How I Kicked My Fast Food Habit & Saved Big Bucks

For Eddie Vidmar, fast food wasn’t just an occasional splurge, but rather a way of life.

“The convenience of driving to the window and getting my dinner was often too hard to pass up. No clean-up, no dishes…. just eat your food and toss the garbage,” he says. “What I should have done was realized sooner that the food itself was the garbage.”

At the end of December 2013, Vidmar decided he needed to lose weight and get in shape. His first step was to review what he had eaten the previous two weeks. Not counting breakfast, he realized that eight of the 14 meals he ate during that time frame were from fast food restaurants. “Then I looked at the nutritional content of those 14 meals and found that it was as close to zero as possible.”

Eddie-vidmar-before-and-after

Danna Demetre, RN, is co-author of the book Lean Body, Fat Wallet. She echoes what Vidmar observed. She says:

  • Only seven of the items on one popular fast food chain’s menu contain no sugar — even the burgers and fries [contain them]! No wonder you are hooked.
  • It takes at least five hours of continuous walking to burn off a cheeseburger, fries and a soda. Leave off the cheese and it will only take you 4 hours.
  • Many stats show that those who consume fast food tend to get fat in much higher numbers than those who don’t — especially children!

When Vidmar decided to kick his fast food habit, he went all in. Here’s what he did:

In order to break habits, we need to do something every day for 21 days. As a means to that end, I decided to stop eating meat. That kept me away from the fast food places. When that 21 days was done, and I realized I did not miss fast food at all, I stayed with that dietary lifestyle. I drink a protein shake in the morning, another for lunch and then I have a sensible dinner. I eat only fish, vegetables and fruit, and I try to drink a gallon of water every day.

Along with exercise, the change in diet worked for Vidmar. In one year he went from 310 pounds to 235 pounds. (He also raised his credit scores during that time. Here’s how.)  

Better Food Fast

Demetre agrees that habits are key, and can either work for or against us when we try to change. In her book, she suggests practicing a “delay” strategy. “Because fast food is so accessible, we often feel inclined to pull into our favorite feeding hole without even thinking,” she says. “If you make it a new habit to always delay at least 10 minutes before caving into a food craving, you will find the urge passes.”

Also key: have high quality food on hand for when you’re hungry, tired, busy—or all three.

“By packing a healthy lunch or a few healthy snacks – that are both convenient and nutritious – you may find it easier to resist the next request to get the ‘Combo’ or ‘Super-Size’,” she says. She recommends keeping these snacks on hand: 

  • ¼ cup nuts
  • Quality beef jerky
  • Apples, bananas and oranges
  • Quality popcorn

Demetre’s co-author Ellie Kay knows well how easy it is for families can fall into the fast food trap. After marrying her husband, an Air Force fighter pilot, she went from being a new wife and stepmom of two children with $40,000 in consumer debt to being completely debt-free in two and a half years—all on one military income. She and her husband also had five more children together, making her a very busy mom.

“Part of the reason we eat fast food is due to convenience and because we are too stressed for time to eat,” she says. “To counter this, prepare double portions of your favorite casseroles and freeze one for later. Or cut them into single serving portions and create your own healthy, cost-effective frozen dinners.”

When her kids were young and the family was always on the go between school and sports, she made dozens of bean, meat and cheese burritos and froze them. “These were easy to microwave and take on the go,” she says. “I calculated that it saved us an average of $250 per month on what we would spend for fast food.”

And if the problem is that all of the cooking duties seem to be falling on one member of the household, and that person gets tired of cooking, split it up, she suggests. Give each family member the job of making meals one night a week. “Give them a budget and let them watch cooking shows to get inspired,” she says. “There’s nothing like watching the 12-year-olds on ‘Master Chef Jr’ to make your teens get inspired to try something new.” As a bonus, your kids will learn cooking and budgeting skills.

Your Bottom Line

Avoiding fast food isn’t just healthier for your body. It can be good for your bottom line as well. Tom Corley, who studied the habits of the rich compared to the poor and shared that research in his book Rich Habits, found that when it came to eating fast food three or more times a week, 75% of the wealthy did not have that habit, while 69% of the poor did. In his research, Corley says he found that “self-made millionaires made a habit out of eating healthy. This included avoiding junk food, candy and fast food.”

Just be sure to watch your spending as you transition away from the drive-through. If you’re not careful, spending on groceries and take-out can skyrocket. That can wreck your budget, and can also hurt your credit scores if you charge more on your credit cards. (Ideally, it’s a good idea to keep your debt usage ratio on your credit cards at 20% – 25%. You can check yours by getting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

“Fast food seems cheap until you factor in the damage you are doing to your body,” says Vidmar. “While that $5 deal meal sounds good, it really isn’t. That same $5 will easily buy you fresh ingredients.”

