9 Things to Do to Spring Clean Your Budget

While you're cleaning the house, make sure your budget is just as spotless.

Many of you probably have a spring-cleaning ritual. It is the time of the year when you wash the windows, air out the bedding and declutter. However, have you ever thought about sprucing up your budget?

That may sound strange, but it is the perfect time of year to take a good look at your finances. We’ve got some ideas of what to do to spring clean your budget.

1. Check Your Envelopes

Now would be a good time to make sure your cash envelopes (see how they work here) have the right amount in them. Take a look at your spending and determine if you need to make adjustments (up or down). Even if you don’t use cash, you should do this with your virtual envelope system as well.

You also need to make sure you don’t need to add new envelopes. Perhaps you find that you always go to your dining out envelope to get money for family fun. Why not make a separate envelope just for family fun? Now you have envelopes with a designated task and don’t need to take from one to fund another.

2. Clean Up Your Bills

Take a look at your spending. Are you paying for things you don’t need? Sometimes, we get so used to paying regular expenses that we ignore them.

For instance, you might not be ready to cut cable completely. However, are you paying for channels you really don’t watch? Go through your bills and make sure you aren’t wasting money on things you don’t use. (You can see seven easy ways to lower your cable bill here.)

3. Looking for Discounts

One of the goals of a budget is to help you keep as much money in your pocket as you can. Look back on your spending and you may discover you have items that could offer you a discount.

Believe it or not, there are many utilities that offer discounts to customers. You just have to know how to get them. You can take the time to research what others pay and call each company and try to negotiate your rates.

Once you make the phone calls, take additional steps to lower your utility costs. Your budget will thank you.

4. Establish New Goals

Goals are a tool we use in many areas of life, but what about budgeting? The truth is, you might already be setting goals and without realizing.

A goal could be as simple as paying down one credit card. It might be going on a dream vacation. Perhaps it is buying a car without a loan or paying for the first year of college tuition.

Whatever your goal, make sure you write it down. That instantly solidifies the goal. Then, you can place it somewhere you see it, every single day.

The more you see the goal, the more you remember what you want to achieve and hopefully avoid impulse purchases.

5. Lower Your Grocery Bill

This may seem like a strange one, but it can make a huge difference. It might mean shopping at a somewhere else.

For example, I slashed my grocery budget by switching to a difference store. By using this store to get most of our food, I dropped our grocery spending by more than $200 a month.

6. Transfer Your Credit Card Balance

This is the perfect time to look into getting a card with a 0% interest rate And transfer your balance to the new card. This will help eliminate interest on your balance, which might help you pay it down more quickly.

Just watch the introductory period. You need to pay the balance in full or transfer it again before the period lapses. Otherwise, you could end up paying even more in interest. (Interest rates are often based on creditworthiness — See two of your scores free on Credit.com.)

7. Lower Your Cellphone Bill

Most people think they are stuck paying whatever their wireless provider charges. That is true, for the most part.

However, you might be able to negotiate a lower rate. You may want to consider changing providers completely. Just call and see what happens.

8. Automate Your Savings

If saving money is difficult for you, you are not alone. Many people don’t have the discipline needed to save money every month. That is where automation helps.

You can see if your employer allows for your check to be directly deposited into multiple accounts. If so, have them deposit some of your paycheck directly into a savings account. If that is not an option, set up an automated transfer from your checking account into your savings account each month.

Once you do that, you will need to adjust the spending in your budget. Even saving just $25 a paycheck is better than nothing. You’ll be surprised at how much you do not miss the money.

9. Review Your Insurance

Take a look at not only your auto insurance but also your homeowners and life insurance.

Do some comparison shopping to make sure you are getting a good rate. If you get insurance from different providers, check to see if any of them offer any type of bundle discount. That might be reason enough to move all your coverage under one company.

If you’ve built up your emergency fund, you might be able to raise the deductible and lower your monthly out-of-pocket cost and save more than the deductible costs. Increasing your deductible from $500 to $1,000 could save you a lot of money in your monthly costs.

In addition, if you do not yet have life insurance, now is the time to consider purchasing it. It isn’t for you. It’s for your family. Read more about why you need life insurance.

Taking the time to review your budget is wise, but we don’t always take a close look. Plan to do this each year along with your spring-cleaning schedule and you’ll never forget again.

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15 Ways to Save at ShopRite

Whether you hate grocery shopping or find it incredibly relaxing (seriously, some people do), one thing you’re bound to appreciate is saving at the store. If ShopRite is your go-to grocer, try using some of these tips to cut back on what you spend there.

Here are 15 ways to save at ShopRite.

1. Create an Account Online

Sign in to your ShopRite account online to load coupons from their Digital Coupon Center directly onto your Price Plus Club Card (more on that below). You’ll also get access to your past purchases and shopping lists, recipes, a tally of your Price Plus points and more.

2. Join the Price Plus Club

Members of ShopRite’s Price Plus Club get instant cash discounts on hundreds of items throughout the store at checkout, as well as special offers and promotions (like free items around the holidays) and exclusive mailings and offers.

3. Shop the Circulars

Set your home ShopRite location online and gain access to weekly circulars with tons of coupons and savings deals happening right now at your nearest store.

4. Check Out Their Offers & Promotions Page

Every now and then (especially around the holidays), ShopRite will offer additional ways for customers to save through sweepstakes and other contests that often offer gift card prizes. Visit their Offers & Promotions page frequently to see what’s happening.

5. Take Advantage of the SavingStar Program

Join the SavingStar program by setting up an account, then check out the offers page to see what’s available for a discounted price. Click on the offers you like and they’ll get linked directly to your store loyalty card. Use your card at checkout and the savings will be added to your SavingStar account. When you reach $5, you can select which method of payout you’d like.

