8 Landscaping Tricks That Can Save You Money

Whether you are hoping to sell your home, or it’s summer and you just want an excuse to be outdoors and dig in the dirt, sprucing up your landscaping can be a wise investment. Research has found that sophisticated landscaping with large plants can increase a home’s value by as much as 12.7%.

But what are your options if you are trying to make every dollar stretch as far as possible? There are ways to make your yard look more inviting on a budget.

1. Mulch — for Free

Mulch can freshen up a flowerbed and save you time and money (less weeding and watering). Save by snagging free mulch. Some communities offer curbside pickup of lawn waste, which is then turned into mulch that’s yours for the asking. “If you simply bring a utility bill (to prove you live within city limits) to the distribution center, you can get free mulch by the truckload,” explains Cherie Lowe, blogger and author of Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After. Check with your local government to see if there is a program available in your area.

While you are at it, consider composting your food waste. Not only will you send fewer food scraps to the landfill, your plants will love you for it.

2. Prune, Trim, Pull

Simple pruning, trimming and weeding can make your yard appear tidy and more attractive. “The best, easiest and most inexpensive way to spruce up a yard is to trim/prune shrubbery, add new mulch or extra rock and plant some seasonal flower pots,” says Shawn Edwards, managing partner of A+ Lawn & Landscape in Des Moines, Iowa. “An instant and easy makeover!”

If you feel like you are in a constant battle with weeds, consider this inexpensive solution: homemade weed killer. Lowe says she makes her own weed killer from one gallon of white vinegar, 1-2 cups of salt (table or Epsom salts) and a small squeeze of dish detergent. “(It) can eliminate weeds like nobody’s business,” she says. “Mix it together in a spray bottle or a bigger weed sprayer and apply,” she advises. “It takes 1-2 days for it activate, killing off unwanted weeds and costs a fraction of the price.”

Some gardeners swear by an even cheaper weed killer: boiling water. Simply pour it directly on weeds, avoiding plants you don’t want to damage. Since it doesn’t cost anything, it is certainly worth a try.

3. Free Can Be Good

One way to make your money go further is to check Craigslist for free or low-cost plants. Garden clubs may also hold plant sales or swaps. Or ask a neighbor for a cutting from one you admire. Better yet, let them know that if they are thinning out their plants you are happy to help them do that — and take what’s no longer needed.

When Mary Leonard worked at a garden center, she bought plants at a fraction of their cost at the end of the season. In a story on Stretcher.com, she shared how a generous customer gave her hundreds of dollars in free plants and then revealed that she got many of hers for free by offering to dig them up from homes that were going to be demolished.

striped lawn

4. Love Your Lawn

A freshly cut lawn always looks and smells great. And it can look even more elegant if it’s “striped” using an attachment added to a lawnmower. “It always gives your yard that great look whether you have a big or small yard,” says Mark Savoree, owner of Savoree Properties. “They are very cost efficient, as the striper kits normally run $100 to $300.”

If you live in an area of the country where grass doesn’t grow abundantly, or watering restrictions make it impractical to maintain a lush lawn, native grasses can be a practical alternative. “In drought areas like California, replacing a turf grass with a native or climate-compatible grass can substantially reduce costs,” says Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping in Los Angeles.

5. Buy Smart

Before you plant, get your soil tested to help you understand which types of plants or grasses will grow best on your property, suggests Jeff Oddo, president of City Wide Maintenance. “This will leave you with lush lawns, shrubs and flowers–instead of an unsightly exterior and money wasted on dead and dying landscaping,” he says. Inexpensive testing may be available through your Cooperative Extension service (see the final tip).

He also urges homeowners to know their climate and “pay attention to placement and understand how much sun/shade your plant needs to ensure it looks its best all season long.”

6. Plant Local

“Substantial cost savings are possible with native foliage, as they will be naturally climate-appropriate and many are perennial, saving annual planting costs,” says Aoyagi. “Also, natives will thrive without costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” These plants can also invite wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, making your surroundings even more attractive. Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization offers information on starting native plant projects.

7. Lighten It Up

Try outdoor lighting. “Outdoor lighting can be done for as little as $50,” says Steve Bollinger, owner of Landscaping by André, Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. “You can add night time visibility, security, decorative and do it yourself for anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on the size of your space,” he says.

“LED solar lights can add a warm hue (and safety) to your environment and they are great for areas used for entertaining since they don’t attract bugs,” says Danyelle Kukuk, VP Category & Product Management at Batteries Plus Bulbs. For spot and flood lights, she recommends LED bulbs: “These will save 86% energy, last over 20 years, and retain light levels so the yard will shine bright even when autumn comes back around,” she says.

