Now What? Life After Debt

You did it! You paid off your debt. Perhaps you used debt consolidation or debt settlementcompany. You may have used a debt management or a do-it-yourself program. No matter the route, the success is equally noteworthy.

Now what?

Naturally, one of your major goals is to stay out of debt. Creating and sticking to a firm budget and building your savings will help prevent future financial mishaps. Once a solid base is established you can also improve your credit score, start investing, and set new financial goals.

Create a Budget

A monthly budget is essential for remaining debt free. Unfortunately, 59 percent of Americans do not use a budget. With a few simple steps you can gain control of your spending and prevent future debt. There are a variety of ways to create a budget. You can use a pencil and paper, spreadsheet, or a variety of free or inexpensive online tools. Regardless of your preferred method, you will follow the following basic steps:

  1. Record your monthly income
  2. Make a list of your set monthly expenses- fees that do not change (i.e. rent)
  3. Make a list of necessary monthly expenses starting with the most critical (i.e. groceries)
  4. Make a list of non-necessity monthly expenses (i.e. travel)
  5. Assign a limit to each projected monthly expense

It’s now easier than ever to track and stick to a budget. A variety of free and inexpensive apps allow you to track your spending. You can often create envelopes for different categories and deduct spending throughout the month. It is easy to monitor how much you have spent and how much you have left for a given category.

Another popular method is the all cash envelope method. You pull out cash for each category and put it in an envelope (i.e. $300 for groceries). When the cash runs out you can no longer spend in that category. This may be a good fit if you struggle to pay off your credit cards.

Finally, some people track their spending with a checkbook register. Treat your credit card like a checking count. Subtract every expense, as if you had just used your debit card or written a check, and see how much you have left for the month. When your balance is zero, you can no longer spend for that month.

Build Your Savings

Building your savings is easy when it is automatic. Luckily, most financial institutions allow you to set up automatic transfers. Include savings in your budget. Transferring money as soon as you get your paycheck is the easiest way to quickly build your savings.

Some banks such as Capital One allow you to set up multiple savings accounts. This allows you to save for different needs all in the same place. You can save for emergencies, your dream vacation, and wedding all in one place. Set up each account to receive a set amount each month. You can include this in your monthly expense budget.

Improve your Credit Score

Depending on your type of debt and your debt recovery strategy your credit score could be damaged. Improving your score will help you prepare for future financial purchases. Now that you have paid off your debt you might be thinking about buying a house or a car.

Critical steps to improve your credit score include the following:

  • Make on-time payment on all your accounts
  • Keep your credit utilization ratio under 30 percent
  • Be careful about inquiries and opening new accounts
  • Do not close old accounts

Continually monitor your credit. Many banks and credit cards provide your FICO credit score for free. Make sure to get your free annual credit report. You are entitled to three free reports a year, from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Many people spread these out over the year; check one in January, May, and September. Keep an eye out for fraudulent activity; you may even consider identity theft protection services.

Start Investing

If you do not currently have a retirement account set up, now is the time. See if your employer offers a retirement package. Many experts advise allocating 10 to 15 percent of your income to retirement savings.

Again, set up automatic transfers. If your company offers matching start there. If they do not, there are a variety of other options. Consider opening a 401K, IRA or ROTH IRA. Many investment companies, such as Vanguard, diversify your assets for you.

In addition, you can start investing. Many companies provide simple, hands-off investing. You can start with small amounts. As you feel comfortable you can invest more aggressively.

Set Financial Goals

Now that your budget is under control, it’s time to think about the future. Consider buying a house or traveling. Perhaps you want to start a business. Figure out what is important to you. Create a 5-year and 10-year financial plan to help you achieve your goals.

Congratulations on paying off your debt. Continue to make healthy financial goals. A budget, automatic savings plan, and improved credit score will help you achieve your future financial goals.

This article by Amber Westover first appeared on Best Company and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Do I Have to Pay for My Fiancées Engagement Ring?

Question:

Dear Steve,

My fiancée got her engagement ring on her jewelry account without my knowledge we got married and after 3 months I left her from the way she was treating me she thinks I’m suppose to pay on the ring and my name is not on the account am I responsible for this bill.

Tom

Answer:

Dear Tom,

There is so much wrong here. She financed her own engagement ring? Without your knowledge? Where did you think the ring came from? What the hell?