6. Use a Rewards Credit Card

Some credit cards reward you handsomely for grocery shopping. See American Express’ Blue Cash EveryDay Preferred, which offers a whopping 6% back on up to $6,000 per year at U.S. supermarkets (1% after that), 3% at U.S. gas stations and 1% everywhere else. (Full card review right here.)

Just be sure to pay any balance you put on a cash back credit card off in full — otherwise, you’ll lose those dollars to interest. (You can see how your credit card balances are affecting your credit score by viewing your free credit report summary on Credit.com.)

7. Use ShopRite From Home for Additional Coupon Codes

If it’s available in your area, customers who sign up to use ShopRite from Home can check out the Shop Rite from Home promotions page for access to even more deals, like discounts on delivery, savings on health and wellness products, baby and pet items, etc.

8. Load Up on Manufacturer Coupons

ShopRite will accept these! (You can find its coupon policy here.)

9. Know Your Store’s Double Coupon Policy

While double coupon policies vary by store — you should check your specific store for more details — most Shop Rite stores will double up to four identical coupons per household per day on manufacturer coupons up to $0.99. (Use a nifty little Double Coupon App that you download to your smartphone to determine if your coupons will be doubled or not.)

10. Find the Catalina Machine

Catalina machines are usually located on the side of the register (ask the customer service rep if you aren’t sure if your local ShopRite has one). Most of these deals require you to purchase a certain dollar amount or quantity of product before you can use it on your next purchase, but once you do so the savings can really add up.

11. Stock Up During the ShopRite Can Can Sale

Though this sale only happens once a year (usually in January), it’s worth the wait to stock up on grocery goods, especially non-perishable items, throughout the store when it does.

12. Seek Out the Wall of Values

When you’re in your local ShopRite, make a beeline for the Wall of Values — usually right by the front door near the produce section — for dry goods on discount.

13. Make Use of $10 Deals

If you have the room, $10 Deals help customers save by allowing them to stock up on bulk items for just $10. Be on the lookout for $10 Deal signs.

14. Search Online for More Coupons 

Use sites like Retail Me Not and Coupons.com to find promo codes and coupons for the grocery store.

15. Follow ShopRite on Social Media

The grocery superstore shares all their biggest sale and coupon deals on their Facebook and Twitter sites, so be sure to follow them for the latest offers.

Want more brand hacks? You’re in luck — we’ve got 19 ways to save at Target right here. And, if there’s a brand you’d like us to tackle, shout it out in the comments section. 

At publishing time, the Blue Cash EveryDay Preferred credit card from American Express is offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for this card. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

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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Why Tax Collection Scams Are Getting Harder to Stop

Sad but true: The IRS is selling debt to collection agencies, so you've got be extra-careful now that tax season is over.

I’ve written about tax-related crime for years, and have always offered this fail-safe rule to avoid tax scams: If you ever receive a call from the IRS about back taxes or any other money you supposedly owe the government, hang up because it’s a scam.

There was something comforting about that advice — maybe even a little satisfying. I mean, who secretly doesn’t want to hang up on the taxman? But it seemed no amount of repetition was enough to stem the tide of tax-related scams, and no matter how many times I wrote about that simple, satisfying tactic, the message never reached the people most vulnerable to such shenanigans.

Taxpayers still got taken in by scam artists dialing for dollars every day. It didn’t matter if the crook posed as an IRS employee, or if he ventured into the truly absurd with a claim that he worked for a collection agency that bought back tax debt from the agency. It was wacky stuff, the IRS selling debt. But it was wackier than that …

All you had to know was this: The IRS did all its own collecting, and it conducted all its business via snail mail. It never called. The advice was solid: Let your spirit fly! Do or say whatever you want when the IRS called about back taxes or an audit because it wasn’t them!

You know where I’m going with this, right? Yep, leave it to our friends in Washington to take a bad situation and make it worse.

Earlier this month, IRS chief John Koskinen announced that the IRS would be immediately outsourcing certain debt collection activities to one of four debt collection companies: CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, New York; Performant of Livermore, California; and Pioneer of Horseheads, New York.

You read that right. The IRS is outsourcing debt to collection agencies.

When this was initially announced last September, I was convinced that it was a joke—and a pretty good one. Extra points for coming up with something more or less unthinkable— since truly, debt collection agencies could not be a more problematic solution to the IRS’s back tax problem — but it turns out it wasn’t their joke.

You can thank Congress for this epic face palm. Although it didn’t get much attention when it passed in 2015, one of the provisions of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act required the IRS to hire private-sector debt collectors to pay for it.

Since consumers are going to have to handle this year’s post-tax season a little different as a result, here are some telltale giveaways that you’re getting scammed and should hang up:

  1. You get a call from a collection agency not listed above. Only those four agencies are approved for these collections.
  2. You do not owe back taxes.
  3. The person calling you has asked you to send money somewhere other than the IRS. Even though the four collection agencies are making the call, the check goes to the Fed.
  4. The caller asks you to pay in the form of gift cards, prepaid cards or asks you to wire funds.
  5. The caller is aggressive or rude — a violation of your debt-collection rights.
  6. You are asked for any information that can be used to conduct a financial transaction: Social Security number, bank account, credit or debit card number. (If you do turn over personal information, keep an eye on your credit for signs of identity theft. You can view your free credit report summary on Credit.com.)
  7. If you are low-income, there may be other options for you. Contact the IRS to find out what they may be before discussing your debt with a collection agency.

