11 Things You Can Do Now to Avoid Holiday Debt

Happy couple in the shopping center

If you were aghast at how much you spent on holiday gifts when the credit card bills arrived last January, now is the time to start thinking about how to avoid a repeat performance. Even though it may feel shockingly early to begin thinking about the holidays, starting now will give you plenty of time to plan, budget, and build a shopping fund so after New Year’s, you’ll hardly have a bill to pay. Below, financial experts share their favorite tips for emerging from the holidays virtually debt-free.

1. Look Back

It’s an ideal time to set a budget for your holiday shopping, but where to begin? Roshni Chowdhry, innovation and product development lead at SafetyNet, recommends looking at your past spending history. “We have a tendency to underestimate how much we will spend on gifts each holiday season,” she says. “Make a list of what you bought last year and note what was necessary and what wasn’t—then eliminate the latter. This will give you a realistic measure of how much you should plan to spend.” 

2. Make a Gift List

Making a list of whom you need to buy for and how much you plan to spend per person is an effective way to stay organized. Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for background-check service BeenVerified, says, “You can save yourself a lot by shopping from a list. This can prevent impulse buying, and thus, limit overspending.”

Before you finalize the list, Catey Hill, author of The 30-Minute Money Plan for Moms: How to Maximize Your Family Budget in Minimal Time, recommends asking yourself if you’re giving gifts to people you’re no longer connected to. “For people you don’t chat a lot with during the year, consider sending a card rather than a physical gift,” she says.

3. Change It Up

If you can’t get to a comfortable budget with your current list of recipients, Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement at Principal Financial Group, suggests that holding a family gift exchange or white elephant party—instead of buying many individual gifts—can be a fun way for everyone to celebrate and save money. “Set a spending limit that everyone is comfortable with to keep things fair and affordable,” he suggests. 

4. Build a Holiday Fund

Chowdhry advocates for having a specific fund for holiday shopping rather than drawing from any savings you already have. “Withdraw whatever you can afford to stash away each payday, whether it’s $20 or $200,” she advises. “When it comes time to do your shopping, use your saved cash first so you know exactly what you’re spending and can avoid pulling from your more important savings account.” 

5. Turn Pennies into Presents

Patterson suggests saving even more money by saving all your spare change. He says, “At the end of each day, make an effort to throw your extra cash and spare change into a jar. If you start now and commit to regularly adding to the pot, these small contributions can add up before the holiday shopping season begins.”

6. Eliminate Excess Spending

Consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch likes to save by cutting back on extras for a few months. “Review your spending over the past several months and identify areas where you can cut back,” she says. “Whether it’s weekly takeout, weekend spa appointments, or too many morning lattes, there is always room in your budget to cut back and boost your holiday savings.”

She suggests putting that money into a savings program at your bank or local credit union or using a site like SmartyPig.com, a free service that helps you stash cash for any purpose.

7. Play It Smart with Credit Cards

While you’re shopping, Steve Hasbrooke, the VP controller at Mission Federal Credit Union, recommends limiting your spending to one credit card, preferably the card with the lowest interest rate. “This will save you money by paying less interest while you pay off your holiday purchases,” he says.

And try to avoid the lure of opening a new store credit card while you’re out shopping. According to Dana Vas Nunes, senior manager of deposit products at Alliant Credit Union, “Retailers are incentivized to push them during the holiday season, and they often offer perks like a 15% discount if you open a card that day. But that discount can actually come at a steep cost. Most store cards have higher fees/costs than traditional credit card providers; it’s how they offset the discounts.” If you do decide to open a new card, do your research ahead of time and consider one of these recommended store credit cards. 

8. Reap the Rewards

Speaking of credit cards, remember to let your credit cards work for you. Woroch suggests that between social events, back-to-school shopping, and family getaways, you likely racked up quite a few points on your credit card over the summer. “Use those points to offset your holiday spending by turning them into gift cards,” she says. “You can give these cards as gifts or use them to pay for gifts.” 

9. Get Started Now

Giving yourself a few months to shop for holiday gifts allows plenty of time to find the perfect present and the best prices. Hasbrooke says, “If you’re like me, you have probably found yourself scrambling for a last-minute gift. This often leads to spontaneous purchases of items that may not be exactly what you would have chosen if you had more time to consider the purchase. It can also lead to spending more on that item than you budgeted for.”

10. Consider Layaway

Lavelle suggests that layaway can be a helpful tool to spread your spending out over a few months. He explains, “It is a concept from the past, but many stores are bringing it back, especially for toys and household items. The store will keep the item and allow you to make small payments toward the purchase price until you have it paid off.” 

11. Get Creative

Save money on holiday gifts by making some of them yourself, which is something that Certified Financial Consultant Jim Szakacs of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, recommends. “Consider giving gifts that you’ve made with your own two hands,” he says. “Nothing communicates more personally during the holidays than opening a gift that you know someone has spent time not only thinking about, but actually making for you.”

By following these tips now, you can avoid the shock of those post-holiday bills a few months down the road. Plan ahead to make sure you can enjoy your holidays without financial stress.

Image: Martin Dimitrov

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10 Essential Financial Life Lessons—What to Teach Your Kids Before They Leave Home

If the thought of hours in the car with your kids doesn't thrill you, here are some tips that can make your summer road trip downright enjoyable.

The moment you have dreaded has finally arrived. Your baby is leaving the nest. Some of the most valuable lessons you can impart should be shared right now, before they head out into the world.