If she obtained financing on the ring and opened the account herself, it’s her damn debt. Walk away before this gets even more bizarre.

She might claim you are supposed to pay on the ring but then again she can claim all free flying bats should pay on the account. That doesn’t make it so.

I would suggest you go to annualcreditreport.com and get a free copy of all your credit reports. Look to see if she managed to open any surprise accounts in your name. Then I would strongly suggest you put a credit freeze on each of your credit bureau accounts.

I wouldn’t put it past a vindictive ex-spouse to try to exact some kind of financial revenge and that might even come in the form of identity theft.

Thanks for submitting your question. It truly made my day.

Steve Rhode
Get Out of Debt GuyTwitter, G+, Facebook

If you have a credit or debt question you’d like to ask, just click here and ask away.

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

The Frugal Doctor Is In

Recently I had a physical. Outside of being a little overweight and growing older, I don’t have any obvious health issues. I did, however, describe some minor symptoms to my doctor, which prompted him to order some tests. I was glad that he could read the symptoms and know what to test for. Fortunately the tests found nothing seriously wrong.

It occurs to me that our finances are somewhat similar. Often everything looks healthy. We might have a small concern about a symptom that we see. Yet we don’t know what it could be or what to do about it. Just like with our physical health, we need a professional to help us read the financial symptoms.

So let’s look at some financial symptoms and see what we learn from them.

Symptom #1: Just making your monthly minimums without anything to spare. You’ll look healthy. No bill collectors will be calling. And, your credit card companies won’t be raising your interest rates or hitting you with late fees.

But, if you’re just paying the minimum, you don’t have any margin for unexpected events. Just one new large expense (auto repair or appliance replacement) could raise the minimum over your ability to pay it. Or, any interruption in your income (a cutback in the number of hours) would put you over the edge.

Prescription #1: Find a way to pay down your credit cards to reduce your minimum payments. Look for something in your budget you can cut for awhile and use that money to pay the card with the highest interest rate. Or, if you can’t find anything to cut, look for some type of part-time income until you get the credit balances (and minimum payments) down.

Symptom #2: Each car loan is longer than the prior one. Yes, you’ll be stylin’ with your new wheels. Friends will ask how you like your new car. And, just like the salesman promised, you can afford the “easy monthly payments.”

The hidden danger is that you’re increasing the time that you’re “upside down” in your loan. At some point in the future, you’ll be committed to two or three years of payments on a broken down car that you can’t afford to repair or replace.

Prescription #2: Find a way to reduce the length of your auto loan. That means prepaying some principal, preferably each month. Again, you’ll need to find some money from your current monthly budget or an additional source of income, but a little inconvenience today can prevent a major problem later.

Symptom #3: Not being able to put money away for your retirement. You really won’t notice it. Unless you spend some time studying your 401k and IRA statements.

Even though friends and family think you’re doing fine, time has a way of sneaking up on us. And, when it does, you’ll be happy to have some income besides Social Security. Failure to save now could mean a difficult retirement.

Prescription #3: Find a way to save at least a few dollars out of every paycheck. You may find that if the first check you write is to your retirement account, that you won’t be any tighter at the end of the month than you were before.

Symptom #4: Changes in your job security. No one has been laid off. You’re still drawing a paycheck every week. And credit card companies are sending you invitations to apply for their card. So how bad can it be?

It might be worse than you think. If your company sales are just holding steady or decreasing, you could be in trouble. Or if technology is gradually replacing your profession, it’s time to take action. Don’t wait until you’re told to clean out your desk.

Prescription #4: Prepare for a job loss before it happens. Consider taking a job at another company. Or if opportunities in your profession are limited, begin taking night classes now to learn new marketable skills.

Symptom #5: Not having an emergency fund. Only you know that you don’t have any money saved for unexpected expenses. And, just as long as you don’t have an emergency, everything looks fine.

But when that unexpected bill comes due (and sooner or later a car, appliance or your home will need repair or replacement), you’ll be forced to borrow money to pay it. So you’ll also be paying interest along with the emergency expense, making it even harder to save for the next unplanned expense.

Prescription #5: Plan for the unplanned expense. These expenses really aren’t that unexpected. You know that autos and appliances break. You just don’t know exactly when. So include money in your monthly budget for those expenses. Put it in a savings account so that it will be available when the “unexpected” bill comes in.

