How to Motivate Yourself to Reduce Debt

Today is Friday the 31st. We are just around the corner from a brand new week and a brand new month. It’s a new opportunity to “start fresh,” especially with your finances. So, with that said, I have just one goal today: to motivate you to attack and reduce your debts.

Debt really sucks!

For some of us, this simple statement is all the encouragement we need. We’re fed up with our situation and are ready to spring into action. Personally, I could just stop writing now, having already motivated myself to continue my passionate and fiery Debt-Free Adventure.

What about you, though? Are you properly motivated to get rid of your debt? If not, what will it take? Here are a few things to think about, which will (hopefully) kick start your motivation. They will also help you establish and maintain a proper relationship with your debt.

How much interest are you paying?

Have you ever sat down to calculate your interest payments, to determine precisely how much you pay in interest each month? If not, I encourage you to do so. You might be in for a dreadful surprise — and hopefully some powerful motivation.

Related: The Power of Compound Interest

Simply calculating how much interest I was paying has been the single most powerful source of motivation in my quest to get out of debt. I added up the interest paid each month on my mortgages, student loans, auto loans, and credit cards. And I was disgusted to realize that I was paying out nearly $1, 300/month in interest alone!

How much are you paying?

Debt is not a game

Lenders spend billions of dollars in research and marketing to figure out the best way to separate you from your money. They’re throwing everything they can at us in an attempt to suck our money right out of our pockets.

Are you fighting back? Are you even prepared to fight? Many people are handing their money over faster than they can earn it! To be successful, we need to be equipped with the whole armor of personal finance. Even when we intentionally go into debt for what we deem to be necessary expenses (mortgage loans, student loans, etc.), we need to know exactly how much it will cost us in the long run… and whether the cost will be worth the impact.

Do you really need hundreds of channels?

Sure, TV can be useful, but let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: TV is an enormous waste of time. Does knowing who won “The Biggest Loser” or “The Amazing Race” help you achieve anything or better yourself in any way? No, absolutely not.

I’m not saying that these things aren’t entertaining, or that you don’t deserve to relax with some mindless television (or a sports game) every once in a while. I’m simply challenging you to spend your time — and money — doing things that are more productive. Things that can improve your situation. Things that will make you a better person. Do you really need to pay $100+ every month (or over $1,200 a year) for TV service? Is it worth that to you?

“The average millionaire can’t tell you who got thrown off the island last night.” -Dave Ramsey

Learn the power of simplicity

Remember back to when you didn’t have a pot to… well, you get the idea.

For me, those days were partly nice and partly burdensome. I wanted more money to buy more things, but I also remember the freedom of not being beholden to anyone for anything!

For some reason, right or wrong, our culture drives us down a certain path — go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, buy a bunch of stuff, etc. My wife and I followed that path for the first few years of our marriage. While that lifestyle afforded us some nice stuff, it also resulted in a mountain of debt.

More recently, we’ve learned the power of simplicity. One day, we stopped to consider our possessions now versus our possessions as college students. Sure, our stuff is nicer now, and we have more of it, but… We’re also in debt! Simplifying life not only saves money, but it makes us happier, as well.

Less debt equals more freedom

The amount of money you owe to others is directly correlated with the amount of time that you HAVE to devote to earning more money. This is especially true if you’re unhappy working a job that you dislike, in order to pay for things that you don’t really want.

Well, wake up — you don’t have to do it anymore! Start making changes. Sell some stuffget rid of a carreduce your housing expenses, and attack your debt. While you might enjoy your job, wouldn’t it be nice to work because you want to, instead of working because you have to?

Simplifying your life, living frugally, and spending less than you earn are three things you can do RIGHT NOW to reduce your debt and regain some of that freedom and independence that you used to enjoy. Always remember that Debt = Slavery. No, you’re not bound in chains and forced to work in a labor camp, but your options are definitely limited when you’re in debt.

Do you own your house? Do you own your car(s)? Do you own your education? Do you own all of the clothes in your closet? Do you own your wedding? Do you own your toys? Do you own the gas in your car?

If you’re carrying any sort of debt, then the answer to at least some of those questions is “no.” So tell me… Are you truly free when you’re beholden to others in this way? Take some time to re-evaluate your debt and ask yourself if the burden you are carrying is worth the benefit of whatever got you into debt. Then, make some changes.


7 Illegal Questions Potential Employers Often Ask In an Interview

It’s worth being educated about your rights if you’re looking for a new job. With luck, you won’t need to worry; if you’re asked a question in an interview that makes you feel uncomfortable, though, it can be helpful to know whether your potential new boss just overstepped the mark. That way, you can respond accordingly.

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We have all heard the stories of interviewers asking questions so screamingly wrong, they make you wince. These often involve asking a female candidate whether she’s planning on having more children, or whether her kids are regularly sick and require her to stay home with them.

However, there are plenty of other subtle ways an unethical employer can get the information he or she wants. That’s why it’s a good idea to understand the principles around what you can — and cannot — legally be quizzed about in your interview.

What the Law Says

Most often, certain areas are out of bounds in an interview setting simply because of the risk of actual (or perceived) discrimination. Of course, most businesses just want the best employees they can find, regardless of race, gender, or age. The sad truth, though, is that some bosses — consciously or subconsciously — recruit according to their unfair personal bias. That’s why anti-discrimination laws are in place in many countries, reassuring job seekers that decisions will ultimately be made solely based on their ability to perform the role.

The exact details of the legislation, and how it is put into practice, vary from place to place. In America, there are anti-discrimination laws at both federal and state levels. In the UK, the Equality Act covers most aspects of workplace discrimination. However, the basic principles of the law are similar, in the US as well as the UK, Europe, and many other developed nations.

US Federal law describes protected classes, which essentially means that workplace decisions can not be made based on characteristics such as race, color, religion, or gender. Other areas covered include your country of origin, what citizenship you hold, your age, and any disabilities you may have. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission details the full list of protected classes, although it’s worth noting that, in most cases, the rules apply only to employers with 15 employees or more.

Many experienced managers will interview following a more standardized process, avoiding any pitfalls gracefully and asking only the questions that are relevant to the job. But every now and again, a question might come up which makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe you think that the employer is fishing for an incriminating answer or prying a little too much into your personal life.

Related: How to Answer These 10 Tricky Interview Questions

Let’s talk about some questions that get asked all too frequently, but really shouldn’t be asked at all.

Questions to Watch Out For

1. Are you married?

It’s a fairly common question, and might even come up in small talk as you walk to the elevator with your interviewer. However, it is also a way for an unethical boss to try and figure out your sexual orientation, and to guess if you have (or may eventually have) kids.

If you’re asked about your marital status in an interview, you need to make a personal call about what you are willing to share. If you’re wearing a wedding ring, or bring up your recent engagement on your own, then your interviewer is probably genuinely trying to build rapport, and follow your cues. However, if you’re not happy with the context of the question, you could shrug it off with humor. Responding, “Why, are you asking?” with a smile should do the trick.

2. Do you have any kids?

This is another wholly natural question, in typical context. Unfortunately, it can also be used to try to figure out if you will be able to work overtime or travel, for example. Your gut will be the best measure of whether this query comes from a simple desire to chat about common ground, or something more sinister.

If you’re asked this and it feels off-kilter, it may be because there are specific job requirements which the interviewer is concerned a parent might not be able (or willing) to fulfill. These include international travel or late night/weekend hours, for instance.