In case you need help picking some wisdom to pass on, we’ve asked top money managers and financial pros to weigh in with their favorite lessons you should share with your child. You might learn a little something, too!

Lesson #1: Understand Debt

It’s important to understand what student loans and other debts will really cost, both today and in the long run. Catey Hill, author of the upcoming book “The 30-Minute Money Plan for Moms: How to Maximize Your Family Budget in Minimal Time,” suggests using real examples with dollar amounts to demonstrate. She says, “Bankrate has a calculator that shows what paying the minimum looks like. Use the cost of anything that might be relatable to your teen, then plug those numbers into Bankrate’s calculator to show how expensive an item can get when you pay just the minimum.”

Lesson #2: Know What You Expect to Earn Before You Borrow

When weighing whether or not to take out a loan to pay for school, College Ave Student Loans CEO and cofounder Joe DePaulo suggests that you think about the type of career you see in your future. “It’s okay if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do yet, but having an idea of your future earning potential will help you avoid over-borrowing now,” he says. “It’s a general rule of thumb not to borrow more for school than you expect to make in the first year of your professional career.”

Lesson #3:  Save, Save, and Save Some More

Save what you can, and make saving a habit by revisiting your spending and savings goals each month. David Osborn, entrepreneur and coauthor of “Wealth Can’t Wait,” says that by simply mastering the art of saving and investing, you could end up with a fortune. If you don’t understand money instinctively, Osborn suggests making it a priority to learn about wealth by reading or listening to roughly four books per year about investing. “Learning consistently leads to greatness over time,” he says. “Think of your extra dollars as employees, and if you put them to work for you, they will one day pay you all you need to live and more.”

Lesson #4: Set It and Forget It

Automating saving can lead to successful saving. Chad Parks, CEO of Ubiquity Retirement + Savings, suggests using a digital platform that saves for you so you don’t have to think about it. “One of my favorites is Digit.co, which analyzes your bank account and spending patterns,” he says. “The software looks at your daily checking account balance, learns your spending habits, and automatically moves small funds to your Digit account to increase savings. The amounts vary depending on your checking balance and spending habits for that day/week/month.”

Lesson #5: Learn How to Cut Back

If at any point you realize that finances are tighter than expected, conduct an assessment and see where adjustments can be made. Jared Kaplan, CEO of OppLoans.com, recommends that you “create a chart and total your income and expenses and compare them. If you spent more than you made, that’s a clear red flag.” Once you understand the inflow and outflow, you can figure out where to cut by separating wants from needs.

Lesson #6: Plan for the Unexpected

At school and beyond, be prepared for things to cost more than you planned. DePaulo recommends looking for ways to manage your spending to keep costs down.  “Borrow instead of buying school textbooks, maximize your pre-paid dining plan instead of eating off campus, and plan for one extra trip home each semester,” he says. “Finally, get advice from current college students to find out how much they are spending on extracurricular activities, school supplies, going out with friends, and more so you can create a realistic budget.”

Lesson #7: Make Your Bank Work for You

Today’s banks do a lot more than they did “back in our day.” Parks recommends the online bank Simple. “Simple has single-handedly changed my spending behavior and offers two savings features—Goals and Safe-to-Spend,” he said. “Goals allow me to save for anything, from my upcoming trip to Maui to my student loan payment, by auto-transferring money each day to the Goals. My money is still in my checking account (Simple does not make you open a traditional savings account), but when I look at my account, I just see a Safe-to-Spend balance, which excludes funds in my Goals.”

Lesson #8: Work Hard

Some young people struggle with lack of motivation and it’s our job as parents to help them understand the reality of working hard, especially when they have debt. Hill says, “Know the value of hard work—of picking up a job (or a second job) if you have to. Many of us will have debt at some point in our lives—and extra income can be one of the best ways to pay it down quicker.”

Lesson #9: Find a Side Hustle

Students have busy schedules, so a traditional job can be tricky. Thanks to today’s “gig economy,” though, there are lots of ways to earn money. Osborn says, “By going out and cutting grass, driving Uber, or even selling old textbooks online, you can create an additional stream of income. The more money you make, the more money you save, the more money you can invest!”

Lesson #10: To Ivy or Not to Ivy

Even if your child is accepted into a top school, it doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for their career path. Margot Bisnow, author of “Raising an Entrepreneur” suggests measuring the expense of school against the likely income generated by the career they intend to pursue. “Will going to Dartmouth help them earn more money as a songwriter ten years down the road? Probably not,” she says. “So set aside your ego and their ego, and ask yourselves the tough question: can we justify spending all this money on an elite private school? What’s the ROI, besides bragging rights?”

Learning financial literacy can be tough, but it’s a necessary life lesson for your children. Send them off with the best chances at success by helping them understand how to budget, how to save, and how to check their credit score (they can check it for free on credit.com) and keep their finances secure.

Image: Imgorthand

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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

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12 Ways to Save on Your Summer Garden

A summer garden can be a wonderful hobby and investment when you follow these money saving tips!

Back in the spring, you were confident you would have an award-winning garden by now. You thought you planned and planted well, but as you enjoy a glass of rosé on the back porches of friends, you realize that your garden pales in comparison. Never fear, it’s not too late. Gardening pros share their favorite tips for saving money on your summer garden upgrades.

