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    By Jon Lal

    If you're like many of us, your New Year's resolutions might look something like this: get healthy, lose weight, save money, travel more, find a new job or make new friends. In fact, there's one way you can accomplish many of these things, often at once: by volunteering.

    Volunteering your time, whether it's in your community, your workplace or somewhere far across the world, is a wonderful way to give back. Volunteering is especially smart when it's not in your budget to make a donation. Besides helping to better the lives of others, volunteering can have a lot of unexpected benefits on your own life, as well. Here are a few reasons, besides the obvious, why you might want to donate your time this year:

    You can skip the gym:

    Many volunteer opportunities require some physical activity. Becoming a committed volunteer could mean you're regularly burning calories and working fitness into your lifestyle. A few examples include shoveling snow and raking leaves for the injured or elderly; working in a soup kitchen lifting boxes and serving the hungry; helping build and repair homes; walking dogs; community gardening and weed clean-up; or playing with kids in need of a role model and mentor. Consider canceling your gym membership and meeting your activity goals by volunteering a few times a week.

    Improve your health:

    There are even more proven health benefits to volunteering. The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life. Research also shows volunteering can strongly benefit older individuals that are retiring by keeping physical and social activity high during this stage of life. In that way, even opportunities that are low impact can provide physical and mental health benefits.

    No more costly mixers:

    Hoping to meet new people this year? Whether you want to network with future colleagues or mingle with singles, the cost to attend events can be pricey. Ticket prices, beverages and membership fees can add up each month. Instead, join a community group dedicated to giving back. It's much easier to meet new friends or potential dates when you're working toward a common cause. As for rubbing elbows with potential colleagues, you can meet tons of like-minded volunteers and easily expand your network without paying a fee at the door.

    Boost your resume and your worth:

    Speaking of networking, volunteering can add impressive experience to your resume. Future employers value hard workers, commitment to a cause, and those that go the extra mile for additional career experience. Having volunteering in your background might mean future employers will give you additional responsibility, sending you a few steps ahead in your career path.

    Travel on the cheap:

    Though it means more of a lifestyle change, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities that allow you to travel for an extended period at little cost. Entire organizations exist that provide volunteers with free room and board in exchange for their work. If you're passionate about the environment, this could be a wonderful way to give back and see the world all while doing important work protecting the planet. You can join a farming program, work on trail and park preservation or help after a natural disaster. Of course if this is something you're interested in, calculate the costs in advance. You'll likely still have to pay for airfare, a possible program fee and any vaccinations you might need before traveling.

    Feeling inspired? I hope a few of these ideas help you think about your own goals in a new way. If you're interested in volunteering but don't know where to start, try VolunteerMatch to find opportunities in your area and organizations in need.

     

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  • 01/28/16--06:43: Tuition-Free Colleges
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    If your grades do not merit a full-ride academic scholarship to college and you do not have enough athletic skills to stop your grandmother from dunking on you, keep your chin up - you can still attend college tuition-free. There are a handful of colleges throughout the US that offer a tuition-free education.

    What's the catch? It's not a catch, if you don't mind working. You simply provide labor or some form of commitment in return for your tuition. In most circumstances, you will have to pay room and board, and a few other expenses - but the savings are significant.

    These colleges are not easy to categorize aside from their tuition-free status, but they can be broken down into a few general types.

    Military Academies - The commitment in return for an education is obvious here, but the education is excellent. The Naval Academy at Annapolis, the US Military Academy at West Point, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs - even the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY - are tuition-free in exchange for a service commitment after graduation.

    Not only do you get a free education from the service academies and the pride associated with serving your country, but after your service, you also will be entitled to various veterans' benefits.


    Religious-Based Institutions - While these colleges were all established with some religious emphasis, the curriculum is not based solely in religious studies. You can achieve a fine broad-based education - although you should not be surprised to find them ranked at the bottom of the Party School listings each year.

    College of the Ozarks, located in Point Lookout, Missouri, near the tourist mecca of Branson, is known nationwide as "Hard Work U" thanks to publicity from the Wall Street Journal in the 1970's. Students are expected to work 15 hours each week along with two 40-hour work weeks at some point in the academic year.

    Alice Lloyd College offers free tuition to residents of 108 counties in the area of the Appalachians (West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio). Located in rural Pippa Passes, Kentucky, about 2.5 hours southeast of Lexington, Alice Lloyd requires students to work ten-to-twenty hours each week.

