up immediately.
  • You don’t have a long credit history. Although credit history doesn’t factor into the calculation of your credit score as much as the credit utilization ratio and payment history, it still makes up a sizable chunk at 15%. There’s not much you can do about this one: Simply wait for your accounts to age.
  • You have a lot of credit inquiries. Banks don’t like to see you applying for credit like an out-of-control spender in Las Vegas. Each time you apply for credit or a loan, it’s recorded on your credit report as a credit inquiry, and it stays there for two years. To minimize the number of credit inquiries you have, always shop around and make sure creditors use a soft pull credit check unless you’re absolutely ready to apply for the line of credit. This factor makes up just 10% of your credit score, but it’s an easy one you can affect as long as you’re careful about applying for credit.
  • You don’t have a wide variety of account types. You may be an ace at handling your student loans, but creditors also want to know you can handle other types of credit like mortgages and credit card debt, too. The more types of credit accounts you have on file, the better. However, we don’t recommend taking out a loan just for the sake of boosting your credit score — that costs money, and you’ll only receive a modest benefit from it because credit mix only makes up 10% of your credit score.

As you can see, you do have a lot of options when it comes to fine-tuning your credit score into the good or excellent category. We recommend the helpful credit score simulator at Chase Credit Journey to check your current score and see how these adjustments can potentially change your credit level. It’s available whether you’re a Chase customer or not. Give it a try!

Applying for a credit card is easy. You’ll need some basic information like name, address, and Social Security number. You’ll also need employment and income information. Simply enter it into the online form on the credit card company’s website, visit a branch of the bank (if they have one), or call the credit card company directly. You’ll usually receive instant notification if you’ve been approved or not.

There are many ways for you to increase your credit score. Ultimately practicing responsible credit behavior is the best way to see your score rise. Here are a few ways you can increase your credit score:

  • Have someone add you as an authorized user: If you have a willing (and very trusting) friend or family member with better credit, you can ask them to add you as an authorized user onto one or more of their credit cards. Their credit will not be harmed by this (as long as you don’t rack up charges or missed payments), and the credit card will show up on your credit report just as if you had applied for it — boosting your credit utilization ratio, number of accounts, and account age if you keep it for a long time.
  • Increase your credit history length: Unfortunately, you can’t go back in time, but you can still affect your credit history length. Your credit score is partially based off of average credit history length, and the more old accounts you have, the better. If you already have credit cards open, consider keeping them open so your average credit history won’t decrease and ding your credit. Each new credit card you get will drop your average account age, and it’ll take longer to boost this portion of your score.
  • Maintain a low credit utilization: Credit utilization (the percentage of available credit you’re using) is one of the biggest factors in calculating your credit score. The lower, the better. To decrease your utilization ratio, simply pay off your credit card. You can also request a credit limit increase from your credit card issuer to lower your credit utilization ratio — just make sure not to rack up a balance again with that extra credit or you’ll be back to square one.

Missing a payment can single-handedly cause your credit score to drop by 100 points or more. To avoid this, simply set up your credit card on autopay for the minimum amount due — that way you’ll never have to worry about missing a payment.

You can always apply for a personal loan if you need some cash right now for something. You can use this tool to shop around for the best interest rates without hurting your credit score. It’s smart to avoid hard inquiries until you’re ready to actually apply for a personal loan so that your credit isn’t dinged with multiple inquiries.

Each credit card is different, so you’ll need to check the fine print. Usually, though, you’ll need to both charge a purchase and pay off your bill before you’re eligible for those cash back rewards. Then, they’ll tally up this amount and periodically either send you a check, or offer a statement credit.

If you’re running a small business, it’s often easy to mix your personal and business accounts, especially if you’re self-employed. This creates an accounting nightmare to sort through, so it’s recommended (but not required) that you have a separate business banking account and credit card, if you need one.

The post Best Credit Cards for Fair Credit appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Minimize Rejection: Check if You’re Pre-qualified for a Credit Card

Check if You're Pre-qualified for a Credit Card

Updated August 16, 2017

Are you avoiding a credit card application  because you’re afraid of being rejected? Want to see if you can be approved for a credit card without having an inquiry hit your credit score?

