A Management Tool for Expenses

Dear Dollar Stretcher,

I want to make a grocery budget but I am not sure what to include on that list. Do you include your household items such as light bulbs and laundry needs? Regular household needs such as bath tissue and paper towels? My husband and I would like to reduce our grocery bill but as it stands everything for the house comes from our grocery budget.
Kathy

Kathy asks a good question. According to the federal government the average family spends about 14% of their after tax income on food and another 1% on household supplies. So keeping track of these expenses is important.

She’s on the right track. Her budget should be a management tool. It’s purpose is to help you quickly identify problems and possible solutions.

You ‘read’ a budget just like a management report. Begin at the bottom and work your way up. You’ll start with the bottom line totals. Then check the subtotals. Finally, if necessary, you’ll look at the detailed part of the budget.

Start by finding out two things. Was your income near the expected level? And were your expenses close to the budgeted amount? If both totals were close to what you expect you can be pretty sure that things are under control and you don’t need to spend a lot of time looking for problems.

Next you want to look at the subtotals. That’s how you find what category is the source of any unexpected mismatch. Most managers will start with the groups that include the biggest expenditures. For families that would be housing, autos and food.

If your actual and budgeted subtotals match in a category you can pretty much skip the details that make up the subtotal. It’s taken just a moment to verify that everything is fine. An efficient use of your time.

If you find a difference between the actual and expected subtotals you’ll want to look at the individual expenses that make up the total. Again you’re looking for actual expenses that are much different from what you expected.

In most cases by going from the totals to the subtotals to the individual line items it’s easy to find any problems. That’s because you’ve narrowed the search to a reasonable area. And once you’ve found those problems you can decide what changes are required to get things back into line again.

Consider Kathy’s food/household products situation. By combining the categories she has found it difficult to determine what’s causing them to spend more than they want. So until they can get that area under control they’ll want to split out household from grocery items. And even that might not be enough. They may even need to separate meats from vegetables and canned goods. Or any other division that will help her understand the problem.

Once she’s brought the offending expense back into line they can combine the two categories. It only saves a few minutes when she enters the data, but her time is valuable.

Another thing to remember is that you don’t always have to do things the same way. For instance, Kathy may combine the category without problems for a year and then suddenly begin to have troubles. She has two choices. She can go back to her receipts and split the category for the last month or two. Or, if it’s not a crisis, she can beginning splitting into two categories this month.

The same thing is true for other categories. For instance, if your entertainment category is growing you may need to separate DVD rentals and movie tickets from dining out. Whatever will help you easily identify where your money is going.

The key to remember is that you only want to collect as much information as you’ll need to find problems when they occur. Information overload can make budgeting time-consuming and set you up for failure. The trick is to not waste time collecting info you won’t use, but to still have enough data when you need to find a problem. That means that there is no one right answer to Kathy’s question. It all depends on how much info you need at the time.

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


FTC Action Halts Deceptive Robocalls Aimed at Small Business Owners

The Federal Trade Commission has charged a Florida-based scheme with deceiving small business owners by falsely claiming to represent Google, falsely threatening businesses with removal from Google search results, and falsely promising first-place or first-page placement in Google search results.

According to the FTC, the Point Break defendants have no relationship with Google, and yet they barrage consumers with robocalls threatening that Google will label their business “permanently closed” unless they “press one” to speak with a “Google specialist.” Telemarketers tell those who respond that, for a purported one-time fee ranging from $300 to $700, they can “claim and verify” their Google listing and have unique “keywords” so their business will appear prominently when people search for their products or services.

Consumers who pay receive a follow-up call from the defendants’ telemarketers, pitching a second program that the defendants falsely claim can guarantee top search result placements for a one-time payment of $949.99 and recurring monthly payments of $169.99 or $99.99.

According to the FTC’s complaint, in October 2017, the defendants temporarily lost the ability to accept payments by credit card due to high chargeback rates (when consumers dispute credit card transactions).  As a result, they took money, usually $100, from at least 250 of their customers’ checking accounts without the customers’ advance knowledge, consent, or authorization, and with no apparent reason or justification.

The defendants, who are charged with violating the FTC Act, are Pointbreak Media, LLC, also d/b/a Point Break Media, Point Break Solutions and Kivanni Marketing; DCP Marketing, LLC, also d/b/a Point Break; Modern Spotlight LLC; Modern Spotlight Group LLC, also d/b/a Modern Spotlight; Modern Internet Marketing LLC; Modern Source Media, LLC, also d/b/a Modern Source; Perfect Image Online LLC; Dustin Pillonato; Justin Ramsey; Aaron Michael Jones, also known as Michael Aaron Jones and Mike Jones; Ricardo Diaz; Michael Pocker; and Steffan Molina.