    Barclay College in Haviland, KS, offers a full-tuition scholarship to students living on-campus, but the scholarship does not include the cost of room, board and fees. Although it is a Quaker Bible school, the college admits all Christian students.

    Williamson College of the Trades is a male-only, Judeo-Christian college in Media, PA. Their full scholarship covers not only tuition, but also room, board and textbooks, with a choice of programs in carpentry, masonry, landscaping, horticulture, turf management, paint & coatings, power plant and machine tool technology.


    Specialized Colleges - Deep Springs College is located on an alfalfa farm and cattle ranch in Big Pine, California, northeast of Fresno. This all-male, two-year college requires over twenty hours of work each week in addition to studies. Deep Springs has an excellent record of graduates continuing their education at highly prestigious universities.

    The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is not only tuition-free; it is one of the world's most highly regarded conservatories for the performing arts. Their alumni populate top orchestras throughout the nation. Leonard Bernstein is one of several famous graduates.

    The Macaulay Honors College is a liberal arts college at City University of New York (CUNY). They give full-tuition scholarships to all undergraduate students that meet CUNY residency requirements for in-state tuition.

    Webb Institute in Glen Cove, NY, a private college specializing in naval architecture and marine engineering, offers full-tuition scholarships to their undergraduate degree, which features both a sound theoretical education and practical industry experience.


    Others - Berea College, a four-year liberal arts college located in Berea, Kentucky (about 45 minutes south of Lexington on I-75), accepts those with a demonstrated financial need tuition-free. Students are required to work at least ten hours per week.

    Unfortunately, the economy has forced several fine universities in this field to partially abandon their tuition-free status. Cooper Union, founded in 1859 in Manhattan and offering degrees in architecture, art, and engineering, is now offering a half-tuition scholarship for undergraduates enrolling for the first time, while those who first enrolled before autumn 2014 are still given a full tuition scholarship. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA, has also switched to a 50% tuition scholarship program.

    If you are still looking for a tuition-free - but not labor-free - education, consider these fine colleges and other tuition-free institutions to see if they meet your needs. Alternatively, you can learn to block shots like a 7-footer or dunk like Michael Jordan.

     

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    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    The average 65-year-old man retiring this year can expect to have another 17 years of living in front of him, according to the National Institute on Aging. For a woman, that number jumps to 20 years.

    That's a lot of time to travel the world, enjoy hobbies and make memories with family and friends. On the other hand, it can also be a lot of time to stress about rising expenses and dwindling assets.

    Fortunately, if you plan correctly, you can minimize the chances of ending up with too many years left and too little money in the bank. However, if you think you've made mistakes (or are making mistakes) when it comes to retirement planning, rest assured there is always time to make a correction.

    Here are five common retirement planning mistakes and how to do damage control for each one.

    Retirement Planning Mistake: Focusing solely on your rate of return.

    The Solution: Create a diversified portfolio.

    It makes sense that investors want to maximize their returns, but financial advisors say it's a mistake to take a narrow view of retirement portfolios.

    "People tend to chase rates of returns," says Bob Gavlak, a certified financial planner and wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners in Columbus, Ohio. "[Rates] are not in your control. You need to look at your overall strategy."

    Rather than trying to put all your money in specific funds that did well in previous years, it's better to spread investments over a variety of fund types - such as index, balanced, equity and global - that offer a combined level of risk appropriate for your age and goals. This approach diversifies a retirement fund so the entire portfolio won't be in jeopardy should one industry or sector run into economic trouble.

    Retirement Planning Mistake: Forgetting about taxes.

    The Solution: Have a tax plan for investments and assets.

    Thomas O'Connell, president of International Financial Authority Group in Parsippany, New Jersey, says taxes are another area that trip up retirement planning.

    "People don't typically have the same deductions [in retirement], so their effective tax rate is going to be higher," O'Connell says. "They are ending up paying more in taxes even though their lifestyle hasn't changed."

    Minimizing taxes in retirement can be achieved through a combination of strategies, Gavlak says. Investing in Roth accounts is one way to ensure withdrawals are tax free. Meanwhile, distributions from taxable retirement accounts can be timed to coincide with low-income, and therefore low-tax, periods. Owning a home, rather than renting, is another way to potentially lower taxes in retirement.

    Retirement Planning Mistake: Thinking the start of retirement marks the end of planning.

    The Solution: Review finances and goals every year.

    It's tempting to think of a retirement plan as something that runs on autopilot after leaving the workforce. In reality, a plan only remains relevant if it constantly evolves to adjust for market conditions and a retiree's lifestyle needs and goals.