Image courtesy Eddie Vidmar

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Gerri Detweiler was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Reducing the Cost of Attending an Out of Town Wedding

You knew your best friend’s son was getting married, but when the “Save the Date” card arrived, it was a reminder to make plans to attend. According to the Huffington Post (May 2013), it costs about $539 per guest to attend a wedding for clothes, gift, and incidentals. But you live in Springfield, Illinois and this wedding is in Springfield, Massachusetts; you and your spouse plan to attend. It’s time to add travel costs for this weekend of nuptial celebrations. How can you reduce the cost of an out of town wedding?

How will you get to this wedding?

Making travel plans for the wedding is your first task. There are two variables to consider. First, determine how many people from your family, adults and children, will attend. Second, determine whether you’ll need a vehicle while there. For one person going alone, air travel is often your cheapest option.

Get online on sites like Orbitz.com and type in different dates and nearby airports. Compare the fares. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are often days with the lowest prices for purchasing air tickets and also sometimes cheaper days for flying. If your work schedule is somewhat flexible, you may have some freedom to fly when fares are lowest.

Amtrak trains often offer decent fares, especially if you’re eligible for a discount such as AAA or seniors over 62 years old. But be sure to figure out the cost of meals in route, and the number of hours involved in traveling; if your train involves an overnight, will you be able to sleep in a regular seat? If you purchase a sleeper car, then you’re probably smarter to fly.

If you enjoy driving and think you may need a vehicle for the wedding weekend, then using your car or van may be a good way for you family to attend this out of town wedding. The Internal Revenue suggests that a car costs about 57 cents per mile driven. Depending on why type of vehicle you are driving, the current gasoline prices and the number of round trip miles you expect to drive, this may or may not be a good way to get to this out of town wedding.

Where will you stay during the wedding weekend?

Once you have your transportation in place, you need to arrange for your accommodations. Upscale weddings often reserve a limited number of hotel rooms at a discounted rate for wedding guests. This might be convenient, but often not the cheapest option. And if you are traveling with children, you will need a second room or at least a cot or crib in your room. If you don’t have a friend or relative in the area who is offering you a stay at their home, you might want to search online for motels nearby that are more affordable. This is where having your own vehicle will come in handy, even if it is one that you rent in the town where the wedding is held. Be sure to ask the wedding hosts what they recommend before you book a room.

You will have meal expenses also. The wedding events will likely provide most of them but not all. Having a motel room with a small refrigerator could be cost effective, especially if there is a nearby grocery. Check it out.

Decide what you will wear for the wedding weekend.

The wedding hosts will inform you exactly how many events there will be and how fancy they are. Before you panic at the thought of adding expensive clothing to your wardrobe, look in your closet. Accessorizing with scarves and jewelry can add mileage to clothing that has been worn to other fancy events. Even so, you may want to start with a visit to a nearby resale or consignment clothing store. You’d be surprised at the beautiful upscale garments you can find at these shops that have been worn to weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other semi-formal celebrations.

You can give appropriate but affordable wedding gift.

If you have a talent, like quilting, you can personalize a very special handmade gift for cheap. The engaged couple will appreciate your special gift. If not, get to the wedding gift registry before others do to find the biggest selection of gifts that the bride and groom want.

Attending an out of town wedding does not have to put you in the poor house. Make your plans early. Shop for bargains on travel, clothes, and a gift.

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on Amazon.com (kindle) and has written several articles for freelancewriting.com. Learn more about her at DebraKarplus.blogspot.com. She is also a frequent contributor to TheDollarStretcher.com. Visit TheDollarStretcher.com today for great wedding gift ideas.

This article by Debra Karplus first appeared on The Dollar Stretcher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


12 Ways Tulle Can Reduce the Cost of Your Wedding

You’re over budget. Your summer wedding is around the corner. Staying within a budget is stressful, and decorating is costly. What can you do? You need a helpful, economical plan. Curb the worries by incorporating tulle, a great decorating resource that’s been around for years. DIY brides love its versatility and value. Even for the novice decorator, tulle is easy to find and use; it can even replace many other expensive items. A recent survey by The Knot reveals the typical cost of a wedding averages $30k. Ouch. Creative ideas can help lower your budget.

