10 Tips for Doing Your Taxes Yourself

W-4 Tax Form

If you’re planning to file your own tax returns this year, you’re in good company. Approximately 33 percent of Americans file their own taxes each year.

As you’re gathering all of your 2017 tax documents and preparing to file your taxes there are some important things to keep in mind. Following these tips will help you avoid common pitfalls and mistakes and ensure you keep as much of your own money in your pocket as possible. After all, the less money you have to give to Uncle Sam, the more you can put towards reaching your financial goals, paying off debt, or otherwise positively impacting your credit score.

Know the filing deadline

We all have April 15 burned in our brains as the last day to file taxes. But if that date falls on a weekend or a holiday the due date can be different by a couple of days. Of course, this is always to the taxpayer’s advantage, as no calendar occurrence move the due date prior to April 15 in any year. If the date is different it will always be later than April 15. For example, the filing deadline this year is April 16, 2018.

Make sure you need to file

If you’re not sure whether or not you need to file, you can find out using the IRS’s online Interactive Tax Assistant. By answering some basic questions about your filing status, gross income and whether you had federal income tax withheld, you will be able to determine whether or not you need to file for a particular tax year.

Review last year’s tax returns

Reviewing the information from the previous year’s federal and state tax returns will make the current year’s filing much simpler. Much of the information will be the same, including employer federal ID numbers, children’s social security numbers, etc.

Gather all necessary income documentation

Make sure to gather all forms that include income information, specifically those from employers and financial institution. These includes:

  • Form W-2 (wages)
  • W-2G (gambling winnings)
  • 1099-INT (interest)
  • 1099-DIV (dividends)
  • 1099-B (investment sales)
  • Combined 1099 (brokerage combined tax statement)
  • 1099-MISC (independent contractor work, royalties)
  • 1099-R (retirement distributions)
  • K-1 (MLP, Partnership or S-Corp share of income)
  • SSA-1099 (Social Security benefits)
  • 1099-G (unemployment benefits and state tax returns)
  • 1099-C (forgiven debt).
  • Income Adjustment Documents, including Form 1098-E (student loan interest); 5498 (IRA contributions); 5498-SA (HSA/MSA contributions); and 1098-T (tuition).

Determine whether or not you should itemize deductions

Itemizing deductions is only beneficial of those deductions will exceed the standard deduction. If you’re using a tax software program it will guide you as to what you should do. If you do opt to itemize your deductions, you will need forms including 1098 (mortgage interest) as well as receipts for expenses such as charitable contributions, unreimbursed employer business expenses, and medical expenses.

Don’t forget your state taxes

Most states require a separate state tax return to be filed. There are seven states that don’t collect state income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

Check and double-check your return

Before you drop that tax return in the mail or hit submit when e-filing, make sure that you’ve checked the figures you’ve entered when filing your return. A mistake can mean a filing error that could give you an overinflated refund you’ll have to pay back later.

File on time

Even if you owe an amount you cannot pay in full by tax day, it’s important to file on time and to pay as much as you can. Doing so will allow you to avoid a late filing penalty and to minimize interest charges on any unpaid balance. If you cannot pay your taxes in full, you can request an installment agreement from the IRS.

Tax advantage of free filing

The IRS offers Free File to file your federal taxes without paying any fees. The amount of your adjusted gross income determines the version you will need to use. If it’s $66,000 or less, you can use the free filing software. If your adjusted gross income is higher, you will use Free File fillable forms that are the electronic version of its paper forms.

File electronically

You can still file paper returns and many filers do so because they’re uneasy sending their personal and tax information over the Internet. However, e-filing via the IRS website is very safe and it will expedite your refund if you’re getting one.

If you’re concerned about your credit, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

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Identity Theft and the New Tax Bill

Will Congress Overhaul Credit Reporting Laws?

The 2017 filing season could be the worst yet for tax-related crime. With widespread confusion about the new tax law, IRS budget cuts, and a record-breaking year for data compromises, there’s an opening for fraud that should be serious cause for alarm, but doesn’t seem to be.

The bottom line: you should be concerned.

Last tax year, the IRS stopped 787,000 confirmed identity theft returns, totaling more than $4 billion. For the same nine-month period in 2015, the IRS stopped 1.2 million confirmed identity theft returns, totaling about $7.2 billion. There were many other widely reported wins. But what did not get reported was how much money scammers stole. Given the IRS’s estimate that 2016 would see a loss of $21 billion via fraud, one wonders.

That was then. The compromise of 143 million people in the Equifax breach changed all that. It included Social Security numbers—compromised SSNs being the most common “pre-existing condition” of crimes committed against the U.S. Treasury, and as such that breach poses a significantly increased threat difference over previous years.

We’re looking at a far more significant threat of tax-related fraud in the 2017 filing season than ever before. Compounding this situation, the IRS is less able to fend off the threat of identity-related tax fraud than it was last year.