If you’re experiencing any of these financial symptoms, you might want to take a financial physical. Who knows? Perhaps you can avoid a long-term financial disability later!

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


This Holiday Season, Help Your Kids Build Solid Money Habits

The holiday season provides plenty of opportunities to talk with kids about money, like when you go shopping or when your children receive gifts. No matter what age, kids learn from watching their parents and absorb what they see and hear around them. Your words and actions are opportunities to share money lessons. These opportunities can add up to help your kids build successful financial futures.

Here’s how you can tackle a few common holiday scenarios—and help your child build money skills along the way.

Scenario 1: Your child asks for a very expensive gift

You might not want to reveal the dollars and cents that you plan to spend on gifts for your family. That’s okay. For one thing, young children don’t naturally think about how much things cost. That means they may not be able to determine if toys or the latest tech gadgets are unrealistic for your family’s budget. Pre-k age kids especially are still learning what money is and how it works. 

What to do:

For your young children, this is an opportunity to talk about prices and how much things cost. If you’re not inclined to get the gift at all, don’t hesitate to simply say no and mean it. If you’re inclined to get the gift eventually, you might talk about ways to plan ahead for something important. Talk about why you’d need to think carefully about the gift, especially if there are things that are required to go with it, such as:

  • More clothes or accessories for a doll or action figure
  • Storage space for a game or larger toy
  • Batteries or additional devices needed for electronic toys 

Also take some time to explain money basics. This could mean identifying coins, or pointing out differences in things that are free (playing with a friend) and things that cost money (buying ice cream). 

For older children, discuss making tradeoffs and setting priorities. Maybe they would prefer to receive a single gift, rather than a few smaller ones. Maybe they could think carefully about how much they would use or enjoy the gift over time, compared to an alternative that’s more budget friendly. Maybe they would like to save up and contribute toward the thing they want, or anything that goes with it. You could talk about values, like fairness among siblings and family members, or other ways your family observes the holidays in addition to gift giving. 

Scenario 2: Your child asks for a long list of gifts

Your kids are still learning about the world around them and may be influenced by peers and other factors. As a result, your child might have a long holiday wish-list of gifts that doesn’t match your family budget or your values. 

What to do: 

For young children, the holidays can deliver lots of challenges to their patience. At this stage, children are just starting to develop the abilities to stay focused in spite of distractions and impulses. All the goodies and temptations around them can build up a long list of “I wants,” and one holiday season might not be enough to help your child to develop beyond this behavior. But if you display patience yourself, you could help them take a step forward. If you choose to set an expectation for a special gift, treat, event, or visit, then when you follow through you also provide a good lesson. One way to help children avoid impulses is by demonstrating that waiting can pay off.

For your preteens, this is also a good time to reinforce what is important in your family about holidays and gift giving. Maybe you: 

  • Value the traditions of the holidays
  • Like the way that gift-giving allows you to show consideration for other people 
  • Like including people you don’t interact with often during the year 
  • Have a family tradition of helping those in need 

Help your preteen understand why you celebrate the holidays in your family’s unique way—and even if they don’t show it immediately, they’ll absorb lessons that help build on their values.

Scenario 3: Your child wants to buy gifts for friends or family

If your kids would like to give gifts to loved ones or their friends, it’s a great opportunity to start to build strong money habits. 

What to do:

For younger kids, the creativity and persistence involved in making a gift is important. Believe it or not, coming up with an idea and seeing it all the way through to completion is part of the building blocks that can help children have a strong financial future. Think about all the skills involved, such as:

  • Coming up with an idea
  • Planning ahead for the supplies they’ll need 
  • Working through any troubles or surprises
  • Seeing their completed gift

If those activities don’t sound like your kids, they could get some of the same skills in planning and completing a task by helping out with holiday cooking or cleaning.

If your kids are a bit older, let them in on your holiday planning so they see how you make decisions. Start by having them make a list, which demonstrates how to plan ahead—a key skill in successful money management. Then, you can set a budget together. Through budgeting, they’ll practice even more positive habits, like sticking to a plan and saving to meet a goal. 

They can also start to recognize that gifts to others don’t always come in a box. Maybe a gift to a grandparent or relative could be a pledge to help them with their new smartphone, or organize old photos into a digital album. A gift to a younger sibling or relative could be teaching something they’re skilled at, like sports or music or hobbies. 

