How Much Will a Ticket Raise My Car Insurance?

Misbehaving is perhaps one of life’s earliest pleasures: As soon as we learn “no,” we learn also to test whether or not we can get away with whichever mess tempts our wee hearts most at any given moment. The truth is, there are driving laws that all of us regularly disobey — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that as many as 39% of drivers “enjoy the feeling of speed.” If forced to testify in a court of law, could you say with a clean conscience that you’d never purposefully done something a bit risky behind the wheel?

It turns out that some deviant behaviors can not only be dangerous, but incredibly costly — in terms of the ticket fee and its lingering impact on your car insurance rate. That’s right — your car insurance company takes your personal driving record into account more than any other single rating factor. (In most states, your credit score can also be a factor. You can check your credit scores for free on to see where you stand.)

4 Bad Behaviors That Will Cost You

First, a note on our methods: Using ZIP codes from all 50 states, we ran a mock profile to get an average base car insurance premium. Our sample driver was a single 35-year-old male homeowner with good credit and no accidents for the past five years. Then, we got him into some hypothetical trouble…

1. Littering From Vehicle

Average fine cost: Usually anywhere between $100 and $1,000 for the first offense. Most often considered a misdemeanor, tossing something especially heavy, or repeated offenses can land you in jail in many states. (Other potential punishments include litter cleanup.)

Average hike in insurance rates: 11.18%.

2. Speeding in a School Zone

Average fine cost: The costs can vary widely, but often start around $200 – $500 with additional costs for each extra mile over the speed limit you’re driving. Often, in school zones, the fines and fees are simply doubled.

Average hike in insurance rates: 18.89%.

3. Reckless Driving

Average fine cost: Varies widely. Just what constitutes reckless driving? Individual states’ definitions vary slightly, but all sound a lot like this Kansas statute: “Any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.” If you’re driving in a manner that you wouldn’t want your mom to see, chances are you’re driving recklessly. This can include speeding, tailgating, running stop signs or lights, distracted driving — even failing to use a turn signal.

Average hike in insurance rates: 63.93%.

4. Street Racing

Average fine cost: at least $1,000. Other possible consequences include having your license revoked, being arrested and having your vehicle impounded for 30 days or more. Also, many auto insurance companies will simply drop you if you’re found guilty of street racing. It’s serious business and seriously dangerous — while data are hard to collect and corroborate, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing estimates that around 50 people die each year due to street racing.

Average hike in insurance rates: 73.32%.

Needless to say, any one of these expenses can impact your premium — any combination could send it through the roof. And while a 10% hike is considerably less than the 73% a racing ticket could cost you, the truth is that any preventable behavior that ups your insurance is just going to cause regret. What should you do if you’ve gotten a ticket for any of the above bad behaviors? Your best bet is to compare car insurance rates across companies if you’ve been slapped with one of these fines. And, of course, to solemnly swear that you’ll never behave so badly again behind the wheel.

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This article by Jaime Netzer was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

How to Build the Perfect Emergency Fund for You

Just a few days ago, I was surprised to discover my clothes dryer had completely stopped working. The machine had no other signs of wear and tear and was only a couple years old. To make a long story short, after a quick call and visit from the repairman, I found myself stuck with a $200 bill! Luckily, with the help of my emergency fund, I was able to cover the expense without falling back on credit cards or disrupting my regular take-home pay. It’s like nothing even happened.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t adequately prepared to manage paying for an unexpected expense or emergency. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2014 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, 47% of Americans say that they wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency expense. That lack of preparedness could lead to maxing out credit cards, taking out expensive short-term loans, or worse. So to help you better manage the unexpected, here’s my guide to putting together the perfect emergency fund.

Start Small

While you should eventually build an emergency fund that can handle more serious emergencies (economic downturn, loss of job, etc), you’re going to want to start by putting together a short-term emergency fund. Your short-term fund is meant to take care of unexpected expenses that, while not severe, can still mean trouble if you aren’t prepared. Things like a car repair, replacing a broken window, or getting a parking ticket are all things that can be covered by your short-term fund. Ideally, you’d want this to range anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

Figure How Much You’ll Need in the Long Run

Chances are, if you find yourself out of work, the victim of a natural disaster or unable to work for any reason, $500 to $1,000 won’t be enough to keep your head above water. So to make sure you can keep you (and your family) financially stable for an extended period of time, it’s best to save anywhere between three to six months’ worth of expenses. That may sound like a lot of money (and in most cases it is) but believe me, having something to fall back on will make your recovery process all the more easier.