The court has appointed a temporary receiver over the operation and has frozen the defendants’ assets during litigation. The FTC seeks to end the alleged illegal practices and obtain money for return to consumers.

The Commission vote approving the complaint was 2-0. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida entered a temporary restraining order against the defendants on May 8, 2018.

The FTC acknowledges the assistance of Google during the investigation of this case. 

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

Estate Planning in the Digital Age

Complete Estate Planning Guide In The Digital Age

An important note: This Estate Planning article highlights many legal elements and is not meant to offer advice. See disclosure. It is important to talk with a lawyer when it comes to planning out your estate documents. This article is meant to give a high-level view of what a complete estate plan should consist of given the nature of today’s digital age.

What would happen to everything you own if you were to pass away tomorrow? Do any of your family members or loved ones know where your online passwords are for everything? Do they have access to your Facebook account or to your bank account? Or would they be left scrambling to piece everything together? Given the nature of our digital world, today, as well as the privacy, security and identity theft precautions you must take, you might not want to simply just have a notepad in a drawer somewhere. What would happen if it was taken or copied? Or, if your home were to burn down?

Contents

1 Why Everyone Needs An Estate Plan
2 High Level Look At The Estate Planning Documents You Need
2.1 Living Will
2.2 Power of Attorney
2.3 HIPAA Release
2.4 Last Will (Also Known As A Pour-Over Will)
2.5 Trust
3 A Word On Trust ID Numbers
4 Have A Legacy Binder or Safe (Central Location For All Documents)
5 Digital Estate Planning Tools & Steps To Follow
6 The Process That I Am Using
7 Hold An Annual Meeting & Stick To It
8 Take These Steps Today

Why Everyone Needs An Estate Plan

The purpose of this article is to not only lay out the basics of an Estate plan and make you aware of why everyone needs an estate plan but also to provide you with some valuable digital options when it comes to your assets. Today, there are solutions that exist to make it simple for you to handoff your assets when you pass in a secure and seamless manner.

Today, 55% of people die without a will or a trust. What this means is that when you die your loved ones have little to no say over how what you own and have saved is managed upon your passing. You will want to have a plan in place for when you pass. In many ways, there is no better way to say I love you to your loved ones than to have a plan in place for when you pass away.

High Level Look At The Estate Planning Documents You Need

Living Will

A living will is a document that outlines whether or not you would like to be kept on artificial life support if you fall into a state whereby you cannot be kept alive on your own. A living will is also sometimes referred to as a Health Care Directive.

Power of Attorney

Powers of Attorney give someone the ability to make decisions on your behalf. Sometimes you might hear a Power of Attorney as durable or non-durable. A Durable Power of Attorney is for a single reason such as a Power of Attorney for Health Care or a Finance whereas a simple Power of Attorney has much broader jurisdiction.

HIPAA Release

A HIPAA release also sometimes known as a HIPAA release and authorization form is a simple form that states how you would like your health data treated and handled.

Last Will (Also Known As A Pour-Over Will)

A Will is an absolute must for anyone. It’s important to remember that a Last Will or Pour Over Will is different from a Living Will. A Will outlines what it is that you want to happen to your assets when you pass. A Will can be overturned in certain circumstances. I can’t stress this enough…almost everyone should have a will, regardless of the amount of your assets. A will can be a very effective means of directing how your property will pass after your death.

Trust

A Trust can be viewed as a higher level Last Will which gives you greater protections when it comes to protecting your assets against a probate court. Trusts are a bit more complicated and are more expensive to set up than a Will but in many states are needed. This is because if the value of assets exceeds certain thresholds in certain states your assets would be forced to go through probate even if you have a Will in place. With a Trust, you are the Trustee of the Trust until you become incapacitated or pass. Once you become incapacitated or pass away whoever you name as successor trustee/executor takes over. This is usually a spouse or family loved one who is competent enough to manage the assets. A Trust also avoids having all of your assets become public record.

There are a couple of very important things to note when it comes to a Trust. First, after you establish a Trust you must fund the trust. What this means is that your assets need to be retitled into the name of the trust. This could include naming the trust as the beneficiary of your assets. This is a helpful article outlining the steps to find a trust if you are a Fidelity, Vanguard or Merrill Edge customer.

