Why Identity Theft Victims Wait 9 Months for Their Tax Refund

Hundreds of thousands of taxpayers experience significantly delayed refunds every year because of tax-related identity theft. That delay lasted an average of 278 days — more than nine months — according to a new audit of tax accounts resolved in fiscal year 2013 (Oct. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013) by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The audit was intended as a follow-up on a previous review to see if the IRS had improved its dealings with identity theft victims.

Well, the delays are still significant, but things seem to have gotten a bit better. The average delay is 34 days shorter than TIGTA found in a previous review, but such long delays can be a huge financial and emotional burden for victims in need of their refunds.

On top of the long waiting periods, TIGTA found that 10% of identity theft cases the IRS resolved were done so incorrectly, resulting in further delays in getting the victim his or her accurate refund. The review found that the time from when the IRS received victims’ tax returns until the IRS paid the correct refund ranged from 16 to 762 days.

Much of the delays come from having the cases repeatedly reassigned to (and sitting on the desks of) assistors. In its prior review, TIGTA found that cases were reassigned an average of 10 times before being resolved, and the frequent transfers often contributed to inactivity on the cases. It all adds up to longer delays between sending a tax return and receiving a refund.

This most recent audit showed that transfers have declined — a case is now reassigned to an average of seven assistors before getting resolved — and the average inactivity on the cases declined, as well, from 277 days to 254 days. Auditors asked accounts management officials about the reasoning behind frequent transfers and summarized the interviews in the report:

“The officials could not recall the specific circumstances as to why these cases were frequently reassigned among the holding queues. … The IRS informed us that the cases are complex and IRS management is more interested in identifying a trained employee to work an identity theft case than the number of case reassignments. Thus, cases can remain in a manager’s inventory, unassigned to an assistor, until the manager finds an available identity theft trained assistor.”

Like many issues at the IRS, the delays stem from limited resources that continued to be strained by budget cuts.

Tax-related identity theft is a huge problem. The IRS stopped $50 billion in fraudulent tax returns related to identity theft last year, but it lost $5.2 billion to the same problem. Consumers caught up in it may want to plan to deal with the IRS with a mix of patience and persistence. Each year, it’s a good idea to file your taxes as soon as you can, because identity thieves’ strategy is to get to your refund before you do. Additionally, monitor your credit for signs of identity theft on a regular basis, so you can avoid or address other financial messes that result from fraud. You can see a summary of your credit report, updated monthly, on Credit.com.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

Massive Auburn Data Breach Ensnares Applicants, Students & Those Who Never Even Applied

Thousands of students who never even applied to Auburn University have had their personal information, including Social Security numbers, exposed due to a security flaw discovered March 2. Information about 364,012 current, former and prospective students was accessible online between Sept. 1, 2014, and March 2, 2015.

“The exposure resulted from configuration issues with a new device installed to replace a broken server,” a statement on the university website reads. “After securing our server, we implemented additional network security measures.”

Exposed data includes names, addresses, email addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers and academic information. The Alabama university had a 2014 enrollment of 25,912 students, but the pool of prospective students caught up in this incident is perhaps the most startling aspect of the breach. Universities can buy information students provide when taking standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, and prior to 2007, that included students’ Social Security numbers. People who have already gone through college without ever considering attending Auburn have been affected by this lapse in data security.

Investigators working with Auburn have not identified any incidents of data abuse related to this breach, according to the university statement, but if people got their hands on this data, the risk for fraud and identity theft will remain for decades. Auburn is offering two years of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection services to those affected, which may be helpful in the short term, but experts recommend lifelong monitoring when a Social Security number has been compromised.

Identity theft can be costly and time consuming to correct, particularly when a fraudster has engaged in damaging financial behaviors in your name. The sooner you spot unauthorized use of your credit information or identity, the more likely you are to avoid fraud-related problems like inaccurate credit reports, damaged credit scores and all the problems that come with that, like trouble getting a credit card or dealing with high interest rates when applying for a loan. You can keep an eye your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to look for any sudden changes that may signal new-account fraud.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

Court Temporarily Halts Company From Offering Mortgage Relief Services

L.A.-based Defendants Deceptively Pitched Their ‘Services’ Online and Over the Phone

Continuing to crack down on phony mortgage relief programs, a federal court has temporarily halted Los Angeles-based Wealth Educators, Inc. and its president from offering mortgage relief services at the Federal Trade Commission’s request. The agency charged the defendants with failing to provide the help they promised homeowners, while charging a hefty up-front fee. The company also told consumers to stop making their monthly mortgage payments, leading some facing the prospect of foreclosure. 

