7 Documents You Need to Fill Out Before You Die

Here's a list of all the important estate planning documents you'll want to compile.

Estate planning is the process of establishing a framework to manage your assets upon death, disability or incapacity. It involves creating documents that outline your wishes. While estate planning is not a pleasant task, it is critical that you implement it before you need it.

Here are seven critical documents necessary to cover the aspects of a well-devised estate plan.

1. Last Will & Testament

The fundamental purpose of a will is to outline who will receive your assets upon your death. Another important purpose of a will is to specify guardianship for your minor children. A guardian is one who takes legal responsibility for the care of your minor or incapacitated children after you are gone. It is important to understand that a will does not become effective until the date of death. So it does not provide any benefits during your lifetime. A will can be changed at any time (assuming you are not mentally incapacitated). It can be amended by using a codicil or revoked by writing a new will. A will can also create a trust upon your death (more on this below). If your estate is large enough (over $5.49 million in 2017), you may also need to incorporate federal estate tax planning into your documents.

2. Trust

A trust is a legal instrument that provides ongoing management for your assets. It can be inter vivos (also known as a Living Trust, which exists during your lifetime) or Testamentary (one that is created by your will upon your death). It is a good idea to leave assets in trust if the beneficiaries are minors, incapacitated, or if they are simply not fiscally responsible. The trust document names a trustee who has the responsibility of managing the assets in the trust and determines when and how much of the trust assets to distribute (subject to the terms you have written in the trust). You may want to name a trustee while your child is under a certain age, say 25 or 30. Then, once your child reaches that specific age, they can either act as their own trustee, or the trust can terminate and distribute all of the assets to your child outright.

3. Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney allows you to empower someone else to act on your behalf for legal and financial decisions. It can be a Durable Power of Attorney, which becomes effective immediately, or a Springing Power of Attorney, which becomes effective upon a stipulated event, typically when you are disabled or mentally incompetent. It is critical that you completely trust the person to whom you provide this power, as he or she can legally act on your behalf.

4. Healthcare Power of Attorney

A Healthcare Power of Attorney (also known as a Medical Power of Attorney) gives a trusted individual the authority to make decisions about your medical treatment should you be unable to do so on your own. No financial authority is granted in this document, only medical power. So you could provide one person the Durable Power of Attorney and another person the Healthcare Power of Attorney if you desire.

5. Living Will

While the Healthcare Power of Attorney authorizes another to make medical decisions on your behalf, a Living Will (also known as a Directive to Physicians) sets out your predetermined wishes regarding end-of-life care should you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. Essentially it takes the decision to withhold life out of the hands of your medical providers and the ones you love so that they are not burdened by it and so that you can be assured your wishes are respected.

6. HIPAA Release

One of the important provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is the obligation that medical records be kept confidential. While this is definitely an important requirement, it can have severe unintended consequences. Without the legal authority to share medical records, your family may not be able to obtain important information regarding your medical condition and treatment if you were to become incapacitated. A HIPAA release allows your medical providers to share and discuss your medical situation with whomever you specify in the document.

7. Letter of Intent

A Letter of Intent is a simple, non-binding personal letter to the ones you love expressing your desires and special requests. It may include information regarding burial or cremation, or a specific bequest of collectibles or personal items. While it does not typically have legal authority, it can help to clear up confusion regarding your personal preferences.

Estate planning can be complex and the laws vary widely by state. This article is general in nature and is not meant to provide legal advice. I recommend that you engage the services of an estate planning attorney to discuss your wishes and prepare the appropriate documents.

[Editor’s Note: You can find more on estate planning here. There are also some tips to ensure your debt after death doesn’t harm your family here. Also, it’s a good idea to get your free annual credit reports every year so there are no surprise debts that need to be addressed. You can get a free credit report summary every 14 days on Credit.com.]

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20 Cities That Are Quickly Becoming Unaffordable

These metros experienced the quickest drop in housing affordability over 2016, when you take into consideration that locale's home prices and wages.