    "Retirement planning is nothing more than a process," says Stephen Davis, an investment advisor and president of S.G. Davis Financial Group in Concord, New Hampshire. Too many people make the mistake of failing to understand their expenses and plan their income accordingly. "Medical costs go up, and inflation can have a big impact."

    What's more, Davis cautions against using the old rule that says it's safe to withdraw 4 percent from retirement accounts annually. "Since 2000, our interest rates have gone down, and we've run into two market corrections," he notes. Combined with longer lifespans, that means people taking out 4 percent each year may find they run their accounts dry prematurely.

    Instead of creating a retirement plan based on general rules of thumb, a better option may be to meet with a financial advisor each year to evaluate income, assets, taxes and market conditions, and make changes as necessary.

    Retirement Planning Mistake: Saving too little.

    The Solution: Start now and automatically increase contributions with every raise and bonus.

    In 2013, the median retirement fund for 55 to 64 year olds held a paltry $111,000, according to a report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That translates to living on $400 per month - and isn't much when you consider it has to stretch over 17 to 20 years or more.

    "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today," says O'Connell, using an old analogy. It's the same with money. The best way to do damage control for meager savings is to make it a priority going forward.

    A workplace 401(k) is the logical place to start, since many employers will match contributions, up to a certain amount. If that's not an option, an IRA funded through automatic deposits is another good choice. Then, once the money is in the account, don't touch it.

    Frank Drago, senior vice president of investment services at Citizens Bank, says many people have too little savings because they dip into retirement funds for other expenses like college. "As difficult as these decisions sometimes are, the focus should be on building and protecting your nest egg to last through your retirement years," Drago says.

    Retirement Planning Mistake: Saving too late.

    The Solution: Stay in the workforce or look for guaranteed income streams.

    For some, it may already be too late to save up a significant amount of money before retirement, but if this describes you, it doesn't mean you're out of options.

    One strategy could be to remain in the workforce longer. Doing so not only allows you to save up more money, but you could also increase your Social Security benefits. "In fact, staying on the job a few more years may boost your retirement income by one-third or more," Drago says.

    If working isn't a possibility, "start focusing on creating guaranteed income streams," O'Connell says. Those could include payments from annuities or the cash value of life insurance policies. A finance professional can provide guidance on each investment and its income potential.

    It's Never Too Late to Make a Change

    Although retirement planning mistakes can make it difficult to enjoy the lifestyle you'd like, financial advisors say there is always time to make a positive change.

    "It's never too late to fix things, even if someone is in their first year of retirement or five years in," Gavlak says. "There is still time to adjust [a retirement plan]."

     

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    By Krystal Steinmetz

    Barabas, a Los Angeles-based men's clothing company, has been clobbered with unprecedented demand for two of its $128 shirts, and it has this individual to thank for its overnight success: Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

    According to the Los Angeles Times, immediately after photographs of the drug kingpin wearing two different Barabas shirts were published in Rolling Stone magazine in early January, the orders for the shirts started piling up.

    Barabas went overnight from receiving 10 to 20 orders per day to hundreds of orders per day. In fact, the company's website crashed due to the overwhelming flood of orders.

    "This sudden madness - I cannot call it anything different," Tatiana Kivachook, vice president of Barabas, told the newspaper. Kivachook runs the clothing company with her husband, Sam Esteghball.

    The now famous "El Chapo" shirts are both blue, long-sleeved, button-down shirts. One has a paisley pattern and one features a floral design.

    Although they sell for $128 each on the Barabas website, some sellers have listed the shirts for as much as $500 on eBay. The Barabas website said the company is donating 5 percent of the profits from sales of the two "El Chapo" shirts to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E..

    Barabas - a company with just eight employees - has struggled to keep up with global demand for the shirts, which are currently on back order, but the Barabas website said the shirts should be shipped by Feb. 5.

    "It's actually been extremely rough. From one point, of course we're very, very excited, but our business was paralyzed through the first week because of all the interviews and demand," Kivachook told Mashable.

    Although the infamous drug lord's fashion triggered overnight success for Barabas, the company maintains that it has no ties to the criminal.

    "We have never met Joaquin Guzman, a.k.a. El Chapo," the company says on its home page. "We can explain his apparently esthetic choice of shirts for the interview and the meeting with Sean Penn as an attribution of comfort, quality and style that Barabas shirt projects."