8. Ask the Experts

Have questions about choosing plants or helping the ones you already have thrive? Expert help may be available for free through your local Cooperative Extension program, or through volunteer programs and services offered by ”master gardeners,” individuals who are trained in horticulture and then volunteer in their communities. In my community, for example, master gardeners are available to answer questions at no charge at local libraries on a specific Saturday each month. Not long ago, I picked the brain of one stationed at a local home improvement store to dispense advice. (She wasn’t there to sell something; in fact, her advice included the phone number of someone she knew who was giving away some plants.)

Feel free to share your best tips for saving money on landscaping in the comments!

Inset image: Mark Savoree

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


FCC Tells Paypal Its Robotexting Policy Raises ‘Serious Concerns’

The Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to PayPal on Thursday that was highly critical of the firm’s robocalling and robotexting fine print, which I first chronicled earlier this month. The letter says PayPal’s new terms of service “raise serious concerns for the (FCC) enforcement bureau.”

In a report last week, I described an update to PayPal’s user agreement that is set to take effect in July, when the payment firm is set to split from corporate parent eBay. In those terms, the firm says users must agree to grant PayPal the right to robocall or robotext them at any phone number “you have provided to us or that we have otherwise obtained.”  The calls and texts can be used in attempts to collect debts, for marketing purposes or a host of other reasons, the agreement says. On its Facebook page, PayPal recently told a consumer that there was no opt-out for the provision.

In a letter signed by Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, the agency said much of the policy could violate federal law:

“FCC requirements directly prohibit requiring a consumer to consent to receive autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing or advertising calls as a condition of purchasing any property, good, or service, and the company must give consumers notice of their right to refuse to give such consent,” the letter says. “PayPal ‘s amended User Agreement does not give consumers notice of their right to refuse consent to calls that require consumer consent from PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers. If PayPal fails to include this required notice and/or fails to allow its users to refuse such consent, we are concerned that consent is in fact a condition of purchase of PayPal’s service and thus violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and could subject PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers to penalties of up to $16,000 per call or text message.

“Second, we direct your attention to the requirement that the written agreement must identify the specific telephone number(s) to which the consenting consumer gives his or her consent to be called or texted,” it continues. “A blanket User Agreement that purports to apply to ‘any telephone number that [consumers] have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained’ does not meet the level of specificity required by law. Many consumers have more than one telephone line. Consumers have the right to choose on which line(s) they wish to receive telemarketing or advertising calls, if they elect to receive such calls at all.

“Finally, the Commission has ruled that should any question about the consent arise, the seller will bear the burden of demonstrating that a clear and conspicuous disclosure was provided and that unambiguous consent was obtained,” it says. “We direct your attention to this statement because it underscores the importance of complying with federal law when structuring your agreements to collect the prior express written consent of consumers.”

The letter was addressed to Louise Pentland, PayPal’s general counsel.

“We have received a letter from the FCC and look forward to responding,” PayPal said in a statement. “We strive to be as clear as possible with our customers and clarified our policies and practices last week on the PayPal blog.”

In that post, Pentland noted the robocalling and robotexting language is not new, and consumers can opt out, though the post does not explain why PayPal said previously there was no opt out.

“We value our relationship with you and have no intention of harassing you,” it read, in part. “Our contacts with you are intended to benefit our relationship. For example, we may contact you as part of our fraud prevention efforts to keep your PayPal accounts safer and more secure. In reaching out to you for account service purposes, such as fraud alerts, we occasionally use technologies that allow us to contact you efficiently. To use this approach we seek your permission through our User Agreement.

“Our goal is always to create clarity in our communication with our customers.  We’re sorry if this wasn’t the case.  We aim to give you the information you need and hope this blog post helped to clear up any confusion,” she wrote.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


As Airlines Look to Shrink Carry-On Sizes, Cardholders’ Bags Still Fly Free

These days, it seems people rarely like the news they hear from the airline industry, and an announcement made June 9 was no different: Many airlines plan to further limit the size of carry-on luggage. Based on the flurry of reactions to the news posted on social media, consumers aren’t happy about this.

Currently, the standard for carry-on luggage (the one that goes in an overhead compartment, not the “personal item”) limits bags to those no larger than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches deep, including handles and wheels. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced a new standard called IATA Cabin OK, restricting carry-on baggage to 21.5 by 13.5 by 7.5 inches.

The loss of packing space may not be much of an annoyance on its own — it’s the need to purchase new bags that may be more irritating to consumers. It’s either that or check your luggage, which generally costs $25 for the first bag (each way). You’d have to check with your airline for specifics on pricing, as well as whether or not they’re adopting IATA Cabin OK luggage standards. According to an IATA news release, “A number of major international airlines have signaled their interest to join the initiative and will soon be introducing the guidelines into their operations.”