According to Merriam-Webster, tulle originated in France around 1818. It’s popular for its versatility, low cost, and choice of sizes and colors. It’s available in small spools or large bolts; the bolt gives you more bang for your buck. Tulle is thin fabric netting that’s economical and beautiful; the versatility is only limited by your creativity. Try the following tips for decorating options:

  1. Decorate columns and lampposts with tulle. Tie tulle around each one and then place a flower in the top where it’s tied. The flower adds a finishing touch and conceals the knot.
  2. Decorate church pews with tulle. Tie pieces around the top of each pew; allow it to graze the floor. Stuff the top with a small bouquet or single flower. If there are numerous pews, save by decorating only the family pews. For another look, tulle can be gracefully draped from one pew to the next.
  3. Tulle can be used to form an archway; it’s easy to measure, cut, and design. This works well for entry areas and doors. You can even make a simple arch for an outdoor wedding.
  4. Adorn mantels and tabletops with tulle. Place candles or photos on top for a lovely look. Fold tulle to form a runner for the wedding party table; top it with candles or flower arrangements for a stunning look. Make sure to fold the edges under for a finished look and to prevent guests from tripping
  5. Cover unsightly tables with tulle. This hides items that don’t match or are in need of repair.
  6. Cover small cocktail tables with tulle and secure with tulle or ribbon. Don’t allow excess under the table; you don’t want a guest to trip.
  7. Pergola and trellis structures are beautiful decorated with tulle.
  8. Use pieces of tulle to add color to flower arrangements; stuff a small piece around the top of the vase, at the base of the flowers. This is especially useful when trying to tie in an unusual color.
  9. Wrap bunches of tulle with battery-powered lights and then stuff into glass vases. Top them with a foam based flower design. This looks beautiful in large floor vases or smaller tabletop vases. Tip: Make sure to hide the battery pack in the tulle.
  10. Embellish ceilings by draping tulle from lights. If hooks are available, or allowed, tenting can be designed to get the look of "clouds." Just be careful when hanging tulle in high places; safety is top priority for you and your guests. Tip: Check with venue management to see what is permitted for hanging purposes; abide by management rules to prevent fines or eviction.
  11. Stair railings and handrails are easily adorned with tulle.
  12. Instead of buying/renting chair sashes, cut pieces of tulle to tie around reception chairs. You can knot it and let it gracefully touch the floor. If desired, add a flower at the knot for more elegance.

Since some decorating ideas require lots of tulle, do your research. It’s easy to find great prices on bulk amounts. If you’re uncertain about color, ask for a small sample before ordering massive amounts. This requires early planning to allow for ample shipping and return times.

When decorating with tulle, ideas are endless and easily achievable. With a little creativity, it can be thrifty and fun. With many decorating options, you can enjoy the beauty, versatility, and low-cost features of tulle without straining your budget. Your guests will only think you spent a fortune.

Kelli is a freelance writer who lives on a small horse farm in the North Carolina foothills. She lives with her husband, horses, dogs, and bossy cat. Her hobby is saving money. Visit TheDollarStretcher.com for 13 more ways to have a dream wedding for less.

This article by Kelli H. Clevenger first appeared on The Dollar Stretcher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Parents: How to Start Planning for College

Too many parents make the mistake of waiting until the fall of their child’s senior year to start thinking about college. However, by waiting, your child could miss out on a number of opportunities that could end up costing your family thousands of dollars in missed financial aid and scholarships.

Ideally, you should have started planning at the start of your child’s junior year, but if you start working now you still have time. Here are four things you need to do.

1. Start Researching & Visiting Colleges

The first thing you need to do is sit down with your child and research what kinds of colleges they’re interested in. If they don’t know, they should visit some local colleges to get an idea. This will depend on what career they plan on pursuing, the money available for them to go to college, their grades and other factors. Guidance counsellors might be able to help narrow the list, and so might Internet resources like this guide to cheap colleges.

Once you have an idea of what schools they would potentially like to attend, you can start visiting them. This might be difficult if some of them require long road trips to visit. That’s why starting early gives you enough time to spread those visits out over the summer and senior year.

From personal experience, this is an incredibly valuable part of the process. Upon visiting my first choices for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I knew that they weren’t the right fit for me. If you can’t afford to visit the schools, then you can connect with alumni or current students in the area who went to those schools and find out about the programs.

2. Begin Your Scholarship Research

If you think your child is a good candidate for scholarships, then you should start researching the scholarships that are available to them right away. Applying for scholarships can be a lot of work and some are due in the early fall. Families that wait until the fall to start their research often have to forgo applying for the ones with the earliest due dates. By making a spreadsheet with the ones you plan on applying for now, you can start learning how to apply for scholarships, start working on the applications over the summer and be better prepared once the hustle and bustle of senior year starts.