    What do you think of the success of the "El Chapo" shirts sold by Barabas? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

     

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    By Geoff Williams

    If you're barely getting by, it may seem crazy to try to emulate a millionaire. After all, millionaires have a ton of money, and you don't. And while some millionaires used their wisdom and wit to get where they are, there are presumably plenty out there who were born wealthy and had numerous advantages growing up.

    But advice for the rich is often universal, and there's a lot we can learn from the wealthiest of the wealthy. With that in mind, we tapped some financial advisors who represent millionaires and asked them to share advice they give their clients that also applies to the rest of us.

    1. Make your money work for you. Don't work for your money. In other words, invest in stocks, says Matt Papazian, a financial advisor at Cardan Capital, based in Denver.
    Why it matters. Papazian says the wealthiest people generally own their own businesses. "This allows them to generate income or grow assets even when they are not sitting in the office," he says.

    And if you don't have the resources to start your own business? Invest in one. "The best way to replicate the ownership of a business is by owning securities in businesses that are already in existence. These companies can be selling iPhones, computers, candy bars, detergent, cars - globally, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. It's the next best thing," Papazian says.

    2. Keep an emergency fund. Michael Rose, managing partner with Rose Capital Advisors in Miami Beach, Florida, stresses this to his clients, many of whom are wealthy athletes and entertainers.

    Why it matters. Even the wildly rich need to keep money saved for emergencies, Rose says. They simply need more money put aside than the rest of us. Rose says this is especially important for entertainers and athletes, who may make a lot of money but are self-employed.

    "It's a boom-and-bust industry," Rose says, adding that without a lot of money put aside, athletes and entertainers are often one injury or unproduced movie away from bust.

    3. Plan for a health emergency. This tip comes from John Voltaggio, senior wealth advisor at Northern Trust in New York City.

    Why it matters. If you have a spouse and kids, they're likely depending on you to stay in good health. "What happens in the event of a medical emergency, incapacity or even death? Does the client have appropriate medical, disability and/or life insurance in place, which, when combined with others assets, will provide for surviving family members?" Voltaggio asks.

    Even if you don't have many assets and aren't concerned who will get your mansion and three cars because you live in an apartment and take the bus to work, as long as you have an income that supports your family, you should have life insurance.

    4. Review your finances periodically. So says Anne O'Brien, an estate planning advisor with Caplin & Drysdale in the District of Columbia. She represents athletes, entertainers, political figures and wealthy business owners.

    Why it matters. Because money is complicated, and the rules, especially with taxes, often change. "A year-end meeting of the client and advisors is essential," O'Brien says.

    Of course, you may not have a team in place in the way O'Brien suggests. "At a minimum, the attorney, an accountant and a financial advisor," she recommends.

    But even if you're huddling with your spouse and a money management software program, it's better than never looking at your money and hoping everything works out OK.

    5. Don't lend people money. This is according to Jimmy Lee, CEO of the Wealth Consulting Group, a wealth management firm in Las Vegas.

    Why it matters. It might sound cold, but Lee says he has seen too many wealthy people lose a lot money because they "fall victim to 'friends' who have their own financial interests in mind."

    So think about how much fun you'll have if you don't have much - and still loan out money.
    Lee tells his clients, "when people come to you for money, send them to me. I'm perfectly fine saying 'no,' and ruffling a few feathers if need be."

    6. Teach your kids about money. This tip is from Michael Chadwick, a certified financial planner from Unionville, Connecticut.

    Why it matters. It really doesn't matter how rich or poor you are. If you don't teach your kids how to handle money, they're going to have problems.

    "Don't enable your kids to be financially illiterate or mentally weak. Make them face financial reality ... Don't bail them out or fight their battles for them," Chadwick advises. "Kids need to know life has winners and losers. Don't be afraid to hurt their feelings. They'll get over it and be stronger because of it."

    7. The earlier you get into the habit of saving, the more money you'll have. So says Scott Laue, a Rockford, Illinois-based senior financial advisor at Savant Capital Management.

    Why it matters. It's familiar advice but still important to remember. "Even average Joes and Josephines can reach millionaire status. You just need to follow certain guidelines," Laue says. "Compound interest has been called the eighth wonder of the world - the more you save, the more compound interest you earn."

    8. Understand what drives you to spend your money. This is key, says Kathleen Grace, a wealth manager and managing director of United Capital Financial Advisers as well as author of the financial planning novel, "Prince Not So Charming."