Scenario 4: Your older child finds a deal that seems too good to be true

As your kids get older, they might start doing some shopping on their own, either online or in stores. All through the holiday season, they’ll probably spot ads on TV, the Internet, and billboards talking about big discounts, special offers, prizes, and rewards.

What to do: 

You can use the holidays to talk about how to evaluate ads and offers. Kids might not recognize that “free” online offers can be scams to get people to spend money without realizing it. Or, they may want to add something small to what you’re already buying. But, if you explain how those purchases add up and could start to affect your budget, they’ll better understand the importance of thinking twice before buying or clicking.

You can talk about your own personal rules of thumb for shopping, saving, and spending. Maybe you use discount prices to try out new things, or maybe you only look for brands and products you trust. Giving preteens your rules of the road can help them steer their own way in the future.

Looking for other ways to talk to your kids about money?

Share your strengths

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a money expert, you have skills that you already use to navigate your financial life. Things you do naturally may be strengths you can share with your kids. You can use your abilities to share valuable money lessons with your kids.

Explain as you go

Next time you’re at the store with your kids, try something new: Think out loud and talk through what you’re doing. This helps your children see how you think about spending and helps them understand your decisions. Here are three steps to turn your next shopping trip into a chance for your children to build their money skills.

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


32 Ways to Save Money on Your Utility Bills

I remodeled my house a few years ago, replacing old single-pane windows and beefing up the attic insulation. This cut my heating bill by almost 50%! That was so inspiring, I challenged myself to see how much money I could save by conserving energy elsewhere in the house.

Here is what I’ve learned, either first-hand, through research or by talking to other frugal folks. Some of these things are more expensive than others are. You do want a high return on your investment (ROI), so crunch a few numbers to see how long it will take for your upgrades and purchases to pay off. I have listed them approximately from least to most expensive.

Make Your Home Tighter

  • Caulk around the trim on all windows and doors, inside and out.
  • Weather-strip exterior doors.
  • Spray foam insulation around your electrical outlets.
  • Insulate your ceiling and sub-floor.
  • Seal and insulate your ductwork.
  • Window coverings keep heat in during winter and out during summer.
  • Replace single pane and older double pane windows with energy efficient, low-e windows.

Save on Electricity

  • Unplug small appliances and electronics when not in use, or put them on a power-strip that you turn off. When your TV is “off,” it still uses energy, so the remote control will work.
  • Turn off lights in rooms that aren’t being used.
  • Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs, which use 75% less energy and last 10 times as long. Now LEDs are getting less expensive, are more efficient, and have a longer life.
  • When your old appliances need replacing, buy Energy Star appliances.

Save on Heating and Cooling (HVAC)

  • Turn down your thermostat in winter and up in summer. If you are chilly, put on a sweater!
  • Ceiling fans distribute heat in winter and remove it in summer. They also pull in cool night air in summer.
  • Install a programmable thermostat. You can set it to heat the house only when necessary, and you won’t have to remember to turn the thermostat up or down every day.
  • Have your systems checked once a year, and replace the AC and furnace filters as recommended for best performance.
  • Plant shade trees on the hot side of your home. This is southwest and west, but will be determined by the orientation of the building. If you are heating with passive solar, don’t plant trees due south. Even the shade from the bare limbs cuts the efficiency of the sun.
  • Upgrade to an energy efficient furnace.
  • Install windows on the south side, or the sunniest side, of your house, and let the sun heat it for free!

Save Water and The Energy It Takes to Heat It

  • Turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater.
  • Put an insulating blanket on your hot water heater to keep the heat from escaping.
  • Take five-minute showers.
  • Keep water in the refrigerator instead of running the tap until it’s cold.
  • Wash clothes in cold water.
  • Hang your clothes on a clothesline or drying racks.
  • Catch rainwater for irrigation or domestic use. For the garden, you can use simple five-gallon buckets recycled from a contractor or donut and ice cream shops. For domestic use, you can install a catchment system with gutters and barrels or a cistern. This water needs to be filtered and tested regularly.
  • Use low-flow showerheads and faucets.
  • Replace old toilets with low-flush or dual flush. Most toilets are water savers these days, and they aren’t expensive.
  • Install an on-demand (tankless) water heater. Water is heated only as you use it, running through a series of tubes that get heated by your fuel source. There is no 40-gallon tank to heat all day while no one uses it.
  • Buy a front-loading washing machine. These use 1/3 the water of a top-loader, saving water and fuel. They usually pay for themselves in a couple of years.
  • Install drip irrigation. Water will go directly to the base of the plant instead of all over the yard as with a sprinkler.
  • Landscape with native plants and grasses. Native plants are accustomed to your climate, so they will survive on the available water. They also need less fertilizer and maintenance, saving you even more money.
  • Install solar hot water. This drastically cut my gas bill, and my system will pay for itself in six years.