America’s housing market continued its staggering post-recession rise in 2016, as many regions surpassed their pre-recession-bubble highs. With interest rates finally rising, might some of those places be primed for a fall…or at least a pause?

The list of U.S. areas that could be hurt most by rising mortgage costs is not your typical list of overheated housing markets, as some fast-growing, but still modestly-priced Midwestern towns could feel the pain first.

Rising home values are always a good news/bad news story — good news for homeowners and sellers, bad news for would-be buyers. In almost every region of the country, 2016 turned out to be a very good year for owners and sellers. According to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national index, home values gained 5.6% nationwide annually as of October 2016. In some places, values soared even quicker: Seattle grew 10.7%, Portland 10.3%, and Denver 8.3%, according to the Case-Shiller report.

The good times for sellers seem set to end, however. After a seemingly endless set of warnings, the Federal Reserve finally raised interest rates in December, triggering increases in mortgage rates. More critically, Fed governors signaled that there could be three more increases in 2017, meaning mortgage interest rates will probably be about a full percentage point higher next year than they were in most of 2016. That, in turn, means higher monthly payments for borrowers, making it harder for some would-be buyers to take the plunge. In other words, higher rates could cool the housing market, says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at Attom Data Solutions, a housing market data firm.

“I see rising interest rates as a cold shower for many overheated housing markets in 2017,” he said via email. “This is probably a good thing overall, but it could come as a bit of a shock for folks who are expecting those markets to continue performing at the same level they have over the past few years.”

Changes in demand dictated by borrowing costs is just one side of the equation that might hurt sellers next year. After all, there always seems to be someone willing to overpay for a New York City apartment or a home anywhere near Silicon Valley. (You can use this tool to determine how much house you can afford.) That’s due in part to plentiful high-paying jobs in those regions. But many smaller markets have enjoyed a fast run-up in prices, too, and those are probably at greater risk of an interest-rate induced slowdown because of another variable in that equation: slower wage growth.

To calculate this risk, Attom produced a spreadsheet for Credit.com ranking counties by the Attom Home Affordability Index – computed via a formula that takes local wages, home values, property taxes, and historical affordability into account. The list was then ranked by the counties that became less affordable at the quickest rate over the past year. These are metros that could potentially be the most sensitive to changes in mortgage rates that would send some would-be home shoppers back to their rentals. They include:     

  1. St. Louis, Missouri-Ilinois (St. Louis County)
  2. Rockford, Illinois (Winnebago County)
  3. Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, Florida (Okaloosa County)
  4. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas (Ellis County)
  5. Richmond, Virginia (Richmond City County)
  6. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida (Brevard County)
  7. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida (Pasco County)
  8. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin (Cook County)
  9. Greenley, Colorado (Weld County)
  10. Warner Robins, Georgia (Houston County)
  11. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tennessee (Davidson County)
  12. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, Colorado (Denver County)
  13. Toledo, Ohio (Lucas County)
  14. Austin-Round Rock, Texas (Hays County)
  15. Amarillo, Texas (Potter County)
  16. Columbus, Georgia-Alabama (Muscogee County)
  17. Jacksonville, Florida (Duval County)
  18. Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, Florida (Volusia County)
  19. Charlotte-Concord-Gastoni, North Carolina-South Carolina (Iredell County)
  20. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, Colorado (Arapahoe County)

It’s probably no surprise that five of the top 20 locales are in Florida. However, if you expect New York, Seattle, and San Francisco on the list of rapidly-growing-unaffordable locales, think again; in their place are Midwestern areas like St. Louis, Missouri; Rockford, Illinois, and Toledo, Ohio.

In fact, St. Louis County (which includes the city of St. Louis) topped the list. There, Attom says, the median home sale price rose 19% last year, to $186,000, but wages were actually down a little more than 2%. That means the region’s affordability had sunk 12% on the Attom index. Just three years ago, median home sales prices were just $99,900 in St. Louis – meaning median home prices are up 86% during the three-year span. That’s a recipe for a pullback.