You could probe the interviewer about why the question was asked. Start with a clarifying question such as, “Is it important for the role?” If there’s a genuine reason for inquiring based on the needs of the job, you can just confirm that you understand the requirements and will be able to deliver.

3. What country are you originally from?

An interviewer might pick up on a slight accent, or make an assumption about your cultural heritage based on your name, appearance, or dress. But asking about your nationality or citizenship is not actually allowed.

What employers can ask about is your right to work in the country. In fact, it’s their legal duty to do so before a contract is offered. So, if you’re asked about your nationality, but don’t want to share, don’t be defensive. You can simply say that you have the right to live and work in this country, and that should suffice.

4. How old are you?

While few employers will outright ask your age in interview, they might use variants like asking when you graduated, when you expect to retire, or how long you’ve been working.

Related: How to Write An Eye-Catching Cover Letter (and Why It Matters)

If you think the interviewer is trying to figure out your age because they might refuse to take on someone based on this detail, then be wary. Luckily, most questions of this type can be sidestepped with grace.

If you’re asked how long you have been working, for example, you can focus on the relevant experience you hold rather than overall working history. Respond by saying something like, “I have ten years of active engagement in this industry.” It’s useful to know that anti-age discrimination rules typically give more protection to people over forty.

5. How will you get to work?

This is a somewhat ambiguous question, as the intent of the employer (in most cases) will be good. Of course, they’re concerned that you have thought about the commute to your new job — maybe they would even be able to support you by suggesting a carpool.

However, this is a question that can put an employer on shaky ground if they appear to be fishing for details of your socioeconomic status, like whether or not you own a car. This might trigger some unconscious bias in the recruiter (typically, people prefer to recruit others “like them”), or be based on discriminatory practice. It would be unethical — and in many places illegal — if, for example, an employer insists on you owning a car. This is especially true if the job role doesn’t actually call for it, but is simply due to the perception of wealth and class associated with owning your own wheels.

Resource: How to Use Your Commute to Further Your Career

So, what if this question comes up and you’re uncomfortable about the motivation? You can just answer that you are confident in your ability to fulfil the job requirements, and that you have reliable transportation (only you need to know whether that’s a personal vehicle, bicycle, or even the bus).

6. Did you ever get arrested when you were younger?

The key detail here is that getting arrested is not the same as being convicted. In the unlikely event you’re asked about any arrest history, you can decline politely to answer. In some cases, however, you might need to declare actual convictions. The law varies from place to place, so make sure you read up in advance if you think this question might affect you.

In the UK, for example, it varies. Some convictions always have to be declared, some just for a defined period of time, while others do not ever have to be shared with a prospective boss. Either way, an employer is still bound to make a recruitment decision based on your actual ability to do the job now, rather than any misdemeanors in the past.

If you know your new job will require you to have a background check, which will turn up any criminal activity, it might be in your interests to talk about it upfront, anyway.

7. Are you financially solvent?

This is a question which can be legitimate, if it matters for the specific role. So, for example, if you’re looking to work in financial services and have previously declared bankruptcy, this might be a problem. However, in the vast majority of cases, this is not a material issue which impacts your ability to do the job. Feel free to avoid the question, or dig deeper with the interviewer to try to understand why this matters to the role in hand.

What if you’re asked something you shouldn’t be?

These are just a few examples of common questions that may make you wary. Of course, there are many different ways to say the same thing.

If any question you’re asked doesn’t feel right, you should stop and think a moment before answering. There are many somewhat-suspect questions which may simply be intended as small talk, or to get to know you on a more personal level. The real issue is the motivation behind the inquiry. If you believe that the answer might be used in a way that feels unfair, then you might want to avoid answering, or ask for clarification on why it’s important to the role.

In the vast majority of cases, your interviewer is probably not trying to do anything illegal. They might be inexperienced or unaware of the rules — they’re only human, too, and are usually just trying to do a good job.

The best tactic is to trust your gut. If a question seems odd or out of place, smile and ask politely for more details about what the interviewer means. You might receive a completely satisfactory answer.

Ultimately, however, if you think that a recruitment decision is made on grounds that would be deemed illegal, then take professional advice and be prepared to fight your corner. There’s a reason the laws exist, after all.

Have you ever been asked inappropriate or unacceptable questions in an interview? Tell us below, and whether it had an impact on getting the job.


6 Ways to Bounce Back from a Business Failure

Losing your job, for any reason, is an immensely stressful experience. Whether it comes due to the collapse of your employer, or if you’re being forced to wind down an enterprise of your own, the pressure can certainly pile up.

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But business failure isn’t an unusual scenario, particularly with the global economic volatility we have become accustomed to over the past decade. Many people — including some with well-known success stories — have experienced business failure and then bounced back stronger than ever.

Henry Ford and Colonel Sanders are good examples, just to name a couple. Both of these men failed in their first attempts at business, before tweaking their approach and making it big. In fact, failure can be fertile ground, allowing you to assess and adjust course before moving on to bigger and better things.

Here are some ways to move forward if you’re caught up in a collapsing business:

1. Discover your coping strategy

If you’re in the middle of a failing business, whether your own or your employer’s, it can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to deal with the range of demands placed in you. You will be called on to support colleagues and customers, answer questions from friends and family, and come up with an onward plan for yourself. There are few situations more overwhelming. Despite the frantic pace, though, you must find the best way to find a little calm for yourself among the chaos.

You might already have a coping strategy for when times get tough — going to the gym, listening to your favorite music, or offloading on a sympathetic friend. But if you don’t already have a healthy way to unwind, now is the time to find one. Firstly, this will help you to cope in the moment, keeping your mind clear and your stress levels low(er). Plus, this resilience is exactly what will help you bounce back from the experience and flourish, no matter what life throws at you down the line.

2. Be your own resume

If you’re closing down your own business or working for a company through liquidation, it can be tempting to give it all up as a done deal. But it’s good to remember that throughout the process, you are your own resume… more so than your LinkedIn profile or paper CV could ever be.

How you behave throughout this unsettling and upsetting experience will be noted by potential employers. Keep your chin up, continue to treat customers well, and work with pride. If you work in a business with a physical presence, like a store or restaurant, keep everything well-maintained until the end. And if you work for yourself, let your customers, employees, and suppliers know what’s happening in a balanced way. You want them to feel fairly treated, too. Any one of them might open the door to your next opportunity — and they will be watching how you perform under pressure.

3. Embrace the skills you’re learning

It can be exceptionally difficult to see it clearly at the time, but the experience of business failure is rich in learning opportunities. Not only do you learn to manage your own emotional responses and resilience, but you will also be working in unfamiliar territory, making the best out of an ever-changing situation.

There’s a reason there are so many famous successes, many of whom are almost just as famous for hitting brick walls early in their career. Think about Edison’s thousand failed attempts to make a light bulb, or Walt Disney being fired for having “no imagination.” These experiences, although painful, proved formative.

Resource: Job Hunting in the Social Media Age — Why Your Online Footprint Matters

Try to stop every now and again to see the skills and competencies you’re gathering, which you can put to good use in future. This promotes a much more optimistic view of your situation and can help you bounce back after everything is resolved.

4. Articulate your career story, positively

Whatever the details of your situation, you will be called upon to explain it to prospective employers down the line. You might be tempted to speak ill of your old employer if the business went under due to management errors, or downplay the experience if it was your own enterprise that tanked. But doing this misses the chance to share your experiences and can make you come off as bitter.