We may be able to help. Some large banks give you the chance to see if you are pre-qualified for cards before you officially apply. You give a bit of personal information (name, address, typically the last 4 digits of your social security), and they will tell you if you are pre-qualified. There is no harm to your credit score when using this service. This is the best way to see if you can get a credit card without hurting your score.

What does pre-qualified mean?

Pre-qualification typically utilizes a soft credit inquiry with a credit bureau (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion). A soft inquiry does not appear on your credit report, and will not harm your credit score.

Banks also create pre-qualified lists by buying marketing lists every month from a credit bureau. They buy the names of people who would meet their credit criteria and keep that list. When you see if you are pre-qualified, the bank is just checking to see if you are on their list.

A soft inquiry provides the bank with some basic credit information, including your score. Based upon the information in the credit bureau, the bank determines whether or not you have been pre-qualified for a credit card.

If you are not pre-qualified, that does not mean you will be rejected. When they pull a full credit report or get more information, you may still be approved. But, even if you are pre-qualified, you can still be rejected. So, why would you be rejected?

  • When you complete a formal credit card application, you provide additional personal information, including your employment and salary. If you are unemployed, or if your salary is too low relative to your debt – you could be rejected. There are other policy reasons that can be applied as well.
  • When a full credit bureau report is pulled, the bank gets more data. Some of that incremental data may result in a rejection.
  • Timing: your information may have changed. The bank may have pre-qualified you a week ago, but since then you have missed a payment. Final decisions are always made using the most up-to-date information.

Even with these caveats, checking to see if you are pre-qualified is a great way to shop for a credit card without hurting your score.

Where can I see if I have been pre-qualified?

Most (but not all) banks have pre-qualification tools. In addition, some websites (like CreditCards.com) have tools that let you check across multiple banks at once. Here is a current list of tools that are functioning:

CreditCards – CardMatch is a very good tool developed by CreditCards.com that can match you to offers from multiple credit card companies without impacting your credit score. This is a good first stop.

Bank of America

Capital One

Chase

Citibank

Credit One  – This company targets people with less than perfect credit.

Discover

U.S. Bank

Below are credit card issuers that do not always have the pre-qualification tool live:

American Express – We have reports that this does not work for everyone. To find the pre-qualification page, click on “CARDS” in the menu bar. Then click on “View All Personal Charge & Credit Cards.” At the bottom of the page you will find a section called “Do More with American Express” – and you can click on “Pre-Qualified Credit Card Offers.”

Barclaycard – unfortunately Barclaycard has taken down their pre-qualification tool. We will keep looking to see if it comes back.

Consider A Personal Loan (No Hard Inquiry and Lower Rates)

If you need to borrow money, you may also want to consider a personal loan. A number of internet-only personal loan companies allow you to see if you are approved (including your interest rate and loan amount) without a hard inquiry on your credit report. Instead, they do a soft pull, which has no impact on your credit score. Personal loans also tend to have much lower interest rates than credit cards. If you need to borrow money, personal loans are usually a better option.

We recommend starting your personal loan shopping experience at LendingTree. With one quick application, dozens of lenders will compete for your business. LendingTree uses a soft credit pull, and within minutes you will be able to see how much you qualify for – and the interest rate – without any harm to your credit score. (Note: MagnifyMoney is owned by LendingTree)

Not pre-qualified but still want to apply?

We still believe that people are too afraid of the impact of credit inquiries on their score. One inquiry will only take 5-10 points off your score.

If you pay your bills on time, do not have a ton of debt (less than $20,000) and want to apply for a new credit card, an inquiry should not scare you. The only way to know for certain if you can get approved is to do a full application.

How We Can Help

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @Magnify_Money and on Facebook.

*We’ll receive a referral fee if you click on the “Apply Now” buttons in this post. This does not impact our rankings or recommendations You can learn more about how our site is financed here.

The post Minimize Rejection: Check if You’re Pre-qualified for a Credit Card appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service

Meal planning isn't always fun, but it can save you a lot of time and money.