Don’t try all of these things at once. You may get overwhelmed! Take on one or two at a time, starting with the least expensive. Sometimes the simplest solutions are enough. If you can do them yourself, you can save the cost of a contractor or handyman on top of the money you will save on your utility bills.

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


How Do I Get Inquiries Off My Credit Report for a Loan I Didn’t Apply For?

Question:

Dear Steve,

My husband filled out several car loans applications without my knowledge and put me in as co-applicant, now I have 8 hard inquiries on my report and can’t get them off

How do I get them off, equifax took them off but TransUnion won’t.

Gail

Answer:

Dear Gail,

The issue here has less to do with the credit bureau. If they voluntarily elect to remove the inquiry, they are not required to.

The reality here is the inquiry is authentic but fraudulent. Technically you are a victim of identity theft by your husband. Actually a large amount of identity theft is caused by familiar persons.

Here is what TransUnion says about such fraudulent items, “Now it’s time to reach out to the major credit bureaus. TransUnion has a special phone number for fraud victims — 800-680-7289 — that you can call to place a fraud alert on your credit report. An initial alert lasts for 90 days and notifies all potential creditors that you do not authorize any new credit in your name. An extended alert lasts for seven years and entitles you to two free copies of your credit report in the first 12 months. Creditors are obligated to take extra precautions to verify your identity if anyone — including you — attempts to open new accounts in your name during that time.”

Once you do this it will be up to TransUnion to decide if they elect to remove the items since you still have not have addressed the actual fraudulent entries. Would you be willing to go as far as filing a police report against your husband for the identity theft?

You can visit IdentityTheft.gov for specific steps to deal with being a victim of identity theft and mitigating the results.

Steve Rhode
Get Out of Debt GuyTwitter, G+, Facebook

If you have a credit or debt question you’d like to ask, just click here and ask away.

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Credit Card Debt Relief Offers Are Confusing Me. What Should I Do to Make the Right Decision?

Question:

Dear Steve,

I have credit card debt and private loans and I keep getting calls from many debt settlement companies.

I want to see if these companies are legit and are truthful, so I wanted to see what the legalities are and see if the programs there really offering me are really beneficial and can truly help my situation. I would also love to know the pros and cons if I do move forward with a debt settlement program, any help would be great

John

Answer:

Dear John,

Credit card debt relief tools like debt settlement are one of the solutions you can use to deal with debt. That’s not in dispute. What is in dispute much of the time is if the debt settlement solution is being pitched to you in your best interest or just to close a sale.

There are two major issues you need to keep in mind.

1. Sales Filter – Generally the sales person who is reaching out to you is a commissioned salesperson who is motivated to sell you their widget so they can make money. You need to filter all the promotional messages through that filter. That commissioned salesperson is not a financial advisor, they are a salesperson. Just take a look at recent job openings naming debt settlement and see what skills and experience they are typically looking for. You’ll see job descriptions that include, “We need salespeople who have sold successfully in the past and know how to close with a consultative approach” or “We are growing, We Need Closers!”

2. Run From a One-Size-Fits-All Recommendation – If any company is selling you a one-size-fits-all solution with debt settlement, I’d be inquisitive. As I mentioned before, debt settlement is a tool that can work but it is best utilized in the right situation. It might not be right for all of your debt. So what I suggest you look for is a company who can create a custom solution based on your current overall financial situation and future financial goals.

Credit Card Debt Relief Calculator – Click Here

Credit card debt relief can impact your retirement savings in a bad way.

You can compare your general debt relief options by using my online calculator. This will give you the pros and cons about each option.

If you want to check out any company that is contacting you then maybe my free guides below will help.

In a perfect world the person you decide to work with to deal with your debt should consider a number of factors, including how much you have in an emergency fund and what is your plan for retirement savings. This is particularly important if you are not really saving for retirement now. Enrolling in an extended debt repayment plan, like debt settlement or credit counseling, can wind up costing you a substantial amount of money in lost savings when you will need it most. You can use this calculator to see how much you would lose.