By now we’ve gotten pretty good at surviving the ridiculous decisions made on Capitol Hill, but this latest one is a doozy. Happily, my old advice still stands. If you get a call from a debt collector, don’t engage until you verify the debt. If it was a legit collector, they’ll furnish written verification within five days of calling you, and here’s what to do when that happens.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

Image: MartinPrescott

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Your Financial Ignorance Could End Up Costing You Thousands

Everyone makes mistakes, but you can avoid these common financial blunders and end up saving yourself a lot of money.

None of us like to make mistakes, even though they’re frequently part of the learning process. Still, if you could avoid making mistakes, especially with your money, you’d probably prefer to do so rather than wasting your hard-earned dollars on bad decision making.

If that’s you, take heed. Here’s your chance to learn from others and avoid their mistakes.

A recent study by the National Financial Educators Council (NFEC) found that 28.8% of Americans aged 65 or older said their personal lack of knowledge about personal finances caused them to lose $30,000 or more in their lifetimes.

NFEC asked participants across age groups, “Across your entire lifetime, about how much money do you think you have lost because you lacked knowledge about personal finances?” Across all age groups, respondents said their lack of financial knowledge had cost an average of $9,724.83, with nearly a quarter of respondents reporting a loss of $30,000 or more.

The survey didn’t ask participants how they lost their money, or what bad decisions they made that led them to part with their cash, but the problem frequently boils down to one thing — people thinking they know more than they actually do. Case in point: Another recent study by Sallie Mae, “Majoring in Money: How American College Students Are Managing Their Finances,” looked at the financial habits of college students between the ages of 18 and 24, including the methods they use to pay for purchases, their knowledge and use of credit, and their money management skills.

Of those surveyed, 65% thought their money management skills were good or excellent. In reality, only 31% of these respondents answered three basic financial questions correctly. The questions were on how interest accumulates, how repayment behavior affects the cost of credit over time and how credit terms affect the cost of credit over time. (You can take a financial capability survey on the NFEC site to see how you compare nationally.)

Whatever your age, making financial decisions on assumptions or only part of the facts can lead to frustration and economic loss. But if you’re in your teens or 20s, chances are you haven’t made any major financial missteps, and can potentially avoid them altogether.

Let’s take a look at some of the key areas of the study and address how you can avoid making mistakes that could end up costing you thousands over your lifetime.

Paying Bills On Time

A large majority of respondents to the Sallie Mae survey said they pay their bills on time — a whopping 77%. Not paying bills on time can result in late payment fees. If they go unpaid long enough, there can be a snowball effect when they end up in collections. Suddenly, that unpaid phone bill is hurting your credit scores, which means it will cost you more in interest when you apply for things like credit cards, auto loans or a mortgage.

If you struggle to pay your bills on time, you’ll want to look at exactly why. Is it because you don’t have enough money to make the payments when they come due? You’ll be well served by reviewing your spending habits, creating a monthly budget and sticking to it. Are you just forgetful? Automating your bill payments can help tremendously.

Setting Aside Savings

A surprising 55% of college students reported setting aside savings every month. Having a financial safety net is important in the event of an emergency — your car breaks down, you break your leg and can’t work, you lose your job. Having an emergency fund or savings account is an important first step when it comes to financial security, so take a look at your budget and figure out how you can start saving small, eventually setting aside enough income to live on for three to six months if needed.

Tracking Your Spending

We’ve already mentioned it twice, but we’ll say it again: Having a budget is important if you want to stay in control of your finances, and tracking your spending is an important part of the budgeting process. More than half of college students surveyed (56%) said they track their spending, and you should too. There are lots of helpful apps available to help make it easier.

Having a Paying Job

If you’re in college and aren’t working, you may want to reconsider that choice. 65% of students surveyed said they had a paying job, and there are numerous studies that show students who work tend to manage their time better. Working also gives you the opportunity to manage your money better. Think of the nest egg you could put away if you don’t need the extra spending money.

Getting a Credit Card …

The majority of students surveyed (59%) said their No. 1 reason for getting a credit card was to begin building credit, and that makes a lot of sense. A credit card, wisely used, is one of the best ways to establish credit. There are lots of good credit cards for students that offer added incentives for making good grades and paying bills on time. There are also secured credit cards if you can’t qualify for a standard card, or you can ask a parent or guardian to become an authorized user on one of their cards to help you establish credit.

… & Managing It Well

According to the survey, 36% of respondents said they never charge a purchase without having the money to pay the bill when it arrives, while 23% said they have rarely done so. On the flip side, 25% said they sometimes do this, and another 15% said they do it frequently.

If you’re charging too much on your credit cards because you just need that latest gadget, keep in mind you’re only making life harder for your future self by racking up debt. If you’re charging too much because you’re using your credit card as an emergency fund for unexpected bills, you may want to consider the additional costs you’re incurring to pay off that debt. Putting a little money aside and earning interest on it is a much better alternative financially.

… By Paying Off Balances Every Month

The absolute best way to ensure you don’t get into credit card debt (and to boost your credit scores as much as possible) is to pay off your credit card balances every month. The survey found that 63% of the students surveyed pay off their balances in full each month. These students also tend to have lower average monthly balances — $825 compared to $1,635 among those who pay only the minimum amount due.

Carrying $1,500 in debt every month on a credit card with an APR of 15.99% can cost you more than $200 a year in interest. You can use this handy credit card payoff calculator tool to see how long it will take you to pay down your debt.

Paying Your Student Loans on Time

Just like making credit card payments on time (and in full, if you can) making student loan payments on time can have a significant positive impact on your credit scores, meaning you’ll qualify for better interest rates on better products with better perks. If you’re already behind on your student loan payments, it’s a good idea to contact your servicer right away and sort out how you can get back in good standing. Don’t let your student loans go into default because you’re afraid to admit you need help.