By getting an idea of what scholarships are looking for now, your child can also potentially do something over the summer to add to their resume in order to be a better candidate. If most of the scholarships that you’re finding are looking for students with something specific like leadership experience and your child doesn’t have that much, they can potentially get involved in something over the summer break that will impress scholarship judges come application time.

Starting early also ensures that you can be better organized when you ask for community and teacher references, which will make them more likely to dedicate time to make them stand out.

3. Get Your Finances in Order

Many parents save money to send their children to college without understanding how financial aid works and set themselves to get thousands of dollars less than families who planned for college with financial aid in mind. For example, let’s say you had your child save money in their bank account for college. Did you know that doing that could cost your family thousands in financial aid?

FAFSA, a financial aid form that many colleges use to determine financial aid, requires that a family contribute 20% per year of money held in a student’s name toward college costs while they only require parents to contribute 5.64% of money held in the parents’ names toward college costs. That means that if your family saved $20,000 for college costs in the child’s name you would be expected to put $4,000 per year towards school but if that same $20,000 was in the parent’s name you would only be expected to contribute $1,128. That’s a huge difference! By shifting that money into a 529 plan now, that money will then be counted as the parent’s and assessed at the lower rate.

That’s just one way you could lose financial aid money by not understanding how it’s calculated. To prepare, consider contacting a financial planner who understands financial aid rules.

4. Figure Out How You’ll Pay

Does your family intend to pay for all the costs your child will incur going to college? Or do you think it’s important that your child pays some or all of their own college expenses? You and your spouse or co-parent should sit down to discuss how you plan to approach college costs. Once you know how you want to do it, you should bring your child into the conversation so that they know what to expect.

If you plan on using student loans to fund your child’s degree, it’s important that you all understand how student loans work so that your child will take borrowing money seriously and not get into more debt than they will be able to handle. If you decide to co-sign on your child’s student loans, be aware of the potential impact it could have on your credit. (You can see how co-signed loans are affecting your credit by getting your free credit report summary, updated every month, on Credit.com.)

If you plan on paying for all or most of the costs, you might need to make some financial changes starting now to ensure that you will have enough. Hopefully, you’ve already been putting money aside but you might also need to create a new budget that will ensure that you will have enough. Most parents underestimate how much college will cost, so be sure you look into the full costs of college to help you figure out if you’ll have enough.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Amanda Reaume was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Florida Man Allegedly Memorized Credit Card Numbers to Commit Fraud

An Orlando-area homeless man is accused of using stolen credit card information to stay at a number of hotels, including Disney World resorts, reports FOX 35 Orlando. Investigators say Jeffrey Hawkins, 52, is skilled at memorizing credit card numbers and recalls that information to book his stays. He was charged for similar schemes in 2010 and 2012.

The situations in which Hawkins allegedly had the opportunity to memorize people’s credit card information remains unclear, but regardless of how he accessed the numbers, memorizing them takes quite a bit of skill. Credit card transactions often require the card expiration date and security code, in addition to the card number, and the security code is often on the back of the card.

Then again, it may not have been terribly difficult: Plenty of people carelessly read their credit card information out loud to make purchases over the phone, and anyone within earshot could use that data to commit fraud. Take note: This guy’s alleged crimes are exactly why you shouldn’t spout out your financial information in public.

Hawkins’ last stop on his alleged hotel spree is the Orange County jail, where he is being held on $6,000 bond and is charged with defrauding an innkeeper, third-degree grand theft, scheming to defraud and identity theft.

Most consumers are likely to become victims of credit- or debit-card fraud at some point, if not multiple times. Generally, consumers aren’t held liable for much or any of the fraudulent charges. It depends if the stolen card was credit or debit, because they have different consumer protections (credit cards have stronger fraud liability protections). But no matter what kind of card you carry, the sooner you report fraud, the better off you are. Not only might you have to pay for some of the fraudulent purchases, such spending could deplete your checking account, making you late in making other payments. As such, fraud has the potential to damage your credit, and it may be time consuming and expensive to get that corrected.