“It’s illegal to charge an up-front fee for the promise of a mortgage modification,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies offering such services can’t charge a fee until you have an acceptable written offer from your lender or servicer. If they ask for payment first, walk away.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, since at least October 2012, the Wealth Educators defendants have operated under a variety of names, including Legal Educators USA & Co., Stargate Mutual & Associates, Providence Financial Advocates, and Providence Financial Audits, while selling supposed mortgage relief services to consumers.

The defendants used outbound telemarketing to pitch their programs to consumers. Many of the targeted consumers were homeowners in financial trouble, whom the company promised it could help by lowering their monthly mortgage payment, lowering their mortgage interest rate, or obtaining loan modification or restructuring. The defendants also used websites allegedly set up by Veronica Sesma, the owner and president of Wealth Educators, to advertise the supposed mortgage relief services.

Before providing any services, however, Wealth Educators charged consumers an up-front fee ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, promising the money would be fully refunded if the company didn’t provide the relief it promised. On its website, Wealth Educators claimed it was “America’s Leading Home Preservation Legal Services,” saying that they “. . . act on behalf of homeowners to work with your lender and avoid the lengthy and costly process of foreclosure and the stressful act of eviction that follows…”.

Unfortunately, according to the complaint, while Wealth Educators told many consumers they could get them a loan modification, typically through a government-sponsored program, and even quoted a specific amount consumers’ mortgage payments would be reduced, the company often did not provide the promised relief services. In addition, the company told consumers to stop communicating with their lenders, delaying them from discovering that Wealth Educators had not obtained the promised mortgage relief. Finally, while promising a “100% refund” of the service fee if it did not provide the promised mortgage relief services, consumers who tried to get their money back could not do so.

The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule, now known as Regulation O. The Rule bans mortgage foreclosure rescue and loan modification service providers from collecting fees until homeowners have a written offer from their lender or servicer that they deem acceptable. In filing the complaint, the FTC is seeking an immediate halt to the defendants’ allegedly deceptive conduct, along with an asset freeze to ensure the preservation of funds for possible consumer redress.

Defendants named in the case include: Wealth Educators, Inc., also doing business as (d/b/a) Family 1st Preservations; Family 1st Home Loans; Legal Affiliates & Associates; Legal Educators & Co.; Family 1st Home Preservation; Legal Educators USA & Co.; Stargate Mutual & Associates; Providence Financial Associates; and Providence Financial Audits; as well as Veronica Sesma, also d/b/a Sesma Consulting.

For consumer information about avoiding mortgage and foreclosure rescue scams, see Home Loans.

The Commission vote approving the complaint was 5-0. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has entered a temporary restraining order against the defendants.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.

This article by the Federal Trade Commission was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

7 Colleges You Can Attend for Free

There are several ways to avoid taking out student loans in order to get a degree. The first: save a ton of money. That’s usually best accomplished over the course of a child’s lifetime. Another tactic: scholarships. Then there’s the option of choosing an inexpensive school you can pay for out of pocket, probably by working in addition to studying.

Or you could go to a college that’s free.

The tuition-free education is a real thing, but such programs are available only to people who meet very specific qualifications. Here are a few of the best-known colleges where people can attend without paying tuition.

1. Stanford University

At the end of March, Stanford announced it would cover the tuition for admitted students whose parents have annual incomes below $125,000 “and typical assets,” and students whose parents make less than $65,000 annually will also have their room and board paid for by the school. The previous thresholds were $100,000 and $60,000, respectively.

Most Ivy League schools, which are among some of the most expensive in the country, have similar programs. The key is to look at selective universities with large endowments, including Duke and MIT.

2. United States Military Academy

The armed forces colleges, including the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., do not charge tuition. The admission process is grueling and selective, but qualified students receive a tuition-free education in exchange for their military service.

3. Barclay College

Barclay is a Bible college in Haviland, Kansas, that gives resident, admitted students an $11,000 full-tuition scholarship. Unlike the large schools with massive endowments, this Bible college does free tuition on a much smaller scale. The 2013 first-year class included 38 students, and total enrollment hovers around 250 students.

“College supporters fund the full-tuition scholarship so students may graduate with an excellent Christian education without the weight of a debt mountain,” the Barclay website reads.