Building yourself a budget is a great way to figure out how much you should aim to save for a long-term emergency. Figure out what expenses you’d really need to be covered (food, shelter, major utilities) and which you can do without for a short period of time (cable bill, online subscription services, etc). Once you get that number, you can start working out a savings plan for yourself depending upon how much you’re able to sock away each paycheck. It might take a lot of time, but having a specific number in mind can really help to keep you motivated.

Tighten Up Your Budget

If you’re struggling to come up with money to put away for an emergency fund, there’s no better way to boost your cash flow than by tightening up your budget. Writing a concise list of your needs and wants can help you identify what areas of your budget you can cut back on. Think of all the extra money you could save just by cutting back on dining out or going without Netflix for a couple months. Once you’ve met your savings goal, you can transition back to your regular spending habits with the peace of mind that you’ll be able to handle almost anything that comes your way.

Drop Your Debt

While you’d ideally want to take care of both simultaneously, paying down debt and saving money isn’t something that’s feasible for everyone. In situations like these, it may be in your best interest to prioritize paying down your debt. The longer you carry debt, the more interest it builds and the more you’ll have to pay over time. Taking on high-cost debt (credit card debt, for example) can also be an emergency in and of itself and be a huge drain on the emergency fund you worked so hard to build.

Furthermore, carrying a high balance on your credit card can have a negative impact on your credit. And the lower your credit score, the more likely you are to get higher interest rates on future loans and credit cards. You can see how your debt is affecting your credit scores for free on, with updates every month so you can track your progress.

Getting out of debt, and avoiding unnecessary forms of it, can help you maximize your contributions to your emergency fund and ensure it’s there for when you really need it.

Most people don’t realize how important an emergency fund really is until they’re actually faced with a serious emergency. Putting in the time and effort to build an adequate emergency fund is a simple way to make sure you and your loved ones won’t fall into debt. So do yourself a favor and take the time to evaluate your expenses, build a budget, and start saving today!

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This article by Leslie Tayne was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Can Work At Home MLM and Network Marketing Provide Full Time Income?

I spend much of my time helping people figure out how they can get through a tough financial situation that often peaks with the inability to pay bills. This means I am most often speaking to people for the first time when they have debt emergencies and late stage debt collection issues. This is not a great time to bring up the topic of making more money, whether from a work at home opportunity like an MLM program, network marketing, a second part-time job, or other types of additional income, as a means to deal with debt. The time to talk about increasing your income to pay off debt is often earlier than people contact me, reach my website, or would be better suited for discussion when the debt emergency is resolved.

Often times, the answer to resolving not just debt, but accomplishing other financial goals (college tuition, buying a home, improving your retirement prospects) can be reduced to spending less than you earn, and increasing your income.

I want to share some perspective and experiences about increasing your income with a home based business like an MLM or network marketing program. For some back ground, I can attribute my start in the debt relief industry, at least from a professional and full time perspective, to my prior experience with MLM and network marketing. I also started CRN in my basement in 2004, and even now work from home more often than not, which became more normal for me after transitioning CRN into publishing efforts more than direct debt relief services.

Are work at home opportunities available and viable?

Back in the 90’s, work at home opportunities predominately consisted of MLM, Network Marketing, and some direct sales. With the internet, came increased connectivity and communications, the landscape for working at home full time, with all of the flexibilities and benefits that brings (for individuals and companies), the viability is now unquestioned. Telling a friend you have the ability to work from home now gets more of a “you are so lucky to be able to do that” response rather than the “that can’t be a good career path… is there something wrong with you” looks and questions.

Anyone trading hours in their car commuting to work, for a walk down the hallway to their home office, knows they have it good. If you miss the office environment, just call up a friend during rush hour traffic. They may appreciate the hands free distraction while trapped in their car, or they may just want to cut the conversation short (or you might want to), because they are not at their best right then.

I live in a cul-de-sac with 9 homes. One home is vacant and for sale. Of the 8 families here, 4 of us are self employed and have home offices. Two of the four of us can be considered to be working from home full time. My immediate neighbor is a computer programmer whose HQ is in California. He travels there once in a while, or to a customers job site as needed. I go to the CRN office very little, which is true of other experts in the network (one likes the office more than working from home, but still works at home on Wednesdays).