1. Buy Small

While big plants look impressive, smaller plants are less expensive. Alice Rossiter, founder of Alice’s Table, producer of floral arrangement events, said, “If you’re in the market for perennials, trees, or flowering shrubs, purchase the younger, more economical sizes. While smaller in the beginning, the plants will quickly grow to the same size as the marked up, larger sizes.”

2. Reuse & Recycle

If you’re starting seeds for next year, Rossiter recommended used K-Cups instead of small plastic pots. “These small cups are perfect for starting seeds,” she said. “Plus, they already have a hole created in the bottom that’s perfect for drainage, reducing plastic waste and saving you time and money.” She also recommends checking out summer yard sales for great deals on gently used tools and supplies.

Trevor Morton, content creator for Australian gardening service provider Fantastic Gardeners Melbourne, suggested saving your own bulbs, seeds, and cuttings instead of buying new ones. “Also, If you want a plant you don’t have, check if your friends have it,” he said. “I’m sure they will be happy to share.”

3. Team Up

Rossiter suggested creating a “purchasing pod” with your friends or neighbors. “You’ll save about 20% buying flowers — like annuals — by the flat, versus individual cell packs,” she said.

Joining online communities can help save you money, too. Gena Lorainne, horticulturist and plants expert at UK-based gardening service provider, Fantastic Gardeners UK, said, “Look online for communities where you can swap seeds and plants with other garden enthusiasts instead of paying for new ones.”

4. Grow What You Can Eat & Drink

Gardens don’t only look pretty, they can be functional, too. Craig Jenkins-Sutton, founder and president of Topiarius, a landscaping firm in the Chicago area, said, “One of the biggest trends for 2017 is growing juice gardens to cut the cost of the grocery bill. There is nothing like picking fresh fruits and greens from the garden and using them in the juicer.” He also suggested growing fruits and vegetables while you’re at it.

Herbs are also very useful to grow in your garden. Lorainne said, “It is in all cases better to have a herb garden instead of buying fresh.” She noted, “It is definitely less expensive to grow a herb garden from seed, but transplants will be ready to harvest much earlier and will be easier to grow.”

5. Spend to Save

Sometimes you need to invest more up front to save long-term. Morton said, “Investing in drip irrigation or soaker hoses will save a lot of money in the long run. Burying those under the soil or mulch will deliver small amounts of water straight to the roots of your plants. This is better than soaking the top of the soil as it is better absorbed and also conserves water.”

Jake Hill, research analyst for on-demand lawn service LawnStarter.com, recommends buying high quality equipment instead of cheap. “The more money you put up front on quality equipment such as shovels, trowels, wheelbarrows, etc. the longer your equipment will last,” he said.

6. Go Slow

Be prepared to take your time. “In many cases, those opting to do home landscape projects might be working with limited financial resources, so we recommend purchasing your materials in phases,” said Don Caroleo, owner of The Garden Dept., a nursery and landscaping business on Long Island, New York. “Not only does this help keep costs under control, but it also allows homeowners to adjust their plans and designs as they work.”

7. Self-Seed

Hill recommends focusing on self-seeding plants that grow back year after year on their own. Some examples include Forget-me-not, Verbena bonariensis, and Chrysanthemum parthenium. “The plants you select should be well adapted to your growing zone so they will not require any special attention,” he said. He proposes referencing the Department of Agriculture hardiness map for more details.

8. Water Wisely

Hill suggested collecting rainwater in rain barrels and to be smart about watering. “Water your garden in the cool morning hours to reduce losses to evaporation,” he said. “Also, mulch the soil at least two inches thick to keep the ground cool and moist, and water the soil not the foliage (so it gets to the roots where the plants need it).”

9. Keep the Trees

Trees can keep a garden cool, and that’s a good thing. Cassy Aoyagi, founder and President of FormLA Landscaping, a sustainable landscaping firm based in Los Angeles, said, “Trees canopies can cool a garden by as much as 20 degrees. According to the [Environmental Protection Agency], strategic use of trees can reduce energy bills by as much as 50%. Trees also have their own, appraisable value and increase the value of homes.”

10. Make the Most of Your Space

We don’t all have a ton of land to create the garden of our dreams. Bonny Ford from the lifestyle and design blog, FurnishMyWay, said you can expand your usable space with vertical planters. She refers to easy do-it-yourself projects for vertical planters on BonniePlants.com and on the Better Homes and Gardens site.

11. Shop Around

If you’ve determined that maintaining your own garden will be too much work, Gene Caballero, Co-Founder of GreenPal (the “Uber for lawn care”), suggested shopping around before choosing a provider. “Using online services like GreenPal, LawnLove and LawnStarter to find lawn care can ensure that any homeowner is getting the best bang for their buck,” he said. “When homeowners list their lawn, they are getting quotes from several lawn pros. They are inevitably going to get bids from various lawn care professionals at the best rate.”

While deciding on a provider, consider using a cash back card when you seal the deal. A lot of credit cards have great cash back deals that can make the cost more bearable. Remember, many cash back cards require a decent credit score to reap those rewards. You can check two of your credit scores for free at Credit.com.

12. Prep for the Pro

Doing a little legwork before you bring in a landscape designer can save you time and money. “Prepare your ideas before meeting your prospective landscaper,” said Jenkins-Sutton. “Some companies offer free consultations, but it’s standard for others to charge. Offer as much detail as possible like printing or tearing out images of things you like from landscaping websites, magazines and books.”