Overworked

I know it’s risky to publicly sympathize with the nation’s most hated federal agency, but I can’t imagine it’s been much fun to work at the Internal Revenue Service since Congress passed its new tax bill (note that I’m not suggesting there was ever a time I could imagine it might be fun to work at the IRS).

With the new tax year just begun, the agency is racing to find real-world applications for the numerous changes to the tax code conceived in the hothouse of Congress, where ideas do not always (or perhaps even very often) jibe with real life, and the daily concerns of actual Americans has more the feel of an annoyance than a matter of, say, central importance.

There are significant logistical challenges posed by the new tax bill. First order of business is getting the changes in place that need to be implemented now, for instance the coding to adjust withholding, which the IRS hopes will make its first appearance on pay stubs as early as February. There are other provisions that affect the here-and-now, like the new trigger for healthcare deductions, as well as a decent-sized punch list of smaller changes—all of which needing the immediate attention of a greatly diminished staff in the coming months.

Underpaid

Remember those cuts back in 2010? The agency was denuded of $900 million, which led to the loss of 21,000 jobs. That’s a major problem right now.

The last time there was tax overhaul like the current one, “Walk Like an Egyptian” was on the radio and cable TV was just finding its way into the suburbs. Today, Twitter feeds are reloaded continually, and late-show hosts joke about the size of the presidential button.

In 1986, the IRS got a budget increase to accomplish the increased workload, but this time around, “the House and Senate appropriations bills for 2018 would cut the IRS budget by an additional $155 million and $124 million, respectively,” according to the National Treasury Employees Union.

What You Can Do

Wait times were more than an hour last year. The helpline matters because people don’t read tax bills, or even news stories about them. The questions will be many—far more than usual. They will be on a host of topics. People will call in reaction to good, bad and neutral information.

Is there nothing to worry about till this time next year? Do I need to fill out a new W4? Is my tax bracket the same?

The only question that matters is this one: What’s the best way to avoid becoming a victim of tax-related fraud. The answer: file your tax return as soon as you have all the necessary documents to get the job done.

While it’s important to sort out what’s what with regard to the coming changes in our nation’s tax code, it’s crucial to take a look at the simple fact that people are confused, and that creates a beneficial state for fraud to flourish.

For time being, the only “solution” is beating scammers to the punch.

With everything that the IRS needs to do to function well, budgetary issues necessarily come to the fore. We should all be voicing concern about the agency’s ability to safeguard taxpayers from refund fraud given the current situation. And we should all be doing everything we can to protect ourselves in a hostile environment.

If you’re concerned about your credit, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

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How to Make Your Financial New Year’s Resolutions Stick

new years resolutions

Making your New Year’s Resolutions is the easy part and you have the best of intentions, however sticking to them can be challenging. Old habits may be hard to break and achieving your financial goals can be difficult. While you may get complacent and comfortable in your old ways as you head into January, you can stay motivated and follow through on your financial New Year’s resolutions if you consciously avoid procrastination and take action! Starting with small steps and setting weekly goals can pave your way to achieving long term goals and will give you a sense of accomplishment. Once you see the positive results and monetary growth, you’ll feel financially happy and healthy.

By following these five tips, you will soon be on your way to making those New Year’s resolutions stick!

  1. Be SMART

Goals which are “SMART,” or specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound are the ones which will be easier to keep up with. Set a specific amount that you would like to save or pay off and keep track of the balances on your accounts. Make sure that goal works with your lifestyle and budget, and give yourself a deadline of when you would like to complete your goal which is realistic. Keeping your goals realistic is key to making them stick.

  1. Break it Down

If your goal is to save $5,000 by the end of the year, that can seem very overwhelming. Try to break it down to a monthly goal of $417 or a weekly goal of $104.25. This will help you figure out what you need to put aside per paycheck and how much of your budget you need to reign in. Breaking it down helps to make your goals more tangible and less impossible; you can plan better for the savings and add it to your daily routine instead of making it a second thought.

  1. Take the Extra Steps

Sometimes, using the tools that you presently have may not be enough to make you successful in achieving your goals. Taking extra steps such as making your lunch and bringing coffee, or even opening up a new bank account (should it be in your best interest to do so) will help you in the long run and make your goals stick. The extra step may be checking your statements weekly to make sure you are staying within your budget. Making a habit of checking your statements is a great way to ensure that you aren’t overspending as well. By assessing your spending habits, you can see where you may be able to cut back.

  1. Replace Not Eliminate Habits

If you try to drastically alter your lifestyle, including your habits, it could be an indicator of why you cannot stick to your resolutions. Consider replacing habits such as buying lunch with a habit of making extra food at dinner so you have leftovers or setting up your coffee pot the night before so you won’t feel the need to stop and get some on the way to work. This ensures that your daily routines aren’t cumbersome and hard to keep up with.