For frequent fliers (or those vehemently opposed to buying new luggage), there are programs that include a free checked bag, though it will be interesting to see how these perks might change with the new carry-on limits. Airlines with frequent flier programs often reward regular customers with a free checked bag, once they’ve reached a certain status, in addition to other perks. That can take a long time to accomplish if you’re not often taking air transportation, so a quicker solution is to use an airline-affiliated rewards credit card with baggage perks. Here are a few:

United MileagePlus Explorer Visa

In addition to helping you earn miles faster, as many airline credit cards do, MileagePlus cardholders can have their first bag checked for free, as well as the bag of one travel companion. Other perks include priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees and two United Club passes per year. The card has a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard

When you fly American Airlines you can get a free checked bag for yourself and up to four travel companions when using this card. Cardholders also receive priority boarding and discounts on in-flight purchases. The card also has $95 annual fee that is waived in the first year of membership.

Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express

Delta offers a few SkyMiles credit cards through American Express, with different levels of benefits, and not all include a checked bag for free. The Gold card does — the card’s terms and conditions say cardholders can request a maximum of nine baggage-fee waivers per reservation, but that’s only for first bags, meaning you can only max out that benefit if you’re traveling with eight other people (and you booked the trip using your card). The card also provides a discount on in-flight purchases in the form of a statement credit. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year.

Virgin America Visa Signature

You and a fellow traveler can check your first bags without an additional fee when using one of two Virgin credit cards. The premium card has a $149 annual fee, and the standard card charges $49 per year (they have different rewards, but the baggage perk is the same).

Pretty much every airline offers a credit card, but the benefits vary widely. There’s also no knowing how these benefits will change in the future, though offering a free checked bag will likely attract more customers, as airlines adopt new baggage restrictions. Additionally, there are a lot of credit cards that reward travelers, without requiring the cardholder to patronize specific companies.

Above all, it’s important you apply only for credit cards you feel you can use responsibly — rewards cards typically carry higher interest rates than basic credit cards, and many charge annual fees, so if you’re not paying the statement in full or using the benefits often, the cost can outweigh the rewards. Above all, you should apply only for cards you will likely qualify for, because applying for new credit will have a small and temporary negative effect on your credit score. To get an idea of what credit card offers may be available to you, review your credit standing frequently. You can get two free credit scores every month on Credit.com.

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Pull Your Kids Away From Their Phones and Tablets This Summer

With things like Netflix, cellphones and tablets, it is hard to get kids away from technology. The Kaiser Family Foundation did a study suggesting kids today are spending up to 75 hours a week on things like the internet, Netflix, and smart phones. Recently, I came across a quote by a first grade teacher that said, "Yes, kids love technology, but they also love Legos, scented markers, handstands, books, and mud puddles. It’s all about balance." Why not try these 13 successful summer activities that will help to get your kids to look up from their tablets and cellphones?

Visit the library: It sounds old fashioned, but the kids loved it! I got them their own library cards and my stepson went from fighting us to read to reading at least two books a week.

Camp at home: My 8-year-old really loved the idea of pitching a tent in the backyard and camping out with his dad. If you already have a tent, it is a really great idea for some quality time, and you can snack on things like s’mores.

Make them a photographer for a day: If you have an old camera or phone with a camera lying around, give it to the kids and let them go crazy. We caught all kinds of moments on "film." We got to see things through the eyes of our children and printed out our favorites to keep!

Museums: It sounds boring, but today there are so many different types of museums, including science, art, children’s, and music museums. Many have free admission or half off during the summer. I even get emailed offers from my bank for free admission days to local museums.

Write to pen pals: It’s a great way for kids to get to know others while improving their writing skills. You can find people across the country or half way across the world and learn about new things with your kids. Check out places like Amazing-Kids.org, or if you think they would like to write to a solider overseas, AdoptAUSSoldier.org is a good one.

Acts of kindness: I don’t think I am alone when I say that many of us would like our kids to learn to think of others more frequently. Occasionally, I like to put each family member’s name in a bowl, have each member pick one name, and give them one week to do something nice for their chosen person.

Make a rock garden: Pick out some rocks and let the kids paint them. After they dry, spray them with a clear coat to protect them from weathering. We let the kids find a place in the garden to "display" their work. It’s something we will be able to keep for years to come.

Start a summer reading challenge: Get a poster board to keep track of books that were read and offer rewards for reading!