    Why it matters. Whether you're in the top 1 percent of income or the bottom 1 percent, we have reasons for the way we spend our money.

    "Don't be an emotional spender," Grace warns, adding that it's important to understand why you tend to spend money. For instance, maybe fear drives you to spend more than you should, so you stock up on grocery items you don't need. Or maybe you spend recklessly simply because spending and buying makes you happy.

    "If you understand what your biases are in making money decisions, you have greater insight and are better able to possibly prevent yourself from making financial decisions based upon emotion," she says.

     

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    By Holly Perez

    Being financially literate, or understanding all aspects of your financial life, is crucial to becoming confident about money. But often, we're too embarrassed or uncomfortable to talk about money openly.
    According to a 2013 Wells Fargo survey of over 1,000 adults, 44 percent of respondents said "personal finances" is the hardest topic to discuss with others, followed by "death" at 38 percent and "politics" at 35 percent.

    Money topics such as debt, student loans, salary, credit scores and even saving for the future can cause paralyzing anxiety. A 2014 National Foundation for Credit Counseling study on financial literacy showed that only 2 in 5 adults believe that, if their money could talk, it would say. "We've been a successful team."

    So to help improve your relationship with your money, we've raised 10 potentially embarrassing money topics and offered some suggestions to tackle them with confidence.

    1. Spending well above your means. Though keeping up with the Joneses feels like a problem we should have grown out of in high school, we are all guilty of this from time to time. Insisting on paying for dinner out with that friend who makes twice what you do so that you can impress her is just not worth the strain on your finances. It's OK to be honest with yourself and others when making plans, and push for activities that will fit your budget instead of racking up debt or running through your whole food budget in one meal.

    2. Debt because of overspending. We're looking at you topic No. 1. Getting into debt is easy. Digging out of debt is hard. It can feel even worse if it's due to lavish spending habits or poor budgeting. Personal finance apps can help show you the big picture of where you are financially, so you can stay in control of your finances and feel good about the purchases you make (within your means, of course).

    3. Debt because of bad advice. If you're seeking financial advice, start with trusted and reliable sources. While friends and family are great and can hold you accountable to your money goals, organizations such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Consumer Credit Counseling Service can give you that extra professional support you need.

    4. Loaning money to friends and family. You've heard the saying money and family don't mix, but they can (with caution). Check out these four simple steps to follow if you are considering loaning money.

    5. Credit card(ssss). You don't need more than two credit cards to help build credit and to use on a consistent basis. More than that, and you can actually damage the credit reputation you've built. Avoid the tempting discount offers from store credit cards. Their interest rates can skyrocket and only increase your debt.

    6. A weak credit score. A low credit score can put a damper on more than you think. It can be difficult to obtain insurance, apply for a car loan or even rent an apartment. If you have loaded up on credit cards and have a habit of overspending and paying bills late, you may find your score is low. But knowing your credit score, and working to improve it, is what financial literacy is all about. So while it may take some time to boost that low score, diligently paying down debt will slowly raise your score and open new doors to you.

    7. The burden of student loans. Pursuing a higher education can be financially challenging. And once you look at the amount of interest that student loans can generate, it can feel impossible to pay them off. But you can do it with just a little bit of planning.

    8. Managing a 401(k). Planning for retirement in your 20s with student debt and a small paycheck may sound ridiculous, but it's not. Even contributing just 2 to 3 percent of every paycheck (and gradually increasing the percentage every year or so) is an easy way to build your 401(k) and retirement savings without having to be a personal finance expert.

    9. Not knowing how to save. The key is automation. Having your bank automatically put aside as little as 1 percent of your income to deposit directly into a savings account is a great start. You probably won't even notice the money missing from your checking account after a few weeks.

    10. Money and my significant other. Though you'd probably prefer to talk about anything else, talking about money is key to any successful relationship. Start by sharing how you each feel about money such as wants and needs. Slowly ease into the stickier topics such as who pays for what, long-term saving versus short-term spending and your comfort level with investing together. Schedule recurring money "dates" where you can comfortably have ongoing money conversations together.

    Now that you've made it through the list (perhaps with a bit of squirming), don't feel like you have to tackle all of this. Start small and commit to improving one aspect of your financial life at a time. Before you know it, the taboo money topics will be a little easier to discuss and manage.

     

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    By Karla Bowsher

    While many of America's largest metropolitan areas saw robust growth during the economic recovery, median wages fell in the vast majority of these areas, and many residents did not achieve a higher quality of life.