  1. Put Your Finances on Autopilot

Taking control of your finances is taking control of your life. Using tools such as Mint or setting up automatic payments for your bills is a great way to keep your resolutions on track. It may also be beneficial for you to sign up for text reminders or application notifications to help keep track of your spending and savings. Having a notification pop up on your screen daily which reminds you that you are that much closer to reaching your goal is a great way to stay on track and make those resolutions stick! You can also do this to help increase your savings. By setting up a monthly or weekly auto-deduct from you checking to savings accounts, you can help ensure that you actually have set aside the amount of money you intended to save.

If better credit is part of your new year’s resolution, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

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January Best Buys

Best Buys

Now that the Holidays are over, you might need a break from shopping. But, just in case you still have a touch of the shopping bug or you have to visit a store or two to return things any way, this month happens to be a strong month to save while you shop. Retailers bring in a lot of merchandise in anticipation of the holiday rush, and they will be anxious to clear space for spring merchandise if they have excess stock. While there will be sales on and off all month, the experts at deal site Slickdeals.net, found the majority of the deals peaking around mid-January during Martin Luther King weekend. Here’s what we know right now.

Men’s apparel

We expect the most robust sale category to be men’s apparel. Last year, more than 30% of the top deals at Slickdeals were in this category, from retailers like Nike, J. Crew Factory, Macy’s and Walmart.

Deals:

Macy’s: 20% off holiday sale with code TWODAY. Valid 1/14-1/15

REI – holiday clearance up to 50% off  

Target – Extra 20% off Clearance Apparel

Jos A Bank: Clearance sale – suits $79, dress shirts for $15 – valid through 1/11

Men’s WearhouseSave $30 off orders over $100. Through 1/11

Bonobos Men’sSave up to 50% off final sale items. Through 1/14

Land’s End – Save up to 50% off during the Great Winter Sale. Through 1/31

Tax Software

If you’re ready to start thinking about tax time this early in the year, it could be to your advantage. There are typically an abundance of tax prep and tax software deals from retailers like Staples, Amazon and Costco.

Deals:

TurboTax: Get TurboTax Deluxe for $39.99 (coupon is for $20 off TurboTax Deluxe – expires 1/31

Liberty Tax: Take an Extra 20% Off Every Liberty Tax Online Tax Filing Solution. Use Code: LTOCJ20

eSmartTax.com: 20% off Tax Solutions with code ESTCJ20.

H&R Block and United Way: United Way and H&R Block offer 2017 Federal and State Tax Return Filing for those with Adjusted Gross Income of $66,000 or less for Free

White Sales

Since the late 1800s, January has been the month of “white sales”, when all manner of linens go on sale. Many retailers participate, which means you can find bed and bath items slashed up to 60% off from stores like Kohl’s, Target, and Macy’s.

Deals

Macy’s: 25% off winter weekend sale with code STYLE 1/18-1/21

Bloomingdales: Save up to 50% off select home items in the January home sale. Ends 1/15

The Company Store: End of Season sale – save 20% with code X17SAVE through 1/9

Bed, Bath & Beyond: Get up to a $50 gift card with select Aerobed purchases. Through 1/12

Burlington: Save 50% off any order with code AJER587W. Through 1/10

West Elm: Save up to 20% off bedding collections. Through 1/11

Pottery Barn: Annual White Sale – 20% off bedding and towels

New Year, New You

It sounds cliché, but this is the time of year that we think about taking better care of ourselves. Last years’ resolutions may have fallen by the wayside throughout the year, and the snacks, drinks and sweets at all those holiday parties compounded the issue. It’s the perfect time to get back up on that horse!

Deals

My Protein: New Customers, 30% off. No expiration

Vitamin Shoppe: $8 off 5lb Optimum Gold Standard Whey

Sweaty Betty: Save 20% off your purchase. Expires 1/17

Yoga Download: Save 40% off your order. Expires 1/23

Gold’s Gym: Save 50% off select apparel. Through 2/24

Athleta: Save 20% off your next order with code L1B9B9BHBXTW. Through 1/11

What not to buy

Toys

Toys were hot during the holidays, but you probably won’t see many worthwhile toy deals this month. The good news is your little ones are probably set for a while with all of their holiday gifts.

Mattresses

Great deals on mattresses occur in February, when Presidents Day sales bring discounts. For instance, in 2017, Mattress Firm offered up to $500 off storewide. This year, Presidents Day is Feb. 19, so wait another month if you’re in the market for a new mattress.

If February is too soon for your budget, mattress deals will return in May, over Memorial Day weekend, and in September, over Labor Day weekend.

If you’re concerned about your credit, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

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10 Ways to Get a Jump Start on Your Taxes

Taxes

Tax season is fast approaching, with everyone’s employer due to send their W-2s by the end of January. Even though we’re still in the middle of the holiday season, it’s never too early to start getting ready to file your taxes.