Important note, an individual retirement account (IRA) of any kind including but not limited to Roth, Traditional, 401k, etc cannot be owned by a trust. Therefore, when it comes to an IRA a Trust should stay away! This includes the fact that you never want to name your Trust as the beneficiary of an IRA. The bottom line…when it comes to retirement accounts (Roth, SEP, Traditional, Etc) the owner should never be listed as the Trust AND…the beneficiary should never be listed as the trust unless the beneficiary is children under the age of 18. Always put the owner of a retirement account and beneficiary of a retirement account as people, not the trust!

If you own a business make sure that your Trust owns your business and (as stated above) that you are the trustee of the Trust.

Overall, there are many benefits to establishing a Trust. A great book that goes over Trusts in greater detail that I recommend is “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Retirement Planning”

There is also what is known as a revocable living trust and an irrevocable living trust. I won’t go into the details here but if you are interested this is a great article on the differences between a revocable and irrevocable trust.

Be sure to talk with an estate planning attorney. In my experience, there is a great advantage of utilizing an estate planning attorney instead of a lawyer that handles a wide range of legal topics. The website: gyst.com (short for Get Your Shit Together) has a number of helpful links including one on finding an estate planning attorney in your area. There are many other factors that go into utilizing the full benefit and details of a trust and if it is right for you Fidelity has listed 6 reasons you should consider a Trust. If you want to learn in greater depths the reasons you should consider a Trust a great book I recommend is “Living Trusts For Everyone”

A Word On Trust ID Numbers

Trusts are issued ID Numbers when created but don’t get overwhelmed by this. Normally, the Trust ID is either a Social Security Number of one of the trustees or an EIN number issued by the IRS. If there is a realty trust or an irrevocable trust, then you would most likely get an EIN number.

Have A Legacy Binder or Safe (Central Location For All Documents)

Once you have established your Estate Planning documents it is important to have one location where all important documents are maintained and are accessible by your trustee. This central location can come in the form of a safe at your home or simply a binder stored in a safe place. The following is just a sample of the documents created by Fidsafe (more to come on FidSafe below) that should be contained in your safe/legacy binder.

Legal

Last Will
Living Will
Durable Power of Attorney (Healthcare, Financial, Real Estate, etc)
HIPAA Release Form
Marriage License
Child Support Documents
Alimony Documents
Divorce Decree
Adoption Papers
Trust Documents
Identification & Licenses

Birth Certificate
Driver’s License
Passport
Social Security Card
Marriage License
Immigration Documents
Military ID
Death Certificate
Other Licenses
People & Places

List of Safety Deposit Boxes
Key Contacts
Finances

List of Financial/Bank Accounts (Including IRAs, Pensions, etc)
Account Statements
Additional Financial Documents
Credit Report
Vehicle Titles
Taxes

Annual Income Tax Records
Property Tax Statements
Insurance & Property

Life Insurance Policy
Health Insurance Card
Home Insurance Policy
Auto Insurance Policies
Vehicle Title
House /Land Deeds
Cemetery Deeds
Medical

Family medical history
Other

List of usernames and passwords
Transcripts
Degree(s)
Licenses to practice
Organization Membership Cards
Military Discharge Papers

Digital Estate Planning Tools & Steps To Follow

Today and on into the future more and more of our time and possessions will be housed online. If there is anything you can take away from this article let it be this – you absolutely must have a digital plan for upon your passing that is simple to follow and that two of your loved ones/trustees fully understand and are aware of. Don’t have just one person who knows everything. By having two people aware of everything you are much more likely to have your wishes carried out when you pass.

Today, you might be using tools such as Dropbox, 1Password, Last Pass, Google Drive/Docs, and many more. How many people have access to any or all of your online passwords? Thankfully, there are free tools you can use to make access to all of your critically important documents easier to access.

One great tool designed for managing the digital estate planning process is FidSafe. FidSafe is a free service to anyone. It is provided by Fidelity Investments but it is not required that you are a Fidelity customer to use the service. FidSafe gives you a free and secure way to store all of your documents, notes, and passwords in one place. It is very customizable and allows you to assign a designee if anything happens to you. FidSafe has also provided this excellent resource to get organized.

The Process That I Am Using

This process might not be the best for everyone but I wanted to share because I believe it could work for most people and to also leave it for my loved ones to have should anything happen to me. First, I utilize a secure physical safe at home that three loved ones have access to. In the safe, I have all original copies of important documents. These documents are the same documents listed above in the legacy binder/safe. In addition, I have an envelope that contains three passwords. One password is my computer password. This password is essential. The second is my login and password to my 1Password account. Finally, the login and password to my FidSafe account. I have it set so that my 1Password account is saved in my FidSafe account and my FidSafe account is saved in my 1Password so really only one of these two is necessary. Once my loved ones have access to this envelope in the safe they then have access to my 1Password account which contains all 800+ online and digital accounts. You might not believe you have this many but as you begin to use a password manager you will be surprised at just how many accounts you have out there. I recommend that everyone use a password manager such as 1Password or LastPass. LifeHacker has a selection of other great password managers to choose from.