Make it a habit to monitor your financial account activity on a daily basis, and consider setting up fraud alerts or spending limits for your cards. You can also use your credit score as a fraud detector, looking for sudden changes in your scores unrelated to anything you’ve done recently. You can see two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, and they’re updated monthly so you can monitor for changes.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


10 States With Stubbornly High Foreclosure Rates

Foreclosure activity in the U.S. was at an eight-year low in the first quarter of 2015, despite an increase in activity in March, according to the most recent foreclosure report from real estate data company RealtyTrac. The number of residential properties with a foreclosure filing — default notice, scheduled auction or bank repossession — decreased about 8% from the first quarter of 2014. The 313,487 properties in foreclosure are the fewest in the market since the first quarter of 2007.

Foreclosure activity declined in a majority of states in the first quarter, even in many of the states with the highest foreclosure rates. Most of the foreclosure activity in the first quarter was concentrated in March, when bank repossessions hit a 17-month high of 36,152 properties (repossessions peaked at 102,134 in September 2010).

“The March increase is continued cleanup of distress still lingering from the previous housing crisis; not the beginning of a new crisis by any means,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, in a news release about the report. “Some of the most stubborn foreclosure cases are finally being flushed out of the foreclosure pipeline, and we would expect to see more noise in the numbers over the next few months as national foreclosure activity makes its way back to more stable patterns by the end of this year.”

Many states with consistently high foreclosure rates — like Florida, Illinois and New Jersey — remained at the top of that list in the first quarter, even as foreclosure activity declined from last year. Here are the 10 states with the highest foreclosure rates in the first quarter.

10. California
Number of homes with a foreclosure filing in Q1 2015: 1 in every 409 housing units
Change from Q1 2014: -13.81%
Change from Q4 2014: -1.12%

Like most of the states on this list, California’s foreclosure rate fell from where it was in the first quarter of 2014 — a decline of 13.81%. In March, the foreclosure rate jumped a bit from February (up nearly 8%), driven both by increases in repossessions (up 10.64%) and homes entering the foreclosure process for the first time (up 8.49%).

9. South Carolina
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 363
Change from Q1 2014: -18.51%
Change from Q4 2014: -8.97%

South Carolina was among many states that recorded large increases in properties entering the foreclosure process in March, with foreclosure starts increasing 63.42% from February.

8. Indiana
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 338
Change from Q1 2014: -9.27%
Change from Q4 2014: -7.01%

Indiana maintained a high foreclosure rate throughout the first quarter, despite a relatively uneventful March. About the same number of homes entered foreclosure in March as did in February, and repossessions declined about 13%.

7. Ohio
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 332
Change from Q1 2014: -16.23%
Change from Q4 2014: -17.24%

A surge in foreclosure completions — 54% more than in the first quarter of 2014 — helped keep Ohio’s foreclosure rate high in the first quarter, even as foreclosure starts fell 36%.

6. Delaware
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 300
Change from Q1 2014: -1.88%
Change from Q4 2014: -15.05%

In Delaware, more foreclosures are popping up than are being flushed out of the system: Foreclosure starts increased 13% from the first quarter of 2014 to 2015, while bank repossessions dropped 12%.

5. New Jersey
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 234
Change from Q1 2014: +17.24%
Change from Q4 2014: -36.15%

New Jersey had a moment in 2014 where it dethroned Florida as the state with the highest foreclosure rate, but things appear to be heading in a good direction. From the start of 2014, bank repossessions have increased 18%, and foreclosure starts have declined 10%. New Jersey had the greatest increase year over year in its quarterly foreclosure rate among the states on this list.

4. Illinois
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 221
Change from Q1 2014: +3.81%
Change from Q4 2014: +10.9%

Foreclosure has been a persistent issue in the Land of Lincoln for quite a while, and the first quarter of this year was no different. Repossessions are up 16% from last year, there was an 8% increase in properties entering foreclosure, and the overall foreclosure rate continued to climb year-over-year and month-over-month.

3. Nevada
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 209
Change from Q1 2014: +8.05%
Change from Q4 2014: +16.21%

Nevada had the largest increase in foreclosure activity from the end of 2014 to the start of 2015 (of the states on our list). It was one of only two states on this list (the other is Illinois) to see increases in both time frames.

2. Maryland
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 299
Change from Q1 2014: -4.76%
Change from Q4 2014: -14.11%

The biggest change in Maryland’s foreclosure activity came from bank repossessions. Repossessions increased 39% from the same time in 2014, and they also increased 39% from February to March.

1. Florida
Foreclosure rate in Q1 2015: 1 in every 178
Change from Q1 2014: -27.15%
Change from Q4 2014: -5.93%

Foreclosure activity may be down significantly from last year, but Florida has a long way to fall. The Sunshine State fared terribly during the foreclosure crisis, and even though things are improving, it remains an incredibly common struggle for Florida homeowners.