My family’s recent subscription to a meal planning service has been a godsend. With my husband and I both working full time while raising our two children, cooking has been put on the back burner. We found ourselves eating out too much and when we did cook at home, we used the same recipes over and over.

Plus, I really hated trying to meal plan. I never had new, creative recipes unless I spent too much time on Pinterest. Then I would inevitably forget something on the grocery list, forcing us to reconsider our plan or shop again later in the week.

So far, we’ve had a great experience with a meal planning service that puts together our weekly menu and shopping list for us. The meals have been creative and really tasty and we’ve spent way less money on food.

Jumping into a meal planning service took some time. For one thing, it’s another item to add to our budget. And for another, there are loads of options out there to choose from.

If you’re looking for a way to change up, simplify, or declutter your meal planning, a service might be a great investment. But don’t just go muddle around on the internet for hours trying to figure out what will work best for you. Instead, take these steps to find your perfect meal planning service.

1. Figure out Your Priorities

First, know that meal plans cater to all sorts of priorities. Maybe yours is to save as much money as possible. Or maybe your goal is to be as healthy as possible or to follow a certain type of diet. Or maybe your goal is to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less every night.

There’s a meal plan for all of those priorities.

You can often balance two competing priorities fairly well, too. For instance, I wanted to both have healthy, veggie-packed dinner options and save money on groceries. Our meal plan isn’t the most budget-friendly. But it does keep our spending pretty low while providing healthy meal options.

So, before you even start shopping around, know your top two or three meal-time priorities.

2. Decide if a Delivery Box Is an Option

Next, you need to figure out if a meal planning service that actually delivers ingredients is an option.

If you have a liberal food budget these options could make your life super easy. But if your goal is to restrict your spending as much as possible, they’re probably not a wise option.

Ingredient delivery services aren’t all super expensive. But since someone is shopping for, measuring, and packaging your ingredients, it’s usually more expensive than going to the grocery store. With that said, if you wind up eating out a lot because you can’t make it to the grocery store, a delivery box might be right up your alley.

3. Get a Sample of Your Top Three Options

Once you’ve narrowed down your field of choices, get a sample of your options. Most online meal planning services will give you a week’s menu or more for free. Plus, many of the delivery boxes on the market have free — or almost free — trial periods.

Sampling will help you see which menu you like best, and which one will consistently work best for you. You’ll have to use a few different systems over the course of a month or so. It can be frustrating but through trial and error, you’ll be more likely to find the perfect meal planning service for you.

4. Use it for at Least a Few Weeks

Once you figure out which of the services you like best, I’d recommend sticking with that service for at least a month before you decide to switch to something else.

For my family, it’s taken some time to figure out how many of the meals we make each week. Our plan comes with seven, which is too many for us because we often eat with friends once a week and use leftovers over the weekend. It’s taken a couple of weeks to figure out that I need to trim the menu down to about five meals before I send my husband to the grocery store.

For extra savings, you can charge your meal plan and groceries on a cash back credit card. There are plenty of great cash back credit cards but before applying it’s wise to check if you qualify. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.

That’s it! Finding the perfect meal plan for your family is all about prioritizing and then checking out what’s out there.

Image: franckreporter

The post 4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service appeared first on Credit.com.

4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service

Meal planning isn't always fun, but it can save you a lot of time and money.

My family’s recent subscription to a meal planning service has been a godsend. With my husband and I both working full time while raising our two children, cooking has been put on the back burner. We found ourselves eating out too much and when we did cook at home, we used the same recipes over and over.

Plus, I really hated trying to meal plan. I never had new, creative recipes unless I spent too much time on Pinterest. Then I would inevitably forget something on the grocery list, forcing us to reconsider our plan or shop again later in the week.

So far, we’ve had a great experience with a meal planning service that puts together our weekly menu and shopping list for us. The meals have been creative and really tasty and we’ve spent way less money on food.

Jumping into a meal planning service took some time. For one thing, it’s another item to add to our budget. And for another, there are loads of options out there to choose from.