Being Aware of Your Credit Standing

Of the college students surveyed, 67% said they were aware of credit reports, and about half had viewed theirs (you can get two of your credit scores, absolutely free, on Credit.com).

The survey also found that those who had experience with credit were far more likely to have viewed their credit report than those without credit experience. For example, 66% of students with credit cards reported having viewed their credit report, compared with 27% of those who did not have a credit card.

Seeking Professional Help

Making financial decisions isn’t always easy, particularly when you’ve run into trouble. That’s why it’s always a good idea to consider professional help, whether for tax preparation, investing decisions or getting debt under control. Paying a reputable person for expertise and assistance can end up saving money in the long run.

Reading the Fine Print

Life is full of agreements, and many of those include legally binding contracts. Most are on the up-and-up, but it’s still a good idea to fully read any agreement you sign and understand the terms completely. If you don’t, this is another case in which you may want to seek professional help to save yourself frustration and possibly money further down the road.

These are the basics to setting yourself up to succeed financially. Of course, there will be hiccups along the way, but by staying on top of your finances and asking lots of questions, you’ll be able to avoid some of the common mistakes many people make.

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Whole Foods Plans to Cut Its ‘Whole Paycheck’ Prices

The days of 16-cent breakfasts may be ending — that is, if Whole Foods makes good on its promise to lower prices.

The days of settling for 16-cent breakfasts may be ending — that is, if Whole Foods makes good on its promise to lower prices.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the Texas-based company is taking steps to put its expensive, “whole paycheck” reputation behind it due to pressure from investors who want the organic grocer to behave more like Walmart. However, experts warn shifting to a similar centralized distribution structure could tarnish the brand, which sells locally grown produce.

The company’s in deep water with stakeholder Jana Partners, which wants to see swift operational changes and a reversal of what the Journal described as Whole Foods’ “longest stretch of same-store sales declines since going public in 1992.”

For consumers, that means Whole Foods will be pressed to compete with the likes of Kroger and Albertsons, which have steadily been dipping their toes in the health-conscious market, and that prices will drop.

“Our culture is still very unique,” co-founder John Mackey assured the paper, but the company now has a tall order to mesh its style with big-box performance.

What that will look like in practice remains unclear, though Mackey said the new strategy will make it easier for national brands to pitch at Whole Foods’ Austin, Texas, headquarters, which in turn will enable the company to pass on “tremendous savings” to shoppers. For now, the future of Whole Foods — and its prices — are hazy at best.

How to Save at Whole Foods 

Most Whole Foods shoppers are used to paying a premium for their health-conscious food. But there are ways to save on your groceries when shopping at Whole Foods, as Credit.com contributor Kristy Welsh notes. Here are a few of her tips.

BYOB. Bring your own sack to shop, and Whole Foods will give you up to a 10-cent discount on your purchase. Shop weekly and use five bags each time, and you could save $26 over the course of the year, Welsh said.

Buy What You Need. Don’t hesitate to ask the butcher to take out one of those steaks in the pre-wrapped packet. Or to ask the baker for a half loaf of rye. They’ll do it for you, and the price will be cheaper as a result.

Download the App. With coupons and weekly sales in one place, the Whole Foods app is a handy resource for on-the-go savers. You can also check for upcoming sales.

If all else fails and you still find the price of your groceries too high, a rewards credit card can help you earn points for spending — and there are even some that offer higher rewards when you purchase groceries. Just don’t forget to check your credit before you apply to make sure you’re able to qualify, as these types of cards tend to require you have higher credit scores. You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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50 Ways to Save on Your Commute

Is your commute eating up too much of your money? There are a bunch of ways to cut the expense of your trip to work.

Commuting can eat up a huge amount of time and money. In fact, a 2015 survey found Americans spend an average of $2,600 a year on their commute, or about $10 a day.

And it’s not only money spent, it’s also time — an average of 45 minutes a day, per the same survey — but there are ways for commuters to claw back at least some of losses. Here are 50 ways to do just that.

1. Carpool

If one or more of your co-workers lives nearby (or a neighbor works near your office), consider asking if you can split the cost and stress of driving to work.

“Not only does it allow you to save on your own commute, but you can also take advantage of the carpool lane and get to work even faster this way,” Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, said.

2. Space Out Oil Changes

An oil change every 3,000 miles is accepted wisdom, but many cars don’t actually need an oil change that often. Check your car’s manual to see whether you need to change your oil that frequently.

3. Use the Right Motor Oil …

Make sure to use the manufacturer’s recommended grade of oil. Check your car’s manual to find out. This improves gas mileage by up to 2%, according to fueleconomy.gov, the official federal source for fuel economy information.

4. … But Make Sure You Keep Up With Maintenance

That doesn’t mean you should forgo maintenance or repairs. If a mechanic you trust says you should shell out for a repair, do it. It’s going to be much more expensive and inconvenient if your car breaks down. Keeping your car in tune also makes it more fuel efficient.

5. Use Public Transit

Depending on service in your area, taking the bus or train may be cheaper than driving every day. You can use a fuel savings calculator like the one on publictransportation.org to see how your options compare.

6. Avoid Toll Roads

“Don’t take the toll road unless it’s a total game-changer,” said McKinzie Brocail, a writer who commutes 75 miles to and from work each day. “If you are spending $5-plus each way and only saving a few minutes on your drive, it is a waste of money.”

Your route may vary, but it’s worth investigating alternatives to toll roads.

7. Take Back Roads

The drive to work for Derek Hines, an internet marketing assistant for West Coast Self-Storage, based in Mill Creek, Washington, is about an hour. He generally avoids the highway.

“It’s longer from a mileage point of view, but I get better gas mileage because I’m not sitting in stop-and-go traffic,” he said.