Hold An Annual Meeting & Stick To It

Do a reading of your Estate Plan because it will save a lot of time, money and heartache after you pass on. Just like public companies hold quarterly meetings for their stock you should make it a point to hold at the very least an annual meeting on your estate. In my opinion, there is no better way to show how much you love your family than to do this. In fact, depending on the nature of your family dynamics you might even consider having your estate planning attorney conduct the meeting on your behalf. By doing this there is absolutely no way that arguments can arise upon your passing on the steps that will be taken when that day comes.

You might think that taking this step is overkill but trust me when I say it is not. Too often families can be torn apart upon a family members passing. Here are just some variables that can take place.

Older estate planning docs such as a Will or Power of Attorney could be floating around. Whenever you update your estate planning documents you want to make sure that you destroy any documents that came before the documents that you have just updated. It is hard to imagine but think of the possible confusion that could arise among family when one has one version of your Will and someone else has a newer or older version.

Estate planning laws change from state to state so you want to keep them updated especially if a major change has taken place in your life.

In some states, it takes a court order to open your safe deposit box, so it would be better in those cases to keep an original copy of your will — and any other documents that might require immediate access — with your attorney, at home in a fireproof safe, etc.

Take These Steps Today

I would argue it is difficult to come up with many things that are more important than protecting your family and loved ones. Having a complete estate plan in place has never been more important given the increased digital nature of our lives.

This article by Jeff McLean first appeared on FinTech Freedom and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Update for Amazing Wealth System

The FTC recently sued the companies and individuals responsible for the Amazing Wealth System — also known as Amazon Wealth Systems, FBA Stores, AWS, Insider Online Secrets, Online Auction Learning Center, and Online Seller — which ran ads and held live workshops promoting a business opportunity scheme. The company claimed people could use its system and “Get started on Amazon and Make $5,000-$10,000 in the next 30 days. . . even if you have never sold anything online before.” The FTC said those earnings claims are false and that the defendants had no basis for making those claims. At the FTC’s request, a court froze the defendants’ assets and appointed a temporary receiver.

Since the FTC filed the case, many people who paid Amazing Wealth System and the related companies have asked how to get involved in the case, what to do with their paperwork, and if they will get a refund. Here are answers to those questions and a few more:

I paid for Amazing Wealth System workshop. How do I add my name to the FTC case?

Report your experience to FTC.gov/complaint. Include as much personal information as you choose. The information you give will go into a secure database that the FTC and other law enforcement agencies use for investigations. When you go to FTC.gov/complaint, click on:

  • Education, Jobs, and Making Money, then
  • Business Opportunities, Work-at-Home-Plans, Franchise or Distributorships, then
  • Business Opportunity or Work-at-Home Plan.

I saved my receipts and other paperwork. What should I do with them?

Keep the originals and copies of:

  • payment records, including invoices, bank statements, credit card statements and cancelled checks;
  • postal mail, email and material that you received from the defendants, including messages about your account, marketing material and handouts you received at workshops; and
  • other documents, postal mail or email that refers to your Amazon account or business with Amazing Wealth System or the related companies.

Will I get my money back?

The FTC works to return as much money as possible to each affected person. The amount the FTC returns depends on how much the defendants are able to pay, how much the court orders for refunds, how many people were affected and other facts. Sometimes the FTC can’t return any money.

How long will it take to get my money back?

The FTC must complete the legal action before it can determine whether it will be able to give refunds. The case against the defendants was filed in March 2018, and could take several months to resolve.

I paid for services and products offered by one of the companies the FTC sued. Can I get those services and products now?

According to Robb Evans & Associates LLC, the court-appointed temporary receiver, the defendants’ business operations will not be re-started. If you think you have products stored at the defendants’ premises, please send an email to the temporary receiver at fba@robbevans.com. Include a detailed list of your inventory. The temporary receiver will take steps to return inventory to people in the near future.

I saw another business that looked like Amazing Wealth System.

Please report what you saw to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.

Where can I get more information about the case?

You can read our blog from March 23, 2018, the press release announcing the case, or the legal documents. The temporary receiver also has information on this Case Page.

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

What to Know if You Are Facing Foreclosure After a Natural Disaster

Many people are still suffering the consequences of natural disasters. For example, in 2017 there was Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and the devastating wildfires in California. Even after immediate needs like shelter and food are met, financial hardships from a disaster can last for months and even years. It’s important for people to know the federal government programs and services available to them, especially housing-related assistance, as they work to rebuild. 