Having a home office where you work full time hours is more viable and popular than ever. Whether you work full time for a company, or are self employed with your home as your office, the opportunities to work at home are many.

The list of benefits that come with working from home is long and easy to make. Finding the job or opportunity that allows you this freedom and flexibility may not be, depending on your skill set and the job market you are in. This is perhaps why MLM and network marketing programs have the appeal that they do.

Multilevel Marketing (MLM) and other home based businesses.

My first job was a home based business (on a bicycle) by way of a paper route I inherited from my brother and sister at age 11.5. The papers I needed to deliver to my customers were dropped at my front door by 4 a.m. 7 days a week.

My next opportunity to work at home came with a network marketing program that was accented by 2 different MLM companies many years later.

The primary product in the networking program was education and was considered high ticket with a $1,2500.00 price point. The two MLM programs that accented the network marketing program were for leads and low cost long distance minutes (both a requirement for anyone dialing for dollars). Anyone I introduced to the marketing opportunities of my primary program would often enroll in my down line for leads and lower cost long distance.

I made money in all three programs. And not just cover your costs money. I earned full time – support a family of 4 by working at home – type of money.

The last time I worked for someone else was in the 90’s as a deck hand on the Wizard (yes, that boat from the show Deadliest Catch, Keith was my skipper then too).

How does a paperboy, gone jack of this and that trade, become a recognized debt relief expert?

MLM = Many Losing Money.

There is no shortage of people who would like to be their own boss and work from home. Many people possess an entrepreneurial spirit strong enough to drive them to succeed in their own business. But there are also that many more people (and then some) that like the idea of working from home, but are not suited to it, committed to success, or who worked/are working the wrong MLM or networking program.

The MLM drop out dynamic is not so different than the fact that most traditional businesses fail in the first 5 years. The drop out rate for home based businesses is accelerated though, and for good reasons.

It is because of the mismatch of people and programs that MLM is often jokingly referred to as an acronym for many-losing-money rather than multi-level-marketing.

All manner of things can conspire to work against a business owner, whether a traditional brick and mortar storefront, or someone working an MLM from their home office. It is this fact that contributed to me becoming a debt relief expert.

While I was focused building my customer base in what later came to be another network marketing high-ticket/4-tiered type of program, and still working the one MLM lead generating program (no MLM survived deregulation and business realities in the long distance telephone service market), many around me were building debt instead. And because people in my up-line and down-line knew I had started to geek out on debt and credit consumer protections, and strategies to negotiate and settle debts, my phone began to ring. But now the phone calls were more from people unable to pay their credit card bills due to marketing and business costs from whatever MLM program they were currently in, or had tried before.

I later helped build a network marketing and direct sales company that promoted debt relief. Some of the most successful home based marketers of that program were once it’s customers.

The low barrier to entry with MLM and Network Marketing.

People poke fun at MLM dropouts and their old school garage full of products (now replaced by technology and drop shipping). But the success rate of people working an MLM from home is likely not all that different than any other failed business in the traditional sense. What will often be stark differences are the costs, risks, and time associated with starting a traditional business vs an MLM program or networking opportunity.

You can start a home based MLM business in an afternoon, and with little comparative cost outlay. Opening a store front or traditional business will require much more planning, far more expense, and way more time. The risks with traditional businesses are often far greater than what home based networkers and entrepreneurs will experience.

This low barrier to entry will attract virtually anyone with an entrepreneurial spark, which is a ton of people. The ease and speed with which you can start a home based business is also likely some of why the MLM drop out rate is what it is. If you do not see or feel success in your business in 90 days, you can walk, and with little pain in making that decision. This is all the more likely if you align your efforts with a fad type of product that captured only a fleeting interest from you or your prospects. Once your enthusiasm for the product or service is gone, and if you never touch the potential in the compensation plan, you could find yourself burnt out from the idea of a home based business, or will have moved on to the next MLM… and possibly wash, rinse, repeat (many will float from program to program never stopping to fully focus on the three attributes I list below with absolute honesty).

The problems with MLM and networking programs are not just in the way the businesses are designed. I would suggest the problems are the same as they are in traditional businesses, which can often boil down to:

  • Not enough planning went into choosing the right business, product or service, location, partners, etc.
  • Under capitalized or unrealistic expectations about costs and profitability.
  • Not understanding customers needs and other fickleness.
  • Lack of support systems, or failure to tap into existing support infrastructure.
  • Not suited to be a business owner (not personable, cannot manage people, not all-in committed).