Many religious and ministry schools, which are generally small, cover the tuition costs of their students through grants. Moody Bible Institute in Chicago is another example of this: Grants pay for students’ tuition, while the student is responsible for room and board.

4. Berea College

At some schools, students literally earn their keep. Berea College in Berea, Ky., is a liberal arts college with about 1,600 students. It’s a Christian college that requires students to work 10 to 15 hours each week on campus or in the community, while taking a full course load. Every student receives the Tuition Promise Scholarship, which is supported by the college endowment and alumni donations, allowing all students to pay $0 of the $23,400 tuition (for the 2014-2015 academic year). Students are responsible for food and housing, but non-loan financial aid is available to qualified applicants.

Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., is quite similar, and both Alice Lloyd and Berea are dedicated to serving students from Appalachia. College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., is another Christian liberal arts school that requires students to work and charges no tuition. Deep Springs College in California employs its roughly 26 students to work about 20 hours a week on its farm and ranch. Deep Springs is a two-year school that gives full scholarships to all students to cover tuition, room and board.

5. City University of New York

Students who can meet the high academic standards of the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY receive full-tuition scholarships for four years of undergraduate study, excluding fees. Only New York residents are eligible to be Macaulay Scholars.

It’s a tough program: Students who drop or withdraw from a course are responsible for all expenses. Honors college students must have a 3.3 GPA by the end of their freshman year and a 3.5 by the end of sophomore year through graduation. Students must also study abroad or complete an internship, in addition to 30 hours of community service.

6. Webb Institute

This engineering college in Glen Cove, N.Y., has one major: naval architecture and marine engineering. It’s a very specific (and rigorous) education, but that focus pays for itself. All U.S. citizens and Green Card holders receive full-tuition scholarships (tuition for foreign students is $44,000 this year), though student expenses amount to $18,905 when you factor in room, board, books, and other materials necessary for the program. About 80 students attend Webb.

7. Curtis Institute of Music

The Curtis Institute of Music is a conservatory in Philadelphia that provides full scholarships to all students, valued at $38,728 for undergraduate students and $50,701 for graduate students. Students must first pass an application screening to receive the opportunity for an in-person audition in Philadelphia.

“Admissions to the Curtis Institute of Music are based on artistic promise alone,” its website says. Enrollment, which is about 170 students, is limited to available space in the symphony orchestra, opera department and programs in piano, composition, conducting, organ, guitar and harpsichord.

In case you haven’t spotted the theme here, specificity and talent are the keys to attending a school without paying tuition. Even for schools without such stringent admission requirements, outside scholarships are often similarly competitive. At the same time, you don’t have to be a prodigy or vocation-oriented student to avoid unaffordable student loan debt.

Finding a school that will provide you the best value requires a lot of time and research, but using student loans isn’t a terrible thing, either. Consider the starting salary for the profession you’re pursuing, and work hard to make sure your debt load will not exceed that figure upon graduation. Finally, make sure you understand loan repayment options, so if your debt burden becomes difficult to manage, you can maintain a balanced personal budget while avoiding damage to your credit standing. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

5 Credit Cards for Teens

When Americans turn 18, they are considered adults under the law. That means that they can vote and be tried as an adult, but it’s also the first time that they are able to apply for a credit card account in their own name, though they’ll have to jump through a few hoops first.

Under the CARD Act of 2009, no credit card may be issued to a consumer under the age of 21, unless they have a co-signer who has the means to repay the debts or they can prove they independently can repay the debt.

The problem is that teenagers by their very nature have little or no credit history. (You can see if you’re considered “scoreable” by checking your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) Nevertheless, some credit card issuers are so eager to acquire new customers in this age group, that they can offer cards specifically tailored to their limited credit profiles. These cards for teens and young adults will have lower requirements, in exchange for fewer rewards and higher interest rates than those offered to the general market.

So here are five credit cards, none of which charge an annual fee, that are just right for teens, students and other young adults.

1. Discover it Chrome for Students

This card offers 2% cash back on all dining and as purchases, on up to $1,000 spent each quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. In addition, Discover will waive a cardholder’s first late payment fee, and there is never any penalty interest rate applied. New cardholders will also receive 0% APR promotional financing for six months, and a standard rate of 12.99% to 21.99% after that.

Other benefits include a free FICO credit score on monthly statements, online, and in their mobile app. In addition, the Discover card maintains an excellent reputation for customer service.

2. BankAmericard Credit Card for Students

This card offers new applicants 0% APR promotional financing on new purchases for 15 months, and a standard interest rate of 10.99% to 20.99%. Otherwise, this is a fairly simple card from a major retail bank, so young adults have the opportunity to conveniently manage all of their accounts in one place.

3. Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card

Wells Fargo offers this student card that features 3% cash back on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for their first six months card membership. After that, cardholders earn 1% cash back on all purchases. An innovative benefit is a cellular telephone protection program which offers up to $600 of coverage against covered damage or theft at no cost except for a $25 deductible. The coverage is effective so long as you use your Wells Fargo credit card to pay for your service bill.

4. Capital One Journey Student Rewards card

This card features 1% cash back on all purchases, plus a 25% bonus on the cash back each month when cardholders pay their balances on time. Further, cardholders receive a higher line of credit after they make their first five monthly payments on time, as part of Capital One’s Credit Step program. There is no a foreign transaction fee on this or any other Capital One credit card.

5. Citi ThankYou Preferred Card For College Students

New cardholders earn 2,500 bonus ThankYou points after making $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Cardholders also receive double points for dining and restaurant purchases, plus one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Points are worth about one cent each toward a variety of merchandise, gift card, and travel options. New cardholders also receive seven months of 0% APR promotional financing on new purchases, and a standard rate of 13.99% to 23.99% after that.

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.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

I Never Knew I Had a Debt in Collections. What Are My Rights?

Imagine this scenario: You get a phone call from a debt collector, who tells you they’ve reached out a few times to get you to pay a debt. But you never got any letters or phone calls and maybe you didn’t even know the debt existed in the first place.

For a lot of savvy consumers, this may signal that they’re dealing with a debt collection scammer, but it could be for a more logical reason — you just didn’t get the notice.

We’ve had several Credit.com commenters lately ask us how long they have after their “dunning notice,” which has to be sent via mail within five days of their first phone contact with a collector, to ask for validation of the debt.

One commenter said he worked on a ship and did not receive mail (or presumably phone calls) when the letter informing him of the debt collection arrived.

What the Law Requires

Here’s a little background. In the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Congress gave consumers the right to request verification (also referred to as “validation”) of a debt.

Ordinarily, this process starts when you get a phone call from a debt collector. Within five days, the debt collector must mail you a notice with specific information about the debt they say you owe, and an explanation of your rights. If the initial contact is by mail, the notice should contain that information.

That letter triggers your rights, giving you 30 days to request validation of the debt. Once you have asked for it, the collector must stop collection efforts until it has fulfilled your request. (The bar for what constitutes validation of debt is fairly low, but you should at least receive information on when the original debt was incurred and to whom.) Whether it’s 10 days or 10 months before the collector responds, attempts to collect have to stop.

This right is considered significant; in fact, even if the debt collector unintentionally fails to comply with this part of the law, it has violated the FDCPA. And timing is everything: That first notice from the creditor must come within five days of the initial contact and after that the consumer has 30 days to initiate the verification process.

Unfortunately, these initial notices may look like junk mail and consumers sometimes overlook them.

Credit.com contributor Michael Bovee, founder of the self-help website Consumer Recovery Network, says it is smart to request validation of the debt. The worst that can happen is you’ll be in the same shape you were before you requested it. And the best? “In some instances where a debt collector has limited or poor access to the documentation, or other media substantiating your debt, they will stop trying to collect from you. You may even prevent collectors with shoddy records from suing you,” he said.

If No Letter Comes

But what if you don’t get the letter that triggers all these deadlines?

According to National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) staff attorney April Kuehnhoff, if a consumer says they didn’t get the initial notice, and the debt collector can show they likely mailed it in the course of their normal business, the burden of proof may be on the consumer to establish that the initial notice was not sent to the right address. But if the debt collector sent it to the wrong address and was returned to the collector as undeliverable to the consumer, then there’s a good chance the collector did not fulfill the requirements of the law if it didn’t update the address and deliver the notice as required. “Even if the letter is not returned, the debt collector may not have complied with the FDCPA if the letter is mailed to the wrong address, especially if the individual never lived at that address or hasn’t lived there for years,” she said by email.

She also notes that if the consumer does not request verification within 30 days after receiving the initial notice of his or her rights, the debt collector is not required to provide verification.

But Bovee says that because of pending federal changes to debt collection rules, legitimate debt collectors are often treating random or unprovoked debt validation requests (where no collection phone call was even made) as if they were timely requests in response to normal collection notices. So you have nothing to lose by requesting a validation of the debt even if you are not doing so within 30 days of receiving the initial notice.