It’s helpful to be mindful of your taxes throughout the year, which will help you stay organized and avoid scrambling every year when tax season rolls around. Here are 10 ways to get a jump start on your taxes now, or anytime of year:

Figure out which forms you’ll need

Since everyone’s financial situation is different, there are many different tax forms that suit these different situations. If you’re unsure which tax form to use, visit the IRS’s website or consult a professional.

Keep all receipts in the same place

If you’re someone who itemizes deductions instead of standard ones, you you already know how important it is to store all of your receipts together in the same place. If you lose any, it could cost you. Sort and store them throughout the year to avoid a last-minute scramble.

Store all tax returns together 

Since we often have to reference the previous year’s return when preparing the current one, it’s a good idea to make sure you store them all in the same place, whether it’s a desk drawer, filing cabinet, or even a shoebox under your bed.

Consider filing an extension

It might seem counterintuitive to suggest an extension in a list about being prepared. However, if you file an extension and wait until later in the year, accountants will be less busy and you’ll end up filing in less time. This is also helpful for anyone experiencing any kind of stressful life event, such as those who were involved in any of the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, or Puerto Rico this year.

Review/revise your W-4

If you’ve experienced any life changes from the previous year (adding or losing any family members), ask your employer if you can review your W-4. The IRS actually recommends doing this every year.

Do your research

Are you going to prepare your taxes yourself, or are you going to hire an accountant or tax-preparation service? If you plan to do them on your own, make sure you educate yourself about the deductions you’re entitled to. If you plan to hire someone, check around and make sure they’re reputable.

Save your money

Unless you fill out the 1040EZ form and mail it in yourself, it’s going to cost you money to file your taxes. Some people are happy to pay this to ensure that they’ve done it correctly. You may also still owe taxes in addition to what you’ve already paid in. If you’ve saved for it, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Check your deductions

If you’ve had any major life events this year (bought a house, gotten married, had a child, etc.) you may be entitled to some sizable deductions. It’s a good idea to research all possible deductions to avoid overpaying your taxes.

Choose between itemized and standard deductions

Depending on what type of work you do and your financial situation, you may need to do itemized deductions, where you get credits for everything you’ve spent, rather than taking the standard deduction as dictated by your filing status. If you need to know more, consult a professional.

Track all charitable donations

Charitable donations are tax deductible, so if you have any monthly or one-off donations, make sure to keep track so that you can deduct these expenses from your taxes.

If you’re concerned about your credit, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

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5 Financial Moves to Make in 2018

new-year-eve

It’s understandable if you drifted off course financially during the last couple months of the year. However, you don’t want bad money habits to follow you into the New Year. If your finances have slipped, it’s time to get back on track for 2018 and devise a plan to tackle your debt efficiently and effectively. Take a step back and evaluate your finances before the clock strikes 12 on December 31.

Here are some tips that can help you refresh your finances and stay motivated in the New Year.

1. Review Your finances

Take a look at your overall finances and consider setting both short-term and long-term goals. Confused about where to start? You may want to begin by obtaining a free copy of your credit report at Credit.com. Through Credit.com, you can request reports from all three of the major nationwide credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Since you might have been using your credit cards often during your holiday shopping, be sure to check your credit report for any irregularities. Fraud and identity theft skyrocket during the holiday season. While you are checking your credit report, you also might want to check your credit score. If you are using more than 30% of your credit cards, you may see a slight drop in your score in the post-holiday season. While credit scores can fluctuate slightly from time to time, it’s important to recognize when a deep drop occurs so you can find the problem and resolve it as soon as possible.

2. Set Goals and Make a Plan

Goals give us something to look forward to and work toward. Make a list of all the financial goals you plan to achieve in the next 12 months or so. Establish a payment strategy that works best to tackle not only your post-holiday debt, but also your overall debt. Consider making a list of all of your debts (secure and unsecure) and devise a plan on how to get them down.

Ask yourself what your short-term and long-term goals are. You might be looking to save up for a wedding, for retirement planning, or for your student loans. When it comes to loans, consider paying more than the minimum and making payments twice each month to help tackle your debt more efficiently. If you think you won’t be able to tackle all of your debt at once, focus on the highest-interest rate debt first before you work on the rest.

3. Stay Motivated

You may be stressed out from your financial situation. Stress can be very overwhelming, especially when it’s money related. Try to write down all of the reasons why you are stressed out. Focus on two to three financial problems or financial stress points and write down ways you may be able to solve that issue.

For example, you could write the following:

  • “I am stressed because I keep missing my credit card bill and now I am in debt from the late fees.
    • Solution: Maybe I can set a reminder on my phone or sign up for automatic payments so I don’t forget next time.
    • Solution: Since I’m deep in debt now, maybe I will put extra money towards my monthly payments instead of just paying the minimum.”