Learn More: How to Answer These Tricky Interview Questions

You own the career story you tell, and you can choose how you articulate your experience of a layoff or business failure in your own way. However, I recommend that you focus on the positives. Talk about how you learned to cope with the ambiguous and challenging situation, and state the negatives in simple, objective terms.

5. Build and use your network

Today, many — if not most — new opportunities are found through word of mouth rather than open advertisement. Having a strong network is essential for us all, and never more so than during a challenging time like business failure. Don’t be afraid (or too proud) to talk to your colleagues, bosses, or business partners (current and previous) about what’s happening.

Be clear about what they can offer you, such as helping you hook up with people in a specific company who might be able to offer work, or looking over your resume. At some point or another, we all have employment issues, and most people will go out of their way to help in the unhappy event that you’re caught up in a failing business.

If you don’t have a great network now, use the experience of business failure to get one. It’s a perfect time to connect with your colleagues and business contacts — such as suppliers — both through online means, like LinkedIn, and in real life. With a business being dissolved, you can be sure that your current workmates will find their way into a whole range of new businesses, creating a ready-made and well-distributed network for you to build upon.

6. Find the opportunities — and plan creatively

There’s never a good time to be involved in a business that’s going under. In my case, I was laid off while pregnant and immediately after being promoted into the role I thought was my perfect fit. Oh, and all of this in the midst of the global financial crisis. I had never been more confident about what my career path would look like, and the abrupt and unexpected bankruptcy of my employer came as something of a shock.

In hindsight, I can see that my career plan at the time was unhealthily rigid and based on the assumption there would be no real change in my company. Being made redundant forced me to think more flexibly. I took opportunities that I never before would have considered, which subsequently opened doors I had never dreamed of.

Related: How to Explain a Unique Career History

If you’re in a failing business, try to keep as many options open as possible. Think about the variables you could be open to, such as work in different industries or geographic areas, taking on contract or part-time work, or grabbing freelance opportunities as part of the gig economy. By casting your net as widely as you possibly can, you have more chance of finding something that fits you and lets you bounce back better than ever from your experience.

However tough things are right now, remember this will pass, and things will improve for you down the line. Being involved in a business failure does not make you a failure. In fact, it could give you the experience you need to come back stronger than ever.

 


Take a Hard Look at Your Financial Habits — Are They Sustainable?

Sustainability has become a key concept in environmental and resource management circles. Of course, it’s also a good goal for your own financial practices.

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I’m sure it once seemed as if the world contained an endless reservoir of oil. By the end of the 20th century, though, it was clear that we were wrong. Some basic concepts were recognized: when people draw on a resource faster than it can be replenished, eventually shortages will occur. Similarly, there are some common financial practices that may seem harmless from week-to-week, but will back you into a troublesome corner over the long haul.

The test for your personal finances, then, is whether or not your habits are sustainable. If you project those habits out into the future, do they result in the building of your wealth… or lead you closer toward bankruptcy?

Here are several ways in which you should consider the sustainability of your personal finances:

1. Is your debt level rising or falling?

Controlling debt isn’t simply a matter of paying minimum monthly payments, or avoiding your maximum credit limits. If your debt is rising month to month, it is only a matter of time before it becomes unaffordable and/or no one will extend you additional credit. Sure, there are times when it is necessary to take on debt. For the most part, though, a fundamental goal of personal financial management should be to pay off any debt that isn’t backed by an asset of equal or greater value.

2. What will happen to your monthly payments if interest rates increase?

A common complaint of people with credit problems is that their credit card rates increased, making it nearly impossible to effectively pay down their debts. In 2009, the Credit CARD Act limited the ability of credit card companies to raise rates on existing debts. However, if you depend on credit to make ends meet, any increase in rates will squeeze your budget by making subsequent purchases more expensive. Remember, the deeper in debt you get, the more likely it is that credit card companies will increase your rates. (What an opportunistic business model, huh?)

3. Have you stabilized your housing costs?

Credit card rates aren’t the only form of interest that can rise. From 2007 to 2012, mortgage rates dropped by over 3 percent before starting to rise again in 2013. They have been heading upward ever since and show no signs of stopping. If you haven’t locked into a fixed-rate mortgage by now, you should do it soon. Also, if you face a balloon mortgage payment, do you have a realistic plan for meeting it?

Finally, renters should realize that they also face the risk of fast-rising housing costs, which should be a factor in any rent-versus-own decision.

4. What kind of shape is your car in?

Cars are not only expensive, but for many people they are indispensable. Living in a metropolitan area gives you the option of utilizing public transport. For everyone else, though, getting kids to and from school, traveling to work, and running basic errands requires a personal vehicle. If yours is somewhat the worse for wear and tear, you had better start planning on how you will afford a replacement.

Plan Ahead for One-Off Expenses (Like Car Repairs)

5. How secure is your job?

The economy in recent years has been slowly improving, but we’ve still seen the elimination of large parts of the workforce in various industries… many of which once paid very well. Never take your job for granted. Always keep tabs on what is happening in your industry, and make sure you keep your skills marketable. Having a flexible career plan in place is also very helpful in case an unexpected or unconventional switch is necessary.

6. How close to the edge is your budget?

Between spreadsheets and budgeting tools, people can track their money with a great degree of precision. This has the unfortunate effect of leading them to believe it’s an exact science.

It isn’t. A variety of unexpected setbacks can await, so a good budget isn’t one that is planned down to the last cent. The best budget is one that leaves plenty of cushion for the unexpected.

How to Rebuild Your Savings After an Unexpected Expense

7. What will happen to your income when you retire?

Retirement isn’t some sort of finish line for personal financial planning. In fact, it is the phase when sustainability becomes most important because your future earning ability is limited. Retirement planning should include figuring out what kind of income you’ll need in order to meet inflation-adjusted expenses and how long you can expect to sustain that income.

8. Are you burning up your assets?

One risk that is common in both retirement also occurs pre-retirement for many folks: the risk of burning through assets to meet short-term expenses. If you are relying on past savings or any sort of windfall to meet regular expenses, you need to figure out how long you can continue at your current burn rate.

This can be subtle, too. For example, people who take a home-equity loan to make ends meet have just diminished a very important asset. And they did so to cover expenses that may very well outlast that asset. Try to figure out as many other strategies as possible (cutting expenses, saving more money, bringing in extra cash with a side hustle, etc.) before making your way through your assets.

Here Are 8 Strategies for Stressing Less About Retirement

As with energy and environmental policies, sustainability in financial habits can be tough to attain after years of damaging practices. However, the starting point is to put yourself on a course leading toward sustainability, even if it’s a slow process at first. If you are not at least heading in that direction, you are heading for trouble.


How to Save Money on Healthcare

With Obamacare on the chopping block and the Republicans’ new healthcare plan under debate, many Americans are unsure of what their health insurance may look like in 2018. Regardless of what happens to the exchange or the individual mandate, though, there are some pretty basic tips for keeping your health insurance costs low.

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What steps can you take to decrease your health insurance costs? These tricks will work whether you’re shopping on the current healthcare exchange, looking at plans on a new exchange next year, or choosing between employer plans.

Bump up that deductible

There’s a reason high-deductible health insurance plans are becoming more popular and prevalent: they can actually be cheaper. Sure, it looks like a lot when you see that you could pay $5,000+ for non-premium healthcare costs in a year. But most people, especially healthy individuals, don’t hit that deductible unless an unexpected health emergency occurs.