The best framework I can give you is to think about your situation like you are coming into an emergency room and not feeling well. If an emergency room doctor was trying to sell you an arm cast for all your ailments, you’d think that was ridiculous. What you would expect would be for the doctor to examine your situation and come up with a custom treatment plan based on your overall situation. Then to bring the right tests and resources together to treat your individual symptoms and problems.

Right now you might be drowning in debt and need an emergency room financial doctor to evaluate your situation and prescribe a financial treatment plan to deal with each of your debts using the right tool or solution.

Steve Rhode
Get Out of Debt GuyTwitter, G+, Facebook

If you have a credit or debt question you’d like to ask, just click here and ask away.

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

U.S. Marshals Won’t Call You About Jury Duty

United States Marshals protect the federal courts, track down dangerous fugitives, and transport thousands of prisoners. They don’t make calls and threaten to arrest people or fine them for missing jury duty. But scammers posing as Marshals have been making calls like that and tricking people into sending money. The imposters use spoofed phone numbers that look official, and steal the names and badge numbers of legitimate law enforcement officials. They warn people they might be arrested — unless they buy a prepaid debit, iTunes or gift card and pay the fine immediately. If you buy a card and tell a scammer the card’s code, the scammer takes the card’s value; your money is gone. If a “U.S. Marshal” calls you with a jury duty warning, hang up. It’s a scam.

If a fake Marshal — or any other government imposter — calls and tells you to send money to avoid arrest:

  • Don’t send money by prepaid card and don’t wire money. Wiring money is like sending cash. You usually can’t reverse or trace the transaction.
  • Don’t share your financial or personal information. Scammers can use your information to commit identity theft.
  • Don’t trust a name or number that appears on your phone. Scammers can fake caller ID information.

If you received a call like this, please report it to the FTC and to your local Marshals Service District Office. If you sent money to an imposter on a prepaid card, report it to the card company’s fraud department. Read more about the tricks government imposters use and how to beat their scams.

This article by the FTC was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Do-It-Yourself Career Counseling

Melanie is tired of celebrating Fridays and dreading Monday mornings. At work, she is spending large chunks of time checking online job boards and calculating how many years left before retirement. She is toying with the idea of hiring a career counselor or coach, but cannot afford the additional strain on her budget.

I would advise Melanie and anyone else contemplating a career change to begin a process of self-discovery. DIY career counseling can be very rewarding and economical.

  1. Invest in a journal or create an online personal blog. Each morning or evening set aside at least 20 minutes and write about your day. What caught your attention? What brought you joy? Frustration? Write quickly and do not linger over each page. Do not worry about proper grammar and sentence structure.
  2. Visit the nearest college or university and obtain the latest calendar. Carefully read each page and highlight any courses that appeal to you. Do not think too long or analyze any of your choices. At the end, go back and look for patterns. Why do these courses appeal to you? Have you resurrected an old dream or discovered a new passion? Devote a few pages of your journal to your findings.
  3. Flip through your favourite magazines. Cut out any pictures that appeal to you. Set them aside for at least one evening. Later, sort the pictures into categories. For example, you may sort into travel, work, hobbies, and family. Position them on a large board. You have created a vision board. Display the board in a prominent area and look at it daily.
  4. Take some time to make connections between your journal entries, course selections, and vision board. Are there any patterns? Can you list any career areas that would incorporate your findings? Visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics online for the latest version of the Occupational Outlook Handbook and search for clusters of jobs that match your interests.
  5. Examine specific careers within the selected clusters. The Handbook provides a comprehensive description of the duties, requirements, training, and future outlook of each career. Select at least ten careers that appeal to you, regardless of your present qualifications.
  6. Examine your own skill set. List all the full-time and part-time jobs you have held. If you are a recent graduate or have limited work experience, focus on hobbies and volunteer activities. Create two lists. One will contain the positive aspects of each position while the other contains the negative aspects. Review the list of careers from Step 5 and eliminate any that contain many of the less favorable aspects of past and present positions.
  7. Focus on the remaining careers. Reread the job descriptions, keeping track of your feelings. Do you feel energized or apprehensive? In your journal, rank these careers and start visualizing yourself in those workplaces.
  8. Arrange informational interviews with human resource personnel or other professionals in your top five careers. Bring a copy of your resume and a list of questions to each of these interviews. Test the fit of each workplace. Does it feel comfortable? Will your skill set be valued? Do you need additional training? Use your journal to record these answers.
  9. Develop a personal action plan for the new career that best meets your needs, desires, and priorities. Establish specific, measurable, and achievable goals and a realistic time frame for achieving them. For example, you could take a course, join a professional organization, apply for an internship, or volunteer. Continue to journal and evaluate your progress on a daily basis.