Image: AleksandarNakic

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Summer Road Trip: 12 Tricks for Eating on the Cheap

Food and beverages on a road trip can really add up. Here are some easy, money-saving tips to keep you on budget when you're on the go.

Nearly 80% of American families plan to hit the road this summer, a 10% increase over last year, according to AAA. Many of us assume that a road trip will be a budget-friendly vacation idea, but the expense of meals, snacks and beverages on the road can cost more than we anticipate. We polled top travel experts and found more than a dozen ways to save on eats during your adventures on the open road this summer.

1. Stock up on Snacks

Travel writer Christina Valhouli avoids buying potentially overpriced snacks at gas stations and roadside convenience stores. “I stock up on snacks from my local supermarket or Costco before a trip. I make individual sized portions in Ziploc bags and pass them around the car,” she said. She uses clothespins to securely close bags of snacks, as they are sturdier and less expensive than chip clips.

2. Snack Healthy

Lisa Scurlock, owner of Gratitude Yoga in Chicago, likes to avoid junk food when she’s on the road. “I always pack protein bars, like Oatmega grass-fed whey protein bars, to keep me energized when I’m traveling to yoga retreats throughout the summer — they taste great and have tons of protein without a lot of sugar,” she said. “Plus, I save money by packing a box of four bars instead of buying one at a time from pricey rest stops along the way.”

3. Save With Apps

Sandra Hanna from SmartCookies.com recommends using the Ibotta app to look for restaurant deals. “If you’re on the road and want to stop for a bite, check out Ibotta’s offers for Buffalo Wild Wings or any number of restaurants available through Groupon,” she said. “You could earn up to 20% cash back on Groupon just by starting with Ibotta. Then cash out via PayPal or Venmo and put some gas in the tank.”​

Gabe Saglie, a travel expert from Travelzoo, recommends the free Travelzoo app. “The app geo-targets your location to showcase exclusive deals at nearby restaurants,” he said. “These deals — which can include everything from mimosa breakfasts to specially curated multi-course dinners — are vetted, tested, and represent significant savings.”

4. Breakfast Included

Saglie suggested being strategic when you book your hotel. “If you’re on a multi-day road trip, look for hotels where breakfast comes standard with your stay,” he said. “The option to grab a meal before you hit the road again can be a big money-saver.” Many hotels will feed your kids for free, or at a discount, he said. “At Fairmont hotels, for example, kids age 5 and under eat free from the children’s menu, and kids ages 6 to 12 eat for half price when ordering off the regular menu. Four Seasons and Starwood/Marriott hotels have similar programs.”

You’ll save more if you’re a member of your favorite hotel’s rewards club, and even more if you have a hotel rewards credit card. If you don’t already have one, keep in mind that most rewards cards require good credit to qualify. You can see where your credit stands by checking your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

Valhouli favors chains like Extended Stay or Marriott’s Residence Inn, because they often have kitchenettes. “You can whip up an easy breakfast or lunch in a kitchenette,” she said. “One $5 box of granola will go a long way!”

5. Look for Perks

Saglie suggests taking advantage of the free morning coffee service at many hotels. Some hotels also offer wine in the evenings. “Kimpton hotels offer a complimentary wine hour every day at 5 p.m., and Embassy Suites hotels feature complimentary managers’ cocktail receptions, which are an effective way to save on your night out,” he said.

6. Fill up on Coffee

Don Munsil co-owner of the vacation planning website MouseSavers.com, suggested filling a thermos with coffee before you leave the house on day one of your trip. “You can refill it at the hotel breakfast service the next morning,” he said. Need more later in the day? “Places like Denny’s or IHOP will usually fill your thermos for the cost of a single cup of coffee, or McDonald’s will typically eyeball your thermos and charge for one or two large coffees.”

7. Order Ahead

If you want to save time on the road, Tammilee Tilson of the Tammilee Tips blog suggests ordering snacks and other road trip essentials from the CVS Pharmacy app during breakfast while at the hotel or campground. (Here are some handy tips for saving money at CVS.) “You can use the app to access great deals through their ExtraCare Rewards Program wherever you are, and easily make your shopping list accordingly,” she said. “If the local store has curbside pickup, you can quickly pick up your items on the way to your next destination.”

8. Some Assembly Required

If you plan to stop for a picnic along the way, Munsil recommends buying sandwiches in the morning — unassembled. “To avoid soggy sandwiches, ask for them unassembled, with the filling for each one portioned out and ready to go in a plastic container, the spreads in little sealed cups and the pre-sliced rolls or bread in a bag,” he said. “Stick the meats and mayo in your cooler and the bread bag in a sunny part of the car so it’ll be warm.”

9. Load up on Lunch

If you go to a restaurant for lunch, Adrian Gradinaru, founder and CEO of Sailo.com, a peer-to-peer marketplace for boat rentals, suggests making lunch the main meal of the day. “Americans favor dinner as the main meal of the day but it tends to be more expensive,” he said. “Instead, try making lunch your principal meal as most people outside the U.S. do. Many restaurants offer special prix-fixe lunch menus that are a great deal.”

10. Bring the Beverages

Valhouli’s rule of thumb at hotels? Avoid the minibar. “We always pack a small, soft sided cooler in our car and stock it with juice boxes, soft drinks or wine for the adults so that we are never tempted to hit the overpriced minibar,” she said. Her only use for the minibar is to refreeze her ice packs overnight.