MLM and network marketing programs do work.

Just like any business can grow and thrive, an MLM or networking program can too. I know many successful marketers. Some of the things they bring to their home based business are the same things any business owner brings to theirs. Three key attributes of any successful MLM-ers that I know:

  1. Matched with a product or service that they identify with.
  2. Unwavering commitment, and not just to their own success, but to building success in others (team building).
  3. Able to manage their own time (there are no short cuts, and no get rich quick loop holes, just hard work).

My own experience, and that of all of the successful marketers I have ever known, suggest all three of those elements exist in force from the outset and carry through with longevity.

I will be covering the 3 above attributes for work at home success (and several others), in much more detail.

If you have questions about work at home opportunities, MLM programs, network marketing, or feedback about how to succeed as an entrepreneur, you are welcome to post in the comments below.

This article by Michael Bovee first appeared on Consumer Recovery Network and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

How to Build Credit While You’re in College

College should be a sort of last hurrah for your teen years. It’s your last chance to be an adult without having to worry about all that goes with it. Creditors, however, have other ideas for college students. To make things even worse, if you’re an exchange student thinking about staying in the U.S. after graduation, things are going to get even trickier.

When I first applied for my credit card, I was only approved for a $300 limit because it was “suspicious” that I had zero credit even though I lived in the States for over 3 years while attending university.

What’s the Problem?

Basically, creditors view people without any credit history as a risk. Without any credit history, you’re actually even worse off than you would be if you had bad credit history — which also seems dumb. Why won’t creditors give you a chance?

From the creditor’s point of view, they don’t know if you’re a risk or not. Are you a high risk and need a higher annual percentage rate (APR) or will you pay bills in a timely manner? Heck, without credit history, you’ll be even harder to track down if you run on your bills, and if you’re an international student, they have no guarantee you won’t just leave the country. How will they collect on your debt if you aren’t even living in the U.S.?

For a college student, all of this is particularly difficult because you probably aren’t holding down a full-time job, because you’re a full-time student. And if you wait until after graduation to start building your credit, you’ll quickly discover you can’t rent your first apartment or buy a car. Just when you thought you were free of your parents, you’ll discover you need them to co-sign.

It’s even worse for international students. If you plan to stay in the U.S. after graduation, you’ll need a U.S. citizen to co-sign. Mom and Dad won’t be able to save you — unless they’re U.S. residents.

So how do you build credit as a college student, especially an international one?

How to Build Credit While You’re in College

Secure a Social Security Number

You can’t build credit without something to attach it to, so if you’re an international student, your first step is to apply for a social security number. This isn’t the same number that you were assigned by your own country at birth, even though it represents the same thing.

You can easily obtain a U.S. SSN number by applying for an on-campus job in school. Just remember that there is a process to follow, and you have to do it in person. The Social Security Administration recommends you wait at least 10 days after you’ve arrived in the United States before applying, to help with your immigration status. Then, take an application to the SSA with the necessary documents.

For all students, once you’ve obtained your social security number, pull a credit report to make sure the number hasn’t been in use prior to you building credit. Identity theft can happen even when you’re an infant. If you pull your free credit report and see a mortgage added when you were 6 months old, you’ll want to resolve the problem before moving forward.

Credit Building Tips

• Pay your bills on time — that means all bills, not just credit cards.
• Pay your balance in full.
• Leave a line of credit open for as long as possible.
• Pull a credit report yearly

But Don’t …

• Apply for multiple accounts.
• Receive a card but never use it.
• Let balances compound.
• Co-sign for friends.

Where to Begin

If you have zero credit and no one to co-sign, start with a secured credit card. It’s definitely the path of least resistance. The only downside is you’ll have to cough up a few hundred dollars to open an account — this is how the card is secured — but on the other hand you’ll gain interest on the money you’ve passed to the bank. After a year of good behavior, you’ll get a “real” credit card and your money back.

Your only other option without help is to apply for student credit cards, but even though these cards are geared toward students, those without any credit history at all are often denied. Still, if you’re one of those lucky students whose parents have been helping them build credit in advance, this might actually be a preferred method.