8. Ease up on the Brakes

If you must brave stop-and-go traffic, ease off the gas and brake pedals, said Korey Adekoya, who writes the blog for Shabana Motors, a Houston car dealership.

“Braking and accelerating can be some of the biggest causes of fuel efficiency lost,” Adekoya said. He advised anticipating stops to avoid slamming on the brakes.

9. Accelerate Gently

The Canadian government lists five techniques that it says can cut fuel consumption as much as 25%. The first is to accelerate gently. The harder you accelerate, the more fuel you use.

10. Maintain a Steady Speed

Varying your speed too much can increase fuel use.

11. Anticipate Stops

If you know what’s up ahead, you won’t have to change speeds as drastically.

12. Avoid High Speeds

Fuel efficiency drops drastically at speeds of more than 50 mph, according to fueleconomy.gov.

13. Coast to a Stop

Canada’s final tip: If you see a slowdown ahead, just take your foot off the gas, then brake. In modern cars, releasing the accelerator like this shuts the flow of fuel to the engine. It also helps prevent wear on your tires and breaks.

14. Avoid Idling in General

Sitting in traffic is not only frustrating, but also wasteful. Your engine is on, burning fuel, but you’re not going anywhere. On that note…

15. Don’t Wait to Warm Up Your Car

Modern engines get warm when you drive them, Stephen Ciatti, an expert in combustion engines, told Business Insider. Idling your car, unless it was built before the 1980s, is just wasting gas. Per fueleconomy.gov: “The engine will warm up faster being driven, which will allow the heat to turn on sooner, decrease your fuel costs and reduce emissions.”

16. Park Somewhere Warm

Your engine is more fuel efficient when it reaches a warm temperature. Parking somewhere warm will help get it there faster once it starts.

17. Don’t Weigh Down Your Car

Fuel efficiency goes down with weight, Adekoya said. If there’s anything in your car you don’t actually need, store it somewhere else.

18. Keep Stuff Off Your Roof

If you must haul stuff, use the trunk, not the roof. Roof-mounted cargo boxes lead to increased wind resistance and lower fuel economy, according to fueleconomy.gov.

19. Use Cruise Control

As we said, staying at a constant speed helps save gas and using your cruise control makes that easier.

20. Buy a More Fuel-Efficient Car

If your car is eating up gas, it might be worth trading it in for one that’s more fuel-efficient. Fueleconomy.gov has gas mileage estimates for most cars. (Be sure to follow these money-saving steps while shopping.)

21. Buy a Used Car …

Used cars are not only cheaper than new cars, but can be cheaper to insure.

22. … Or Get an Electric or Hybrid

This not only saves gas, but might make you eligible for a tax credit of up to $7,500. (Try to avoid these five car-buying mistakes.)

23. Cool It With the Air Conditioner …

Most air conditioners use engine power to work, which can sip extra fuel. If you can stand the heat, sweating it out could save gas money.

24. … & Rolling Down the Windows

Unfortunately, driving with the windows down can also reduce fuel economy by increasing wind resistance. If you need to cool down, fueleconomy.gov recommends opening the windows at low speeds and using the air at highway speeds.

25. Cut Down on Trips

Don’t make more trips than you need. If you know you need to stop at the grocery store or laundromat, plan to go on your way home from work rather than making separate journeys. Your car is more fuel efficient when the engine stays warm, so a trip with multiple stops is better than multiple trips separated by days, according to fueleconomy.gov.

26. Find the Cheapest Gas …

There’s an abundance of apps and websites to help you find which gas stations offer the lowest prices, from GasBuddy to your navigation app. Just don’t go so far out of the way that it isn’t worth it.

27. … & Don’t Buy Premium

Unless you drive a high-performance vehicle or your owner’s manual explicitly says to use it, there’s rarely a benefit to high-octane gas, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

28. Move …

If your commute is pricey enough, it can be worth it to find a place closer to work. (Follow these money tips before moving out.)

29. … Or Get a New Job

Or get a job closer to home.

30. Don’t Stop for Food or Coffee

“Breakfast or a latte might seem like a pick-me-up for the trek to work, but it adds up fast,” Brocail said.

31. Use Pre-Tax Dollars

The IRS allows employers to offer transportation benefits to workers. This lets them use up to $255 per month in pre-tax dollars on commuting expenses like parking or bus passes. Jody Dietel, chief compliance officer at WageWorks, a benefits provider, said this saves workers an average of 30% on commuting costs. Talk to your human resources department to see if they offer transportation benefits.

32. Buy a Bicycle …

If the route is safe, riding a bike to work uses no gas, is good exercise and helps burn calories, potentially saving a trip to the gym. The League of American Bicyclists has several tips for bike commuters on its site.

33. … Or Use a Bike Sharing Program

Many cities offer bicycle sharing programs that let people borrow bikes for short rides. You usually need to subscribe, but see what your city has to offer.

34. … Or Walk

If you live close enough, of course.

35. Work From Home …

Cut your commute out entirely by asking your boss to let you work from home — if not all the time, perhaps just a couple of days a week.

36. … Or Change Your Hours

Boss not down with you working at home? “A more sustainable option would be to ask your boss for a flexible schedule that would allow you to come to work before or after the traditional commute crunch hours, which could save on time stuck in traffic,” said Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs.

37. Make Use of Your Commute

Your commute doesn’t have to be a waste of time. If you’re taking public transit or are a passenger in a ride-share, you can catch up on email. If you’re driving, play an audiobook or podcast that can help you with your career. There’s much more to do than stew about the traffic.

38. Park for Free

A free parking spot might mean a farther walk from the office, but you’ll save lots if you can avoid paying to stick your car in a garage or lot all day.