4. Put Yourself on a Financial Diet

Try and put yourself on a “financial diet” after the holidays. Focus on your debt instead of spending frivolously. Consider only spending money on essential expenses and use coupons when you can. If you make a few changes to your lifestyle—bringing the exact cash that you need to the grocery store or bringing a bagged lunch to work instead of eating out—you will improve your overall financial health. You will also adapt to these new habits and boost your cash flow. If you think you have a problem with impulse buying or you find yourself in deep debt, then you might want to consider seeking outside financial help.

If you only have enough money in your bank account to pay your bills at the end of the month and anything unexpected expenses are being paid for with credit cards, it may be time to rethink your financial strategy. It’s easy to get caught up in the credit card debt cycle especially around the holiday season, however getting out of debt means planning for the expected. Planning for those “what if” moments can help you avoid breaking the bank in case of an emergency. You may be thinking I can always just use my credit card, however, using a credit card in a “what if” situation should be your last option.

5. Don’t Cheat Yourself of a “What If” Fund

If you only have enough money in your bank account to pay your bills at the end of the month and you’re paying for any unexpected expenses with credit cards, it may be time to rethink your financial strategy. It’s easy to get caught up in the credit card debt cycle, especially around the holidays. However, getting out of debt means planning for the expected. Planning for those “what if” moments can help you avoid breaking the bank when an emergency comes. You may think, “I can always just use my credit card,” but really, a credit card should be your last option in an emergency.

To get started on your “what if” fund, you can set reasonable goals, open a savings account, and be sure to make regular contributions to your savings until you reach 10% net income. If you take money out, be sure to replenish the funds! Just think how great it will be having money available if an emergency happens.

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10 Ways Divorce can Affect your Credit

how-does-divorce-impact-credit-score

As nearly half of the American population already knows, divorce is a difficult, emotional process to go through. This difficulty can be compounded depending on the number of years a couple has been together, the dollar amount of their acquired assets, and whether or not they have any children.

Divorce can also have an impact on your credit, though the proceedings themselves are not the reason for this. In other words, couples shouldn’t expect their credit scores to plummet the second they file for divorce. However, there are things that occur during divorce that can have a negative impact on credit. Here are 10 ways in which a divorce could affect your credit score:

  1. Having to refinance your home

    In order to move a property into one person’s name, it may be necessary to refinance your mortgage. As with any refinance situation, this will require a hard credit inquiry, and may also potentially add a great deal of new debt for one person.

  2. The splitting of the debt was uneven

    When assets are divided, one person may get to take more of the income, property, or assets, but also more of the debt. It all just depends on how the debt is divided.

  3. Going from two incomes to one

    If possible, it’s helpful to examine finances before a divorce and determine new budgets for both parties, so as to avoid falling behind on any bills or payments. Many divorced individuals report that losing another person’s income made the single greatest impact on them financially. Setting up a new budget early on can help avoid this issue.

  4. Not disclosing all debt during the proceedings

    At some point during the divorce process, both parties are required to disclose their financial accounts. However, as former spouses sometimes learn, not everyone is truthful about these assets. Running a credit report is the best way to ensure you’re aware of every account bearing your name.

  5. One party doesn’t pay his or her agreed-upon share

    Most courts are willing to work with couples to help them discuss and agree on a payment plan for shared assets, such as a home or any jointly-owned property.

  6. One party still has access to the other party’s accounts

    In the event that divorcing spouses do not split their joint accounts, both parties will still be responsible for any additional charges. It’s best to split any joint accounts as soon as possible.

  7. Credit limits are decreased

    Many creditors regularly check up on their clients to see if there has been a salary change, and most credit card agreements state that limits can be decreased at the creditor’s discretion. If one spouse was making more money than the other, and the accounts are separated, a credit card company can choose to lower the limits for one or both spouses. This can, in turn, affect credit scores, as well as catapult credit card holders to their maximum limits very quickly.

  8. The divorce turns ugly

    While no one enjoys going through divorce, the best solution is to try and remain civil to one another, lowering the risk of spouses doing financial harm to one another out of spite.

  9. There is confusion over the divorce decree

    People can often be confused about their financial responsibility as stated in the divorce decree. If you are unsure of where you stand or what you must pay, consult your attorney, family court facilitator, or mediator.

  10. Spouses don’t work together

    Sometimes, electric bills can be overlooked or go unpaid. Keeping the divorce process as amicable as possible helps parties communicate with one another over their shared financial responsibility after the households have been completely separated. Working together ensures everyone’s credit remains in good standing.

 

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How I Replaced $700 Worth of Monthly Subscriptions with My Library Card

library-book

“All the thoughts and dreams of people throughout history, and all you need’s this little card to borrow   ’em for free!”