If you’re looking for a way to change up, simplify, or declutter your meal planning, a service might be a great investment. But don’t just go muddle around on the internet for hours trying to figure out what will work best for you. Instead, take these steps to find your perfect meal planning service.

1. Figure out Your Priorities

First, know that meal plans cater to all sorts of priorities. Maybe yours is to save as much money as possible. Or maybe your goal is to be as healthy as possible or to follow a certain type of diet. Or maybe your goal is to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less every night.

There’s a meal plan for all of those priorities.

You can often balance two competing priorities fairly well, too. For instance, I wanted to both have healthy, veggie-packed dinner options and save money on groceries. Our meal plan isn’t the most budget-friendly. But it does keep our spending pretty low while providing healthy meal options.

So, before you even start shopping around, know your top two or three meal-time priorities.

2. Decide if a Delivery Box Is an Option

Next, you need to figure out if a meal planning service that actually delivers ingredients is an option.

If you have a liberal food budget these options could make your life super easy. But if your goal is to restrict your spending as much as possible, they’re probably not a wise option.

Ingredient delivery services aren’t all super expensive. But since someone is shopping for, measuring, and packaging your ingredients, it’s usually more expensive than going to the grocery store. With that said, if you wind up eating out a lot because you can’t make it to the grocery store, a delivery box might be right up your alley.

3. Get a Sample of Your Top Three Options

Once you’ve narrowed down your field of choices, get a sample of your options. Most online meal planning services will give you a week’s menu or more for free. Plus, many of the delivery boxes on the market have free — or almost free — trial periods.

Sampling will help you see which menu you like best, and which one will consistently work best for you. You’ll have to use a few different systems over the course of a month or so. It can be frustrating but through trial and error, you’ll be more likely to find the perfect meal planning service for you.

4. Use it for at Least a Few Weeks

Once you figure out which of the services you like best, I’d recommend sticking with that service for at least a month before you decide to switch to something else.

For my family, it’s taken some time to figure out how many of the meals we make each week. Our plan comes with seven, which is too many for us because we often eat with friends once a week and use leftovers over the weekend. It’s taken a couple of weeks to figure out that I need to trim the menu down to about five meals before I send my husband to the grocery store.

For extra savings, you can charge your meal plan and groceries on a cash back credit card. There are plenty of great cash back credit cards but before applying it’s wise to check if you qualify. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.

That’s it! Finding the perfect meal plan for your family is all about prioritizing and then checking out what’s out there.

Image: franckreporter

The post 4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service appeared first on Credit.com.

11 Hacks for Finding an Affordable College Apartment

College is expensive and so are apartments. Finding a college apartment that fits into your budget is possible with a few simple tricks.

Your kid doesn’t want to stay in the dorms, so now what? In today’s real estate market, finding a place to live can cost a fortune. From negotiating tactics to gaining a leg up over the competition, real estate experts share 11 ways to save on your kids’ new pad.

How to Get Started

Where is the best place to look for off-campus housing? Sean Conlon, Real Estate mogul and host of CNBC’s The Deed: Chicago, recommends checking with your campus housing office first. “They will have information for nearby landlords that are looking for college students to rent out their units,” he said. He also said that most schools will display postings for apartments for rent and recommendations from past students on the best places to live in the campus housing office.

Use websites to conduct additional research. Paul Morris, realtor and co-author of Wealth Can’t Wait recommends sites like Zillow, Craigslist and Padmapper (a search engine that uses Craigslist data) in addition to local Facebook groups and popular local sites. He said, “It is critical to use the ‘alerts’ function for each of these online resources because most often they provide a text or email whenever there is a new post meeting your criteria.” He added that some of the local sites are private but will usually grant access if you request it.

Location, Location, Location

When determining where to look, Xavier Izquierdo, a real estate investor in the Los Angeles area suggests familiarizing yourself with the market rental rates in specific pockets close the campus, as even a three to four block difference can save you a few hundred dollars per month. He said, “Look at proximity to campus. Is there a campus shuttle, local bus or is it an easy bike ride or walk? Does the campus security patrol the area? Are there free rides from campus to your apartment late at night? Or, if you have a car, ask if a parking space is included.”