39. Keep Your Tires Filled

Under-inflated tires reduce gas mileage, according to fueleconomy.gov. Pumping them up is free at many gas stations.

40. Use a Gas Station Credit Card

The right card can give you some money back for what you spend at the pump. Here are a few options. Just remember, a rewards card usually requires a good credit score. Check your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

41. Avoid Left Turns

UPS claims to have saved about 10 million gallons of gas since 2004 by instructing drivers never to turn left (reduces waiting to cross oncoming traffic and related accidents). Cutting lefts out of your route might lead to savings as well.

42. Get a Discount

Many transit systems offer discounts to seniors or students for bus or train passes. See if you qualify.

43. Buy in Bulk

Generally, buying a monthly or seasonal pass, rather than an individual ticket, for your local transit method can lead to savings, especially if you ride regularly.

44. Hop Off Early

Many transit providers charge based on how far you travel. It might be worth it to walk the last few blocks to your house or office to save a few bucks.

45. Bundle Your Car Insurance

Ask your insurer if you can save money by bundling your car insurance with renter’s or homeowner’s insurance.

46. Keep Shopping Around for Insurers

Call around every so often to make sure you’re getting the best deal on your car insurance.

47. Put Ads on Your Car

If you drive enough, there are a few companies, like Wrapify, Carvertise and Get Paid to Drive, that will pay you for driving around with an ad on your car.

48. Know About Traffic Ahead of Time

You already know how bad sitting in traffic is for fuel efficiency. Make sure you find out about jams before you leave the house or office, whether by listening to the radio, watching TV or using an app, and plan around it.

49. Drive Safely

A ticket or worse, a car accident, will really make your commute costly. Be careful out there.

50. Don’t Stress

Sitting in a giant line of seemingly stationary buses at the Lincoln Tunnel is aggravating, but it won’t help to bring your commute-induced mood to work. Letting your commuting stress hurt your job performance is bad business. Try using your time on the bus or train to nap or meditate.

Image: TommL

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This Man’s 2-Mile Ambulance Ride Cost $2,700. Is That Normal?

Ever wonder why ambulance rides are so expensive? This man's frustrating story will enlighten you.

Ideally, you’ll never need to ride in the back of an ambulance. But if it happens, here’s what you should know: Ambulance services are extremely expensive.

Rick Santoro learned that the hard way.

After receiving a two-mile transport in February, Santoro experienced sticker shock: His ride added up to $2,691.50. Though insurance covered most of it, Santoro had to pay $770.30 out of pocket, and he wondered if that was right. The bulk of the bill resulted from the fact he hadn’t yet hit his annual deductible, but it still seemed pricey, he said, given the brief care he received.

“I just want an answer,” Santoro said. “If I gotta pay the 700 bucks, I gotta pay … It will be a lesson learned for me.”

‘I Didn’t Feel Well’

In early February, Santoro, 60, was at an orthopedist’s office for a small procedure, an injection in his knee. Afterward, he passed out, but once he regained consciousness, he continued to feel ill.

His doctor suggested he go to the emergency room, and Santoro, uncertain why he was having issues, agreed. An ambulance took him two miles to the nearest hospital, and a few weeks later, the bill arrived. The short ride cost more than the subsequent emergency room visit, which he estimates lasted about two and a half hours. That bill was $200.

Why Are Ambulance Services So Expensive?

Santoro’s inquiry isn’t the first Credit.com has received about a pricey ambulance ride. As we’ve previously reported, there are many reasons medical transport services cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s difficult to pin down an average amount for an ambulance bill, because costs vary so widely by location, services and contracts between providers and insurers. But the core expenses generally result from the same things.

“Labor, training, readiness, equipment — all these things factor into the equation,” said Alan Schwalberg, vice president of emergency medical services at Northwell Health Center in Syosset, New York, which provided the ambulance that transported Santoro. (Schwalberg said he couldn’t comment on a specific patient’s case but could speak generally about the cost of ambulance services at Northwell.)

“[Patients] can’t fathom how it’s so expensive,” he said. “They compare it to Uber, but it’s not Uber.”

People who receive ambulance transportation pay not only for the services they receive but also for what it costs for ambulances to be readily available in the service area, in addition to the cost of training people who provide medical services in the vehicle.

“There’s two people for every one patient, minimum,” which is a different standard of healthcare than you’d find in an emergency room, Schwalberg said. “It’s labor intensive.”

Equipment and staff must also meet local and state regulatory requirements, and the cost of such maintenance adds up. All that factors into the base charge, or what Schwalberg referred to as “loaded miles.”

On top of that, there’s a mileage charge, but that generally makes up a much smaller portion of the final bill. In Santoro’s case, the base charge was $2,480 and the mileage was $84. (The remaining $127.50 was a surcharge imposed by New York state.)

Part of what shocked Santoro is the fact that he received what he considered very little care: An EMT took his vitals and gave him oxygen, he said. But Schwalberg said Northwell doesn’t itemize medications and other care a patient may receive in an ambulance. Patients are charged for one of two types of care: basic life support or advanced life support.

Why Ambulance Costs Vary

While Schwalberg’s explanation gives insight into the high costs of ambulance transport, it’s really only applicable to Northwell Health Center on Long Island. As with many aspects of health care costs, base charges vary by provider, insurance coverage and location.

In Northwell’s case, ambulance rates were set after working with an outside consulting firm a few years ago, Schwalberg said. They compared prices throughout the region, determined the final rates, and then negotiated with insurance carriers what they would pay. They determined a patient’s final responsibility would rely not only on the type of insurance coverage they have but also on the terms their insurance carrier set with the provider.