He suggested getting in touch with the original creditor and trying to track down who actually owns (if your debt was sold), or is collecting the debt for your creditor. Because the last thing you want to do is to pay the wrong person — and have that unpaid collection item continue to hurt your credit score. You may also find information on who’s attempting to collect from you by checking your free annual credit reports. You can also get a free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com to watch for changes to your report.

Finally, if you request validation within 30 days and the collector doesn’t provide it, or if you otherwise believe a debt collector is breaking the law, you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or contact a consumer law attorney for help.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

11 Million Servers Have a July Expiration Date. Is Your Data Safe?

Old car buffs know that it gets harder to maintain an old clunker as time goes by. Parts for a 1975 AMC Pacer just aren’t easy to find. You know what’s even harder? Finding “parts” for old software. You can hunt around eBay for a Pacer door handle. But you can’t get a security update for Windows XP. That means you actually can keep the old Pacer running, but you really can’t keep a WindowsXP box running.

You might recall the gnashing of teeth that occurred this time last year when Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP. The firm’s warnings about this change are ominous.

“PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected,” it said.

This, in fact, is the future of all software — at least the way we make software today. It’s a dirty little secret of the digital age. We think data is forever, and in one sense, it can be. On the other hand, software should really come with an expiration date. It often does, if you know how to read between the lines. Microsoft calls it a “lifecycle.” That’s why this year’s gnashing of teeth involves Windows Server 2003, which will be issued its death certificate in July. That’s a problem for companies rather than individuals, but you get the idea. Microsoft’s lifecyle page lists the planned obsolescence of all the company’s operating systems. An estimated 11 million systems run on Windows Server 2003 and chances are your or my data is on more than one of them. Let’s hope they’re all aware of the July cutoff date, but the likelihood is that it got past a few of them.

In the normal course of life, this isn’t a problem for the vast majority of consumers. You probably haven’t owned a WindowsXP computer in a while. Old hardware dies, and new features arise, nudging most people to upgrade long before the software itself “dies.” (Though WindowsXP maintains a remarkably persistent small market share, according to Netmarketshare.com)

The problem is the dynamic nature of the digital world. You just can’t stand still, even for a year or two. If you are like me, you mostly need a computer to type on and perhaps watch a few videos. You didn’t need Word 2013, or even Word 2003. Heck, I use Notepad to write memos and stories half the time. But in the digital world, you can’t avoid the constant upgrades. They are a fact of life — as real as hackers trying to raid your computer and steal your identity.

This matters because you might think your personal data is safe today, and a company you work with might think your personal data is safe today — and both things might be true, yet your data might very well be unsafe tomorrow. In fact, that’s nearly certain to be true unless you or your company intervene somehow. That’s the nature of our dynamic, digital world.

One way this dynamism manifests itself: privacy settings. Most people install apps, like Facebook or kids’ games, make their privacy selections, and then never think about it again. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently examined this phenomenon and found that if they nudged users continuously, inviting users to examine the consequences of their selections, they often changed their privacy settings. Of course. When you install an app, you don’t really understand how it works, or how you’ll ultimately use it; and many apps, like Facebook, frequently change privacy settings or invent new features that need to be considered separately. Set-and-forget doesn’t work in the digital world.

Meanwhile, corporations that use today’s top-grade security software to protect your credit card information or Social Security number must be vigilant and learn when someone has hacked the software so they can turn to tomorrow’s top-grade security software.

If all this makes you feel like the world is moving beneath your feet, it is. For too long, we’ve discussed personal privacy in very black-and-white ways — you are either safe, or at risk. That’s just not how it works. Privacy and security are an ever-changing world of risk assessment. All you can do is make the best bet you can, over and over.

This is where my car analogy comes in handy. Nobody drives a car until it breaks down…well, no one should, anyway. Regular oil changes are essential — maybe not as frequent as your mechanic says, but they are essential. And so it is with your digital life. Don’t just check your credit once and forget about it; check it regularly, even monthly if you can (you can check it for free on Credit.com). Don’t install apps on your phone and forget about them: Go through them every three months or so and remove what you don’t need. Back up all your family photos and critical documents at least once each quarter. Change your online banking passwords at least once a year. Google yourself at least that often. And yes, buy new computers every 3-5 years. That gives you a chance at a digital fresh start.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

The Myth of the 4-Year College Degree

Choosing the right college involves some serious decisions. Where to attend, how much it will cost, and is it affordable, are usually the first questions that come to mind. Many people tend to base the answers to these questions on the annual tuition information posted by schools, and assume that it will take them four years to obtain a “four-year degree.” But is four the right number? For many students, the answer is no. Studies show it can actually take anywhere from three to six years to complete a college degree. In fact, millions start college and never finish.