In Puerto Rico, for instance, there are still many people living without electricity post-Hurricane María. Faced with post-disaster hardships, some homeowners in Puerto Rico have become delinquent on their mortgage payments. People in other places, like the U.S. Virgin Islands, face similar challenges.

If you are struggling to make your mortgage payment or can’t meet your reverse mortgage obligations, such as paying taxes and insurance, in the wake of a natural disaster, there are resources and potential options to avoid foreclosure. You may first want to contact a HUD-approved housing counselor. Housing counselors are available for free or at low cost to assist you with information and advice if you can’t make your mortgage payment.  

Primary federal government disaster resources

Government programs and services may have application deadlines. Sometimes these application deadlines are extended, so check the program website to get the most current information. 

More resources to help

As part of our mission to educate and empower consumers to make better informed financial decisions, we have resources to assist people in the aftermath of natural disasters. 

Foreclosure resources 

Natural disaster consumer education resources

For Spanish speakers, you can find these and other resources on our Spanish language site.

More help

If you have difficulty with your mortgage and have a complaint about your mortgage company, you can submit it to the Bureau online, by mail, or by calling 855-411-2372. 

You can also find legal assistance from a free legal aid program for your state or territory

Finally, for community service organizations, another resource we offer is Your Money, Your Goals. Social service agencies and financial institutions in Puerto Rico and elsewhere have used this material to help the people they serve learn more about a variety of financial topics. Your Money, Your Goals is a set of financial empowerment materials for organizations to help people meet their financial goals by increasing their knowledge, skills, and resources. The Your Money, Your Goals toolkit is available for free on the Bureau’s website in English, Spanish, and Chinese. 

As people tackle the financial challenges stemming from natural disasters, these and other resources can help you understand the programs and educational resources available to protect your home.

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


Pay With GasBuddy Review

I don’t remember what it was like to drive to new places before I had GPS on my phone — how did I get anywhere? Similarly, I don’t know how I survived road trips before I had GasBuddy to lead me to the best gas stations along the way. Given this reliance, you’d think I would have learned about their Pay with GasBuddy feature sooner. Alas, it was only a few weeks ago that it was brought to my attention and decided to give it a try.

Put simply, the value proposition of Pay with GasBuddy is that you can use a special card that’s accepted at most gas stations in order to save a few cents off of every gallon of gas you buy. That sounds good — almost too good, if you think like me. However, after getting a chance to test the service out on my recent trip from Missouri to Florida, I can report that Pay with GasBuddy really does work and could be a great feature for some drivers.

With that background, let’s take a closer look at what Pay with GasBuddy is and how it could save you money on the road:

Signing Up for Pay with GasBuddy and How it Works

The first thing you should know about Pay with GasBuddy is that it is completely free to sign-up and start using the service. All you’ll need to do is either select the Pay with GasBuddy option in the app or go to their website to begin the process. On top of basic information like your name, address, and phone number, you’ll also be asked to link a checking account. Keep in mind that the account you select will be the one that’s charged whenever you use the service.

After you sign-up, a Pay with GasBuddy card will be shipped to (again — this is all free). To the untrained eye, these look like any regular credit or debit cards except that it lacks an EMV chip or Visa/Mastercard/etc. logo. Before using your new card, you’ll also be asked to create a Driver ID number, which will essentially function as a PIN.

Once your card is activated, you’re ready to go. You’ll be able to insert your card at the pump or most stations and automatically save 10¢ per gallon on your first fill-up and 5¢ per gallon after that. Alternatively, thanks to a new partnership with Sears, you can now elect to earn Shop Your Way CASHBACK points instead, earning 30¢ per gallon in points for your first 60 days and 15¢ per gallon after that. These points can then be redeemed at Sears and K-Mart locations as well as online.

Using Pay with GasBuddy

On their website, GasBuddy says that their service works at most gas stations — calling out a few where it doesn’t work while showcasing logos of a few that do. Since my local station was not explicitly listed, I was very skeptical when I went to insert my Pay with GasBuddy card for the first time. To my surprise, after swiping my card, the pump prompted me to enter my Driver ID. Once that was done, I was good to select my fuel grade and start pumping.

Admittedly, at this point, I still wasn’t 100% clear on how Pay with GasBuddy actually worked, so I printed my receipt to keep tabs on the whole process. What I soon discovered was that the price listed on that receipt is not what would end up being debited from my account. Instead — with this being my first fill up — I saved 15¢ per gallon, with the net balance deducted from my checking account (note: Pay with GasBuddy’s site says you get 10¢ per gallon off of your first fill-up, so I’m not clear on why mine was higher). It was like magic!