    Those facts emerged in a report from the nonprofit Brookings Institution that is billed as a new way to measure economic growth in U.S. metros.

    Brookings says its report attempts to measure not only economic growth, "but also how growth is achieved and who benefits from it." It examines three metrics in each metro:
    1. Growth - changes in the size of the economy
    2. Prosperity - changes in the economic well-being of workers and residents
    3. Inclusion - changes in disparities by income and race

    Among the findings are that between 2009 and 2014, only nine of the 100 largest metro areas outperformed averages in growth, prosperity, inclusion and inclusion by race, according to Brookings. For example, the study found that:
    • Median wages declined in 80 of the 100 areas.
    • Just 21 metros saw a significant narrowing of the gap between whites and people of color on measures of median wage, relative income poverty and employment.

    Report co-author Alan Berube, Brookings senior fellow and deputy director, concludes in a news release:

    Local leaders hoping to extend and accelerate this economic recovery need to make deliberate efforts to ensure that more people and communities benefit from a rising tide.

    The study also ranked the largest 100 metro areas based on growth, prosperity, inclusion by income and inclusion by race:


    Growth

    Highest-ranked:
    1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California
    2. Austin-Round Rock, Texas
    3. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas
    Lowest-ranked:
    1. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida
    2. Albuquerque, New Mexico
    3. Wichita, Kansas


    Prosperity

    Highest-ranked:
    1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California
    2. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas
    3. Austin-Round Rock, Texas
    Lowest-ranked:
    1. Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada
    2. Palm Beach-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida
    3. New Orleans-Metairie, Louisiana

    Inclusion

    Highest-ranked:
    1. Tulsa, Oklahoma
    2. Springfield, Massachusetts
    3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California
    Lowest-ranked:
    1. Albuquerque, New Mexico
    2. Augusta, Georgia-Richmond County, South Carolina
    3. Columbia, South Carolina


    Inclusion by race

    Highest-ranked:
    1. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida
    2. Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada
    3. Bakersfield, California
    Lowest-ranked:
    1. Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida
    2. Augusta, Georgia-Richmond County, South Carolina
    3. Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, Florida
    What's your take on these findings? Share your reaction in a comment below or on Facebook.

     

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    By Allison Martin

    Super Bowl 50 is Feb. 7 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Anyone hosting this year's shindig likely fears having to fork over a hefty sum.

    Fortunately, you don't have to blow your budget to show your friends a good time. Nor do you have to spend the whole day in the kitchen.

    Here are some low-cost Super Bowl party ideas that will make your life easier, and leave you with the energy to cheer on your team come game time.

    1. Potluck

    Deciding to go potluck is one of the easiest ways to make your party planning a little less intimidating. You can even create a theme that gets everyone excited to participate. Just make sure you keep track of who's bringing what: There's nothing worse than too many pretzels and not enough beer.

    2. Backyard tailgate

    Just because you're staying home doesn't mean you can't tailgate. If you live in a relatively warm climate, all you have to do is take the party outside for the hours leading up to kickoff.
    Throw some brats on the grill and paint your face with your team's colors. As a bonus, you'll keep some of the rowdy behavior outside your home.

    3. Sports bar experience

    Some people rent out part of their local sports bar to throw a party, but that can get pricey. So why not replicate the experience for a fraction of the cost at home?

    Move all your televisions into the designated party space, set up a makeshift bar and, voilà, you have your very own sports bar. Extra points if you have a large drink selection or a keg.

    4. Snack city

    Super Bowl parties are not dinner parties. There's no need to go all out with the food you serve. Try getting a variety of snack foods and skip the prepared platters of meats and cheeses, veggies and dips from the grocery store. Instead, make your own.

    This video with Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shares a tasty recipe for a Super Bowl snack your guests will love.

    5. Cut down on food prep time

    Everyone loves a make-your-own-nachos bar, and it saves you a lot of time in the kitchen. You can also apply the same idea to other foods.

    Sundae bars are always popular, as is allowing your guests to decorate their own cupcakes. Or simply put out skewers for meats, cheeses, fruit or any other foods that might otherwise be eaten with a fork.

    6. Stagger the food

    Don't put all your food out at once. At the end of the game, you'll probably want to throw away any meats or cheeses that have been sitting out for hours.

    So instead, put out food only as needed. That will cut down on waste, leaving leftovers for lunch in the coming week.

    Just make sure you keep an eye on what guests are eating and keep the most popular snacks coming.