The story is similar in Winnebago County, Illinois, about halfway between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. Home prices are up 18% there, but wages are down 1.9%. That means the region’s affordability is also down 12% on the Attom scale.

Also of note on the list of 20 cities with the fastest rate of declining affordability: Greeley and Lakewood, Colorado; Austin, Amarillo, and Dallas, Texas; Richmond, Virginia; and two of the south’s hottest cities, Nashville, Tennessee and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Of course, the phenomenon of housing prices outpacing wage growth is not limited to these areas. Attom says home price growth outpaced wage growth in 81% of counties nationwide last year – in 363 of 447 counties studies. That’s up from 57% of counties a year ago.

“Rapid home price appreciation and tepid wage growth have combined to erode home affordability during this housing recovery, and the recent uptick in mortgage rates only accelerated that trend in the fourth quarter,” Blomquist said in the report. “The prospect of further interest rate hikes in 2017 will likely cause further deterioration of home affordability next year. Absent a strong resurgence in wage growth, that will put downward pressure on home price appreciation in many local markets.”

Remember, a good credit score can help make housing more affordable, even in pricey neighborhoods, since it can help you qualify for the best mortgage rates. You can see where your credit currently stands by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free at Credit.com.

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Buying a Home in 2017? These 5 Things Could Jeopardize Your Mortgage

Here are five homebuying deal breakers.

Shockingly, enough people still do things that can cause themselves heartache when applying for mortgages. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking about buying a home in 2017.

Your ability to buy a home rests on the numbers and documentation your mortgage lender has. If there is a change to any of these, your chances of buying a home can be jeopardized. This means that when there is a change to your credit, debit, income assets, or job during the escrow process, you might not be able to buy that house and you’ll risk losing your money. Here are five things to watch out for.

1. Applying for Credit

After you get a contract to buy your house, it’s best not to apply for any credit. This means not applying for car loans, credit cards, utility bills, cell phone bills or any other form of credit whatsoever. Doing so could change your credit score and impact your rate lock and/or fees associated with closing on the house. (If you want to see where your credit stands before applying for a mortgage, you can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.)

2. Changing Credit

You don’t want to close out or dispute any credit cards. If you have any accounts in dispute, the mortgage lender cannot run automated underwriting and they must pause your loan file until your accounts are taken out of dispute. If you close your credit card, that can hurt your credit score, which in turn can increase your fees or put your ability to buy a home at risk.

3. Moving Money Around

Moving money around can cause more headaches than necessary. If you are receiving gift funds, the donor can wire the funds directly to escrow, bypassing your bank account entirely. If any of these funds happen to hit your primary checking account, that could spell more trouble, as it could appear as though you are spending your cash to close.

4. Switching Jobs

Changing jobs and getting into contract with the proper documentation is one thing. Signing a purchase contract and changing jobs is something else entirely, as most mortgage banks typically want you to have your job for at least 30 days. Some lenders will also want a pay stub, an offer letter and verification of employment prior to closing on the home. Word to the wise: Close on the house with your current job, if possible.

5. Shopping for Your Move Before You Actually Close

Hiring a moving company when you have not signed your final loan documents is just plain unnecessary and it sets you up for failure. If you have a moving company come on a certain day and for whatever reason your house doesn’t close, things can become problematic. Hire a moving company after you’ve signed the final loan documents. Same goes for purchasing furniture, especially if those funds come in the form of credit or cash in the bank — close on the house first, then go shopping. Short-term gratification is not worth the risk.

By adhering to these steps after you sign your purchase contract, you will be well on your way to successfully closing escrow with little or no hiccups.

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4 Ways to Get Financially Healthy in 2017

Here are four savvy financial resolutions for the new year.

Next year will be here before we know it. Now is a great time to brush up on your financial health to ensure you have a happy and financially healthy new year. Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Check Your Credit Report

You can obtain a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com. Consider taking a second look at some financial mistakes you might have made in the past — maybe you missed a couple of payments on your credit card or took out too many credit cards at once, causing multiple hard inquiries.