Discount movie day: Many movie theaters are offering movie tickets for as little as $1! Regal Cinemas is one that I know of in my area.

Make your own water park: Bring out the sprinklers and kiddie pool. Make your own larger homemade slip and slide using a piece of vinyl, some pool noodles, and the hose. If you want to add a little speed, just add a small drop or two of tear free baby shampoo.

Find kid workshops: Many chain stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Michael’s, Barnes and Noble, etc.) offer workshops for kids for little to no cost. Lowe’s and Home Depot offer the kids an apron as part of the workshop where they get to build things. Barnes and Noble offer story time for kids while the parents get to shop around.

Get involved: Volunteer! It sounds silly, but it is a great way to show the kids the importance of helping others. Volunteer.gov is a great site to find places near you looking of all kinds of volunteers.

Write a short story: Get a notebook and make up a short story the kids get to illustrate! My 14-year-old wrote the story while her brother got to draw the pictures.

All the things listed are low cost to free and with minimal use of electronics. Try out a few of the things on the list and you might be surprised at how little your kids will miss the technology!

Visit TheDollarStretcher.com for more summer fun ideas.

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


Legendary Ex-Con Accused of Stealing Former Green Beret’s Identity

A decades-long con-artist career could come to an end if William Douglas Street, Jr., is convicted of stealing a Defense Department contractor’s identity, reports the Detroit News. The 64-year-old Detroit native has 25 convictions and 11 prison sentences from 46 years of cons, most famously for impersonating Houston Oilers wide-receiver Jerry LeVias and using the identity to nab a tryout with the Detroit Tigers. Street, also known as “The Chameleon” and “The Great Impostor,” is in jail awaiting trial on charges of aggravated identity theft and mail fraud.

Throughout the years, Street has been caught impersonating professional athletes, a doctor and a law student, among others, and his escapades inspired “Chameleon Street,” a 1989 film that won a prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. This most recent arrest resulted from an investigation into bad checks Street allegedly wrote to a jeweler and dry cleaner, and when police found him, they reportedly found evidence of another stolen identity: William Benn Stratton, M.D. The name was embroidered in a lab coat found in Street’s car.

Street is also said to have possessed alumni cards from West Point and Duke University, in addition to a West Point class ring in Stratton’s name. (Stratton, a former Green Beret, attended both schools.) Street told the FBI he only used Stratton’s name to get a job, the Detroit News reports, but Street allegedly took on Stratton’s identity at multiple alumni events, including one at which he spoke, posing as Stratton. He also reportedly used the identity to try and pick up women.

According to court records cited by the Detroit News, Street’s interest in Stratton began when he saw an article about Stratton running a marathon. The article mentioned Stratton’s alma mater, and Street later told the FBI that West Point seemed like “a good place to be from.”

If convicted of the identity theft and mail fraud charges, Street could face more than 20 years in prison. Street’s history as a con artist is interesting — entertaining, even — but it highlights a serious issue facing consumers today, perhaps more than it was when Street started conning more than 40 years ago. Strangers can easily find information about you and use it to impersonate you or create an entirely new identity, based on bits of information from a variety of people.

Not only is it unsettling to have someone using your name, but their actions could also come back to you in a damaging way. Such fraud could muddle your medical, financial and criminal records, and the longer it goes unnoticed, the more difficult it can be to clear up. One way to monitor for fraud is to regularly check your credit — you can get a credit report summary for free every 30 days on Credit.com. That may not keep someone from claiming your identity, but if they try to use it to open credit accounts, you’ll be able to quickly identify and stop the fraud.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Where Should You Keep Your Emergency Fund?

We have all heard and (hopefully) heeded the advice to keep between three and six months’ worth of expenses aside as an emergency fund. Even if you feel like you have a handle on budgeting for your day-to-day expenses, what happens when the unpredictable hits with the potential to set your finances back? This stash is not meant for buying a home or going on a trip, it is for real emergencies. It’s a good idea to make growing an emergency fund a priority and where we keep this money can make a big difference. It’s important for the money to be accessible, but it can also be earning interest while waiting to be tapped. If you are building up your emergency fund and looking for a better place to keep it than under the mattress, check out these options of places to park your emergency fund.

Online Savings Account

Traditional savings accounts can be great for those of us who like to play it safe, but interest rates will not do much for you. Online banks do tend to offer slightly higher rates and lower fees so you could see a little more growth. Furthermore, it’s important to keep your emergency savings fund away from your normal checking account so you have some separation between your spending cash, cash for other savings goals and your emergency cash.