Nationwide, one in every 421 residential housing units were in foreclosure last quarter, meaning millions of Americans continue to struggle paying for their homes. Missing loan payments seriously damages consumers’ credit scores, making it harder or more expensive to access credit or even rent an apartment. While foreclosure will damage a consumer’s credit for many years, the sooner that person can return to making on-time loan payments and minimizing their debt, the faster he or she will be able to recover from the setback. If you want to know how your payment history is affecting your credit, you can get a free credit report summary on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


How Your Budget Can Help You Build Credit

The building blocks of a healthy financial life are all tied to your budget — how much money is coming in, going out and where is it being used? Answering those questions and creating a budget that works for you can have a ripple effect on the rest of your finances.

Specifically, a good budget can help you maintain of build a great credit score, which can actually help your budgeting in the future, since a good credit score can save you tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime (the lifetime cost of debt calculator can show you just how much).

Here are two key ways that your personal budget and your credit score are connected, and how you can ensure that your budget helps improve or maintain good credit.

Your Cash Flow & Payments

Here’s where we get into the sneakiest part of your budget — where your money is being spent.

Having the money to pay your bills on time every month is a key part of budgeting, but it also has a major credit score impact since payment history makes up 35% of your credit score.

Of course to pay bills on time, you’ll need to have the necessary money in your checking account and you’ll need to be organized enough to make your payments as agreed each month. To make sure the money is there when a bill is due, take a close a look at your cash flow. How often are you paid? What are your fixed monthly expenses? How much money do you have leftover each month for savings? Do you have money set aside for an emergency fund or must you rely on credit cards to get you through a tough financial time?

Creating a budget that allows you to live within your means, pay your bills, meet your current credit obligations with ease and build up savings for future goals will help you in the long run.

Making mobile and online payments is a quick way to pay monthly bills. You can automate your payments as well, though it’s always wise to double-check that payments go through and that you’re not overdrawing on your bank account.

Need help remembering due dates? Signing up for email and text reminders of upcoming due dates will help you stay on track.

How You’re Using Your Credit Cards

For some budgeters, tracking their spending is easiest on their credit cards, since their transactions are digitally recorded and you don’t have to go through the hassle of keeping receipts or recording your purchases. But that convenience may come with a cost — if you charge everything to your credit cards to track your spending better, you risk overspending, which can hurt your budget and your credit simultaneously. Here’s how.

The budget impact is obvious — if you overspend on your credit cards and have to carry a balance over to the next month, you’ll pay interest on that balance until you can pay it off. That eats away at your budget since it takes money from your savings or other budget categories to pay off the debt.

Carrying a balance on your credit cards won’t in itself hurt your credit score, but increasing what’s called your “credit utilization” — which makes up almost 30% of your credit score — may.

Your credit utilization measurement calculates the amount of revolving credit card limits that you are currently using. It measures the credit utilization of each credit card account that you carry, plus the total credit limits and balances of all revolving credit card accounts on your credit report. So if you carry a balance on a credit card, then continue to spend as usual on that credit card, you’ll eat up more of your available credit and raise your utilization. Keeping credit card balances at less than 30% of your credit limits is a good rule of thumb, though less than 10% is an even better goal to strive for. You can see how your credit utilization is affecting your credit by getting a free credit report summary on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Lucy Lazarony was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


5 Money Tips for Vacationing With Friends

You love hanging out with some compatible friends or families and you both love to vacation. Why not go on a joint vacation? It can be tricky to navigate trip-planning and financing with others, but you also have the potential to enhance your experience and even save some money. Communication is obviously key to a successful joint vacation, but here are some more concrete tips that will ensure you have a fun, financially comfortable trip together.

1. Make a Budget

It’s important to create an open forum early on in the planning process where each vacationer can disclose how much they are able to spend, which aspects they are willing to splurge on and where they prefer to scale back. Each person or family may have a different budget.

While this may make it a bit more difficult, you can still vacation together. You can set times to do activities separately or if you plan to rent a home, you can have families pay for what they’re using (like paying more for using more bedrooms or for an ensuite bathroom). If you want an easy way to know the full budget, you can look into all-inclusive vacation options. You can also appoint a money person to keep track of spending so everyone on the group stays on track.

2. Plan Ahead

Find out what everyone wants out of the vacation and discuss logistics once you have a target budget in mind. Pick the dates and location carefully because this will dictate the activities you’re able to do. You may not be able to do everything that everyone wants, but reaching a consensus on as many details as possible will save discussions and disappointment down the road. You can even make it fun by having a pre-vacation planning party to lighten the mood and get excited.