    7. Shop strategically

    Think about what you want to make before you go to the store, and create a list so you don't end up with some expensive impulse buys and without any of your essentials.

    Then look through your local supermarket's circular, or go online to find deals and coupons. Look for generic brands - if you're not serving them straight out the box, your guests probably won't notice the difference.

    8. Buy your alcohol wholesale

    You can purchase alcohol at any Sam's Club in the country, even if you don't have a membership. Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club have similar policies in some states.

    Just keep in mind that not every employee will be aware of the store's policy, so do your research. Shopping at one of these clubs often can save you big money on your alcohol purchases.

     

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    Ditch These Expensive Ingredients With Way Cheaper Alternatives

    Did you know? You can swap out pricier ingredients when making your favorite recipes at home. Using a few easy-to-find substitutes means you can save time and money at the store, without sacrificing taste in the kitchen.

    For example, next time you're cooking up your favorite Indian dish, replace expensive cardamom with store-bought cinnamon for a similar spicy flavor.

    No need to break the bank on hard-to-find truffles, either. Porcini mushrooms are a lot more affordable, and they'll infuse your dish with that same pungent taste.

    Finally, filet mignon may be the king of steaks, but decadence isn't cheap. If you're looking for king-sized taste without the king-sized price, try substituting rib-eye for a full-flavored filet alternative.

    So remember, when it comes to cooking at home, you don't have to spend big bucks to achieve big flavor.

     

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    Teenager counting savings
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    By Donna Freedman

    Some of us think wealth is unattainable. Hard work is expected, but building a fortune isn't on our radar of possibilities.

    We believe the rich will get richer, and the rest of us will stay right where we are - unless, of course, we slide backward.

    But such pessimism is unwarranted. It may not happen overnight, but people of moderate means can and do leverage their dollars to build wealth over time.

    The best news? Some of the most effective tactics for achieving wealth don't cost a dime.

    Here are seven crucial steps to getting richer over time.

    1. Set a goal

    It isn't enough to simply say, "I want to invest in real estate." That's more of a pipe dream than a goal. You need to create a road map to get you from here to wherever it is you want to be.

    For example, if you are considering investing in real estate, take concrete steps to learn more about what it will take to reach your goal. Such steps might include:
    • Educating yourself about the local rental market, such as learning about current vacancy rates and how much rent you can charge per month.
    • Determining how much money it will take to get your dream off the ground.
    • Figuring out how long it will take to set that cash aside.
    • Researching avenues that can help you achieve your dream, such as buying foreclosed properties at auction.

    2. Create a budget

    Create a budget that will get you to the goal you have set. Figure out how much you pay for necessities - a mortgage or rent, your monthly food bill, and other such costs - as well as optional purchases you make each month.

    Then, subtract any extras - for example, keep basic cable but eliminate pay-per-view movies. Or, budget for a month's worth of groceries but drop all but an occasional night out for a restaurant meal.

    Once you know your true expenses, subtract that figure from your take-home pay. That should give you a better idea of how much you will have available to save for your wealth-related goal.

    3. Track expenses

    Budgeting is important, but your spending estimates may not be as accurate as you think. Check your numbers by tracking expenses for at least one month. This will show you exactly where your money is going.

    Once you start tracking your daily expenses, you might be surprised to find that $300 a month is dribbling away on small, inconsequential purchases - apps, lunches out, magazines, music downloads - that you previously overlooked.

    Decide to cut such purchases in half, and you'll have an extra $1,800 a year for your wealth-building goals.

    Our friends at PowerWallet can help you both track expenses and find ways to reduce costs. Note that this doesn't have to mean massive deprivation - instead, it is simply a smarter use of available funds instead of blindly pitching dollars at wants and needs.

    4. Live below your means

    Once you have a viable budget in place, stick to it closely as possible. Put any savings away for retirement or in another type of investment portfolio.

    From our Solutions Center: Find a better online brokerage

    This doesn't mean you can't ever have fun again. But you have to weigh the opportunity cost of each splurge. The more you live below your means now, the wealthier you are likely to become in the future.

    5. Nix any debt

    If you have money left over each month, you definitely should save it - unless you have debt. In that case, it often makes more sense to use any "extra" money to pay off current obligations instead of saving or investing it.

    Remember, living according to the "minimum payment due" philosophy is guaranteed to keep you in shackles. Instead of merely paying the minimum, pay as much as you can toward your bills so you never have to pay interest again.