Money Market Account

This is a common place for emergency funds for those looking to get better interest rates. They are similar to regular savings accounts in terms of FDIC insurance and limits on the number of withdrawals you can make each month, but typically require a higher minimum deposit and they sometimes carry higher fees. It’s a good idea to read the fine print before choosing which account to keep your emergency fund in.

Penalty-Free CD

Since you need the money to be accessible, regular certificates of deposit with established time limits are not always going to work, but there are some no-penalty options. These typically have lower rates than traditional CDs, but offer higher yields than traditional savings accounts. You just need to look for banks that offer these and, again, read the fine print carefully.

Savings Bond

These are also typically seen as a long-term investment, but I-bonds can offer more flexibility. You can own some for as little as one year and do not need much capital to get started. The interest rate is better than other, more liquid vehicles but the interest is taxable and if you need to cash them in before five years, you will forfeit some of the interest you have earned.

Retirement Fund

Most experts will tell you to avoid touching your retirement savings until actual retirement. This is generally good advice as you want to make sure you have enough money left to fund your golden years. But if you have to tap your retirement funds for emergencies, it’s good to understand the different tax implications and penalty fees associated with each type of account. 401(k) accounts generally (there are exceptions like the Roth 401(k) option) hold funds that you contributed before paying taxes. So if you take out money before you are 59½ (besides for a few particular exceptions) you will have to pay an early withdrawal penalty and taxes. Since you contribute to a Roth IRA account with after-tax money, you may still pay a penalty but can withdraw the original contributions (not the interest earned) without paying additional taxes.

Where you keep your emergency fund is up to you, and you may even choose to use a combination of locations to ensure your stash is safe, liquid and reliable. Do your research before carefully considering the best location for your money — there is no one right answer, just as long as you have a place for it.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Students Will Have $3.5 Billion of Student Loan Debt Wiped Out & They Are Not Happy About It

Corinthian Colleges have been in the news a lot in the last several months. It’s been a roller coaster of campus closures, lawsuits, controversy over debt and outraged students, but perhaps the biggest news came on June 8, in an announcement from Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: debt relief for up to 350,000 students.

Activists and former students who have been calling for Corinthian students’ debts to be discharged say the DOE’s solution isn’t enough.

A little background on the situation: At its peak, Corinthian Colleges had more than 100 campuses of Everest, Heald and WyoTech career colleges in the U.S. in Canada. Twelve U.S. campuses shuttered in July 2014, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Corinthian in September 2014 for allegedly pushing students into borrowing private, high-cost “Genesis” loans. In February, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced $480 million in debt relief for current and former students who borrowed Genesis loans, but that left out many students who felt they had been wronged by the colleges and the government, which provided federal loans for Corinthian students. On Feb. 23, a group of 15 Corinthian students (who weren’t among the group whose debt was discharged) declared a debt strike, saying they would not repay their loans. Things heated up with Corinthian closed the rest of its campuses on April 27.

The Corinthian 15 (organized by an Occupy Wall Street offshoot called the Debt Collective) grew to the Corinthian 100 — they met with government officials and relentlessly called for debt discharge, something that rarely happens in the student loan world. Student loans are seldom discharged in bankruptcy, so if you can’t pay, you can spend years suffering the consequences of default, including a trashed credit standing, wage garnishment and forfeiture of any tax refunds. (You can see how your student loans can impact your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

When the Department of Education announced the debt-discharge process for Corinthian students, it seemed the Corinthian 100 finally gotten what they wanted.

They hadn’t. A statement on the Debt Collective’s website rails against the Department of Education, Duncan and the response to Corinthian students’ requests:

“If Education Secretary Arne Duncan was truly ‘committed to making sure students receive every penny of relief they are entitled to under law’ he would sign the ‘Order for Discharge of Federal Student Loan Debts’ the Debt Collective sent him last week, immediately and automatically discharging Corinthian students’ debts. Students are entitled to receive full relief under law. The legal and most painless possible process for students is no process — they deserve an automatic discharge of their debts. … In place of this obvious option, the Department of Education’s “solution” is a bureaucratically tortured process designed to provide relief only to those who hear about it and can figure out how to navigate unnecessary red tape.”

Students whose schools closed on April 27 or those who feel they were defrauded by Corinthian must apply for relief. If all those students applied and received debt relief, it could cost $3.5 billion. While their application is processed, debtors can request their loans go into forbearance. For those who have already defaulted, the application would suspend debt collection activity on their loans.

The move has received a lot of attention, positive and negative, and the Debt Collective is doing its part to highlight what it sees as negatives. Debt Collective organizers did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Credit.com.

Meanwhile, students can start applying for loan relief. Details on the process can be found on the Department of Education’s website.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


9 Money Moves That Could Kill Your Retirement

For many of us, retirement is a great unknown. In your 20s, it seems so far away that it’s easy to figure you’ll start saving when you have more money. Of course, if you wait until you have “extra money,” you might never start at all.