For these reasons, it can be really difficult to know how much a health care service will end up costing you, unless you price it out with the provider and your insurer in advance. That’s something medical billing experts like Adria Goldman Gross recommend, but obviously that’s not an option in an emergency situation. In that case, Gross said you should be prepared to negotiate. (You can read more about how to avoid a high medical bill here.)

How to Handle a Massive Medical Bill

Gross said the first thing to do when you get a bill is check the medical billing codes to see if they match the services you received. (She recommends doing this with any bill, no matter the size, because errors are common.) If it’s wrong, that’s the first thing to challenge with the health care provider, but if it’s right, the next thing to do is research costs for similar procedures in your area. She said she uses the Medicare fee schedule as a benchmark.

Fair warning: While the fee schedule is publicly available, it’s not the easiest thing to read. If, based on those figures or other research, you feel like you’ve been overcharged, you can try to negotiate a lower bill. Again, this is easier said than done.

“Sometimes it could be one phone call, other times it could be 15 phone calls or it could be 20 phone calls, it depends,” Gross said. You’re in for a lot of work, she added, but if you really believe you’re being overcharged, it can be worth the fight.

Gross suggested arranging a monthly payment plan so your bill won’t be sent to collections while you pursue negotiations. (A collection account can seriously hurt your credit standing, though some newer credit scoring models won’t ding you for medical-bill collections. You can keep tabs on such things by getting your free credit report summary right here on Credit.com.)

“Say, ‘Look, I really feel that you’ve been paid the reasonable amount, and I really only owe you this much for the allowed amounts for your location,'” she said. Gross suggested working your way up the ladder and even calling the CEO of the hospital or an equivalent authority figure to make your case. If you truly can’t afford your bills, ask about repayment assistance. Schwalberg said Northwell offers such a program.

Having made several phone calls to the hospital to verify his bill, Santoro said he is on track to pay the full $770.30 in small monthly installments. He said he wishes he hadn’t taken the ambulance or at least knew how expensive it was going to be. Reflecting on the situation, he said he should have waited to see if he felt better or taken a car service instead of an ambulance, then acknowledged he isn’t sure how knowing the cost would have affected his decision at the time.

“Why can’t the guy that picks you up say to you, ‘This is going to be an expensive ride?'” Santoro said, seeming to replay the episode in his head. He added: “I don’t know what I would say. I just wanted to feel better.”

Image: FangXiaNuo

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Water Bill Drowning You? Here Are 11 Ways to Lower It

There are plenty of ways to save on your water bill. Check out these 11 ideas.

If you feel like you’re being soaked by utility bills, you may be looking for ways to cut your monthly costs. While utilities like internet and cable TV may seem like obvious targets, your water bill can also run much higher than necessary.

Missing water bill payments could eventually hurt your credit. While most utilities don’t report on-time payments to the to credit bureaus, many will report accounts that go into default or collections, which will cause your scores to take a hit. (Want to see where yours stand? Take a look at two of your credit scores free on Credit.com.)

There’s no shortage of common sense methods to cut your water usage and lower your bill. Here are 11 options.

1. Fix Leaky Faucets

Leaky faucets may not seem like obvious culprits — after all, they’re only losing water a drop at a time. But as months go by, those drips add up.

A single drop per second from a leaky faucet can lead to 2,082 gallons of waste water each year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. All you need to do is head to your local hardware store for a repair kit and that repair could save you a lot over time.

2. Run Full Loads of Laundry

You may want to avoid running your washing machine just to clean a few T-shirts and a pair of socks. Not only does that waste water, it puts unnecessary wear and tear on your washer. Only wash full loads of laundry to reduce the number of times you have to run your machine.

3. Limit Your Showers

Showers account for 17% of home water use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That long, luxurious shower feels good in the moment, but it drives up your water bill. Try to limit your showers to five minutes or less or cut back on the frequency.

4. Adjust Water Temperature Away From the Sink

If you run your cooking water or drinking water straight from the faucet, you may be wasting water as you wait for it to heat up or cool down. Instead, you can heat cool water on the stove and keep drinking water in a container in the fridge.

5. Wash Dishes Efficiently

Running your dishwasher uses less water than hand-washing your dishes, according to the EPA. If you don’t have a dishwasher, try stopping the drain and filling the sink with soapy water rather than letting the water run.

6. Install Efficient Showerheads

If your showerheads are inefficient, or if you’ve never replaced them, you may want to invest in a low-flow or high-efficiency showerhead. Showerheads today must have a flow rate no more than 2.5 gallons per minute, as specified by the federal Energy Policy Act of 1992.

“Showerheads made before that typically spit out five or more gallons per minute,” said Karen Hoxmeier, Founder of MyBargainBuddy.com. “Switching will save about 136 gallons of water per shower. A water-efficient showerhead will pay for itself after only a few months.”

While you’re making upgrades, here are 17 things homeowners should make sure to do each year.

7. Water Your Lawn at the Right Time

Watering your lawn at the right time of day can reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation.

“Water evaporates quickly into the air during the hottest times of the day, so if you have a lawn or garden that needs watering we suggest doing so in the morning or evening to cut down on water evaporation waste,” said Rob Caiello, vice president of marketing at Allconnect, a company that helps connect consumers with utility providers.

8. Collect Rain Water

You can use a water cistern or any large container to capture rainwater and use that water to hydrate your lawn and garden.

9. Don’t Let the Bathroom Faucet Run

Letting the faucet run while you shave or brush your teeth is wasteful, as most of that water isn’t being used. Fill the sink before shaving and shut off the water as you brush your teeth to reduce waste.

10. Install Faucet Aerators

Faucet aerators limit the water that flows through your faucets, cutting water usage and the energy required to heat hot water. Installing aerators on every faucet in your home can dramatically reduce the water used in your sinks.