As with home and auto insurance, when it comes to health insurance, your monthly premiums go down as your deductible goes up. Choosing a plan with a higher deductible will cut your monthly premiums down.

Basically, you’re taking something of a gamble. By choosing a higher deductible, you’re risking that you’ll pay more in the event of an unexpected health situation or one that requires a high level of care. In exchange, you’re paying less each month for the life of the insurance policy.

Related: The Triple Tax Advantages of a Health Savings Account (HSA)

This can seem like a risky gamble, but if you do the math, high-deductible plans will often take less money out of your pocket even if you max them out!

Let’s say you opt for a plan with a $300 per month premium and a $6,800 deductible. That’s a really high deductible! But if you don’t have any health events for the year, you’re only out $3,600, give or take, in premium payments. If you have a health disaster and pay your out-of-pocket maximum, you’ll pay a total of $10,400.

Compare that to a $730 per month premium on a plan with a $1,000 deductible. You’ll pay at least $8,760 in premiums alone, even if you have no health events for the year. Even after you hit your deductible, you’ll still have to pay co-insurance for care received. So, a true health disaster could still land you at your out-of-pocket maximum, which could have you paying $15,000+ in healthcare costs for the year.

The bottom line: in a year without major health events, choosing a higher deductible plan is the easiest way to save on your healthcare costs. And even if you do have a major health event, the total cost of a high-deductible plan could still potentially be lower.

Understand your policy

One of the best ways to overspend on healthcare is to misunderstand your policy, or not to read it at all. For instance, many policies these days favor primary care doctor visits over visits to ambulatory care clinics. And nearly all policies charge a hefty co-pay for emergency room visits. If your policy is written this way, it will be much cheaper to make an appointment with your primary care physician, even if you have to wait a little longer.

Another issue to understand is pre-approvals. Can you go to a specialist on your own, or do you need your primary care doctor’s recommendation? Be sure you know this before you make specialist appointments.

Resource: How to Get Health Insurance If You’re Self-Employed

Of course, you should always be sure you understand the terminology used around payments. Coinsurance and copayments are NOT the same thing, so be sure you know how your insurance policy works before you start using it.

Choose the right facility and doctor

Again, insurance policies usually favor certain types of clinics over others. Figure out which facilities near you are going to be the most affordable options for emergent and non-emergent healthcare issues. Make a list, and keep it handy so you know where to go when something comes up.

Besides choosing the right type of facility, though, you also need to be sure you’re choosing within the right network. Some of the plans on the healthcare exchange, and even some employer healthcare plans these days, do not have a broad network. And going out-of-network for your healthcare can come with major additional costs. Get to know your network, and be sure your main practitioners and healthcare facilities are in-network for your insurance plan.

News: Yet Another Insurance Giant Pulls Out of Obamacare

Along these lines, you might also save money by going to local low-cost health clinics. If there’s a medical school near you, for instance, a university medical clinic that employs residents may have lower costs than a regular family doctor. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, low-cost clinics may have sliding payment scales to make treatment more affordable.

Use free screenings

One of the best ways to keep your healthcare costs low over the long run is, simply put, to stay healthy. You can keep a better eye on your health when you participate in check-ups and screenings. Luckily, you can get many of these screenings done for free.

Related: How Being Unhealthy Can Impact Your Finances

Right now, Affordable Care Act plans are required to pay for certain annual appointments and screenings at no additional cost to you. If you find that you need or would benefit from additional screenings for certain diseases, pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, or general health and wellness, look up community health fairs in your area. The results from these screenings can help you spot minor health issues before they turn into expensive long-term problems.

Go for generic drugs whenever possible

Some drugs are available in generic form at less than half the cost of the name brand version. On top of this, many major retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and Walgreens) offer $4 prescriptions, and some even offer free antibiotics.

If you’re already on regular medications, talk to your doctor about whether you could switch to generics. Some people respond just as well to these cheaper versions of medications.

Check your bills

It’s easy to assume that your medical bills are always accurate. But if you get a bill and pay it right away without double-checking each line item, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Simple coding errors on your medical bill could mean big overpayments, which no one is likely to catch but you!

So each time you get a bill, go through it carefully. Be sure that all the services represented are ones that you were actually given. And then be sure that the payments and insurance payments for those services line up with your insurance policy.

Push back on treatments, drugs, and tests

Sometimes doctors get into the habit of ordering tests or prescribing drugs because they know patients’ insurance companies will foot the bill. And sometimes, these treatments and tests are completely necessary. But sometimes, they’re not.

As a patient and healthcare consumer, you should never be afraid to push back on medical recommendations. It’s okay to ask your doctor if an upgrade from one older, cheaper medication to a newer, more expensive version is actually necessary. And it’s okay to ask if it’s safe to see if a situation resolves before conducting further testing.

Of course, there’s a balance to be had here. That’s why it’s important to connect with physicians who will listen to you and whose advice you trust.

Find the right primary care physician

With that last point in mind, working with a primary care physician could save you money by preventing worse healthcare problems down the road. A primary care doctor can coordinate your care for ongoing conditions, and help you know when specialist visits are necessary. And a doctor who has adequate appointments for urgent issues can save you by preventing visits to the urgent care center or the emergency room.

And if you’re generally reviewing your insurance policies, see our articles on how to save money on car insurance, how to save money on home insurance and how to save money on life insurance.


The Best Budgeting Tools Out There

Are you struggling to stay on your budget? Maybe it’s because you don’t have one in place yet. Or maybe, it’s because keeping track of expenses is just plain tough.

budget2

No matter the reason, there are plenty of amazing budgeting tools available these days, which can make the entire process easy to implement (and stick with). Some are for your smartphone, while others work best on your desktop.

Each of these tools has its own pros and cons, and will fit certain types of budgeters. Here are the top three that I most recommend, and why:

1. You Need a Budget (YNAB)

This is the tool that I use personally, which says a lot as I’m a bit of a passionate budgeter. It’s perfect for money geeks who like to get down into the nitty gritty of the family budget.

YNAB has a few great features, including:

  • Easy import – I personally am terrible at remembering to write down expenses, in order to transfer them to a manual budget-tracking option. That’s why I was so excited when YNAB rolled out automatic imports. It’ll bring your transactions over from your bank accounts and credit cards automatically. You just have to import and then categorize them.
  • Unlimited categories – You can set as many custom categories in YNAB as your heart desires, and name them whatever you want. Track your money however suits you best.
  • Rolling totals – YNAB lets you see how much you’ve budgeted in a month versus how much income you’ve brought in. You can also see your average Age of Money. This guages approximately how long money stays in your bank account before you spend it. The longer the better!
  • Rollover budgeting – YNAB is set up to be a zero-based, envelope-style budget. If you overspend in any given category, you’ll need to decide where to take that money from. For instance, if you spend too much on food, you might transfer some money from your clothing budget to cover it. If you under-spend in a category, the leftover funds show up on the next month’s budget.
  • Quick budgeting tools – If you’re anything like me, your budget looks similar from month to month, with some categories varying once in a while. I often use YNAB’s Quick Budget tools to set my budget to be the same for the next month. Then, I can go in and customize the budget by category if certain things need to change.
  • Goal tracking – You can use YNAB to keep track of certain savings and payment goals. This feature isn’t quite as intuitive to use as the rest of its features, though.
  • Budgeting ahead – One thing I used to hate about Mint when I used it was that I couldn’t create a budget for a month before the first of that month. I like to plan ahead and see where we’re going to have to spend money on things like car registrations. YNAB lets you budget pretty much as far ahead as you want. Go ahead and make an annual budget if that floats your boat!