You might want to write down what you did right and what you did wrong to help you not make those same mistakes in 2017. Since you are checking your credit report, you might also want to take a look at your credit score and think about ways you can boost your score in the new year. (You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.)

Taking a look at your credit report can also help you check for any irregularities such as fraud or identify theft. It’s a good idea to stay on top of your finances to avoid fraudulent activity.

2. Cash in Missing Money

Missing or unclaimed money could be checks that haven’t been cashed yet, dormant bank accounts, insurance refunds, etc. Now is the time to cash in your unclaimed money and put it toward any leftover debt you have so it doesn’t persist into the new year. If you paid off most of your debt, then consider putting your extra cash toward an emergency fund or savings account.

3. Tackle Your Debt

Paying down or reducing your debt in 2017 can be a great New Year’s resolution to start with. After checking your credit report, you might want to create a plan on how to pay off your debt in a timely manner. If you have a high-interest rate credit card with a high balance, then consider starting with that and going from there. (This credit card payoff calculator can help you come up with a plan.)

Consider taking a look at your bank statements from 2016. You might have been spending more on non-essential items than essential expenses. Go over the items that are most important and considered a need and not a want. If you have any outstanding debt, then you might want to skip over some of those extra indulgences until your debt is wiped clean.

4. Establish Savings Goals

Having a savings account in the new year will help you prepare for unexpected expenses and could even help you reach your financial goals (a new car, saving for a house, vacation, etc.). Take a look at your budget to help you devise a practical plan and consider having a start and end date to reach your savings goal.

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Research Proves This is The Best Method to Pay Down Debt

If you’re struggling to pay off several debts at once, a group of researchers may have found the best strategy for success.

In the study, which was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review in December, researchers found people who concentrated on paying off just one of several debts before moving on to the others repaid their debt 15% faster than people who consolidated their debts and tackled them all at once.

The researchers, who hailed from Boston University, University of Alberta, University of Manitoba, and Georgetown University, collected anonymous data from more than 6,000 HelloWallet users over 36 months. HelloWallet is an online financial program that allows employees to make financial goals and track their spending and debt payments.

By analyzing the methods HelloWallet users used to pay off their debt — focusing on one small debt at a time or paying all debts at once — the researchers could tell which method worked best.

“Our research suggests that people are more motivated to get out of debt not only by concentrating on one account but also by beginning with the smallest,” Boston University professor Remi Trudel, co-author of the report, told the HBR.

If this strategy sounds familiar, it should. It’s exactly how the popular “debt snowball” strategy works. In this method, the key lies in building momentum early on by achieving small “wins,” paying off tiny debts first and working your way up to larger debts.

When you pay off your first  $200 account balance, you’re more likely to be excited to tackle the credit card with $500 on it, then the card with a $1,500 balance, and so on. Likewise, by focusing on smaller debts, consumers are doing the crucial work of building good financial habits at an early stage. Once those habits become ingrained in their financial picture, they are more likely to keep them up, even as they take on larger debts.

If anything, Havard’s research simply supports why the snowball method is so popular — it really works.

Of course, if you are a fan of the other popular debt payoff methods like the debt avalanche or debt consolidation, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on a path to failure. If you have the option to consolidate all of your debts into one single loan at a lower rate (for example, by taking advantage of a balance transfer), math is on your side. By consolidating your debts at a lower interest rate, you will spend less money on interest over time.

However, if your high interest debts also happen to be the largest of your debt balances, you run the risk of getting discouraged early on and losing momentum because it will take so much more time to pay them off. If you are not confident that you’ll be motivated to pay off one large debt balance, you might be better off — as the Harvard study shows — working on your smallest debt first, even if it means paying more interest in the long run.

If you’re still interested in exploring different debt paydown methods, here’s a quick recap of the debt snowball vs. debt avalanche.

The snowball

When you snowball debt, you order all of your debts by balance and prioritize paying off the account with the lowest amount first. The method was made popular by Dave Ramsey and is the approach many use when tackling debt. The hope is that paying off lower balance loans will motivate you to pay off the remainder of the debt.