Victoria Shtainer, residential real estate expert at Compass, a real estate firm with listings in several cities in the US, suggests considering a new development. “These buildings might offer more incentives – free rent, gift card upon lease execution, etc. than other buildings, as they are looking to pull tenants in,” she said.

Morris suggests doing some local reconnaissance, if logistically possible. “Even though most rentals will be listed on the major services, it’s not true of every rental,” he said. “Stop by grocery stores, community centers, and other places where small landlords post openings. This can be time-intensive, but also can be where most of the ‘deals’ are found. He also suggested that you tell everyone you know that you are looking. “Maybe there is an available apartment next door to a friend and it has not been listed yet.”

Don’t Go at it Alone

Chad Kehoe, Co-Founder and CEO of Leaseful, a leasing platform, advises using a broker to help with your search. “Not only will they be able to show you a plethora of places, but they can also help you negotiate rent with the landlord – they want to lease the apartment just as bad as you do!” he said.

You will pay a fee when using a broker, but sometimes that fee can be negotiated. Allen Brewington, a broker with Triplemint, a real estate brokerage site, said, “When negotiating with a listing broker charging a 15% fee, show them how qualified you are by discussing the financials of your guarantor and then request a reduction in the broker’s fee. If you can assure them a quick, easy deal they may go for it.”

Compare Short Term vs. Long Term Rates

Brewington advised staying away from short-term rentals, as they tend to be more expensive. “Even if you are in school only for the fall and spring semester, it may be cheaper to rent an apartment for a full twelve months,” he said. “If your landlord lets you sublease the months you are not there, all the better.”

Another money-saving trick is to pay upfront — if you can afford it. Shtainer said, “Try to pay for the entire year of rent upfront…this is a very good tactic to give you leverage when negotiating the rent!”

Buy vs. Rent

It may sound a bit extreme, but an alternative to renting is buying. Shtainer said that parents should consider purchasing a unit for the duration of college, and perhaps longer if the student plans to stick around. “The student can pay the mortgage as the monthly ‘rent’ and contribute toward building equity in the property,” she said.

If you do happen to rent for a full year or purchase a property, consider leasing for the months you don’t need the place if it’s allowed.

Ask the Right Questions

When you meet with the broker or landlord, arm yourself with a list of questions that will help you find the place that is right for you. Ask whether it’s furnished, if Wi-Fi, trash collection and utilities are included, etc. Izquierdo said, “Finding a furnished apartment and having utilities included may be a little more on a monthly basis, but comparing this to buying furniture and putting deposits with utility companies to establish service needs to be considered when comparing total move-in and monthly costs.”

Make a Good Impression

Because competition can be stiff and apartments can go quickly, Morris suggests making sure you stand out as a solid candidate. Also, be prepared to commit on the spot if you find the place that’s right for you. “You should have a way to put the deposit down immediately-whether by check, or popular cash-substitutes like Paypal and Venmo,” he said. “Additionally, you should pull your own credit report and have a copy available. Great credit will open doors. If your credit is not perfect, be prepared to offer more in terms of a security deposit.” (Before apartment hunting, see where your credit stands with a free credit report snapshot from Credit.com). He also recommended writing a short statement about why you would make a great tenant, highlighting your strengths and even including references from former landlords, coaches or professors.

Refer a Friend

If you are looking at an apartment in a large housing complex, inquire about referral bonuses for bringing in tenants for the following school year. Kehoe said, “Big student apartment complexes usually have some sort of promotion to bring in new tenants. For example, the apartment buildings will sometimes offer the first month’s rent free as a signing bonus, or might have a referral program you could join where you and a friend can get discounts off of rent for signing a lease.”

Timing Is Everything

Most college students are looking for apartments towards the end of summer for the fall semester. If you happen to be looking mid-year or well in advance of the school year, this could be to your advantage. Brewington said, “For those looking to increase negotiating power, try to get off the summer search cycle. Look for an apartment in late September or October, after living somewhere temporarily for the first couple of months.”