11. Get Gift Certificates

The Costco or Sam’s Club websites often offer discounted restaurant gift cards to their members from major chains like Landry’s and Darden’s, Munsil said. “Sometimes the gift cards will appear to be for a specific restaurant, but usually that card will work at any restaurant owned by that chain,” he said.

He also suggested planning your evening stops in decent-sized towns and checking a site like Restaurant.com for gift certificates to local restaurants. Larger towns are more likely to have participating restaurants. You can also check out tips for slicing your restaurant food costs.

12. Eat With the Locals

Gradinaru suggests staying away from touristy hot spots. “Instead, venture into more residential neighborhoods, where you’ll likely find some excellent and cheap establishments,” he said. He also suggests asking around. “Concierges tend to recommend pricier restaurants near your hotel, so try asking a waiter, bartender or your host (if you are staying in an Airbnb), where they like to eat. They’ll likely give you some great options,” he said.

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7 Common Couples Fights That Can Be Solved by Shopping

Whether you’re bickering about mattress firmness or the fact you’re not saving enough, fight no more.

No matter how harmonious your relationship, the occasional fight with your significant other is unavoidable. Whether you’re bickering about mattress firmness or the fact you’re not saving enough, fight no more. These common couples’ issues can be solved by something as simple as going shopping.

1. The Bed  

The Conflict: One person likes it firm, and one likes it soft.

The Solution: Next time you’re in the market for a mattress, consider a customizable one from companies like ReST Bed and Reverie, which allow you to adjust the firmness on each side of the bed. Some even offer sleep data and the ability to change the temperature.

2. No Closet Space

The Conflict: You can’t see your slacks for the suits. Or shoes. Or sweaters.

The Solution: Exchange your plastic hangers for extra-slim velour ones like those from Closet Complete or inventor Joy Mangano.

3. Too Much Stuff on the Floor 

The Conflict: All those piles are turning into a sore spot, and your tiny home looks like a bomb site.

The Solution: Designated hooks for each item would help, but who has the time to install them? Instead of classic hooks, look for ones that can be installed tool-free like High & Mighty or Command.

4. Moving

The Conflict: You’ve found a new home and are ready to leave, but moving feels like a chore.

The Solution: A full-service moving company, like Moving.com or Mayflower, can manage every part of your move. You’ll pay a bit more, but having the peace of mind — and peace in your relationship — is worth it.

5. Storage

The Conflict: You love your old beat-up rug and massive collection of record albums. Your partner doesn’t.

The Solution: Rather than insist these items take up precious real estate, get some storage. Self-storage can feel like moving, but full-service firms like Sparefoot and Closetbox come to you, take an inventory of your stuff and cart it off to a secure facility.

6. The Lawn

The Conflict: No one wants to mow it.

The Solution: You’ve heard of the Roomba robot. Imagine the harmony an automated lawn mower could bring. Today, mowers from brands like Worx and Robomow can get the job done hands-free. They also do amazing things like return to their charging station for more juice.

7. Saving Money 

The Conflict: You’re spending too much and saving too little.

The Solution: Cutting back on spending is a good first step, but if your budget has minimal wiggle room for socking money away, try using a service that rounds up your purchases like Acorns, Digit or Bank of America. They’re all a bit different, but once you set up the service, your debit card purchases will be rounded up to the nearest dollar and saved or invested on your behalf. (Be sure to track your finances by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Image: PeopleImages

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Successful Entrepreneurs Share Secrets for Running a Lean & Mean Businesses

Let these entrepreneurial whiz kids make your life a little easier.

Running your own business is an unpredictable adventure with highs, lows, twists and turns. And while you’ll weather much of what comes along, you will also make mistakes. Why not minimize missteps by listening to the advice of those who have come before you? Here are 15 tips from successful entrepreneurs on being efficient, keeping overhead low and more.

Your Team

“Always be ready to adapt your needs to match your employees to their strengths, so that they will shine, instead of fitting them to the job description. In other words, the ’round peg versus square hole’ concept at its best.”

Christi Lopez, President, Bergerons Flowers, a floral design studio in Springfield, Virginia

“Invest wisely by hiring skilled experts — rather than less expensive novices — who can focus on their areas of expertise (for example, sales, marketing, public relations, graphic design) and can dive into the details so you are able to focus on the big picture and set the overall direction for the company.”

 Kelly Carroll Burgin, Owner/Founder of K. Carroll Accessories , a luxury vegan handbag line

“Outsource repetitive and time consuming tasks to a virtual assistant, like Peach Tree Virtual Assistants. If you are organized and have systems in place, they can often accomplish more in 10 hours a month than you could with the same amount of time.”

Kaysha van der Heyden, a modern wedding and lifestyle photographer based in Orange County, California

Virtual assistants are a great way to get help without a huge cost.  They can relieve you of low value tasks and because they’re virtual, you don’t have any additional costs. I’ve found my people through Elance (now Upwork).”

– Jamie Chang, Founder, Passport to Joy, an online program that guides couples through planning their own wedding

[Editor’s note: If you’re starting your own business or thinking about it, your good credit can make it easier. Here are some tips for not letting your business ruin your credit. You can check two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.]

Coaching

“Business/marketing coaching is everything because I’m not amazing at that stuff, and my business grows so much faster when I invest in a coach.”