How to Build Credit While You’re in College

Call in Backup

Even an international student can have a co-signer. If you need to develop credit but can’t seem to swing your first account on your own, call in family. Remember, though, if you’re an international student you still have to have a U.S. citizen co-sign. You might be out of luck; however, if you’re fortunate enough to know someone willing to do this for you, don’t mess it up. Your late payments can affect their credit history.

If possible, you can even ask your parents to add you as an authorized user on their personal credit cards. Only do this if you know your parents have positive credit, though. If that’s the case, their good credit will rub off on yours.

Map out a strategy for developing a solid credit history. It’s a slow process, so it’s important to start as far in advance as you can. Don’t wait until you’re ready to graduate to apply for your first credit card, and definitely don’t wait to make your payments. Your big problem right now is building credit, but don’t let your next one be learning how to pay off your debt.

This article by Anum Yoon first appeared on Current On Currency and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Why Your Home May Not Be Worth As Much As You Think

Homeowners and appraisers rarely agree on a property’s value, and for the vast majority of the last decade, homeowners have been overvaluing their homes. In May, there was a 1.15% gap between what consumers thought their houses were worth and the worth determined by appraisers — it’s the first time in 22 months that homeowners overvalued their properties by greater than 1%, according to Quicken Loans.

Quicken Loans, a large, Detroit-based non-bank mortgage lender, publishes its Home Price Perception Index on a monthly basis, and May is the fourth consecutive month of a growing gap between homeowner and appraiser opinion. At the same time, the Home Value Index increased 0.24% nationally from April to May and 4.64% from last May, so values are going up, just not as much as homeowners may have believed, perhaps.

Looking at housing markets from a national perspective is a very rough look at market performance, because things vary so widely by location.

“The HPPI, more than anything, is a reminder that there is no such thing as a national housing market,” said Quicken Loans Chief Economist Bob Walters, in a news release about the May figures. “Every city, and every neighborhood, moves in different directions based on local factors. Consumers need to remember to watch their local area closely to understand the direction their market is heading.”

For example, in most major metropolitan areas, appraisers estimate properties’ worths at more than the homeowners’ opinion, in contrast to the national trend. Out of 27 large metro areas analyzed by Quicken, homeowners overvalued their homes in only 10 cities, and only four of those had a difference in opinion above the national average. On a regional level, it seems Midwesterners overvalued their homes the most in May: They thought their houses were worth an average of 1.67% more than appraisers did, compared to a 0.24% difference in the Northeast and 0.03% difference in the South. In the West, homeowners underestimated the homes’ values by an average of 0.16%.

Banks use appraisals to determine whether to back your home loan, whether it’s a purchase mortgage or you’re refinancing, which is why it plays such an important role in the mortgage process. Additionally, appraisals factor into your property taxes, another major homeowner expense you should anticipate changing from time to time. It’s crucial you can afford your housing expenses, to avoid serious credit and legal issues. When having your home appraised, there are some simple things you can do to make it go smoothly, like tidying up before the appraiser arrives, inside and out, in addition to having an accurate list of improvements you’ve made to the home or any features you want to make sure the appraiser is aware of.

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This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Is There a New iPhone? Nope, It’s Just Homeowners Lining Up for Home Remodeling Cash

For two days, as the calendar flipped from May to June, Renee Wallace lived in a tent. She set up camp on a sidewalk in Whitehall, Ohio, and waited.

To be clear, Wallace has a home, which she loves. That’s why she needed to rough it outside the door of the Whitehall municipal building for two days — she was first in line for a first-come, first-served home rehabilitation program, in which Whitehall residents could be reimbursed for up to $7,500 in property improvements. On Monday, June 1, at 8 a.m., Wallace was the first to turn in her application, securing her future reimbursement (pending a few meetings and completion of the project). The money was all spoken for less than 5 minutes later.

“Our waiting list pretty much started at 5 minutes,” said Gail Martineau, a Whitehall spokeswoman. “I told people not to be discouraged, we will work our way down the wait list.”

Renee Wallace's home

Applicants must front the money for their remodeling projects and complete them within a year in order to receive their reimbursement. The grants cover half the remodeling expenses, up to $7,500, but the home improvements must fit a specific set of criteria.

“[It’s] all stuff that you can see from the street, because we want to make a visible difference in the community,” Martineau said. Painting, new windows, siding, front landscaping, front porches — work that would improve the curb appeal of the property. This year, applicants could include driveway work in their projects and receive 25% of the cost in reimbursement. Applications are only available to residents whose annual household income does not exceed $125,000.