But 20-somethings aren’t the only ones who do things that sabotage their retirement. Their parents may be putting their own retirement at risk by, for example, borrowing money to pay for a wedding, just when they should be turbocharging their own savings, especially if they started late.

So what are we to do? We don’t know that we’ll live to be 85 and still healthy enough to travel, or that the stock market will crash just before we retire. And yet we hope to plan as if we do know. Some of us dream about retirement — and many of us sabotage it at the very same time. Here are some money moves you may regret down the road.

1. Raiding Your Home Equity

Home equity can seem like a a piggy bank when you’re short on cash. And a “draw period” on a home equity line of credit before repayment of principal is due can make it feel almost like free money. Worse, it feels like you are borrowing from yourself. After all, you built up that home equity, right? But if you spend it now, you won’t have it later. And should you decide you want to sell or get a reverse mortgage at some point, that decision can come back to haunt you. You will walk away with less from a sale or be eligible for lower payments from a reverse mortgage. Either way, Retired You could suffer from the decision.

2. Unplanned Roth IRA Withdrawals

Some experts recommend Roths as vehicles to save for a first home or as a place to park an emergency fund because the money grows tax-free. If you have planned to use the money for a first home, you can withdraw up to $10,000. It can also come to your rescue for unforeseen expenses (particularly tempting because, after five years, you can withdraw principal penalty-free). Its flexibility is both an advantage and a temptation, since raiding your retirement account now robs you of those funds and their compounding interest down the road.

3. Failing to Put Away Anything

For many of us, it’s easier to wait to save until we’re “more established” or until we’re making a little more money. Why aren’t we saving? Because there’s no extra money! The problem, of course, is there may well never be any extra money. Most of us don’t come to the end of the month and try to figure out what to do with all the money that’s left. Saving needs to be in the budget from the beginning. It’s often easiest to automate this.

4. Helping Adult Kids Financially

But they’re your children. And everyone makes mistakes. (Or maybe they think you did when you didn’t save thousands for a wedding.) There are exceptions, of course, but if you do help out financially, be sure you minimize your own costs or that you do not jeopardize your own retirement. It’s not usually a good idea to let them grow accustomed to a parental supplement. Relationships and money can be fraught, too. So think very carefully before you make your help monetary.

5. Co-Signing for a Child or Grandchild

They are just starting out and don’t have much of a credit history. Or they want to take out private student loans, and all that’s standing between them and next semester is your signature. The car they are financing, the lease they are signing … if your signature is on it, you are on the hook. If they pay late, your credit could be affected. And should you need a loan, this obligation will count as your debt for purposes of determining eligibility. Student loans can be particularly risky. In many cases, they can’t be erased in bankruptcy. If you have already co-signed on a loan, it’s important to check your credit regularly to see how it’s affecting your credit. You can get a credit report summary updated every 30 days on Credit.com to watch for important changes.

6. Failing to Have a Plan B

You probably hope or assume your good health (and that of your spouse, if you are married) will continue. You may be planning to stay with your current employer until you reach full retirement age. But people fall ill, or they get laid off before they planned to leave the workforce. Do you have a reserve parachute? Your standard of living won’t be as high, but knowing that you have a plan can make the situation a little less worrisome.

7. Poor Investment Choices

Even if you’ve managed to sign up for the 401(k) at work or to open an IRA for yourself, choosing the wrong funds or failing to diversify can set you up for failure. A target-date fund can be useful, but only if you choose the appropriate target. (If you’re in your 50s and choosing a 2050 target retirement date, you may get really lucky and see big gains — but you could also see big losses and not have much time to recoup them.) Likewise, it’s smart not to put all your nest eggs in the same investment basket. Do your own research or find a planner to find a mix you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for your age and goals.

8. Not Making Changes When Needed

Are your investments changing with your goals? And are you keeping track of all of your investments? If you’ve had several jobs (and several 401(k)s), it’s a good idea to do some consolidation. Keeping track of funds in several investment houses can make figuring out minimum withdrawals much more difficult once you are retired. Keep accounts organized.

9. Taking Social Security As Soon As You Can

In many cases, it’s better to wait. Your payment will be higher, although if you take it younger, you will get it for more years. Claiming it the minute you can may be tempting, but if you come from a family with a history of people living well into old age, consider whether you think the smaller checks will be worth it. (You can calculate a “break-even” age of how long you would have to live to collect as much as you would have had you started younger — so that checks from then on truly are additional money.) Conversely, if no one in your family has ever turned 80, you may want to opt for the earlier payout. And, of course, your financial situation when you retire will have a say. If you can’t make ends meet without Social Security, then you should take it.