With my first fill-up behind me, I really knew the ropes now — or so I thought. The next station also asked me for my Driver ID but then also asked for an odometer reading. Not wanting to take the time to look at the dead-on reading, I entered a nice, round number and that seemed to work just fine. Unfortunately this may have caused some issue down the literal and proverbial road (more on that later).

Finally, something I noticed when using Pay with GasBuddy is that, while some purchases showed up immediately, others took some time to reach both by GasBuddy and bank account. This wasn’t really a problem but it’s something to be aware of (lest you think you made off with a free fill-up).

The Pros and Cons of Pay with GasBuddy

First, the biggest compliment I can give Pay with GasBuddy is that, to my surprise, it was accepted at every station I tried it at. That said I should note that the service is only intended to work at the pump itself and cannot be used inside (even if it is just to pre-pay for gas). As a result, if you only want to pump a certain dollar amount, you’ll have to do it manually.

Going back to the odometer reading, I later found out that this is a feature GasBuddy is testing in order to eventually be able to offer you tips for improving your gas mileage. That’s all well and good, but the problem I ran into was that, at the station I arrived at, I entered another fake number and was told to see an attendant. This may have been because I added an extra digit (oops) but, either way, I elected to just use another card. While this was a minor inconvenience, I also discovered you can just enter “99” to opt-out of this upcoming service and proceed without issue.

Another feature that’s both a pro and a con is the upgrade to earning Shop Your Way points. At 30¢ gallon back in your first 60 days, you can quickly rack up CASHBACK points on a road trip. Even at 15¢ per gallon, it’s still a pretty good deal. The problem is that these points don’t last forever and expire a couple months after they’re earned. Therefore, if you’re not a frequent Sears or K-Mart shopper, you’ll need to make an effort to use your points on time.

Something else that should be noted is that I’ve been unable to find a way to go back to the regular Pay with GasBuddy savings scheme since “upgrading” to the Shop Your Way offer. That said, it’s possible there is a way to make that happen and I’ve reached out to GasBuddy for confirmation. Since this is still a relatively new partnership, I’ll give them a pass for not making it more obvious, but I do hope there is a way to toggle between the two.

Final Thoughts on Pay with GasBuddy

Overall, I was really surprised and impressed with the Pay with GasBuddy product. After all, it’s essentially giving users free money. Of course the big disadvantage for people like me is that I’d be missing out on credit card rewards by using this service instead. With one of my cards granting me 4% back on gas, that likely bests the 5¢ off GasBuddy offers after the initial fill-up. Again, the Sears Shop Your Way figure would actually exceed the credit card cash back offer, but I’d also have to redeem my points sooner rather than later.

With all that said, if you don’t have a credit card that puts a premium on gas, Pay with GasBuddy could be a great option for saving at the pump. Given its wide acceptance, ease of use, and now two reward options, I can honestly say I’ll be taking my Pay with GasBuddy card along with me for many future road trips.

This article by Kyle Burbank first appeared on Dyer News and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Don’t Get Caught Doing These Things in Your Yard

Whoa! I’m not talking about planting skunkweed or doing a nude rain dance in your yard! I’m talking about those budget busting habits that can drain your wallet faster than a nest of termites can chew through a woodpile. Here are 10 things you definitely don’t want to get caught doing in your yard this summer.