Of course, YNAB isn’t perfect. It’s got some limitations, too, including:

  • Delay on importing transactions. I used to use Mint, where my transactions would show up in the budgeting software just as soon as they were no longer pending with my bank. Sometimes YNAB can take a day or two to catch up on transactions.
  • Cost. YNAB isn’t expensive — just $5 per month. I think it’s well worth it. But if you want a free option, there are plenty of those tools available, too.
  • No investment tracking. If you’re looking for a tool to track your whole financial life, including your investments, YNAB isn’t it. It’s just about your budget and will only track spending and saving.

Who’s it best for?

I would recommend YNAB for budgeters who want to change the way they interact with money and get a better handle on all the details of their spending. It doesn’t have fancy graphics, so you’ll have to be willing to look at the actual numbers rather than a visual overview of your budget. But it’s a very detailed option that has worked well for me.

2. Mint

This is the budgeting software I used to use, and it’s gotten pretty great with recent updates. Mint.com allows you to track bills, and you can also pay them from its interface. It’s primarily a budgeting software, but also allows for investment tracking. It even gives you a free credit score (updated quarterly).

Here’s what’s great about Mint:

  • Auto-import – Once you hook Mint up with your various accounts — including bank accounts, credit cards, and even installment loan accounts — it’ll automatically import transactions from those accounts. Many find it easier than trying to write down all the transactions in a spreadsheet.
  • Visual budgeting – This is an excellent tool for those who like an at-a-glance visual, instead of a bunch of numbers. Mint will give you slidebars for your budget category and your income; when you start to get close to the month’s budget, the bars will change colors to let you know you need to stop spending.
  • Custom categories – Like YNAB, Mint will let you create custom categories for all your budget items, but you can also group them together into broader categories. That way, you can tell how close you are to maxing out on your food spending, but that can include both groceries and dining out.
  • Goal options – With Mint, you can set goals for things like saving for a home or paying down debt. This is handy if you’re working towards specific financial goals.
  • Investment tracking – Mint isn’t as robust as Personal Capital, which we’ll talk about next. But it does let you track your investments and your net worth all in one place. If you’re a beginning investor focused more on budgeting and paying off debt than tracking your investments, this is a nice additional piece.
  • Free credit score – There are loads of places to get a free credit score these days, and Mint is one of them. It offers a score that’s updated quarterly.
  • Alerts – You can set Mint to alert you when you have bills coming up or when you’re over budget on a particular category. Alerts can come by text message or email.
  • It’s free! – Mint doesn’t cost anything. This is because they make money by giving you suggestions on products that you might want to buy.

As you can see, Mint is a really robust option here. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Here are some of the ways it could be better:

  • Some accounts don’t sync. The list of providers with which Mint works well is extensive, but it’s not all-inclusive. Some financial providers simply don’t work with Mint. Others that are supposed to work have trouble downloading transactions. You can add transactions manually, but that’s not as intuitive as it is with YNAB.
  • Categorization isn’t always perfect. Mint’s goal is to let you be hands-off when categorizing your expenditures. But it’s not always correct. Sometimes, you’ll have to change the default category of an item, though it isn’t that big a deal.
  • Goals and budget collide. When you set a goal through Mint, sometimes that goal will be tied to an account that also is part of your budget. So, if your goal is to pay off credit card debt, and you also plan out the card’s minimum payments in your budget, it can get double counted. It’s just a little squirrely, so you have to be careful how you set those up.
  • Ads and emails. Mint sends a lot of emails, and gives you tons of ads on how you can save. This is, after all, how the program makes money. This isn’t a huge deal, but it does get annoying after a while.

Who’s it best for?

Mint is great for those who want a somewhat detailed budget, but don’t need all the nitty gritty that YNAB offers. It’s also excellent if you’re a visual person and like to see charts and graphs, rather than numbers.

3. Personal Capital

What if you’re less budget-oriented and more about your big numbers, like net worth? In this case, Personal Capital might be best for your needs. This software features detailed investment tracking, and it’ll even send you alerts when your portfolio increases or drops. It also has a budgeting component, but it’s not nearly as robust as either YNAB or Mint.

Here’s where Personal Capital excels:

  • Financial dashboard – Personal Capital’s financial dashboard gives you an at-a-glance overview of your entire life. You can track everything from your IRA to your bank account to your mortgage, and Personal Capital will keep track of your net worth and other big financial numbers.
  • Financial analysis – Personal Capital is a little like the robo advisor options that have become so helpful in recent years. You can run your numbers through a variety of quizzes, including an investment checkup and a retirement planner. This will help you figure out where you’re lacking, and what decisions might be best for your needs.
  • Cash flow tools – Personal Capital isn’t a budgeting software, per se, but it does help you look at your cash flow. You can track all your income and expenses, and you can categorize expenses the same as you can with the above-listed softwares.
  • Investment management – Personal Capital will track all of your investing vehicles under the same roof. This makes it easy for them to give you advice on how to manage your entire portfolio — not just the piece of it they manage.
  • Auto import – You can hook Personal Capital up with a variety of financial products, including checking, savings, credit cards, and investment accounts. It’ll automatically download information from those accounts on a regular basis.
  • Free options – You can pay extra for investing advice if you have a high net worth, but the basic version is free.

Where does Personal Capital fall short? I don’t prefer it as a budgeting tool, for one. Here are some of the other cons with the program:

  • Budgeting is less intuitive and detailed. Personal Capital’s Cash Flow Analyzer is good for getting a big picture overview of income and spending. However, I don’t prefer it for a more detailed budgeting process. You can categorize expenses, though I find it less intuitive and less detailed than the other budgeting options.
  • Higher advisor fees. If you don’t have a high net worth, this isn’t an issue for you. But if you’re looking at robo advisor options, Personal Capital’s fees may be a bit higher than other software options in this category.

Who’s it best for?

As a budgeting software, Personal Capital is best for individuals who just need a sky-level overview of their spending. If you’ve already got your spending under control and are just working on tracking investments, it can be a great option.

Which is right for you?

Only you can decide which budgeting software is best for your particular needs and wants. You may want to try each of these options, or even use a combination. For instance, you could use Personal Capital to track your investments and net worth, but use YNAB or Mint for detailed budgeting.

Since they’re all free (or have a free trial), you can try each option in your quest for the perfect budgeting tool for your needs..


Should You Be a Full-Time Employee or a Freelancer?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the rise of the gig economy is the industrial revolution of our time — and we are only at the beginning of the journey. Some one in three Americans already freelance in some capacity, in fact. This includes both those that use it as a side hustle to supplement the 9-to-5, as well as the full-time, self-employed worker.

These freelancers are often described as working portfolio style, with a mixed bag of different, small jobs which shift and evolve over time. So, you might be an actor who also teaches music, or a property developer who has a consulting sideline, for example. Setting up this lifestyle is easier than ever with apps like Uber, Airbnb, Fiverr, and Upwork bringing workers and customers together seamlessly.

gig

But does this new style of patching together a series of small gigs actually trump the steady, corporate life that most people consider ‘work?’