Time to Move

When you’re working out your budget, don’t forget to factor in moving costs. Real estate expert, Ken Snee, said, “Many people underestimate the cost to move and the sticker shock can be overwhelming. It could be thousands of dollars with the moving truck handling and travel fees, packing services, and mover’s insurance.” Using sites like Unpakt, that let you compare the cost of movers and even book your move online can save you time and money.

Plan Ahead for Next Year

As soon as you get the sense that your student may want to live elsewhere next year, Izquierdo suggests looking now. He said, “Many locations are pre-leasing up to one year in advance. This will save time and money and it will give you the best chance at your desired locations.”

Image: Geber86

The post 11 Hacks for Finding an Affordable College Apartment appeared first on Credit.com.

Creating a Menu Plan to Save on Groceries

A great way to reduce your grocery spend is by planning meals ahead.

Although it’s not particularly fun, creating menu plan is one of the simplest way to save money. If you can create a menu plan, you can save money. It is as simple as that. There are two main reasons that a menu plan can save money:

  1. You don’t eat dinner out as often.
  2. You know what to buy at the grocery store.

Let me explain how each of these really can affect your budget.

The Dining Out Sneak Attack

See if this relates to your life: You are heading home from a long day at work and when you finally tear through the door, the first thing you hear is “What’s for dinner?” or “I’m starving! When are we going to eat?” After the hectic day you’ve had, you realize you have no clue what you are going to feed the family. So, you end up spending a ton of money dining out — for the third time this week.

Now imagine reliving that same scenario eight or ten times per month. That means you’ll dine out for more than 200 meals in a year. Say you spend $20 per meal, in one year you’ll have spent more than $4,000 dining out.

Dining out is great, but it can quickly eat up your budget. Establish a dining out budget and stick to it. We started doing this when we were working ourselves out from more than $37,000 in debt. For us, it is normal to fix dinner at home and something to which we are accustomed.

Your menu plan helps you know what you’ll make for dinner every night. It is one less thing you have to worry about night after night and it’s a wonderful way to manage your food budget.

The Lower Grocery Budget

The other way we save money with our menu plan has to do with my weekly grocery shopping trips. Before we had a menu plan, I would walk the aisles of the store with my list while trying to figure out what I might have for dinner that week.

Of course, despite my very best efforts, I always found myself forgetting items. That lead to more return trips to the store during the week. And, when I did that, I would often toss additional items that we did not necessarily need into the cart. Plus, by making multiple trips, I was spending more money on gas.

When you create a menu plan, you know every meal and snack you will have for the week. Your menu plan then becomes your guide to creating a shopping list. The list will include all the items you need for every meal and snack for the week. You end up with a comprehensive, workable shopping list.

Creating a Menu Plan

When it comes to learning how to create a menu plan, the key factor is planning. It is simple to plan a weekly or even bi-weekly menu yourself, but you’ll need to take a few things into consideration before you do.

1. Check the Freezer, Pantry & Fridge

To start, look at items that may spoil or expire soon. Come up with a meal where you can use these items before you end up tossing it into the trash.

Next, check for items you have on hand. You may have found a great deal on noodles last week and stocked up. That may mean adding spaghetti to your meal plan this week.

You should also look for ways to make multiple meals out of one item. For example, you may make a large roast chicken for dinner one night and, later in the week, whip up a batch of chicken and noodles with the left overs. You won’t be wasting food and you’ll get your money’s worth.

2. Check the Grocery Store Ad

You might have several items on hand to make four meals, but that still leaves three more to plan. Rather than making whatever sounds good, look at the store flyer to find items on sale. You may see that ground beef is on sale, so that may lend itself to grilling burgers.

When checking the local grocery store ad, focus on the front cover and any short sales dates. These items are often best deals you will see for weeks. You should not only plan on making meals with items you can find here, but also stocking up on them so you have them on hand for future meal plans.

Bonus tip? Try using cashback credit cards while shopping for grocery stores. You can earn rewards that can go towards your monthly food bill. Before applying for any new credit, it’s best to make sure your credit score is high enough to qualify. You can check two of your scores free on Credit.com.

3. Ask Your Family

Remember to ask your family for input while making a meal plan. If you find a package of chicken breasts in the freezer, ask them what chicken based meal they’d love to have that week.