Meg Hodge, Owner, Centered: Richmond Acupuncture & Wellness, a well-being facility in Richmond, Virginia

“Amplifying the RestoPresto brand is essential so with a tight PR and marketing budget, I deeply value the affordable (and free) strategies, tips and guidance by PR coach Sabina Hitchen of Sabina Knows. Combining that ‘how to’ knowledge with free HARO (Help a Reporter Out) media leads has gained amazing press for the RestoPresto wearable blanket including a feature on the TODAY Show!”

Candi Obrentz, creator of RestoPresto, the lightweight compact pouch that unfolds to a soft, water-repellent, thin layer to sit on or wear

Efficiencies

“I use a few filters to determine how to prioritize my time and my business spending. First, I look for things that will help me increase sales, because without sales, your business will fail. Second, I look for things that I spend too much time on that I can automate or outsource. This frees up my time to spend on higher value activities that directly impact revenue and client satisfaction. If more business owners focused on these things first instead of the superficial things that don’t immediately drive revenue, we would have fewer business failures. Sales fund everything in your business. Not the other way around.”

Maria Bayer, a consultant who helps experts in creative fields book clients they love and get paid what they’re worth

“Schedule, schedule, schedule. Make sure you schedule out your days and times for efficiency while leaving time for emergencies or tasks running over.”

Kim Sayatovic, Belladeux Event Design, an event design and planning firm in New Orleans

“Use technology to your advantage. Take some time and research some apps that will help streamline your day. A few we like are Evernote, Todoist and Acuity. Also, manage your time wisely. Block off time throughout your day to work on projects, but don’t forget to schedule some time for yourself!”

Kevin Dennis, editor of WeddingIQ and owner of Fantasy Sound Event Services, a full-service event company based in Livermore, California

Reduce Costs

“Reduce premises costs. Move to smaller premises or allow staff to work from home to save rent, business rates and utilities. Also, rent rather than buy equipment. Renting reduces capital investment and lets you speedily upgrade equipment, while saving on maintenance and repair.”

Vernic Popat, Co-Founder of PlantOGram.com, which produces sustainable, eco-friendly fruit tree gifts an alternative to traditional gifts.

Travel cost-effectively. Also, hold teleconferences whenever possible, rather than traveling to meetings,” said Popat.

“When it comes to tools and software, keep only what you need, use and like, and dump the rest. This will help reduce your monthly costs,” said Jamie Chang.

Communicate

“Schedule 30 minute ‘coffee talks’ with your staff in the morning to go over current projects and then monthly brainstorm meetings outside the office — ‘wine and brain dump’ for future ideas and strategic planning.”

Lynette Lovelace, Creator and CEO of Lifetherapy, a retail site focusing on well-being.

“When launching a new initiative, always test markets first, especially if you’re planning to reach a national audience. The cost to launch on a larger scale can be considerable, so best to make sure you have benefited from consumer feedback while also reducing any uncertainties.”

Joanne Jiang, founder, LadyMarry, an app that guides engaged couples through the wedding planning process through an easy-to-use interface.

“For service-based businesses, it can be tempting to say yes to every project and client that comes along, even if you are too busy to handle everything.  But one bad client can make you miserable or even hurt your business. Say no to the projects that are not a good fit for you so that you have more space to say yes to your ideal clients and projects.”

Ann Oleinik, Ann & Kam Photography & Cinema, a husband-and-wife wedding photography and cinematography team based in Chicago.

Image: svetikd

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5 Things You Need for a Successful Home Fitness Routine

Here's everything you need to get in shape at home.

Have you been skipping the gym too many times? Enough with the excuses. Just because you can’t get out (or don’t want to join a gym), doesn’t mean you can’t stay fit. Here’s everything you need to work out at home successfully without going into debt.

1. The Right Surface

If you have a spare area in your home to call your own, create a cushioned surface with Soft Tiles, which are interlocking 5/8-inch thick mats made of a non-toxic ethylene-vinyl acetate foam ($120 at SoftTiles.com for a nine-piece set covering a 6 1/2-foot by 6 1/2-foot space). These waterproof tiles are available in a ton of colors and have attachable beveled edges to create a smooth transition from the floor, so no tripping. Keep it simple with a color or two or use the Soft Tiles “mat builder” feature to create your own design.

If your workout space needs to be convertible, a yoga mat is a good way to go. There are different thicknesses, colors and patterns available, so check out a yoga lifestyle site like Gaiam.com for lots of high quality options.

2. The Right Apparel

You might think you’re just working out at home, so why wear anything special? Think again.

“Gearing up in clothing that’s designed for you to work out is one of the most powerful reminders to get into your fitness practice,” said Tara Mackey, health expert, author of “Cured By Nature” and founder of The Organic Life blog. “When I was first starting to change my exercise habits, I simply left my workout clothes and running shoes out by my bed the night before. This becomes an automatic reminder to make fitness a priority — first thing in the morning.”

I recommend ultra comfortable clothes you can also see yourself wearing for a run or at the gym. For women, a supportive workout bra is a must. The Tasc Performance TTFN (Ta Ta For Now) Studio Sports Bra ($44 at TascPerformance.com) is a mid-impact sports bra with supportive straps and a wide bottom band. It has crisscross straps in the back and side cutouts, so it’s cute under a loose tee if you make it to the gym or have to run out for an errand.

My new favorite leggings are the Luna Leggings from Liquido ($84 at LiquidoActive.com), which are said to help with microcirculation, firmness and reduce the appearance of cellulite. All I know is they are comfy and flattering. They are great to work out in, but are equally as comfortable for all-day wear.