If you’re thinking of seeing how the gig economy might serve you and possibly dipping your toe in this new portfolio lifestyle, you will want to do your research first. Here are some things to think about when weighing up which is best for you: full-time employment or the gig economy.

What’s your attitude toward risk?

Risk in the modern employment climate is an interesting thing. Having one job for life is a thing of the past, so we must all expect and embrace some risk in our working lives. When it comes to comparing the portfolio career with the 9-to-5, though, the question becomes how to manage said risk.

You might think that the portfolio careerists are the ones with the greatest element of risk embedded in their choices. But this is not necessarily the case. If you lose one single freelance gig from a range of several you have running parallel, you still have some work (and income) on which to rely. Compare this to our traditional notion of work, which is much more of an “all or nothing” situation.

Related: How to (Legitimately) Make Money Online in 2017

Of course, it’s not a simple equation. A well-developed career in the gig economy can be just as immune to risk (if not more so) than a more traditional role, at least in a broad sense. However, as a freelance worker, you shift all risk directly onto yourself. In effect, you lose some of the legal rights of employees, as well as the potential redundancy and sick pay available in some full-time roles. These provide at least some protection if things go wrong, so you have to decide what’s more important to have.

Can you manage your money as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, you lose the protective support of a good employer, who might provide some benefits. Moreso, though, you lose the comfort of a regular, guaranteed paycheck.

The blessing, and curse, is that you can manage your work and income on a month-by-month basis. This allows you to take on more work when needed, and do less when you choose… as long as you have a well-developed business and can keep the inquiries flowing.

But from this ever-changing pot of cash, you will still have fixed expenses to manage. You’ll also have considerations such as healthcare and how to manage bills if you can not work for some reason.

Having a flexible income is no challenge for some people, but will make others feel extremely uncomfortable. Budgeting as a freelancer is a whole different exercise compared to managing a cash flow you can predict with certainty. For some, this is a worthwhile trade-off. For others, not so much.

Is variety the spice of your life?

When it comes to the question of variety, there is little competition between an “average,” traditional job and the portfolio lifestyle made possible by the gig economy.

Most freelance workers are what is sometimes known as slashers (as in teacher/writer/coach/gigging musician). These folks find ways to make their interests and passions pay, even if they are extremely varied. Now, this takes time, and an exceptional degree of perseverance and effort. However, it can really pay off for those who seek a different working experience every day.

Resource: How to Make Money With Your Blog

If, on the other hand, you can’t stand the thought of never really knowing what is around the next corner, then a more traditional lifestyle might be a better fit.

What does success look like for you?

Career success is an abstract concept at the best of times. It becomes even more personal when choosing between freelance and permanent work.

In the traditional style of work, success could be measured by salary raises, promotions, and increased responsibility. But with these factors proving less appealing to a millennial workforce, the criteria for “winning” at work is shifting.

While success can be seen as job satisfaction in either working style, a high-achieving portfolio careerist might be someone who works (and earns) less, but has the freedom to travel. Or, at the other end of the freelance and entrepreneurial spectrum, success could be about launching and running your own business. This could be a huge endeavor, one that places higher demands on you than more traditional roles ever would.

Learn More: How to Successfully Negotiate a Raise

Probably the most notable thing about success in the different lifestyle choices? It is a concept far more loosely defined by society at large, especially in a freelance career. If you go this route, you will define your own measure of achievement, and live by your own assessment of what success looks like. The rungs of your ladder of success are not clearly marked, so you’ll need to set your own standards and celebrate your own defined victories.

How important is it to be part of a team?

Because of the very flexibility of freelance gigs, they are often solitary. Even when working in a team, the roles taken by portfolio careerists tend to be short-term or fixed contract. This ends up meaning that integrating fully into a team is difficult, although you will get to meet and work alongside a wide variety of people along the way.

When we spend so much of our waking life at work, it is worth thinking carefully about whether being in the company of colleagues is particularly important to you. While workmates might drive us crazy at times, life without them can be rather lonely.

This is noticeable even when it comes to simple questions such as how to get a specific job done on time and to budget. That is why colleagues are also often some of our closest friends — a privilege that is more difficult to come by as a portfolio worker.

What’s the future of your industry and role type?

If you’re already established in the workforce, the most pertinent question might actually be, “What’s the future of your industry and role type?”

The shape of the workforce has changed dramatically, with roles evolving or being removed at pace. If you’re in an industry where this is a risk, you should consider the options at hand. Leaping into the gig economy isn’t a one-off act for most people, but a gradual shift as interests and needs change. If you have concerns about the longevity of your traditional job, then developing skills which could support you in finding a new role, or establishing a sideline, is a strong idea.

Preparing: How to Build a Flexible Career Plan

If the BLS is right, 53 million Americans have already started their journey into the gig economy. With a staggering range of ways to tap into the freelance opportunities, and an employment environment which remains volatile at best, it’s likely more will join them. The question is, will you?


Building an Emergency Fund

I’m sure that you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: when you’re getting your financial house in order, your first step should be to build up an emergency fund.

An emergency fund helps you get through financial rough patches in your life — broken washing machines, unexpected medical bills, and the like — without derailing the rest of your financial plan. The keys are to have this fund built up before disaster strikes and to save it for true emergencies.

emergency fund

Here, we’ll talk about how much to save in an emergency fund, how to save it, and when it’s okay to dip into those funds. We’ll also talk about emergency fund alternatives, including a home equity line of credit.

How large should your emergency fund be?

Your emergency fund goal will depend on your individual circumstances. Most financial gurus suggest an emergency fund that will cover three to six months of living expenses, though some are comfortable with less and others recommend more. Still others, such as Dave Ramsey, suggest a tiered approach where you initially set aside $1,000 and then build up a larger emergency fund after eliminating your debts.

If you have other serious financial goals, such as getting out of high-interest debt, the last option may fit your needs best. With that said, your initial emergency fund may need to be smaller or larger, depending on your circumstances.

Learn More: Where Should I Keep My Emergency Fund?

For instance, if you have a family and know that medical emergencies could be more likely to arise, you may need a larger initial emergency fund. If you make more than you spend nearly every month, though, you could divert some of your extra funds to paying for emergencies. So a smaller emergency fund, like $500, could set you up.

What if you’re already out of debt or, at least, don’t have any debts with super-high interest? In this case, you’ll need to decide whether it’s more important to pay off your remaining debts or save more in your emergency fund. This will depend on your individual financial goals, and your tolerance for risk.

With that said, when you do start building a larger emergency fund, you’ll need to look at a variety of factors when deciding how much to save, including:

  • The likelihood that you’ll lose your job. If it’s more likely, save more money.
  • You family’s earning potential. If you’re a two-income family, you may be able to get by with a smaller emergency fund. With one income, you’ll want to save more.
  • Demand in your job field. If you work in a high-demand area where getting re-hired would be simple, you may be able to have a smaller emergency fund. If finding a new job would take a while, build up more.
  • Potential large expenses that you could incur. If you’re a renter, for instance, you may get by with a smaller emergency fund because you won’t have to do any unexpected home repairs. Those are your landlord’s job. But homeowners need larger emergency funds to deal with potential housing problems.

As you can see, figuring out how much you need to save for emergencies can be difficult. When in doubt, though, you can always start on the low end of three months’ worth of expenses, and then work your way up if you feel like you need more.

How Do You Calculate Your Expenses?