“Regardless of where you go, regardless of how you go, far too many of those students are not graduating,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches and advises legislators on higher education policy.

College is expensive for a lot of reasons, but the difficulty in estimating the full cost of an education you may not complete for years can exacerbate the issue of unaffordable higher education.

College-Level Math Problems

For students who enter a four-year college seeking a bachelor’s degree for the first time, only 39% of them graduate within four years of enrolling, according to 2014 data from the National Center of Education Statistics. Among students from low-income households, that graduation rate is only 20%, while 42% of high-income students graduate within four years, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. About 60% of students graduate within six years of starting at a four-year college.

Still, in the last 20 years, more than 31 million students started at an institution of higher education and left before earning a degree or certificate, according to a 2014 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“I think probably too few people take the time to graduation into account, and students and families should absolutely be asking colleges how many of their graduates graduate in four years, versus five years, versus six,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit that operates the Project on Student Debt. “They should definitely use that information in how they’re going to finance their education.”

That’s generally not a simple math problem. Even if you’ve worked out the details of your intended major and its course load, you may not know how much tuition will cost each year of your education, as schools re-evaluate what they’ll charge students on a yearly basis, as part of making a budget for the entire university. Unless, however, you go to a school that locks in tuition rates — where if your first year is, say, $20,000, that’s how much it will be each of the next three years, regardless of what the college decides to charge future incoming students. Otherwise, tuition rates have increased about 5% annually for the past 10 years, so you can use that as a guideline when calculating future costs.

There are also many other unknowns: Will your financial aid situation change from year to year? Will you be able to handle a course load that allows you to graduate on a specific timeline? What would you do if tuition increased more than you planned for? How will you cover unexpected costs?

The answers to these questions could significantly impact your financial situation after college. If you end up borrowing more than you can afford to pay back, and fall behind, it could ultimately affect your credit standing. This, in turn, could impact your ability to do things like rent your own apartment, get a credit card, buy a car or get a mortgage. (You can see how your student loans are impacting your credit by getting your free credit report summary from Credit.com.)

How to Graduate Without Paying More Than Expected

In the last few years, it has become easier to estimate total college costs. Schools are now required to put a net-price calculator on their websites, which estimate a student’s eligibility for financial aid and all expenses associated with getting a degree at that institution, not just tuition and fees.

Additionally, the Department of Education released its Financial Aid Shopping Sheet in 2012 and asked colleges and universities to adopt the sheet as a universal template for financial aid award letters – and as of December 2013, the ED said more than 1,950 schools have adopted the shopping sheet.

Why are those letters so important? They represent the first time students and families see customized college costs, rather than just estimates. However, it’s still not an entirely straightforward process. Because each school does award letters differently, it can make comparing them a challenge.

“Some award letters are clearer than others,” Cochrane said. “Some will only put tuition, some will put net cost, some will separate grants and loans, others will bundle them together, making it hard to figure out how much needs to be repaid.”

Even with improvements, figuring out how much school will cost, how likely you are to finish within a certain timeline, and how much your monthly student loan payments will be requires a lot of research, planning and shopping around for the best education.

Cooper said looking at graduation rates and career resources at a college is crucial to choosing a school that will be affordable in the long run.

“We have to make sure that we’re approaching this from a consumer standpoint, from a wise investment standpoint,” Cooper said. “The government has set up a number of student loan repayment plans, but honestly, graduation rates are more important, because if you don’t graduate, you’re not going to get that job. … It’s good to make sure that the institution not only prepares you for your first job but also prepares you for a lifelong career path.”

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

5 Ways You’re in Denial About Your Money Situation

Are you in denial?

So much in our lives is connected to money. If we choose to ignore it or downplay its importance to our wellbeing, we might soon discover devastating consequences down the road.

If you have a financial problem, the best thing you can do is confront it as soon as possible. Granted, that’s not always easy – especially if you’re a generally optimistic person.

You need to be real with yourself. In what areas of your life are you in denial? Here are some common denials that can utterly ruin you financially.

1. “I Need to Buy a Brand-New Car”

Uh, no. You don’t need to buy a brand new car.

You might say, “Well, I need reliable transportation!” Listen, reliable transportation does not equal a brand-new car. Let me let you in on a little secret: there are plenty of reliable used cars for sale.