3. Look Into Deals

One great part about traveling in groups is the ability to save on your vacation. Most destinations offer a variety of lodgings. You can rent a home instead of staying in hotels or talk to travel agents or sales managers about discount group rates. The same works for nearby museums, parks, zoos and fun activities. You can also pool your resources and see if anyone’s job or connections can offer up some discounts.

4. Talk About Discrepancies

If you were comfortable enough to plan this trip together, you should be able to discuss any issues that come up. It may be tricky, but if someone isn’t pulling their weight on financial, cleaning or preparation duties, bring it up. The worst you can do is let it boil up inside you. For example, if you offer to use your airline rewards credit card to book everyone’s flights, contingent on being paid back by each individual, explain when you need to be paid back and how much everyone owes before booking. This can lead to hard feelings (and a damaged credit score) down the road if someone doesn’t pay you back and you have to carry a high balance on your credit card. (You can see how your balances are affecting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

It’s a good idea to avoid being accusatory and instead discuss what you think isn’t quite going right so you can come to a solution together.

5. Be Flexible

Flexibility is an important factor for any travel, but especially when it comes to joint vacations. It’s important to be willing to try new activities, foods, schedule or methods of travel and lodging. Try to focus on the fun and embrace however the vacation is going. You also might want to build in some time apart.

If you are careful about how you go about a vacation with friends or fellow families, you can make memories that will last a lifetime. Just take the necessary precautions to avoid any awkward or uncomfortable feelings around finances.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by AJ Smith was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Should We Kill the Social Security Number?

While tax season is still producing eye twitches around the nation, it’s time to face the music about tax-related identity theft. Experts project the 2014 tax year will be a bad one. The Anthem breach alone exposed 80 million Social Security numbers, and then was quickly followed by the Premera breach that exposed yet another 11 million Americans’ SSNs. The question now: Why are we still using Social Security numbers to identify taxpayers?

From April 2011 through the fourth quarter of 2014, the IRS stopped 19 million suspicious tax returns and protected more than $63 billion in fraudulent refunds. Still, $5.8 billion in tax refunds were paid out to fraudsters. That is the equivalent of Chad’s national GDP, and it’s expected to get worse. How much worse? In 2012, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration projected that fraudsters would net $26 billion into 2017.

While e-filing and a lackluster IRS fraud screening process are the openings that thieves exploited, and continue to exploit, the IRS has improved its thief-nabbing game. It now catches a lot more fraud before the fact. This is so much the case that many fraudsters migrated to state taxes this most recent filing season because they stood a better chance of slipping fraudulent returns through undetected. Intuit even had to temporarily shut down e-filing in several states earlier this year for this reason. While the above issues are both real and really difficult to solve, the IRS would have fewer tax fraud problems if it kicked its addiction to Social Security numbers and found a new way for taxpayers to identify themselves.

Naysayers will point to the need for better data practices. Tax-related fraud wouldn’t be a problem either if our data were more secure. Certainly this is true. But given the non-stop parade of mega-breaches, it also seems reasonable to say that ship has sailed. No one’s data is safe.

Identity thieves are so successful when it comes to stealing tax refunds (and all stripe of unclaimed cash and credit) because stolen Social Security numbers are so plentiful. Whether they are purchased on the dark web where the quarry of many a data breach is sold to all-comers or they are phished by clever email scams doesn’t really matter.

In a widely publicized 2009 study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon had an astonishingly high success rate in figuring out the first five digits for Social Security numbers, especially ones assigned after 1988, when they applied an algorithm to names from the Death Master File. (The Social Security Administration changed the way they assigned SSNs in 2011.) In smaller states where patterns were easier to discern the success rate was astonishing — 90% in Vermont. Why? Because SSNs were not designed to be secure identifiers.

That’s right: Social Security numbers were not intended for identification. They were made to track how much money people made to figure out benefit levels. That’s it. Before 1972, the cards issued by the Social Security Administration even said, “For Social Security purposes. Not for Identification.” The numbers only started being used for identification in the 1960s when the first big computers made that doable. They were first used to identify federal employees in 1961, and then a year later the IRS adopted the method. Banks and other institutions followed suit. And the rest is history.

In fact, according to a Javelin Research study last year, 80% of the top 25 banks and 96% of the top credit card issuers provide account access to a person if they give the correct Social Security number.

There are moves to fix related fraud problems elsewhere in the world, in particular India where, in 2010, there was an attempt to get all 1.2 billion of that nation’s citizens to use biometrics as a form of identification. The program was designed to reduce welfare fraud, and according to Marketwatch, 160 similar biometric ID programs have been instituted in other developing nations.