  1. Buy the cheapest grass seed you can find. This is counter-productive if you don’t also check that the seed will grow well in your yard. Know the zone you’re in and shop accordingly. Sometimes buying the more expensive seed is cheaper in the long run.
  2. Pay big bucks for weed killer. Besides dousing your lawn with enough chemicals to create your own mini science experiment, most weed killers do a poor job. Instead, buy a dandelion digger for about $5 and go to work digging up the individual weeds. If you do it once in the spring and occasionally throughout the season, the weeds will leave your lawn alone.
  3. Pick a mower by how many clippings it can hold; the bigger the better. Instead, go for a mulching mower. The decomposing clippings help add nitrogen back to the soil.
  4. Spend a lot of money on fertilizer for your lawn. Most cities have a free soil and fertilizer giveaway, usually in the spring and fall. Check with your public works department. Or you could start your own compost pile and make your own organic fertilizer for free!
  5. Don’t waste time and money mulching your garden and flower beds. Mulching actually saves time by suppressing the weeds, holding moisture in, and enriching the soil as it deteriorates. You can also get one pickup load free, if your city gives away free mulch.
  6. Water your lawn every day. Too much water is just as detrimental as too little, besides running up a huge water bill. Test the soil first. If it is hard and crumbly, it’s time to water. Better yet, set up rain barrels under your gutters to catch the rain. It’s free and better for your garden and grass.
  7. Fill every bare spot in your yard with expensive new plants. Start a sharing program with your neighbors. You can divide the irises that are taking over your yard and she can give you some of her prolific lilies. Hosta plants are another type that need to be divided and are great for sharing.
  8. Need a fence? Go with the biggest ad in the yellow pages. No! First, decide what kind of fence you want. Get ideas by driving around the neighborhood. Then get at least three bids, comparing price as well as companies. Only hire companies with licenses and references. Don’t ever pay for the whole job upfront. Instead, pay a deposit as necessary but keep at least half of the payment for when the job is completely done to your satisfaction.
  9. Trimming bushes and trees stunts their growth. On the contrary, trimming about a 1/2" will encourage growth and fullness. You can get free gardening advice at Lowe’s or other home improvement centers.
  10. Mow every day. If you want a healthy lawn, experts say to let it grow to about 3" and cut off about 1" at a time. This keeps the blades of grass stronger and provides more shade for the roots. Keep your mower blade sharp to get even cuts. It only costs about $3 to sharpen them at a hardware store or your local small engine repair shop.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to maintain a nice yard, but you don’t want to spend all your money on it, either. Get outside and enjoy your yard, but don’t get caught doing these 10 things!

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


Annual Travel Credits: What Are They?

These days, more and more issuers are positioning their credit cards as premium products, charging equally premium fees. The annual travel credits that come with these cards help to offset hefty annual fees by giving you a break on some common travel expenses.

Travel credits reimburse you for specific types of travel charges that you put on your credit card. When you make a charge that is eligible to receive a travel credit, the card issuer will credit your statement for the full amount, often automatically. You can think of travel credits as an automatic gift card from your issuer that covers certain eligible expenses.

What Can You Use Annual Travel Credits For?

You can use travel credits for all sorts of travel-related expenses. Some charges that may be eligible for a travel credit include:

  • Flight change fees
  • Seat upgrades
  • Airport lounge passes
  • Baggage fees
  • In-flight meals and entertainment
  • Rideshare fares
  • Airline gift cards

Not all annual travel credit are created equal
It’s important to note that individual  cards and issuers have different rules surrounding what expenses are eligible for a travel credit.

Some cards will give you a credit for nearly any travel-related purchase. Others have a very specific list of the types of charges that are eligible.

You should know exactly what charges are eligible for a credit from your card issuer, because if you make an ineligible purchase expecting to receive a credit, you’ll be left footing the bill.

Other types of travel credit
Most of the credits listed above are related to direct purchases from airlines and travel companies. Many premium credit cards also offer credits towards programs like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. These programs can help you speed through security lines and customs when you travel.

Credit related to TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are usually separate from the other annual travel credits offered by the card.

Annual Travel Credits Offset Annual Fees

Most credit cards that offer annual travel credits carry hefty annual fees, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve which costs cardholders $450 per year. Paying that much every year just for the privilege of holding a credit card can be hard to stomach, no matter what benefits you receive.

The annual travel credits offered by these cards help make those fees more manageable, though. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers $300 in travel credits each year, making its effective annual fee $150 — a far cry from the $450 listed on its application.

It’s much easier to justify paying a $450 annual fee for a premium card if it offers a broad travel credit worth over 60% of the fee. All you have to do is make sure to use the full travel credit each year.

How to Use Annual Travel Credits

Most travelers will find that using travel credits requires little to no effort on their part. Just spend on the same travel purchases you would otherwise.

Seat upgrades
You’re about to leave on vacation, and decide you could use a little more leg room on the plane. You have tickets to fly on JetBlue and an American Express Personal Rewards Gold card. You designate JetBlue as your airline of choice in the American Express app, then speak to someone at the JetBlue counter to arrange a seat upgrade.

You pay the charge using your American Express Personal Rewards Gold card, and the total comes to $35. A few days later, you get a credit of $35, essentially getting  extra leg room for free.

Getting around town
You’re in a new city for the weekend and need a quick way to get downtown. You order an Uber using your Chase Sapphire Reserve card and spend a fun night out. You then Uber back to your hotel. Because the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers credits on Uber — and nearly any other travel expense — you’ll see a credit for the cost of your rides within a week or two.

Visiting an airport lounge
You have a long layover between two legs of your long-distance trip and want to visit an airport lounge to get away from the hustle and bustle of the busy airport. Your Ritz-Carlton Rewards card includes the cost of lounge entry in the list of charges eligible for a credit, so you swipe your card and spend your layover relaxing.