The avalanche

Mathematicians would likely argue in favor of the debt avalanche method. The avalanche approach has you order your debt by interest rate in order of the balance. Then, you prioritize paying off the account balance with the highest interest rate and attack the rest of your debt that way. The argument for this method is that it saves you money in the long run since you can avoid paying the most interest and will likely address the principal of your debt faster.

If your account with the highest interest rate is also your highest or one of your highest accounts by amount, the “avalanche” could have the opposite effect of the snowball method. It can be difficult to stay motivated if you don’t feel as if you are making much progress, and you could be discouraged early on.

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5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Credit Score in 2017

Building good credit can take awhile, but there are some steps you can take to jumpstart your credit score.

Improving your credit score is usually considered a lengthy project. Many factors that contribute to a good credit score — such as payment history and age of accounts — take time to establish. And if you have no credit history or a poor credit score, your best bet for credit improvement may be to establish a long-term plan for establishing good credit habits.

But if you’re thinking about applying for, say,  a mortgage in the new year or have another financing need on deck in early 2017, you may want to know how to quickly improve your credit score in 30 days or less. While no activity is guaranteed to improve your credit within a time frame that short, there are quick, simple actions you can take to try for fast results. Here are a few ways to jumpstart your credit score. 

1. Become an Authorized User

“One tried-and-true trick is to have someone with great credit add you as an authorized user to a card that they’ve had for a long time,” says Casey Fleming, author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.

Using this method, you can piggyback off someone else’s good credit. Authorized users benefit from responsibly managed accounts because these accounts will be listed on the user’s credit report. But both you and the account holder need to be wary – if they aren’t as financially responsible as you think, or if they use their card irresponsibly, your plan can backfire and both credit scores could suffer. (Note: Authorized users can request delinquent accounts be removed from their credit reports; primary cardholders not-so-much, so be sure you’re not overcharging.) 

2. Request a Credit Limit Increase

You can ask your credit card providers to increase the limits on all the cards you own. If you have a history of timely payments with your credit card provider, there’s a good chance they will negotiate. By increasing your credit limits, you’ll be improving your credit utilization rate, which is the amount of debt you’re carrying versus your total credit limits — and is a major contributing factor to your credit score.

Note: This will only work if you don’t increase your spending. If your credit card issuer raises your limit by $1,000, and you immediately start racking up charges that eat up the difference, the increased limit won’t do much good. Experts recommend keeping your credit card usage at no more than 30%, with an ideal balance at 10%. (You can check your credit utilization rate by viewing two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)

Keep in mind, too, a request for a credit limit increase could result in a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can ding your credit scores, so use this strategy carefully.

3. Pay Down Your Cards

To the point above, your credit utilization rate will also improve if you pay down your credit card balances. If you have some extra funds, consider making extra payments on your credit card rather than dropping $100 at Chili’s this weekend. Doing the former can make a real difference and is a decision you’re unlikely to regret.

“Paying down your credit card balances to under 30% of the limits” will net results, says Fleming.  

4. Check for Credit Report Errors 

There could be an error on your credit reports that are weighing your scores down — and, is so, its removal could quickly improve your standing. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com. If something is amiss, be sure to dispute it with the credit reporting agency in question. Most credit report disputes must be resolved in 30 days; a few can take up to 45 days. You can learn more about disputing errors on your credit report here.

5. Ask About Rapid Rescoring

If you’re applying for a mortgage, one lesser-known trick is to ask your lender about a rapid rescore. Rapid rescoring services are usually provided by mortgage lenders when applicants are on the cusp of qualifying for a better interest rate.

Rapid rescoring can to help update credit reports or fix errors quickly. If you recently paid off a debt, or have proof that a negative item on your credit report is inaccurate, you can provide that documentation to the lender. The lender will then request a rapid rescore on your behalf, and either absorb the cost or pass it on to you. You’ll want to ask your lender ahead of time whether you should expect charges for the service. 