In 2011, President Obama initiated the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, a program that partnered with private sector players to create an online user authentication system that would become an Internet ID that people could use to perform multiple tasks and aid interactions with the federal and state governments. There may be a solution there — but not yet.

The first Social Security card was designed in 1936 by Frederick Happel. He got $60 for it. It was good enough for what it had to do (and was clear that the card wasn’t a valid form of identification). That is no longer the case. That card is nowhere near good enough. Perhaps one solution is a new card design — one with chip-and-PIN technology. Just how something like that might work — i.e., where readers would be located, who would store the information & support authentication, etc. — would have to be a discussion for another day.

The point is, we need to do something.

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

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Adam Levin was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Shirley, You Can’t Be Serious. Airplanes Are Hackable?!

There are two ways to describe an important report issued by Congress’ General Accountability Office this week about airplanes and computers. Here’s how the GAO titled its paper: “FAA Needs a More Comprehensive Approach to Address Cybersecurity As Agency Transitions to NextGen.”

And here’s how many observers described the report: “Airplanes can be hacked through passenger WiFi!”

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The world’s air transportation systems are going through the same changes as all industrial control systems, and these changes bring both opportunities and peril. Once upon a time, it was nearly impossible to remotely hack into a power plant because the plant used old-fashioned proprietary systems that required hands-on users for operation. Slowly, critical infrastructure systems like power plants are transitioning to off-the-shelf software, and at the same time, they’re being connected to the Internet. This allows remote access, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good to be able to manage power plants from a long distance. It’s bad because it creates an avenue by which, at least theoretically, hackers can also break in.

So it is with airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration is transitioning to its “Next Generation Air Transportation System,” known as NexTGen. Modernizing is a necessity. But as air traffic control systems and in-flight avionics systems are increasingly networked, the risk of unauthorized access increases. Any time you connect a computer to the world, the world can connect to that computer.

It makes sense to ring the alarm bell about these possibilities before they actually occur, and that’s what this week’s GAO report does. Auditors asked 15 cyber experts to conjure up worst-case scenarios, and they did a fine job of it. The report does not say that airplanes are currently being hacked. But it does raise a series of possibilities that frankly sound straight out of a horror movie — such as a computer virus causing a flight disaster.

“One cybersecurity expert noted that a virus or malware planted in websites visited by passengers could provide an opportunity for a malicious attacker to access the IP-connected onboard information system through their infected machines,” the report noted.

You would think that in-flight WiFi could never be used to connect to pilot controls — after all, the systems are quite different — but several experts said it could be possible.

“Firewalls protect avionics systems located in the cockpit from intrusion by cabin system users, such as passengers who use in-flight entertainment services onboard. Four cybersecurity experts with whom we spoke discussed firewall vulnerabilities, and all four said that because firewalls are software components, they could be hacked like any other software and circumvented,” the report said. “The experts said that if the cabin systems connect to the cockpit avionics systems (e.g., share the same physical wiring harness or router) and use the same networking platform, in this case IP, a user could subvert the firewall and access the cockpit avionics system from the cabin.”

The report also talks about the added risk of an insider threat from connected systems — a malicious airline employee or FAA worker might be able to remotely cause havoc with specialized knowledge of Internet-connected planes. There’s also the contractor problem. The FAA and airlines must not only certify the security of all the systems they build, but of systems built for them by third parties. Imagine a back-door being inserted into a critical airplane system that a malicious programmer could use later.

It’s important to notice the presence of the word “if” in all these disaster scenarios, as in “if the cabin systems connect to the cockpit avionics systems.” They shouldn’t be physically connected, of course. It’s easy to imagine that happening, however, in the pressure-packed, cost-sensitive world of airline operations.

That’s why the GAO report urges the FAA to “develop a holistic threat model” towards airline hacking, and criticizes the agency for failing to do so. The report does praise the FAA for other cyber security initiatives it has already undertaken.

The FAA says it has already addressed many of the concerns the GAO report raises.

“We take this risk seriously,” said Keith Washington, acting assistant secretary for administration for the FAA, in a response to the report. He noted that the FAA recently established a cyber test center so it could more closely examine potential threats.

But the GAO report, while not suggesting that air travel is unsafe today because of hackers, pulls no punches about possibilities in the future.

“Significant security control weaknesses remain that threaten the agency’s ability to ensure the safe and uninterrupted operation of the national airspace system,” the report concludes.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Bob Sullivan was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.