It may take a few months or longer to find a new career. Along the way, you may also find yourself altering or changing career direction. Do not be afraid to restart the process for the second, third, or tenth career on your list. Keep in mind that you probably spent thousands of dollars and several years of your life pursing your present career. Be patient and persistent. And, maintain a positive attitude. A fulfilling new career is within your grasp.

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


IRS Problems? Tax Professionals Reveal Top Tips

As Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Every April, federal taxes bring a sense of dread and anxiety, especially if you are facing an audit or struggling with tax debt.

In 2016, 1.2 million Americans were audited by the IRS. This situation can be stressful, especially if you are unfamiliar with federal tax laws and policies. Owing taxes is equally frustrating. Unpaid taxes carry severe consequences such as liens, levies, wage garnishments, and asset seizures.

If you receive a letter from the IRS claiming unpaid taxes or performing an audit, what should you do? Should you seek help or represent yourself? Here are some tips from top tax professionals for dealing with the IRS and specific advice to help you determine if you need to seek representation:

How Should I Deal with the IRS?

Act immediately

As soon as you receive a letter from the IRS, take action. Grace Molo-Ang (@taxdefense), a licensed tax professional for Tax Defense Network advises, “Don’t be overwhelmed. If you get notices, don’t wait to act. Start coordinating, and strategizing how to deal with the notice.”

Gather evidence

Documentation is critical when dealing with the IRS, especially during audits. Mike Habib (@TaxReliefExpert), an enrolled agent and owner of MyIRSTaxRelief.com, strongly recommends readiness. He says, “The audited taxpayer must understand the scope of the audit, have clear copies of the supporting documents such as mileage logs, invoices, statements and proof of payments. These should be grouped and organized by category with a clear description of the deduction.”

The same principle applies to overdue taxes. “To get the best deal, taxpayers must be ready with full financial information regarding their living expenses such as housing expenses, food and clothing, medical, etc. This way they cover their expenses and only pay the tax agency with what’s left over from their disposable income,” recommends Habib.

Preparation should start even before you are contacted by the IRS. Molo-Ang suggests, “Keep a good record of your back-up for what you claim on your taxes and a copy of the tax return filed (it is a good practice to hold on to your returns filed and the back-up, for three years after you file them, such as receipts showing what you paid, canceled checks, bank statements, logs (example: mileage log), bills/statements showing the amount paid. If you did not keep this information, you can back track and try to collect as much back-up as possible prior to the examination/audit.”

Educate yourself

Part of your preparation should include research. The IRS’s website may be able to answer some of your questions. The more you understand the laws that govern your specific situation, the better prepared you will be to fight for your rights.

“Research the issue you have with the IRS, do some reading so that you have some knowledge on the issue and what rights you may have. To know whether you received a notice that is an actual audit or not, call a tax professional (attorney, accountant, enrolled agent),” Molo-Ang advises.

Josh Kahn (@Anthemtax), co-founder of Anthem Tax Services says, “It is important that a tax payer know what expenses the IRS allows and disallows based off of which state and county where tax payer resides. These are called national standards and could be located easily on the internet.”

If you have tax debt it is extremely important to understand your payment options. Habib counsels, “…consider an alternative such as payments plans, or partial pay agreements or possible a compromise as a lump sum settlement.” Study your options so you don’t get stuck with the first offer presented by the IRS.

Learn your rights

Americans are entitled to certain rights outlined the in the IRS’ taxpayer bill of rights. It is critical to understand these rights and your options. One important right is the ability to appeal IRS decisions.

Molo-Ang states, “If you decide to go through the process alone, know that, if you disagree with the handling of your matter, you can ask for a supervisor. If you do not agree, the examiner will explain your appeal rights. If the examination occurs at an IRS office, you may request an immediate meeting with the examiner’s supervisor, or possibly do so after, within a certain period of time.