Other children of the ’90s might recognize this lyric from the classic tune “Library Card,” rapped by the cast of the cartoon show Arthur. It’s a silly song, but it’s a solid reminder that libraries can be amazing sources of entertainment and education. And unlike a credit or debit card, swiping a library card doesn’t cost a thing.

But exactly how much can you save by choosing your library card over a credit or debit card?

I recently overhauled my budget, and in the process, I decided to put my local library to the test. The exercise saved me nearly $700 per year in dodged subscription costs—money I now use to make $57 of extra student loan payments per month. Here’s how it worked.

Cutting Back on Entertainment Subscriptions

I’m decent at setting and following a budget. But there I was, facing another month where my family netted $0.

Specifically, I was bugged by how many frivolous entertainment subscriptions we had. I subscribed to a video streaming service here; my husband signed up for a premium account there. Although each account seemed affordable or even cheap, they added up.

Upon review, I realized that in the past year or two, we’ve paid for a number of entertainment subscriptions:

  • $12 per month for Hulu Plus
  • $9 per month for Netflix
  • $15 per month for Audible
  • $11 per month for online newspapers and magazines
  • $10 per month for Spotify Premium

We’d mindlessly signed on for $57 per month in subscription fees that added up to $684 per year.

Don’t get me wrong, I think entertainment subscriptions can be a savings-savvy alternative to pricier options like paying for cable or seeing movies in theaters. The problem wasn’t the subscriptions themselves—it was the mindless spending they reflected.

Finding Free Entertainment at My Local Library

I thought I could find better uses for that cash if I canceled those services. But I didn’t love the idea of quitting cold turkey.

My Audible subscription caught my eye first. It cost me $15 per month. But I already used the OverDrive app, available through my local library, to request, check out, and listen to audiobooks for free. So I killed my Audible subscription and gained an extra $15 per month right there.

I wondered if I could replicate those results for other subscriptions. I dove into my library’s digital catalog and quickly found out.

Magazines

My library partners with RBdigital (formerly Zinio) to offer a range of digital magazines. I used the service to replace a subscription to ESPN The Magazine ($2.50 per month) and found lots of other reading material worth browsing.

Newspapers

The New York Times digital pass that’s part of my library membership grants me access to New York Times apps and unlimited articles at NYTimes.com. That meant I could cut $8 per month from my budget and still support an outlet I love.

PressReader is another decent replacement for subscriptions to periodicals, and I can access it for free through my library.

TV and movies

I took the plunge and ended up canceling my $9-per-month Netflix membership of more than eight years. Now, my family accesses documentaries and movies through Kanopy and OverDrive, thanks to our library accounts.

For my 4-year-old daughter, Nickelodeon shows on Hoopla are all the rage, so I was able to cancel my subscription for Hulu Plus and save $12 per month.

Music

My library card granted me access to music streaming and downloads through Hoopla and Freegal. Bye-bye, $8 Spotify Premium fee.

In all, I found $57 worth of monthly fees to cut from our budget. My family easily saves $684 per year while enjoying much of the same entertainment and content we’ve always loved.

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Library Card

Like most budgeting decisions, trading in your subscriptions doesn’t come without sacrifice. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way to make the most of my library card.

  1. Don’t Forget Analog Entertainment

My main goal in cutting costs was replacing my entertainment subscriptions. However, I can’t always find a decent digital replacement. In many cases, I request a physical copy of the book, movie, TV show, or music album and pick it up during my next library visit.

  1. Get Comfortable with a Little Delay and Inconvenience

A huge benefit of paid subscriptions is instant, convenient access to any content you want on a particular platform.

With library services, there might be a limit on how much content you can check out or access at a time. You might get put on a waiting list for a book or movie as well. It can be an annoying adjustment, but remember that you’re saving money.

  1. Find Other Cost-Saving Materials and Services

Some library districts offer free tutoring services as well as resources to help students study for the SAT or graduate placement exams.

I also found out that my library card gives me access to Lynda.com’s online educational training. This allowed us to replace a $29-per-month membership my husband had been using to brush up on his web development skills and brought our annual savings up to $713.

Take a look at some of the streaming services available with your library card. You might have access to free workout videos, which could replace a gym membership.

  1. Watch Out for Late Fees

Of course, it’s important to watch out for library card fees. One of the reasons I prefer digital library content is that it’s automatically returned when the time is up, so I never get a late fee.

But I’ve racked up some significant late fees and replacement fines for physical items I didn’t return to the library in a timely manner. If you’re not careful, your library fine could wind up in collections and damage your credit.

If you do check out physical copies, get in the habit of keeping track of them and making regular trips to return them on time.

  1. Know When to Keep a Subscription

Some library districts are well-funded and have great selections. Others, not so much. If your library’s pickings are slim, you might decide you’d rather keep your paid subscriptions. Even a big library district with awesome options won’t be able to offer you everything you could hope for.