For men, the Shēdo Lane Men’s Short Sleeve Sun Shirt ($28 at ShedoLane.com) is one of the softest tees you’ll own. The fabric has stretch and movement and, if you decide to go for a run, the shirt has an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50+. The Hylete verge II flex-woven zip pocket shorts ($80 at Hylete.com) feel virtually weightless but are durable and have features like a zippered pocket and a two-way drawstring allowing you lace the shorts inside or outside, depending on your preference.

3. The Right Tools

No matter what kind of workouts you prefer, it’s wise to stock up on a few essentials should you decide to branch out. A good place to start is with an all-in-one kit like the FitKit — Total Fitness in a Kit ($39.99). This kit contains essentials like resistance bands, a door anchor and a jump rope. It’s also weighs only 2 pounds so it’s good for travel. It includes fitness cards to help get you started and you’ll have access to a library of more than 250 exercises. For more workout options, check out YouTube, where you’ll find hundreds — if not thousands — of free fitness videos of any style, length or discipline you can imagine.

Mackey suggests weights as well. “Even if you have to use soup cans (which is what I did before I could afford a set of weights), make sure you are lifting at least a little bit every day,” she said. “Today, the investment is minimal; you can find five-pound weights for less than $20 on Amazon.” I also like to have a couple of kettle bells and an exercise ball on hand.

4. A Good Recovery Rub

Even if you’re working out at home, you can go overboard. For days when you are experiencing soreness, keep a muscle rub, like the Procure Epsom Salt Rub ($5.97 at Walmart) on hand. This lightweight gel is a blend of of Epsom salt and aloe vera to sooth sore muscles. And it’s fragrance-free so you won’t smell like a walking bottle of menthol.

5. An Alternative Exercise Option

And for those days when you don’t feel like doing anything at all, place a Posture Cushion ($37.99 at BackPainHelp.com) on the chair at your desk. Not only is it helpful for back pain and is comfortable to sit on, it functions like a fitness ball. Its unstable surface forces your body to sit actively to stay balanced, which, in turn, strengthens your core. If you’ve invested in a fitness ball, you can replace your desk chair with it for the same effect.

As you begin your new workout regimen you’ll want to meet with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to do the workouts you’re planning. Likewise, you’ll want to check your financial health before buying a bunch of equipment. You don’t want to gain physical fitness at the cost of fiscal fitness. You can start by checking your credit scores absolutely free on Credit.com.

Image: Mikolette

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Shopping Last-Minute for Dad? Here Are 10 Ways to Stick to Your Budget

Just say no to ties, socks and underwear this year. Get your dad something he'll really love instead.

You know Father’s Day is coming, but somehow it sneaks up on you every year. Mother’s Day is hard to ignore — after all, we’re practically blanketed with commercials and print ads — but dear old dad can fall by the wayside. So here you are, days before Father’s Day with no gift strategy. You want to give your favorite father something special but you don’t want to pay a fortune. Here are 10 ways to do that.

1. Use Coupons… & Get Ideas

Sites like Coupons.com and Dealnews.com have blog posts about gift giving holidays. They’ll include deals on gifts you might already be considering, but they also have budget-friendly suggestions if you need ideas. Also keep in mind that coupons can help you save year-round.

2. Get Cash Back

A number of online retailers have cash-back offers, especially with Father’s Day around the corner. The easiest way to find out about these offers is to use a Chrome desktop extension, like the one from CouponCabin.com. It installs in seconds and notifies you of available cash-back offers as you shop online. You can get more cash back by using your cash-back rewards credit card. Don’t have one? Check out some of our favorites here, but also make sure your credit is in good standing before applying. You can get your two free credit scores on Credit.com.

3. Pound the Pavement

At this late date, you’ll likely pay expedited shipping fees to get your package on time. The one good thing about waiting until the last minute is that it’s an excuse to patronize your local merchants instead of shopping online. These shops need your business and you’re more likely to find a beautiful gift you’d never find browsing on your laptop.

4. Do It Yourself

You know what dad would really appreciate? Something you’ve made yourself. He loved that macaroni necklace you made in first grade and he’ll love what you make now. You can find tons of ideas on Pinterest by searching “Father’s Day crafts.” A lot of them are geared toward kids if you want to get your little ones in on the action, but there are good ideas for adults, too, like hand-painted signs and creative food gifts.

5. Buy Handmade

Not crafty? Buy from someone who is. Etsy has an array of handmade items. These craftspeople don’t have the overhead of larger companies so the prices are usually fair. While orders usually ship quickly based on our experience, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the shipping policies of the person you are ordering from so you know when your gift will arrive.

6. A Date With Dad

When you were a kid, did you do fun things with your dad, like hiking, riding bikes or tossing a ball around? Plan a walk down memory lane for Father’s Day and do those things you both enjoyed. And it’s free, with the exception of gas, tolls and any park admission fees.

7. Breakfast in Bed

You always think of breakfast in bed for mom on Mother’s Day. Why not a relaxing meal in bed for dad? Make his favorite breakfast, juice and coffee and include the morning paper. If you’re feeling generous, offer to take over his morning household duties while he lounges in the lap of luxury.

8. Dining Out

Maybe a meal at a local restaurant is more his speed. Before you make a reservation, check Restaurant.com for deals. You can search by city and cuisine to find offers. In many cases, you can buy a $25 voucher for $10, saving yourself $15. Because restaurants tend to offer pricey prix fixe packages for occasions like Father’s Day, convince dad to celebrate with you another day instead.