11. Install Water-Efficient Toilets

Modern, efficient toilets can use less than 1.3 gallons per flush, according to the EPA. And while low-flow toilets got a bad rap in their infancy, today’s toilets have corrected the poor performance issues that plagued early models. If your toilet is due for an upgrade, a low-flow model can help slash that water bill.

Want more bill reducing hacks? We have 11 ways to save on your electric bill right here. Have other bills you’d like ideas for on how to save? Let us know in the comments!

Image: PeopleImages 

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The 10 Main Ways the Government Spends Your Tax Dollars

Here are the 10 main ways the government spends your tax dollars.

Federal government spending is closing in on $4 trillion a year. Even though a new administration is promising a wave of change, it’s still going to require a lot of money to keep the country running. A big chunk of that money comes directly from you, the taxpayer. The government gets most of its spending money via tax revenue, including $1.53 trillion via individual income taxes. Corporate income taxes, customs duties and excise taxes are other big sources of cash for the government, as are Social Security and Medicare taxes and borrowing.

Those numbers are almost too huge to comprehend. Whether your tax bill is large or small, it probably seems like a drop in the bucket of total government spending. (Here’s how to deal with a hefty tax bill.) To help give people a better idea of where their tax dollars actually go, the National Priorities Project put together a taxpayer receipt that breaks down what the government does with your money. (The White House releases its own taxpayer receipt that categorizes spending in slightly different ways.)

That data can give you a good idea of how much of your tax dollars are flowing into specific spending categories. For example, the National Priorities Project’s data show the average taxpayer in the U.S. paid $12,992 in federal income tax in 2014. The bulk of those dollars went to only a handful of spending categories. (These are five items you should pay taxes on but aren’t.)

Those categories are fleshed out in a report from Pew Research Center, which breaks down where the government spends your money. On the following pages, we’ll use data from both the National Priorities Project and Pew Research Center to put together a picture of where your tax dollars go.

Let’s take a closer look at the 10 main ways the government spends your tax dollars.

1. Defense: 15%

Spending on the military and national defense consumes 15% of the national budget. It’s important to note, too, that this doesn’t count spending on veterans benefits. Our defense spending has increased since 2000. Although spending took a downturn under President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump has signaled he wants to boost it significantly in coming years.

2. Health Care: 13%

There is no escaping health care costs. And incredibly enough, almost an equal portion of your tax bill goes to health care programs as it does to the military. About 45% supports Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for the poor. The rest funds things like the Children’s Health Insurance Program and consumer health programs.

Overall government health care spending has ballooned over the past 40 years. For comparison, in 1976, spending on health programs accounted for 7% of the federal budget.

3. Interest Payments: 6%

This is basically the maintenance cost we end up spending on our national debt. The national debt is always a topic of discussion, and with the turbulent times over the past couple of decades, it’s risen dramatically. Today, the U.S. has nearly $20 trillion in national debt. And just like you have to pay interest on your credit card and mortgage debt, you’re also paying interest on your share of the federal government’s debt. (How are your interest payments affecting your finances? Get a look at a snapshot of your credit report free on Credit.com.)

4. Income Security: 13%

This category, which eats up 13% of the federal budget, includes retirement and disability benefits for federal employees, job training programs and other similar programs. Among them is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which provides cash benefits and other support to the poor. In 2013, that program’s spending was $17 billion, the lowest amount since the program started in 1998, according to the Congressional Budget Office — so that’s a promising sign for deficit hawks.

5. Benefits for Veterans: 5%

There are roughly 22 million veterans in the U.S., according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Spending on benefits for people who have served in the military, including pensions and medical care, has increased steadily in recent years, nearing $100 million back in 2009. That number has gone up even as the total number of veterans has declined, according to data from the National Center for Veterans Affairs and Statistics.

6. Education: 3%

A lot of people would feel better if we spent more on education, rather than defense. But our policymakers seem to be headed in the opposite direction. There have been many cuts to education spending in recent years, while spending on defense has grown. Currently, per Pew’s numbers, we spend 3% of our federal tax dollars on education. A key problem, however, is our spending doesn’t always translate into success.

7. Social Security: 24%

Spending on Social Security is, by a long shot, the single largest expenditure for the federal government. According to Pew Research, government spending on social security eats up roughly a quarter of the entire federal budget. Those costs are expected to grow with the Baby Boomer generation retiring and signing up. This is an area that needs a fix. But it’s known as the “third rail” of American politics — meaning nobody is willing to touch it.

8. Medicare: 15%

Medicare eats up a significant portion of the federal budget at 15%. This is one of those health care-related expenditures expected to continue ballooning in coming years — and one that will require some type of reform to fix. Medicare is, of course, incredibly important for a huge portion of the American population, so it’s not as easy as making draconian cuts.

9. Foreign aid: ~1%

The Pew report doesn’t look at foreign aid specifically and instead counts it as a portion of another category. We’ve taken it out, as it’s one of the most misunderstood elements of the federal budget. Many people believe we spend a lot — the average American guessed 31% of the federal budget — on foreign aid. The real amount? Roughly 1%.

10. Other: ~5%

As noted, we’ve removed foreign aid from this figure. Otherwise, this is the catch-all that accounts for the remainder of government spending, which is roughly 5% of the total. This includes “crop subsidies, space travel, highway repairs, national parks and much, much more,” the Pew report said. So, if you can think of something that wasn’t included in any other category, it’s accounted for here.

This article originally appeared on The Cheat Sheet.  

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The Cities Where Postal Workers Are Most Often Attacked by Dogs

Postal workers are victims of dog attacks most often in these cities.

Image: Janie Airey 

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