Although my library offers a robust selection of services, I decided to keep a few subscriptions. My Amazon Prime membership offers tremendous value for its $99-per-year price, including access to free shipping and streaming services for music, movies, and TV shows. My husband loves podcasts and decided he wanted to keep his $5-per-month Stitcher subscription to support the platform.

Take the challenge to turn to your library card before your credit card, and you might be surprised by the savings. And remember: When you cut out monthly subscriptions, you’re saving money not just once, but also every month thereafter.

You can take your new cash flow even further by using it to pay down credit card debt—a smart option, considering the average credit cardholder owes over $4,000. Or you could look for other ways to build lasting wealth, such as saving for retirement or building a side hustle. Find more ideas on how to save money without depriving yourself at Credit.com.

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The post How I Replaced $700 Worth of Monthly Subscriptions with My Library Card appeared first on Credit.com.

12 Ways to Limit Travel Fees This Holiday Season

Here's how to get the most out of your next getaway.

No matter how you plan to travel this holiday season, someone might try to squeeze extra money out of you. Hotels, airlines, rental agencies, and others in the travel industry can have add-on fees that make your trip more expensive. But if you travel smart, you can avoid unnecessary costs.

Here are 12 tips for avoiding excessive fees as you travel to see your loved ones this holiday season.

1. Combine Your Luggage 

Checked bag fees get expensive at the airport, especially if you’re traveling with a group. If you can, combine your luggage with your travel companions to save money.
Cindy Richards, editor of TravelingMom.com, says, “Pack one large communal suitcase so you only have to pay one checked baggage fee. Just be sure it is under the weight limit so you don’t get dinged for overweight baggage.”

2. Carry on What You Can

You don’t have to check every piece of luggage you have. Most airlines let you bring one personal item and one carry-on bag. If every person in your party brings a carry-on, you can drastically reduce the number of checked bags. You can even enlist any young children in the group.

“It’s easy to forget that children who have a ticketed seat have the same luggage allotment as adults. Even if your little one can’t carry a carry-on yet, you still can. So take advantage of that extra luggage space to help free up room in your checked luggage,” says Amanda Norcross, Features Editor of Family Vacation Critic. 

3. Ship Your Gifts 

Don’t travel with holiday gifts. You’ll end up having to pay for additional checked bags. Instead, make the best use of shipping that you can.

“Don’t buy and carry your gifts,” says Richards. “Save the hassle and baggage fees by ordering gifts online from a service that offers free delivery . . . and have them delivered to your destination.”

4. Purchase Bulky Items Later 

Norcross also points out that bulky necessities can be purchased after your flight. “When it comes to things that you can easily purchase . . . like toiletries, diapers and wipes, hold off on them packing in your luggage and instead pick them up once you’ve reached your destination.” If you have young children and you need things like diapers during the flight, pack only as many as you know you’ll need.

5. Check for Credit Card Perks

Before you spring for additional car insurance from the rental agency, you should check if you’re already covered by your credit card.

“Don’t get pushed into buying car rental insurance from the rental agency,” says J.R. Duren, Personal Finance Expert at Highya.com. “There’s an extremely high probability that your favorite credit card provides complimentary collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance that will cover you if you get into an accident. This can save you a ton of money, especially if you’re doing rentals of at least one week.”

6. Use Credit Card Travel Perks

Many travel-focused credit cards—especially airline and hotel-branded cards—will waive certain travel fees. For instance, an airline’s credit card may offer free checked bags, while a hotel’s credit card may offer free late check-in or free Wi-Fi. General travel credit cards often get you free access to airport lounges.

7. Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees

If you’re traveling out of the country, some credit cards will charge you dearly for foreign transactions, usually to the tune of 3% of the purchase amount.

“If you’re going overseas for the holidays,” says Duren, “know which credit cards in your wallet charge foreign transaction fees and which ones don’t. The few minutes it takes to sort it out is worth saving the 3% fee you’d be charged for each foreign transaction if you use the wrong card.”

8. Check Your Hotel Bill 

You should always review your hotel bill when you check out to make sure you aren’t overcharged.

Duren says, “You’ll want to verify that all charges are legitimate and there aren’t any errors. If the front desk promised you certain perks or meals for free, make sure you weren’t charged for them. As an example, if you’ve got a guest staying at a hotel under your loyalty program account, make sure they aren’t charged for things that should be complimentary according to the loyalty program’s rules.”

9. Avoid Parking Fees

Airports and hotels often charge exorbitant parking fees. When you fly to visit family, get your family to provide rides to and from the airport if you can. If you must drive, use an app or the internet to find cheaper local parking and avoid hotel parking fees. 

10. Ask for Free Wi-Fi

Even if your hotel charges for Wi-Fi, they might waive your fee if you ask nicely at the front desk. Or you can stick to using data, provided you aren’t in danger of running over your limit and incurring extra fees from your phone provider.