“Generally, if you cannot reach an agreement with the supervisor, or if the examination took place outside an IRS office or was conducted through correspondence with an IRS employee, a report is generated explaining your position and the IRS’s position. You will receive a 30-day letter notifying you of your appeal rights, which is followed by a 90-day Notice of Deficiency letter, if you do not respond, or respond and do not reach an agreement with an appeals officer. This letter gives you 90 days to file a petition to Tax Court.”

Seek representation

Chris Hardy (@chrishardyatl) managing director of Paramount Tax and Accounting, LLC recommends, “If a taxpayer is being audited, they should immediately seek representation from a qualified professional. From personal experience representing taxpayers, IRS auditors are paid to extract as much money as possible during an audit and a taxpayer can very easily be boxed into a corner by a line of questioning. Many times a taxpayer may try to be a “nice guy” and offer up items voluntarily only to realize later those are being used against them. When a taxpayer has back tax debt and trying to work out an arrangement for repayment, they do not need to accept the IRS’s demands. It is beneficial to have a tax professional build the case on what is reasonable for repayment and take into account any extenuating circumstance that is outside the norm.”

Jeffrey Schneider (@SFSTaxAcct), an enrolled agent and owner of SFS Tax Problem Solutions, says, “A taxpayer who is under audit or in collections should not do this alone. Taxpayers do not know what to say or when not to say something. Once it is out of their mouth, they cannot retract it. They also do not know the laws and how the process applies to them. The tax paying public has to understand that IRS employees work for the government and everything they do, is with that in mind. My job, as an Enrolled Agent and a Certified Tax Resolution Specialist, is to be the advocate for the taxpayer.”

When Can I Represent Myself?

You only owe a small balance

The amount of tax debt is one of the biggest factors when deciding if you need professional assistance. Kahn believes, “It makes sense financially for a tax payer to deal with the IRS or state if they generally owe less than 5k. IRS and state taxing authorities are a lot more lenient with the tax payer due to the small size of the debt. Most tax resolution specialists charge at minimum $1500 or more to represent a tax payer, it does not make sense to incur a cost that is about one third of what’s owed in tax debt.”

Your tax issues can be resolved quickly

The time period is another big factor. Hardy suggests, “If a taxpayer has a small balance and they are able to pay it off in full in a short period of time, they can certainly handle it themselves.” If the tax debt can be resolved quickly, you may be able to hand it on your own.

When the IRS only needs proof of something

Schneider cautions, “The only time that a taxpayer can deal with the IRS on their own is when the IRS asks them for proof of something (like a missing 1099 or W-2). Nothing more complicated than that. Even if it is a consultation to ask professional questions, is worth the fee.”

When Do I Need to Seek Representation?

You have a large balance or cannot pay in full

Hardy says, “Once a taxpayer realizes they have a large balance or have received collection letters from the IRS and don’t have the ability to pay in full, they should immediately contact a professional for guidance. Even though a taxpayer can call the IRS and ask questions regarding their case, the IRS is under no obligation to explain to the taxpayer all of the options of repayment and the benefits of each. Working with a professional, the taxpayer can fully understand their options and protections allowed under the IRC.”

There are several repayment options, such as installment agreements and offers in compromise. Professionals can review your circumstance and determine which option best fits your needs.

You are unsure of the tax laws

Habib suggests, “Tax representation is a very powerful tool to even the odds when facing a tax controversy. Taxpayers should consider representation if they can not research the tax laws that would protect their rights based on their particular situation.”

You have special circumstances

Molo-Ang also suggests seeking representation when you have major life changes. She cites separation or divorce, a newly opened business, or self-employment. She recommends if you seek help if you have “life changes, which may affect your ability to pay tax debt still due and owing, even if you are already on a payment plan with the IRS. Don’t wait, get help to prevent the situation getting worse than it needs to be.”

Anytime you feel uncomfortable

Finally, Molo-Ang recommends seeking professional help “when the IRS has notified you of an audit, if you do not feel comfortable representing yourself, or need assistance preparing for the audit or responding to an under reporting notice.”

Whether you represent yourself or work with a tax professional, be sure to act quickly, gather the appropriate documentation, and educate yourself on tax rules. The more educated you are, the better you can defend yourself. If you are unsure for any reason, you may benefit from speaking to a professional. Many tax relief companies offer free consultations. If you are audited by the IRS or have tax debt, now is a great time to receive help.

This article by Amber Westover first appeared on Best Company and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.