I once had a client call me telling me he needed to cash out his IRA to buy a brand new truck. I wasn’t enthusiastic, to say the least. He then said he could gamble at a casino, win the money back, and put that back into his IRA.

The likelihood of this actually working? Close to zero.

We all know how brand-new cars lose such a huge chunk of their value once their new owners drive them off the lot. So why not buy a used car, even if it’s just a little used, and save a whole lot of money?

I actually bought a 2007 Tahoe in 2008 that was previously owned by the dealer. It had 12,000 miles on it and I saved $14,000 off the sticker price just because it was used for a little bit. And guess what? Even though it’s used it’s still a reliable car!

The last thing you want is an expensive car payment because you decided to buy new instead of used. That car payment will eat away at your ability to save and invest that money – and you can imagine how much money you could have made investing it instead of spending it.

Don’t be in denial. You really shouldn’t buy that brand new car.

2. “I Have Enough for Retirement”

Retirement is expensive. I mean, very expensive. And the scary part is, it may be difficult to determine exactly how much you’ll need during retirement.

There are many factors that go into determining how much you’ll need to invest to have a comfortable retirement:

  • Assumed future rate of return
  • Assumed future tax rates
  • Assumed future inflation rates
  • Assumed future cost of living

The list actually goes on and on. And notice, many of the factors are assumed because they are factors that may change over time.

With that being said, financial advisers such as myself can use some good rules of thumb to help you determine how much you’ll need to save for retirement from now until you retire. But remember, there are a lot of assumptions here, and a good financial adviser will tell you that.

Now that you’ve heard the disclaimer, how do you know if you’re in denial when it comes to saving for retirement? If you’re starting to feel like you’re in denial, you probably are. Most of my clients should be investing on a regular basis what they’re able. More is usually better.

I’m not telling you to abandon other important financial goals like paying off debt and giving. But I am asking you to be realistic about future unknowns and to prepare – it’s hard to over-prepare for retirement.

Don’t be in denial about the cost of retirement. It’s huge!

3. “My Employer’s Life Insurance Is Enough”

If you’re telling yourself that you probably have enough life insurance through your job, think again.

I had a friend once tell me that he had $10,000 of life insurance through his work, and he reasoned that it would be enough to bury him should he pass away. That’s probably true, but I couldn’t help but think of other expenses life insurance could help his family with should he leave the planet.

His mortgage: How would his wife pay for that once his income was gone?

The kids’ college education: Would they be able to afford school with the increasing cost of tuition?

The cost of just raising kids: Clothes, food, soccer games, braces . . . it all adds up.

With each child my wife and I had, we started realizing the importance of life insurance. That’s why I have a very sizable life insurance policy on myself.

Don’t be in denial about life insurance. Your family will hopefully never have to depend on it, but if they do, they’ll be glad you had plenty. While a sizable life insurance policy may seem financially out of reach, get a set of term life insurance quotes and you will probably find them surprisingly affordable. A 40-year-old man in good health can get $500,000 of life insurance for less than $50 a month. Since there are expenses that either spouse will incur if the other were to pass away, make sure your spouse gets plenty, too!

4. “I’m Sure My Credit Score Is Fine”

When was the last time you checked your credit score? Never? You might want to check.

Your credit score can affect a variety of factors in your financial life — including your ability to get a mortgage, a loan, lower rates on car insurance, and even a contract on a cellphone.

I remember one of my interns whose parents taught him to never get a credit card out of fear that he would run up debt. Unfortunately, it was bad advice. When I convinced him to check his credit score, it wasn’t what he wanted – but thankfully he was able to raise his credit score 110 points in five months.

If you haven’t checked your credit score lately, I encourage you to take a look and start taking some steps to raise it if it’s low — like my intern did. Sometimes, loans are necessary and having a good credit score is a great way to get them. You can start off by getting two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

5. “I Don’t Need an Emergency Fund”

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, by definition you cannot pay for emergencies. Now, you can certainly borrow for emergencies – but that’s a situation you want to avoid if at all possible.

Don’t be in denial. If you don’t have an emergency fund (most financial advisers recommend three to eight months of expenses), you need to start building one up as soon as possible.

How do you build up cash when you’re living paycheck to paycheck? Slowly, over time.

You do that by starting a budget and sticking to it. Pay attention to where you’re spending your money and cut back recurring expenses like cable television and expensive smartphone bills. Do what you can to save money and throw it into your emergency fund.