What Cards Offer Annual Travel Credits?

There are many premium cards that offer annual travel credits, but we think these are among the best.

Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers what might be the most flexible travel fee credit program.

The card’s $450 annual gives you $300 in annual credits that can be used on nearly any travel expense, including the purchase of airline tickets, incidental fees and ridesharing fares. It’s easy to use the full credit each year because so many purchases qualify.

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American Express Platinum Card
The American Express Platinum card charges a $550 annual fee and offers a $200 annual travel credit. This credit resets each calendar year, so if you only hold the card for one year, it is possible to get $400 in credit while only paying one $550 fee.

The credit offered by American Express is less flexible than the credit offered by Chase. You must choose an airline at the start of the year, and you will only receive credits for purchases related to that airline.

The airlines you can choose are:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Delta Airlines
  • Frontier Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Spirit Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines

Officially, the credit only applies to incidental fees and in-flight purchases. Some people have had success with getting credits by buying gift cards in the $25-$50 range, though we wouldn’t bank on it.

US Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite
The US Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card charges a $400 annual fee, but offers $325 in annual credits, making its effective fee just $75. The credit is quite flexible, applying to nearly any purchase made directly from airlines, hotels, car rental companies, passenger trains, cruise lines, limousine companies, or taxi companies.

Bottom line

Though most premium credit cards on the market charge annual fees in the $400-$600 range, significant travel credits can help offset these fees, making the cards a great bargain. Just be sure to sign up for a card that offers credits that fit your spending habits.

This article by TJ Porter first appeared on CardCruncher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


FTC Settlement Will Ban Fraudulent Marketers from Invention Promotion Business

World Patent Marketing allegedly bilked millions from consumers and suppressed criticism

Scott Cooper and his companies, World Patent Marketing Inc. and Desa Industries Inc., have agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that bans them from the invention promotion business.

The proposed settlement order resolves charges the FTC brought last year, alleging that Cooper and his companies deceived consumers and suppressed complaints about them using threats, intimidation, and gag clauses. A federal court subsequently halted the Florida-based scheme and froze its assets pending litigation.

According to the FTC, consumers paid the defendants thousands of dollars to patent and market their inventions based on bogus “success stories” and testimonials. After stringing consumers along for months or even years, the defendants did not deliver what they promised, and many people ended up in debt or lost their life savings with nothing to show for it.

Under the proposed settlement order, the defendants are banned from invention promotion activities, misrepresenting any good or service, and suppressing the availability of truthful negative comments or reviews by consumers. They are also prohibited from profiting from consumers’ personal information collected as part of the challenged practices, and failing to dispose of it properly.

The order imposes a $25,987,192 judgment that will be partially suspended when $78,670 in frozen funds are transferred to the Commission and Cooper has paid $976,330. The full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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

CFPB to Shift Focus From Protecting Student Loan Debtors to Something Else

Recently the Trump administration has tried to change the law so individual states would not be able to enforce laws covering student loan debt collectors.

The new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Mick Mulvaney, has just released the updated agenda for the CFPB.

According to the new agenda, the CFPB would drop its efforts to push forward regulations of student loan collectors and scrap “student loan servicing” from its focus.

Mulvaney has also indicated the CFPB will retreat from doing anything regarding student loans in general.

“This defangs the watchdog and instead turns the office into a lapdog for the industry,” said Chris Peterson, a former top CFPB official who is now director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.

The unit which has been the tip of the spear on these CFPB student loan efforts to protect debtors has been informed they will be reorganized into the CFPB Office of Financial Education. Now there is a department title which just screams no enforcement.

“This is a very significant change in the mission of the student office,” said Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and former enforcement attorney at the CFPB.

“America is facing an ongoing student debt crisis, with outstanding student debt surpassing $1.5 trillion and over 8 million borrowers in default on their student loans. Closing the office for students is like shuttering the fire department in the middle of a three-alarm fire,” Alexis Goldstein, the senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, said.

I don’t get it. All actions that have been taken by the Department of Education and now the new modified CFPB have the net effect of restricting supervision of student loan collectors, limit state authority to protect citizens from student loan collection abuse, reduce debt elimination from federal student loan fraud by schools, and give easier access to student loan money by for-profit schools.

You don’t need to read the tea leaves here to see what is going on, you just need to look at the billboard.

I don’t care what your political stripes are. With all these changes any student with any student loan debt should expect to be less protected from collector misinformation, bad advice, and poor servicing.

If you don’t believe me, just go ahead and file a complaint against your student loan servicer and see how much protection you get. Your new friend will be the word NONE.

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.