Another mistake? Making all your plans — including retirement — for later. A life of sacrificing for a “later” that may or may not come is not much of a life. They key is balance. We’re not suggesting you never take a vacation, never give to a cause that is close to your heart or buy the car you’ve desperately wanted (and can now afford) so that years of self-denial will pay off someday … maybe. But it is good to know that if you live a long life, you’ll have the financial resources you need.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Renting: The New American Dream?

Is renting a home the new American dream? A report by the Urban Institute projects that even after the housing crash and the Great Recession are a distant memory, homeownership rates in America will continue to decline.

The report estimates that between 2010 and 2030, the majority (59%) of the 22 million new households that will form will rent, while just 41% will buy their homes.

The homeownership rate has been falling since 2006, when the housing bubble began pricing out many would-be homeowners — and the recession furthered that trend. In 2006, the homeownership rate was 67.3%; it now sits at 63.6%, even lower than it was in 1990, according the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey.

But even the economic recovery won’t reverse that trend, according to the Urban Institute. It offers six reasons:

  1. Wages. Real wages have declined among adults ages 25 to 34 since 1996. “Even for young adults with good jobs, low vacancy rates and high rents make it more difficult to save,” the report says.
  2. Student loan debt. Total outstanding debt was about $300 billion in 2003; now it is over $1.3 trillion. Long-term debt makes additional long-term debt less appealing.
  3. Delayed household formation. Both women and men are waiting four years longer before marriage than in 1980. “Because of the delayed marriage and childbearing, homeownership is apt to occur later. At a result, people will spend less of their lives as homeowners, placing a drag on the homeownership rate,” according to the Urban Institute.
  4. Lingering effects of the recession. Roughly 7.5 million Americans lost their homes during the recession; most will have a hard time buying a new one, dragging down the homeownership rate.
  5. They’re not that into homebuying. More Americans are consciously choosing to rent over buy. One study looked at “prime candidates” — married couples earning at least $95,000 annually who have at least one child. “Even for this group, after controlling for race and ethnicity, the homeownership rate declined from 87.3% in 2000 to 80.6% in 2012,” the report says.
  6. Higher borrowing standards. The report says that lenders are still “historically tight,” particularly among borrowers with lower credit scores. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.)

The report also considered changing demographics — a majority of new households formed in the U.S. during the next two decades will be non-white — and while those groups traditionally have lower homeownership rates, the Urban Institute found that will not contribute significantly to overall homeownership rates in the future. That story is a mixed bag, however.

“For at least the next 15 years, whether the economy grows slowly or quickly, the homeownership rate for African Americans will decrease while the rate for Hispanics will increase,” the report found. “More than 50 percent of the 9 million new owners between 2010 and 2030 will be Hispanic, nearly one-third will be other races or ethnicities, 11 percent will be African American, and only 7 percent will be white.”

The shift from owning to renting means that many more rental units should be built, the Urban Institute says.

“This change will create a surge in rental demand from now until 2030 that we are unprepared to meet,” it says.

It also suggests that mortgage lending standards be relaxed to nudge more would-be renters to buy their homes.

That conclusion doesn’t sit well with everyone, however.

Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer, says the notion that lending standards are tight is a myth.

“There remain a number of highly respected housing ‘gurus’ who continue to profess that it is unfairly tight lending standards, not the lack of qualified buyers that are suppressing a housing recovery. The difference is not academic,” he says. “A quick review of the requirements for some of mortgage loans available may surprise you.”

VA loans require no down payment, for example, he notes. And buyers can get other mortgages with credit scores as low as 560, with 50% debt-to-income ratios, or down payments as low as 3%.

“At this point all you can do is bring back 0% down loans and stated income loans for wage earners,” said. “Look who is really pushing the tight lending thesis. People in New York, D.C., San Francisco. What I call economic bubble cities. Main Street America gets this thesis I am saying.”

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Do You Need Long-Term Care Insurance?

Have you thought about long-term care insurance? Most people don’t until they are approaching retirement and the thought of turning over their life savings to a nursing home drives them to consider it. Statistics vary from source to source, but roughly 70% of those over age 65 at some point will need long-term care, defined as the services needed when you are unable to care for yourself. Those services can range from help with bathing, feeding and walking in your home to full-time care in a facility. Long-term care insurance can help cover the costs of care, but how do you know what kind of policy to buy, or even if you should purchase a policy in the first place? Here are some tips.