One thing to remember, though, is that when we talk about an emergency fund, we’re talking about your expenses, not your budget. Your budget should include things like dining out, traveling, family vacations, clothing, fun activities, home improvements, and more. Your actual expenses, though, don’t necessarily include these things.

In this case, we’re considering your expenses to be your bare-bones budget. If a true emergency required you to stop all unnecessary spending, how far down could you strip your budget? Your must-pay expenses include, in order of importance:

  • Basic, necessary groceries and household supplies
  • Rent or mortgage payments
  • Basic utilities (not including cable, Netflix, etc.)
  • Transportation expenses to get to work or job interviews
  • Child care costs if you need it while you work or job hunt
  • Necessary personal supplies (like toothpaste) and essential clothing
  • Minimum debt payments

Look at your budget, and figure out how much those things honestly cost you on a monthly basis. That’s your one-month emergency fund goal. So if a month’s worth of expenses for you is $2,500, a three-month emergency fund would be $7,500.

How Do You Rebuild Your Emergency Fund After an Unexpected Expense?

How should you build an emergency fund?

Even though deciding on your emergency fund goal can be a bit confusing, the really hard part is actually building up that emergency fund. How do you decide between competing financial goals to save money for your emergency fund? Or where do you get that money from if you’re already living paycheck to paycheck?

For one thing, you should know that it takes time to come up with the money for your emergency fund. It may take you several months or even a year or more, even if you’re disciplined at saving. Several months’ worth of expenses is a lot of money, after all!

But this is definitely a worthwhile financial goal. In fact, having an emergency fund in place can help you more quickly meet other financial goals, like investing or starting a business. Knowing you have some cash padding helps you be more comfortable taking risks, which are essential for growing both personally and financially.

Resource: 31 Greatest Money Rules of Thumb

With all that said, here are some options for building your emergency fund:

  • Build it into your budget. You may have heard of the “pay yourself first” principle. Look at your budget, and decide how much you can afford to put towards your emergency fund each month. Then, set up an automatic transfer to put that amount into a separate savings account each time you get paid. If you never have access to that cash, you’re much less likely to spend it frivolously!
  • Put windfalls into your fund. When you receive a gift of cash or an unexpected inheritance, consider putting that money right into your emergency fund. This is an excellent way to reach your goal more quickly, without the pain of trimming your budget.
  • Stick your tax rebate into savings. Many Americans choose to use their tax refunds to pay for vacation, but you could be smart and save yours, instead. Transfer at least most of the balance into a savings account, and you’ll have an excellent start on your emergency fund.
  • Trim a specific expense. Think of one unnecessary expense you have, like picking up coffee each day instead of making it at home, or dining out. Commit to giving up that expense for a few months, and instead put what you would have spent into your savings account.
  • Use the one and done method. Alternatively, find ways to trim bigger bills, like your mortgage or cable bill. When you cut back on these expenses, put the money you’ve saved straight into your emergency fund.

How Will You Spend Your Emergency Fund?

One of the most difficult things to establish when thinking about an emergency fund is how you’ll actually spend it. What, exactly, constitutes an emergency?

Well, that’s going to depend on your individual circumstances, again. But here are a few things that are and are not a financial emergency:

An emergency is not . . . 

  • A broken TV or other entertainment device. Your TV breaking can seem like an emergency, but it’s not worth dipping into your emergency fund for. Instead, when your TV or computer (that you don’t need for money-making work) breaks, start saving up to get a new one. In the meantime, find other ways to entertain yourself.
  • Lack of planning. So, you forgot to account for all of your auto-paid bills, and you can’t grocery shop this weekend without overdrafting your account? It’s time to dig into the pantry and figure out how to eat for next to nothing while you wait for your next paycheck. It’s not time to tap your emergency fund.
  • Your washing machine breaks. This may or may not constitute an emergency. If you’re in an area with no laundromats and you can’t take your laundry to a friend’s or family member’s house, you may need to fix the machine ASAP. But if you have other options for doing your wash, consider using them while you save up to fix the machine.

An emergency is . . . 

  • You lose your job. This one’s a true emergency. If you lose your job, strip your budget to the bare essentials, and cover spending with your emergency fund while you look for a new one.
  • Your car breaks down. This one is a little like the washing machine, but it’s more likely to be an emergency. If you depend on your car to get to work, tap the emergency fund to cover repairs so you don’t lose your job. However, if there’s public transportation in your area, consider sucking it up and using that, even though it’s less convenient.
  • Your roof is leaking or furnace breaks. Some household issues are true emergencies, especially if they’re safety hazards or will become more expensive and difficult to fix if left alone. Use your emergency funds to pay for these types of repairs.
  • You have a medical or dental emergency. You should definitely pay for medical or dental emergencies, but be sure you budget to cover annual exams and dental cleanings to make these things less likely.

What are Some Other Emergency Fund Options?

So, what happens if an emergency arises before you’re able to save an emergency fund? In this case, you’ve got a few options for covering emergency expenses. None of them is as good as using cash, but they’ll do in a pinch:

  • Interest-free credit card. If you have good credit, you may be able to access a credit card with a 0% interest introductory fee. This can be a good emergency fund, temporarily. Just be aware that applying for and receiving the card will take some time. And you’ll want to repay the balance as quickly as possible.
  • Home equity line of credit. HELOCs still have historically low rates, so you could leave one open while you’re paying off high-interest debt to act as an emergency fund. It’s there if you need it, but you don’t have to use it. Just keep in mind that your home is acting as security in this case, so be sure you handle this debt extra responsibly.
  • Personal loan. Taking out a personal loan can come with high interest unless you have excellent credit. But it can be a way to access quick cash when you need it. Again, though, you’ll want to pay off this debt as quickly as possible after taking it out.

Be sure that if you use one of these other options, you only do it in the absolute most necessary emergencies. Your criteria for tapping into debt should be even stricter than your criteria for spending regular emergency savings. That’s because once you tap into the debt, you not only have to save up for your emergency fund, still, but you also have to pay back the debt.

An emergency fund is definitely an essential piece of a financially responsible life. How will you start saving yours?

 


How Being Unhealthy Can Impact Your Finances

You may not think about it, but your health can affect your finances… sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect. There’s the immediate cost of unhealthy behaviors, such as buying cigarettes or fast food. Then there are the long-term expenses, such as medical care for preventable diseases. Medications, days off of work, increased health insurance premiums — the added costs are wide and far-reaching.

UNHEALTHY

Curious how your lifestyle may be affecting your bank account? Let’s take a look at two leading unhealthy habits that cost you money: smoking and poor diet.

Smoking

Smoking is the leading cause of many diseases such as lung, mouth, and throat cancer. Not only is it bad for your health, it’s bad for your wallet, too.

According to findings summarized by Rutgers University, the net worth of a typical non-smoker was found to be twice that of a typical heavy smoker. Light smokers fare slightly better, typically having a net worth of about 50% less than their non-smoking counterparts.

One explanation for the gap in the net worth of smokers versus non-smokers is that smokers will ultimately have more expensive, and more frequent, medical expenses due to their smoking habit. The ongoing (and high) cost of cigarettes also sets smokers further back financially, compared to non-smokers.

Employers are increasingly adopting health promotion policies to improve the health of their workforce. For example, some employers require employees who identify as smokers to pay higher health insurance premiums. Other employers have smoke-free workplace policies that prohibit smoking on their premises altogether. In states without smoker-protection laws, it’s within an employer’s legal right to not hire a smoker or fire an employee for violating the smoke-free workplace policy.