9. Safety in Numbers

Instead of tackling Father’s Day on your own, host a group gathering with your siblings or a few friends and their dads. A Father’s Day potluck brunch or dinner means less work and a reduced financial outlay. Use a site like PerfectPotluck.com or SignUpGenius.com to organize who is bringing what.

10. Ask Him

Did you ever think to ask dad what he wants for Father’s Day? He could be hoping for something that didn’t occur to you (keep pressing if he says, “oh, nothing.”) If you don’t want to appear lazy, make him a card that encourages him to choose. Give it to him a few days early (like, today) so you’ll have time to plan.

Image: AleksanderNakic

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10 Ways to Save at Universal Studios Florida

Whether you’re a seasoned theme-park pro or it’s your first visit, you'll want to check out these 10 tips before you book anything.

For months, you and the family have been dying to take a trip to Universal Studios Florida to Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon and lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. Of course, such a family vacation doesn’t come cheap. So whether you’re a seasoned theme-park pro or it’s your family’s first visit, you’ll want to check out these 10 tips before you book anything.

Now, read on for 10 tips to save big at Universal Studios Florida.

1. Get Park-to-Park Tickets

Kimberly Anwar, owner of Magic Family Getaways in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, recommended families stay at Universal hotels and get Park-to-Park tickets instead of 1-Park tickets.

“These packages have early park admission benefits as well as other discounts, depending on the offer, and you’ll have access to the Hogwarts Express, which goes to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” she said.

2. Book in Advance

A spokesperson at Universal Orlando Resorts recommended purchasing park tickets online, which can save up to $20 off regular admission and help you avoid waiting in line. You can print your tickets at home or at one of the park entrance kiosks.

3. Stay Awhile

The spokesperson also said the longer you stay, the less expensive each day will be. For example, a one-day 1-Park ticket starts at $110, while a three-day 1-Park ticket starts at $74 per day. Similarly, a one-day Park-to-Park ticket starts at $165, while a three-day Park-to-Park ticket starts at $92 per day.

4. Visit On-Site Hotels

If you’re traveling during peak times — think summer, Christmas or Spring Break — Don Munsil, co-owner of MouseSavers.com, a guide to theme-park discounts, suggested booking one night at an on-site hotel like the Hard Rock to get free Universal Express Unlimited passes, which come with every stay.

“The key thing is that Ultimate Express will allow you to ride everything in the park easily in two full days,” he said. Just remember, “you do have to get up early to get on the Harry Potter rides, since they’re not eligible for Express.”

5. Consider Annual Passes

You may not think your visit Universal Orlando enough to justify an annual pass, especially if you’re traveling a sizable distance to get there, but Munsil said it’s worth looking into. On-site hotels often offer good rates for annual passholders, and “you can get the Power Annual Pass for a little more than a three-day ticket,” he said.

Typically, Christmas and Spring Break dates are blacked out, but there’s the option of buying the Preferred Annual Pass, which has no blackout dates and includes a 15% discount at Hard Rock Cafe and 10% off at most shops.

“If you plan to spend more than $250 on food and merchandise, which is pretty easy to do, you’ll come out ahead with this pass and not have to worry about blackout dates,” Munsil said.

6. Research Seasonal Passes

If you’re traveling during the off season, Munsil said to consider buying the Seasonal Pass, which offers some hotel discounts. Be sure to check blackout dates, as this pass carries more than the other passes.

7. Drop by CityWalk Guest Services

Money-saving package deals are available here, according to the Universal Orlando Resorts spokesperson. Spring for the Meal & Movie or Meal & Mini-Golf deal to score dinner at a CityWalk restaurant and a movie at the AMC Universal Cineplex 20 or a round of 18-hole mini-golf, all at a discount.

8. Score a Souvenir Cup

Universal Orlando Resort offers a variety of refillable souvenir cups that you can get refilled at a discount. Like popcorn? Carey Reilly of CareyReilly.com said to buy a souvenir tub of popcorn that can be refilled all over the park. She also suggested bringing your own snacks to help you save.

The Universal Orlando Resorts spokesperson recommended checking into the Universal Dining Plan, which bundles drinks, meals and snacks together at more than 100 participating locations.

9. Use Travel Rewards Cards 

For families on a budget, a great way to put their spending to use is with travel rewards cards, which offer incentives like airline miles and free hotel stays. Certain credit cards may even get you discounts around the park (which you can read more about here.)

Just be sure to track what you spend so you don’t lose your rewards to high interest, or worse, end up accruing unwanted debt. No one wants to come home to an eye-popping credit card bill. You can check out our roundup of travel rewards cards here. (Remember, these cards tend to come with high standards, including requiring a good or excellent credit score. You can see two of your credit scores on Credit.com at no charge to get an idea if you’ll be able to qualify.)

10. Hit the Cabana

Anwar recommended checking out Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay water theme park, which opened in May.

“There are private family concierge cabanas that fit up to 15 guests and include fruit and snack baskets, a small, pre-stocked refrigerator and locker and towel service,” she said. “If you share the cabana with one or two other families or go as a group, it’s worth the little extra cost.”

I went for the opening, and as water parks go, it’s pretty darn cool. There are beaches, wading pools, lazy rivers, water rides, restaurants and more, so you could feasibly stay for hours.

More of a Disney fanatic? We’ve got some tips on how you can visit Disney World for free (or close to it).

Image: Haxortech

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

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