This helps you come up with new ideas, but also helps you know that you are selecting meals your family will enjoy. By making things your family will enjoy, you can avoid wasting food and money.

4. Put Your Plan in Writing

When you create a menu plan, it is very important that it is in writing. You should also plan for every day of the week. Dinner is important to plan but don’t forget to include breakfasts, lunch (even if packing them for school or work) and snacks.

5. Don’t Plan Too Far in Advance

There are many who like to menu plan for a month. While that can be good for some, I don’t recommend this. When planning so far ahead it can be difficult to check the weekly ad to ensure your meals use items that are on sale. Planning meals for any period longer than two weeks can result in missing those key sales when prepping your meals.

6. Make Your Plan Visible

The final step is to make sure you plan is visible. If you and your family can’t see it, you can’t use it. Rather than tuck it into a drawer, put it on your refrigerator where you see it every morning. Then, before you leave for work, make sure that any frozen items get thawed properly so you can use them to make dinner.

I recommend that you print out the menu plan you wish to use and have it laminated. Put it on the fridge with magnets and you’ll have a reusable menu planning form.

It took my family and I a little time to get use to the menu plan, but now that we use it, we can’t imagine not having it available to help us plan our meals. I still am not a fan of sitting down to plan what to eat each week, but when I am done and realize the time and money I’m saving because of it, I always smile and then hang the plan back on the fridge.

Your menu plan is a catalyst to reducing your grocery bill and saving on dining out.

Image: RoBeDeRo

The post Creating a Menu Plan to Save on Groceries appeared first on Credit.com.

5 Smart Ways to Lower the Cost of Therapy

Source: iStock

Sasha Aurand has had to scramble for four years to find high-quality mental health care she can afford on her salary from running a website on psychology and sex.

The 25-year-old New Yorker suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety, and has no health insurance.

“So I’ve always had to find other solutions,” she tells MagnifyMoney. Aurand originally sought help for these conditions while still a college student in Indiana. But after the school’s counseling center referred her to a private practice she couldn’t afford, she researched, asked around, and found a community health clinic where a therapist helped her for $20 a visit.

After graduating from college, Aurand moved to New York, where she briefly had health insurance, enabling her to see what she describes as a “phenomenal psychiatrist” for depression medications. But her insurance ended, and she could no longer afford the psychiatrist’s $350/hour fee.

Aurand is not alone, having to be resourceful finding doctors and therapists in her price range. According to the 2016 State of Mental Health in America report, one out of five American adults with mental illness report they are unable to get the treatment they need, often due to cost. And with an uncertain health care climate in Washington, the challenges are unlikely to ease soon.

Although the Senate failed in its recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act — an effort, says Colin Seeberger, strategic campaigns director for Young Invincibles, “that would have allowed states to opt out of the ACA’s essential benefits, such as substance abuse and mental health coverage” — there’s still some instability in the insurance markets as a result.

In such a confusing environment, how can you find the help you need at a price you can afford?

Here are a few options if you’re looking for affordable therapy options:

1. Work with a therapist-in-training

If you live near a university with a graduate psychology program, it most likely has an in-house clinic. You can see a trainee at one of these clinics for a reduced fee. Yes, the therapists are students, but each one is closely supervised by a seasoned, licensed professional.

Pros: “Because the therapists are still in school, they’re up to date on the latest developments in psychology,” says Linda Richardson , Ph.D., a psychologist who works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in San Diego. “You’ll also have the advantage of two heads being better than one.”

Cons: Most trainees work at these clinics for a year or less. If you find someone you like, they’re eventually going to leave.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask about sliding scales or reduced cash fees

After losing her insurance, Aurand went back to her $350/hr psychiatrist and “explained the situation and asked if there was anything she could do,” she says. The psychiatrist agreed to see Aurand for $100 a visit as long as Aurand paid in cash. Aurand now sees the doctor every three months.