The program started last year, and Robert Miller’s wife, Linda Powell, was one of the people in line. In fact, she was the last person to submit an application before the wait list started.

“We lucked out,” Miller said. He and Powell were watching the 11 o’clock news (a rare event in their household) one night last summer and heard about the program. “We looked at each other and she said, ‘Do you think I should go down there in the morning?’” Powell got up at 4:30 a.m. the next day, and when she got to the municipal building, she was 25th in line. This year, Martineau estimates the city will fund reimbursements for between 25 and 27 projects.

Putting the Money to Work

Wallace heard about the program too late last year and missed the opportunity. She lives in one of the oldest homes in Whitehall (a fact she attributes to the Whitehall Historical Society). Wallace’s house was built in 1910 and was part of the Underground Railroad, and the history is part of what she loves so much about it, but old homes can take a lot of time and money to fix up and maintain.

Her plan is to replace windows and siding — many of the windows in Wallace’s home are original, leaving her home very cold in the winter.

“Those old houses are so drafty and cold, and I’m looking forward to a warm winter,” Wallace said.

Miller and Powell replaced windows and their front door, in addition to painting the house and landscaping the front. Miller is a school teacher and did most of the work during his summer break. Their renovations took about 2 1/2 months and cost about $11,000 — by November, Miller had turned in the receipts, the city audited the project and Miller and Powell received their reimbursement check for half their expenses.

miller-powell house

The couple financed part of the project through the window and door company they used, and they received a six-month 0% financing period. They repaid the costs during that period with their reimbursement, so they didn’t have to pay interest on their materials.

Just as the city program hoped, homeowners near Miller’s house were inspired by his renovations and made some improvements to their properties, too, enhancing the look of the neighborhood. Such renovations tend to increase property values, and by extension, property taxes, but Miller said that hasn’t happened yet.

“Part of the city agreement is that they will do no special assessment,” he said. “We had our three-year review about a month before we started the project so we still have about two years before those will go up.”

While making home improvements is a great way to increase your property value, it’s always important to weigh the costs of renovations against the benefits. It can be quite an undertaking — getting estimates, applying for permits, staying within your budget — so make sure you’re in a place where you feel you can financially absorb the impact of the project. If you need to apply for financing, you’ll want to know where your credit score stands, because the better your credit is, the more likely you’ll be able to secure affordable financing terms. You can get two of your credit scores for free on and updated every 30 days to monitor for important changes.

Inset images courtesy Renee Wallace & Robert Miller/Linda Powell

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This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Unconscious & Cost-Conscious: The Plight of an Uninsured Hospital Patient

Imagine a relaxing stroll in the park becoming a nightmare when a falling branch results in an emergency room visit. Even the most cost-conscious consumer — if it’s a patient who’s lost consciousness — has no control over which hospital the ambulance chooses.

Scenarios like this happen, and where the ambulance delivers you can result in dramatically different bills. For patients who have private insurance or are covered under public programs, there may be a buffer against high charges. For uninsured patients, they are left on their own to negotiate the price of their care.

A recent study found that there is enormous variation across hospitals in terms of what they charge. The study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health generated headlines declaring that hospitals are charging the uninsured more than 10 times the cost of care. This report focuses attention on the fact that health care pricing lacks transparency. It compared what hospitals charge for a procedure to what Medicare – the federal health care program for elderly and disabled – would actually pay the hospital for the care. On average, hospitals charge nearly 3.5 times the Medicare rates.

The report found that the top 20 hospitals charge more than 10 times the Medicare rate. The Medicare rate is set by the federal government. And 49 of the 50 hospitals with the highest charges were for-profit hospitals. Half of them were owned by a single chain.

Many cry price-gouging, but the response from the for-profit hospital industry claims the study is an unfair assessment of hospital prices. They assert that charges are not a relevant measure of what consumers, insurers or government programs pay for services.

To be fair, what hospitals charge and what they expect patients to pay are generally two very different numbers. For patients covered by the other large public program, Medicaid (a federal/state program for low income individuals and families), the government sets the rates. Privately insured patients reap the benefit of discounts that their insurers are able to negotiate off of the initial charge.

So, does the sticker price really matter? Well, yes it does. Many claim that hospitals increase the rates charged to hike reimbursement from payers. For example, starting with higher rates in negotiations on insurance discounts can drive up even these discounted prices.