Remember, the first step to avoiding financial ruin is to admit you have a problem. Once you do that, you can start opening your mind to some steps to change your situation for the better. Do it! Many people have before you, will you join them?

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

3 Ways to Avoid Costly Rental Car Insurance

I’ve been rear-ended in a rental car by a hit-and-run driver. And on my last business trip, the rental agent almost foisted a car with a scratched-up bumper on me. (Thankfully, I remembered to inspect the vehicle before I left the lot and asked for a different one.) So I know firsthand the importance of making sure you have adequate coverage when you rent a car. Without it, you could face enormous bills and a damaged credit rating if you can’t pay them.

But I am also frugal, so there is often a tug-of-war going on in my head when I rent a car: do I pay for the rental car company’s coverage or not? Purchasing it can literally double the cost of a car rental. Sometimes the coverage is even more expensive than the daily rental rate.

Fortunately there are some good alternatives for those who want to be protected and save money.

1. Your Own Car Insurance

If you own a car, then you (hopefully) have car insurance, and this is probably your first line of defense. You want to make sure you are adequately covered in four areas:

Loss of use: If you wreck a rental car, the rental agency will charge for the days that car is unavailable to other customers. My own auto insurance does not provide this coverage, so I use a credit card that fills this gap. (More on that in a moment.)

Collision/Comprehensive: Collision coverage typically covers damage to the vehicle if you are involved in an accident, while comprehensive coverage often pays for damage to the car due to theft, vandalism, flood, fire etc. Remember, your current deductible will apply. (Using the right credit card to pay for the rental can be helpful, since it may cover your deductible.)

Liability: This generally covers damage to another vehicle(s) and/or medical bills to others injured in an accident you caused. If you have an umbrella policy, that coverage may provide additional protection.

Medical/ Personal Accident Coverage: Does your personal auto insurance offer coverage for medical bills sustained in an accident, and will that extend to a rental car? Do you have good medical insurance? (Note, consumers who are injured in an accident sometimes find their own medical insurer balks at paying those medical bills.)

2. Your Credit Card Coverage

Many credit cards offer rental car coverage. This insurance is usually secondary to your personal auto policy, and that the claim will first be filed with your own insurer. (A few credit cards automatically include primary coverage.) But it may cover deductibles or expenses that your personal auto insurance doesn’t, such as loss of use. However, you’ll need to be aware of exclusions, which may include rentals in some foreign countries, certain types of vehicles such as pickup trucks or full-sized vans, or travel on unpaved roads. Full-time students may also be excluded from coverage.

Like most third-party coverage, it typically covers expenses related to the rental car but not to other cars you damage or people or property you damage in an accident. For example, when I reviewed the coverage offered by the credit card I use most often, I noticed the following are not covered:

  • Damage to any vehicle other than the rental car;
  • Damage to any property other than the rental car, owner’s property, or items not permanently attached to the rental vehicle;
  • The injury of anyone or anything.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind here is that you need to read the details about what is and isn’t covered before you get to the rental car counter.

If you’re thinking about getting a new credit card that provides rental car coverage, keep in mind that your credit score will be a factor in whether you’re approved. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.

3. Private Third-Party Coverage

If you purchase travel insurance, you can often add rental car coverage for a small additional fee, says Damian Tysdal, publisher of TravelInsuranceReview.net. But, as with credit card coverage, it usually doesn’t cover everything. “It is really just for collision and loss of use,” he says. “It won’t cover a car you hit, or harm to others.”

You can also purchase coverage through a third party, even if you don’t buy travel insurance. For example, American Express cardholders can buy “Premium Rental Car Coverage” for most rentals for a flat fee of $19.95 or $24.95 per rental (not per day). It is primary coverage, and there is no deductible. It also provides additional coverage for accidental death and secondary coverage for medical expenses, and covers vehicles the basic automatic coverage doesn’t (such as luxury vehicles and SUVs).

Other third-party services such as Protect Your Bubble, offers rental car coverage for $7.99 per day and covers rental car damage and theft, and personal effects protection, with no deductible. However, like other third-party coverage, it doesn’t include additional liability coverage or personal accident insurance so you’ll want to make sure you are adequately covered there through your own insurance policy or find out whether that coverage is available through your rental agency.

“If you are looking for the best coverage, look to your personal auto insurance,” says Tysdal. If you don’t own a car or have minimal coverage on your vehicle, you may need to piece together the best coverage you can from the options available.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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