The costs of long-term care can be paid for out of pocket (self-funded), by Medicaid, covered by an insurance policy, or some combination of these. Often people assume that Medicare or health insurance will cover their care, but in reality these only cover a small portion of the necessary care, and typically for skilled nursing care only, not for the custodial care usually required in the case of a long-term illness or condition. Medicaid, on the other hand, will pay for custodial care — most often in a facility. But while we all are entitled to Medicare, not everyone qualifies for Medicaid — only those whose assets do not exceed their state’s eligibility limits.

Living on a fixed income in retirement can be tough to begin with, so for many, adding in the cost of a long-term care insurance policy is out of the question. For them the only option may be to pay for care out of pocket and then go on Medicaid when their assets are depleted. Others may have a surplus that can cover the cost of care should it be needed. But those in the middle, for whom long-term care insurance premiums are within their budget, should at least consider purchasing a policy to cover some of the costs associated with care in a facility or at home.

How & When to Buy a Policy

Purchasing long-term care insurance can be viewed as protection for your portfolio in that sense; if you can use your insurance benefit rather than your assets, you have preserved them for yourself or your heirs. Even those who can afford to self-insure may choose to purchase long-term care insurance for that exact reason.

When should you buy a policy? The best time to buy any insurance policy is the day before you need to use it, but since none of us can know that, the next best time would be when you are in your late 50s or early 60s. The initial premiums go up the older you get, so even though you are paying the premium for a longer period of time, buying earlier can save you money in the long run.

Long-term care insurance policies can be customized to fit your needs and your budget. The choices you make affect the premium, so it makes sense to look at various combinations.

When Does It Kick In?

In choosing your elimination period, or the number of days of care you pay for before the insurance kicks in, consider how much you can afford (or want) to cover. Typical elimination periods range from 30 to 365 days. Clarify with the insurance company if those are calendar days or days of care. If you start out needing care three days a week, a 30-day elimination period may actually be 10 weeks. Some policies offer a zero elimination period when the policy is used for home care.

Paying for Care

The benefit amount is the dollar amount available to pay for care each day you are on claim, in today’s dollars. With the high cost of care, funding the entire amount of care with insurance is likely to be very costly. Some policies aggregate the daily benefit amount into a monthly or lifetime limit amount, so when you don’t need coverage every day of the month, even if the cost exceeds your daily benefit amount, you still may be covered. According to Genworth’s Cost of Care estimation, the average annual cost of nursing home care in a private room in the Johnstown, Pa., area is $87,600, while in Manhattan you’d pay a hefty $182,500!

Don’t Forget About Inflation

Inflation protection riders are an important part of a policy. Without this kind of rider, your benefit amount may be dwarfed by the quickly increasing costs of care. You may choose a rider that increases your benefit amount yearly by a specified percentage based on a simple interest calculation or a compound calculation. The compound will increase faster and more readily keep up, but it is also more expensive. Some companies offer an increase based on the consumer price index, and others allow you to purchase additional insurance at specified intervals in the future, with those additional benefit amounts calculated on your then-current age.

How Long Will It Last?

The benefit period is the number of years your policy will pay for, usually between two and 10 years, or even a lifetime. The lifetime benefit, as you might expect, is very expensive. The average nursing home claim is two and a half years, and the average home care claim is about four years. If you have a spouse or domestic partner, a shared care policy may be right for you. These policies combine your individual benefit periods to be used by either one of you or both. Instead of two single three-year periods for instance, you would have six years combined; one could use four, leaving the other two, or any other combination.

Look for Partnerships

To encourage more people to purchase their own insurance and not rely on government aid, many states partner with insurance companies. If you purchase one of the eligible “partnership” policies, for every dollar your insurance policy pays, you are able to retain an additional dollar above the Medicaid guidelines and still qualify for assistance when your benefits run out.

Home Care

You’ll want to make sure your policy includes 100% of your daily benefit amount as coverage for home health care. In many ways, long-term care insurance can be thought of as nursing home prevention insurance, if it allows you to be cared for at home as long as possible. Also find out what you have to do to make a claim; when you are dealing with a health crisis, you certainly don’t want the aggravation of fighting an insurance company for your rightful benefit.

Shop Around & Do the Math

When comparing quotes from different companies, in addition to the premiums, you’ll want to consider the financial stability of the issuing company. And before deciding to purchase, make sure your budget can handle potential premium increases. It was unheard of to raise premiums on existing policy holders until recent years, when premiums on some policies increased more than 25%. Dropping the policy because you can’t absorb the future increases is counterproductive.

Finally, when you are ready to start the buying process, work with an insurance agent, broker or financial adviser you trust, who can explain all of your options and steer you to the policy that is best for your individual circumstances.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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