Learn More About High Deductible Health Insurance Plans

Quitting smoking can save you up to $70 per week (at $10 per daily cigarette pack). This equates to over $3,500 in yearly savings. Think about what you could do with that much extra cash! Would you establish a solid emergency fund? Fund your IRA? Perhaps, you’d finally take your family on that exciting vacation you’ve always wanted. An extra three or four thousand dollars each year could go a long way for many folks.

Saving on the cost of cigarettes is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of quitting smoking, too. You’ll improve your overall health and decrease your likelihood of developing certain cancers, which are costly diseases to treat.

Poor Diet

There’s a reason that personal finance gurus often advise that you trim the “eating out” expenses first, when looking to whittle the expenses: fast food and restaurant meals cost a lot more than home-cooked meals. Of course, the difference in cost becomes greater the more people you have in your family. By simply cooking more meals at home, you can cut back on unhealthy food additives like salt, fat, and sugar, while saving money in the process.

Eating a poor diet can also contribute to weight gain, causing you to become overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese comes with more negative consequences than just ill-fitting clothes. Namely, it can affect your life insurance rates or whether your life insurance application is approved or denied altogether. Underwriters use height/weight tables to evaluate your health rating. If you’re overweight or obese, you could be offered higher life insurance rates than someone in a more healthy weight range, even with all other factors being equal. If your health rating is too low, you could even be denied life insurance from that provider.

Related: How Much Life Insurance Do You Need?

Having a proper diet, and making other healthy lifestyle choices, can increase longevity. People who live longer are able to take advantage of compound interest longer. As a result, their investments can grow more over time. Living to 90 instead of 80, for example, gives you 10 more years to accumulate wealth and pass on larger assets to your survivors.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been engaging in unhealthy behaviors but weren’t aware of the financial repercussions, now’s the time to make a change. The great thing about making lifestyle changes is that you can make them gradually and still see an effect. You don’t have to jump into it all in one day, but making small changes bit by bit is still a step in the right direction.

Not only will you improve your health and finances, but you could also improve the lives of people around you. Quitting smoking reduces the amount of second-hand smoke your loved ones experience. Making more meals at home teaches the other members in your family about healthy eating as well. Before you know it, you’ll have padded your bank account and improved your whole family’s health.


What Does TaxAct Have to Offer for 2017?

Tax season is upon as, and many are in the market for a preparation software to file their own tax returns. You may have heard of TaxAct before, as you filed in past years. In 2017, though, they’ve made quite a few changes to improve their software, mobile app, and support… ultimately giving you a better tax filing experience.

taxact

Here’s an overview of what TaxAct has to offer in 2017:

What’s New for 2017?

In 2017, TaxAct launched a new addition to its tax filing products, called the BluPrint Financial Assessment. BluPrint Financial Assessment provides financial guidance and savings information all year-round. With this assessment, customers receive a complimentary analysis of their tax return off the bat. Then, throughout the year, they receive additional insight on ways to reduce their tax bill next year and save for the future.

TaxAct has also implemented some enhancements to its other existing features:

  • Expanded W2 import options – TaxAct now has the ability to import W-2 forms straight from employers for over 75 million Americans. TaxAct online customers can also import PDF files of their W-2 forms.
  • Redesigned mobile app – TaxAct Express, the mobile app, gives customers an easy way to complete simple tax returns from their mobile phones or tablets. On the app, customers can also take a picture of their W-2 forms and upload it directly into their returns.
  • Personalized income interview – TaxAct has streamlined its online interview process to make it faster and easier for customers to file their tax returns.
  • Unlimited support – All of TaxAct’s products now offer unlimited phone and email support no matter which edition you purchase.
  • Prior year online return access – All TaxAct customers can now access their previously filed tax returns for the past seven years.

How Much Does TaxAct Cost?

The cost of TaxAct varies depending on the product level you choose as well as whether you choose to file online or via desktop download. Here are the current prices for TaxAct’s products:

Free Plus Premium
Online $0 for federal and state filing; $10 for optional prior year import $20; $30 state additional; prior year import included $35; $30 state additional; prior year import included
Desktop Download $0 for federal; $25 state additional; $5 for optional prior year import $40 for federal and state filing; prior year import included $55 for federal and state filing; prior year import included

Keep in mind that the prices on TaxAct’s websites are constantly changing as new promotions are released. You may be able to find sales or coupons for TaxAct during tax season on sites like RetailMeNot or Groupon.

The Free edition is recommended for simple 1040EZ and 1040A filers. The Plus edition is recommended for itemizers, homeowners, and investors. The Premium edition is recommended for those who are self-employed, freelancers, or contractors. Fun fact: the Plus edition is TaxAct’s most popular product.

What Are the Features?

TaxAct touts itself as the system to beat the system. By claiming to make “unfair advantages” — such as clever tax breaks and shrewd deductions — accessible to all, TaxAct is branded to appeal to the everyday taxpayer.

All TaxAct tax filing products share a few common features:

  • 100% accuracy and maximum refund guaranteed
  • W-2 form import
  • Unlimited tax and technical support by phone and email
  • Low price lock, even if you decide to file later
  • Personalized financial assessment

Related: This Year’s Cheapest Online Tax Software

Beyond that, there are some features that are unique to only the Plus or Premium editions. For example, on both the Plus and Premium editions, you have access to the following advanced features:

  • Saving optimization through hundreds of potential deductions and credits
  • Reporting of stocks and other investment income
  • Itemized deductions
  • Reporting of rental property income
  • Donation Assistant, which lets you import or enter charitable donations

Lastly, the Premium edition offers two features not currently available on the Free or Plus editions. These include reporting of business and farming income as well as maximization of business deductions and depreciation.

How’s the Support?

TaxAct offers support via phone and email. On its website, TaxAct states that emails will be responded to within three business days. Since that’s a long time to wait, most people will probably resort to phone support if they need to contact TaxAct. The downside here is that their phones aren’t staffed 24/7. The phone support hours are as follows:

  • Monday – Friday: 7AM – 9PM CT
  • Saturday: 8AM – 6PM CT
  • Sunday: 10AM – 5PM CT

However, on the last day to file taxes this year (April 18, 2017), TaxAct’s phone support will be extended to 12AM CT.

TaxAct doesn’t offer live chat support. But they do have a comprehensive knowledge base of articles on everything from how to review your tax return to how to file an extension.

Unlike many of its competitors, TaxAct doesn’t offer an audit protection or audit defense add-on. Its audit assistance consists of a set of dedicated pages in its knowledge base.

Resource: What to Do If You Get Audited

What Are the Refund Options?

If you’re expecting a refund, you can receive it one of three ways:

  • Direct deposit to a bank account
  • Direct deposit to an American Express Serve Prepaid Debit Account
  • Paper check

TaxAct also gives you the options to use your refund to purchase U.S. Savings Bonds in $50 increments or apply it to next year’s estimated taxes.

You can have your TaxAct product fee deducted from your refund as well.

The Verdict

TaxAct has made some new improvements to its products this year that make them worth considering for preparing your taxes. Namely, the expanded W-2 form import options and the prior-year online return access can save you time while preparing your return.

Where TaxAct falls short is on its support. The lack of live chat and the limited phone availability can negate any time savings offered by the new features.

Given that TaxAct has a totally free edition, it may definitely be worth looking into if you have a simple tax return.