Who is likely to pay the highly inflated, sticker-price rate? To begin, patients with no insurance may be asked to pay the highest rates. Insured patients who seek care from an out-of-network provider may also end up paying the sticker price. Same, too, for patients covered by workers compensation insurance or automobile personal injury protection.

Both for-profit and nonprofit hospitals claim that few patients pay the sticker price. This may be true, but how would the average patient even know? For patients of nonprofit hospitals, this should be easy to assess. Obamacare included a provision that all nonprofit hospitals must have written financial (charity care) assistance policies that are to be posted on the hospital website. The policy should explain how the sticker rate is discounted for patients who qualify for assistance. One way to find these assistance policies is to do a search for charity care or financial assistance using the hospital website’s search function.

For patients at for-profit hospitals, it is not so simple. They are not subject to the same Obamacare rules since they do not get federal tax-exemptions. However, even for-profit hospitals claim to give breaks to uninsured patients – though the terms of those discounts can be rather opaque. And if you don’t know about these discounts, you may be billed the sticker price, be hounded for payment and have your credit ruined if the bill is sent to collection and reported to the credit bureaus.

What to Do If You Get a Big Bill

Here is some solid advice for anyone with a large hospital bill. First, contact the hospital and ask if it is a for-profit or nonprofit hospital.

If the hospital is a nonprofit, ask for a copy of their financial assistance policy. They are required under federal law to provide it to you. The policy should outline whether assistance is available to both insured and uninsured patients and explain how to apply.

If the hospital is a for-profit, ask them whether they have a financial assistance or charity care policy. If you are uninsured, ask about their uninsured discount policy. Ask them for a copy of their policy. Let them know if you need help with your bill, and apply for assistance. Just remember, the for-profit hospitals are not required to offer it — though many do.

A final note on the research: The industry claims that few patients pay the sticker price. If you feel that you are being charged an inflated rate for services, ask the hospital for an itemized bill that breaks out all discounts and assistance provided. And if you are still puzzled by the bill, look for a qualified health care consumer advocate to help you resolve it.

[Editor’s note: It’s important to check your credit reports regularly for accuracy and for your own information. You can see whether any medical debts are affecting your credit by getting your free annual credit reports from, and you can get a free credit report summary from every month to watch for important changes.]

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

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What Can I Do With Unused College Savings?

Secondary education in America is expensive — there is no doubt about it. But there are some programs in place to help parents or guardians save for college. A 529 plan, the tax-advantaged investment vehicle operated by a state or educational institution, can be a great way to fund higher education expenses. It offers a lot of flexibility as far as how much you can save, who can use the money and what you can do if there are leftover funds after your student graduates.

If you have a lot of money saved in one of these accounts and then your student receives large scholarships or decides not to attend college, you can end up with a surplus, and there are some strings attached. Check out some tips to repurposing leftover 529 funds.

Don’t Touch

The day after graduation is not when you should be worrying about these funds — unless you can withdraw them for school-related expenses from the past six months. This money will continue to grow tax-free indefinitely, as long as there is a living beneficiary. Another great aspect of the 529 plan is that it is not limited to use on a bachelor’s degree. You never know if you will end up going back to school, so consider letting the account grow while you weigh the pros and cons of returning to graduate degree or working toward a professional degree. This money can be used for tuition and fees, books, supplies and room and board in the future so there is no reason to rush a decision.

Keep It In the Family

If you can be fairly certain the intended student will never be using the money, you might want to consider passing it along. You can transfer any excess 529 funds to another beneficiary at any time by contacting your plan administrator. Even if you do not have kids, you can pass it to a niece, nephew, your parents or even yourself. Most plans allow you to make this change once a year. You can also leave it to a future student such as a grandchild or heir because there are no time limits on when you need to withdraw 529 funds. You can designate who you want control of the account once you are gone and even if you do not make any new contributions, the money will continue to grow tax-free.

Know the Rules

These options can be best if you have done an excellent job planning for not only college education but all other expenses in life. However, if you find yourself in need of these funds for other purposes, you can access them, with a catch. These withdrawals come with a penalty. It’s important to study up on your plan’s regulations so you understand exactly what you will face when extracting the money for uses other than educational. The more you know about the rules, the better you can weigh your options and act. You will likely pay a 10% penalty plus income tax on any gains earned during your 529’s investment period. This may not be worth using for a family vacation but may make sense for paying off high-interest debt.