“If you are working with a mortgage company for a loan, they would handle this for you and it should not [drastically] mark up the costs,” says Tal Frank, president of PhysicianLoans, a niche mortgage company. “The rescore is the quickest way to see a change in your score once balances have been paid down and repairs have been made. It can be as quick as a one- or two-day turnaround time.”

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How to Use Your New Contactless Payment Card

If you’ve gotten a new debit or credit card lately, you might have received one that is able to be used as a contactless payment card. You’ll know you’ve gotten a new contactless card if there is a telltale contactless symbol somewhere on the card. It’s often mistaken for a WiFi signal symbol.

But before you use your new contactless payment card, there are a few things you need to know.

What Is a Contactless Payment Card?

“Tap and pay” technology isn’t new, having been around since about 2007, but it is becoming more popular worldwide with countries in Europe relying heavily on the technology more so than in the United States.

Similar to Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay, contactless payment cards are a faster way for customers to make small purchases, usually under $25 or $50, without the need for a PIN or signature. Contactless debit, credit, and prepaid cards can simply be tapped or waved on or near a payment terminal or register.

While most people might enjoy this new convenience, it can seem annoying to some. After all, you probably got a new “chip” debit or credit card after recent security breaches at major chain stores, such as the Target scandal, and now you’re being forced to learn another new system. If this seems like a hassle, keep in mind that these new security features are being introduced to help keep your money safe. As hackers learn new ways to steal your information, credit card companies are working hard to introduce new security features to thwart their attempts.

This symbol indicates it is a contactless payment-enabled credit card.

Because the cards feature either a radio-frequency identification (RFID) signal or a near-field communication (NFC) signal to make a secure payment at close proximity, they are slightly different from the payment apps on your phone, like Apple Pay. These mobile payment apps use WiFi or cellular data and do not have to be physically close to a sales terminal to work.

Fraud and Security Concerns

According to Visa payWave questions and answers, you must wave your card within 1-2 inches of a terminal and be correctly oriented for transactions to go through, so there is no risk of contactless payment cards being accidently read from your purse or pocket.

This also cuts down on the risk of fraud from someone reading your financial information simply by passing an enabled card reader near you in a crowded street, which is a widely publicized fear internationally.

MasterCard’s website indicates that safeguards are in place to bill you only once for your purchase, even if you accidentally tap twice.

Contactless payments made by NFC are “just as secure” as payment made with chip-enabled cards, and probably more secure than payments made with stipe-enabled cards that must be swiped, according to both American Express and Visa payWave.

In fact, the risk of fraud is also reduced by using contactless payment cards because your payment device remains in your control during payment, rather than having to hand it to a store clerk to be swiped.

If you are a victim of fraud, your contactless transactions are covered by the same fraud protection as chip and PIN transactions.

Where Can You Get a Contactless Payment Card?

Most major credit card companies, including Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, have contactless payment technology available; however, your financial institution may or may not yet offer contactless payment enabled cards. Contactless payment enabled cards do not have to be turned on or off, they are always on.

Where Can You Use Contactless Payment Cards?

Contactless payment cards can be used anywhere that has enabled terminals with the contactless symbol at checkout. This includes many popular restaurant chains, gas stations, big box stores, and more. But keep in mind that most locations have a small limit of $25 or $50 for contactless purchases. You won’t be able to make a large purchase with a contactless credit card anytime soon.

Contactless payment cards can still be used by inserting your chip or swiping if terminals are not enabled for contactless payments.

Who Can Benefit from Contactless Payment Cards?

Before you decide to get and use a contactless payment card, be certain you have a handle on your budget and finances. The ease of “tap and go” payments reduces the psychological pain you might feel if you were paying with cash or even having to sign or enter your PIN for a transaction. Merchants are counting on you using contactless payment cards to make transactions more quickly, without giving yourself time to think about your purchases.

If you are someone who’s constantly on the go, and you have your spending under control, you might benefit from contactless payment cards.

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