11. Avoid Cancellation Fees

Sometimes you can get cheaper hotel rates or airfare by waiving the right to cancel your reservation for free. But this comes at a big risk; if you do end up having to cancel, you could be liable for costly fees or even the full cost of your purchase. In the long run, paying a little extra for the right to cancel could actually save you money.

You should also check if your credit card offers trip cancellation insurance, which can protect you if your plans are interrupted. 

12. Stay with Family

Staying with family for free will provide the ultimate discount. You might have to give up a little convenience or privacy, and you might have to endure an awkward conversation or two, but at least you won’t be stuck with a hotel bill. Whether the tradeoff is worth it is up to you—your mileage may vary!

For more ideas on limiting your travel costs and money management this holiday season, visit the blog at Credit.com.

Image: anyaberkut

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Your Guide to Holiday Tipping

Girl uses tablet in kitchen with mum, other mum holding baby

The holiday season is here, and you’ve been in a shopping frenzy, checking recipient after recipient off your list. But wait, did you forget someone? What about all those people who do everything you don’t have the time—or the skill—to do throughout the year, like maintaining your garden or pushing you through an early-morning gym routine? Who do you tip from that army and how much is appropriate?

We’ve collected sage advice from etiquette and lifestyle experts so you’ll never be in doubt again.

Full-Time or Live-In Nanny, Regular Babysitter 

Tip: One week’s salary for each year of service

The person who cares for your children is indispensable. April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert from RelationshipAdviceForum.com, stresses that these caretakers deserve a big tip. “If this is someone you would have a hard time replacing were [they] to quit, give [them] a reason not to with the tip,” she says. “Double it if you can, and if you can’t, include a thoughtful gift that can be a food basket, a basket of toys for his or her children, or a weekend hotel stay for [them] to get away from all kids—yours and [theirs]!!”

Personal Trainer

Tip: One to two times what you pay for a typical session

Personal trainers work hard to keep you motivated and in shape, so tipping them around the holidays is a nice gesture. Hank Coleman, publisher of finance site MoneyQ&A, says, “I try to budget for the equivalent to one or two times what a typical session costs as a holiday gift.”

Mail Carrier, Delivery Driver 

Tip: $20–$200, depending on the complexity of the job

For those who deliver your mail or packages, tip an amount that corresponds with the level of service they provide. Masini says, “If your delivery people go out of their way to get things to you—like call you if you’ve got a delivery when you’re not home or hide things so they don’t get stolen—give it back to them at the holidays.” Adding a personal note and a gift, like a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, shows that you really care.

Hair Stylist, Barber, Manicurist, Masseuse, Facialist, etc.

Tip: A bigger tip than what you normally give of up to the price of one service 

If you have a go-to hair stylist or barber, they deserve something special around the holidays. You already tip them, so Richie Frieman, best-selling author of REPLY ALL…and Other Ways to Tank Your Career, recommends going beyond the usual tip. “Surprise them with a card and an extra big tip out of the blue, after your regular service,” he says. “Bring the card with you, and when you go to tip, hand the envelope to them and top that normal tip off with a ‘nice lump’ increase.”

Housekeeper, Lawn Care Servicer

Tip: Up to one week’s pay or a small gift

Lisa Richey, etiquette expert and corporate trainer from the American Academy of Etiquette and Manners To Go, recommends putting cash in a holiday greeting card with a brief note of appreciation for your housekeeper or lawn care servicer.

Home Nurse, Private Nurse

Tip: A thoughtful gift, but check first with their employer

There may be guidelines to follow here, so Richey suggests checking with the nurse’s employer. If gifts are allowed and you know a little bit about your caregiver, give something that pertains to their interests. “Nurses serve a very important role in our lives. Why not make the gift special and thoughtful?” she says.

Building Superintendent, Door Attendant, Handyperson

Tip: Gift card, gift basket, flowers

For these service providers, Frieman recommends nonmonetary gifts, like flowers, gift baskets, or gift cards. He says, “They spend the day welcoming others with a smiling face, and it’s only fair to put one on theirs.”

Trash or Recycling collector

Tip: $25–$100

You may rarely interact with the people who collect your garbage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve special thanks this time of year. Masini says that if you can tip them in person, that’s best. “If not, leave a tip in a noticeably festive box or envelope and give cash,” she says. “Do you have to tip this person? No. Should you? You bet!”

Pet Groomer, Dog Walker

Tip: The equivalent of one service or one week’s pay

Like nannies and babysitters, people who take care of your furry family members should receive something special. Frieman prefers a gift card instead of cash, but he suggests that you make it something that will allow them to treat themselves—courtesy of you.

Use the guidelines above while you plan your holiday tips, and as you spread some extra holiday cheer, remember to think ahead and stay within your means to avoid holiday debt. But if you’re determined to give more than you have stashed away for the holidays, have a plan in place to easily manage any debt.

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