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The Sex Pistols Aren’t the Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band With Their Own Credit Card

Sex Pistols credit cards. The ironic headlines wrote themselves. The British band that embodied rebellion will now grace the front of Virgin Money credit cards and pocket Richard Branson’s money while perhaps encouraging consumers to spend more of theirs.

A critic might be tempted to call it the most dramatic sellout ever, given the Sex Pistols anti-consumerism message, but that would ignore the Country Life butter TV ad that singer John Lydon appeared in several years ago. (Later, bragging about the ad’s success, Lydon told the Guardian newspaper, “It amazes me that people don’t get the opportunity of me … I sell.”

But let’s not pretend this is the first time a famous person has tried to make a buck on plastic. It’s not even the first time a rock band has tried to make a buck by appearing on plastic — far from it.

Back in the mid-1990s the Rolling Stones lent their images to credit cards. KISS, Elvis and Johnny Cash are pictured on credit cards. But then, so is your college, and your favorite professional sports team and…well, just about anything. The image on a credit card really doesn’t mean much, unless it comes with some kind of benefit, like points toward free game tickets. The Sex Pistols credit card comes with a standard interest rate of 18.9% APR and fees, according to the Guardian.

And it’s not just rock ‘n’ roll bands that have their own plastic products. Other music moguls are getting in on the act too. Hip hop star Russell Simmons has the RushCard. Hillary Duff had a card targeting teenagers. Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire have tried to attract the country crowd to prepaid cards.

And then there was Justin Bieber, who back in 2013 hawked a card arguably designed to make it easier for kids to spend their parents’ money. Bieber was paid $3.75 million for a 14-month contract to promote a product that was initially called BillMyParents, but morphed into SpendSmart, according to the New York Times.

With the variety of musical acts getting in on the credit card business, maybe a simple credit card image of the Sex Pistols isn’t the sell-out it might initially appear. Still, the partnership is a bit odd, given that the Sex Pistols actually refused to appear at their own induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, calling the institution a…. well, we can’t really write what they called it. Something like bollocks.

Keep in mind that you may be paying extra for a celebrity-sponsored credit cards (they have to pay the celebrity somehow, right?), so keep an eye out for high fees and thoroughly read the card’s terms. Comparing offers can help you determine the best credit card for you. No matter what kind of credit card you’re shopping for, it’s always important to know where your credit stands, since your credit score will play a part in determining whether your application is approved and the interest rates you’ll be granted. You can check your credit scores for free on

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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Can You Pay Back a Debt in Pennies?

Imagine $2,064 in “nice rolls of quarters nickels and gold dollars” and then imagine trying to use that money to pay a bill. One of our readers tried to do just that. Whether he was ticked off about having to pay that debt (he did say he videotaped his attempt), or whether that was simply the cash he had on hand, he says his payment was refused.

His question to us: Can they really turn down legal tender for the payment of a bill?

The answer is normally yes. You’ve no doubt seen signs at gas stations or convenience stores saying bills larger than $20 are not accepted. It’s much the same thing. In fact, banks have been known not to accept payment in coins (or to redirect the would-be payer to a branch with a large-enough safe to accommodate the payment).

Banks have to verify and count the coins, says Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association, and it costs them money to do so. “People think that if banks have machines that count the money, then it should be free, but the machines cost money,” she said. And you have to wonder about the motivation to pay in a manner that requires a wheelbarrow.

Furthermore, there is no law that entitles people to use coins to pay their bills.

The part of law that applies to accepting money is the Coinage Act of 1965, specifically Section 31 U.S.C. 5103, entitled “Legal tender.” It says, “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.”

“This statute means that all United States money as identified above are a valid and legal offer of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor,” according to the U.S. Treasury website. But there is no federal requirement that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment. Private businesses can develop their own policies unless there is a state law that says otherwise. “For example, a bus line may prohibit payment of fares in pennies or dollar bills,” the website says.

As cumbersome as it may be to accept payment that comes in coins, sometimes businesses do so. (If you’re going this route, it’s best to have the coins neatly rolled and to get the business’s permission.) If your payment is rejected by a creditor because it’s being made in coins, keep in mind that you may want to consider using another payment method to avoid a potential late fee and a late payment recorded on your credit report. You can check your credit scores for free on to see if late payments are affecting your credit.

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