Many therapists offer a sliding scale based on a patient’s income. If you find a therapist you like, let him or her know your financial concerns and inquire about paying a lower fee. Another option is to check out Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, a nonprofit that lists therapists who offer a few weekly sessions at a lower rate. There’s a one-time $49 fee to join the collective; therapists in the collective charge $30 to $50 per session.

Pros: With a sliding scale, you get all the benefits of good, one-on-one therapy at a lower rate.

Cons: If you don’t reassess the financial arrangement occasionally, says Erika Martinez, a psychologist in private practice in Miami, Fla., “a therapist can become resentful or frustrated with a client,” especially if your income rises. To avoid this, discuss payments every few months to see if an adjustment is needed.

3. Consider group therapy

According to the American Psychological Association, group therapy works as well as individual therapy for many conditions, such as depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder — and for a fraction of the price. Martinez, for example, charges $150 an hour for individual therapy but only $65/hour for a group session.

Pros: There’s a lot of power in knowing you’re not alone. “When you share about your struggles in group where others have the same concerns, and you feel their empathy, that’s incredible,” says Martinez.

Cons: Some people aren’t comfortable speaking about emotional issues in a group. Also, you have to share the therapist’s attention with others.

4. Try online services & therapy apps

There are many online tools, including Breakthrough.com and Betterhelp.com that offer individual therapy sessions with licensed therapists over the phone or via a secure, HIPAA-compliant video for considerably less than an in-office visit. Rates vary, but if you search, you can find someone affordable.

Several California-based therapists (among the most expensive in the nation) on Breakthrough.com, for example, offer sessions for as low as $55 an hour. A note of caution: Choose someone licensed in your state. In case of an emergency, a therapist can only help secure needed services if you’re in the same state.

Pros: You can get high-quality, one-on-one therapy without ever having to leave your home, office, or pajamas — and at a reasonable cost.

Cons: Insurance often doesn’t cover phone or video sessions. “Also, you can’t fully see the nonverbal language of the therapist,” says Martinez. “And the Internet connection can be bad.”

Better Help App. Source: iTunes

Therapy apps — which allow you to text or chat with a licensed therapist — are becoming increasingly popular. Among the many available are Betterhelp.com, Talkspace.com, and iCounseling.com. Studies in both The Lancet and the Journal of Affective Disorders have shown that online therapy is an effective way to get help, and many services start for as little as $35 a week.

TalkSpace app. Source: iTunes

Pros: You can get help anytime, anywhere, even while sitting in a business meeting or on the subway. Also, it’s a good option for people afraid to walk into a therapist’s office.

Cons: Chat and text therapy, which are not covered by insurance, are inappropriate if you’re feeling suicidal or have severe mental illness. And some people find the technology alienating. “I tried one of these apps a few years ago,” says Aurand, “ and I just missed the human interaction of seeing a therapist in person.”

5. Tap into community resources for free or discounted counseling

You can find psychological and psychiatric care at public mental health clinics, which offer services for free or on a sliding scale, based on your income. Organizations devoted to helping survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse also offer a wide range of services, including free counseling. And religious organizations, such as Jewish Family Services, often offer therapy on a sliding scale. The best way to find resources in your community, says Richardson, is to dial the information hotline, 211, on your phone or look online at http://www.211.org.

When her PTSD flares up and she needs to talk to a therapist, Aurand supplements her psychiatrist visits by going to a community health clinic, the Ryan/Chelsea Clinton Community Health Center, which offers a sliding scale based on her income and charges $100-$125 a session.

Pros: You can find good care for low or no cost.

Cons: The demand at public health clinics is huge, and staffs are often overwhelmed. “There can be long waiting lists, especially for individual counseling,” says Richardson. “You may have better luck if you’re willing to join a group, such as anger management, that fits your needs.”

The bottom line

When it comes to finding affordable mental health care, persistence is the key. “It can be really daunting, especially if you’re not feeling well or don’t have insurance and think you can’t get help,” says Aurand. “But if you take the time and do your research, you’ll find someone who wants to help you. There are a lot of good therapists and psychiatrists out there, and it’s not necessarily all about the money.”

The post 5 Smart Ways to Lower the Cost of Therapy appeared first on MagnifyMoney.