    Once the debt is gone, your new budget should keep you from falling back into the red.

    6. Negotiate ways to raise pay and lower costs

    A powerful way to build wealth is to increase the amount of money coming in while decreasing the amount going out.

    With that in mind, negotiate a pay raise. If possible, lay the groundwork now to get a raise in the new year.

    Just as important, keep finding ways to lower expenses so you are squeezing more money from your paycheck. You'd be surprised what's potentially negotiable:
    • Medical care. Some doctors and dentists will give you a discount if you pay cash at the time of service.
    • Credit card interest. If you've been making payments on time and have a decent credit score, ask the cardholder to lower your interest rate. (And while you're at it, look for a better deal on a credit card - such as one that pays rewards.)
    • The cable bill. Call up the provider and ask for a lower rate. Emphasize your other options, such as switching to competing cable companies or dropping cable in favor of Netflix and Hulu.

    7. Think past today's needs

    Eventually, you will get used to the new, more frugal lifestyle. But even as you are basking in the glow of your savings success, it can be tempting to slip back into old patterns.

    When that temptation arises - and it will - remember to think past today's needs, and to instead focus on tomorrow's wealthier future.

    This is a crucial attitude adjustment. Stop thinking you have to have everything you want as soon as you want it. An "instant gratification" attitude is a huge impediment to building wealth.

    Instead, continue to look for ways to trim expenses large and small. For example, since shelter is another huge chunk of most people's budgets, maybe it's time to look for a cheaper place to live. Other ways to save include:
    You don't have to live in a cardboard carton and subsist on cold oatmeal. But you do have to remember the opportunity cost of the dollars that leak from your wallet.

    What are your favorite wealth-building tips? Share them in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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    By Brandon Ballenger

    Most college students will return to campus later this month, and they'll spend a lot of money on textbooks.

    Students at public four-year colleges spent an average of $1,225 on books and supplies during the 2014-15 school year, according to the College Board.

    The total was even higher for private four-year colleges ($1,244) and public two-year schools ($1,328).
    Anything you can do to offset such costs helps. Following are 11 strategies to save on your textbooks.

    1. Contact your professors now

    Class may not start for weeks, but chances are the textbooks for your course have been selected. Professors have to give college stores advance notice so the stores can order copies.

    So email your professors and ask for the syllabus, or the required textbook list. That way, you can snag the cheapest copies before your classmates get the chance.

    Talk to students who have had your professors before. Such students might still have copies of the textbooks you need and sell them at a cheap price.

    2. Visit the campus library

    Why pay for a book when you can borrow it free? If you're quick enough, you may be able to get one of the library's precious few copies. If it's checked out, see if you can reserve a copy that's due back soon.

    The only flaw in this strategy is that you might not be able to check out the book for the entire semester. So, this strategy may work best for texts that will be used only briefly during the course of a semester.

    Don't forget digital libraries. Many out-of-copyright works are available on sites such as Project Gutenberg and Bartleby.

    3. Buy used

    Used books have to be in decent condition for stores to resell them. The savings can be significant, especially on an older edition.

    On several occasions in college, I bought used books online for less than $10 (including shipping) when the new price was $60 or more. None had significant defects - sometimes they had a little highlighting or writing. Nor were they missing anything essential for the class.

    From our Solutions Center: Help with student loan debt

    4. Check rentals

    Companies like Chegg, BookRenter and CampusBookRentals helped create an active market for textbook rental. Many college bookstores now offer the option, which can save you one-third or more in costs compared with buying. (If you rent from an online store, shipping usually is covered.)

    Just be aware that if the book is relevant to your major and you might reuse it, the savings might be greater if you buy the text. It can be hard to tell whether you'll need a book again. But if the book is by an author important to the field, the odds increase that buying makes more sense.

    I had books overlap in different English classes, and I also reused a few books from undergrad in my graduate courses.

    5. Look for digital

    As the number of tablets and e-readers grows, so does the selection of digital textbooks. And you can also rent digitally. Amazon suggests you can save up to 80 percent with its Kindle rentals, and you don't even need to buy a Kindle - there are compatible reading apps for computers and smartphones.

    6. Compare prices

    Prices can vary widely for both new and used copies, and online isn't always cheaper.

    At a minimum, check at Half.com and Amazon.com in addition to your school bookstore and any nearby off-campus competitors.

    BookFinder.com, DirectTextbook.com, and TextbookPriceComparison.com can help you compare.

    7. Make sure you get everything

    Sometimes books are packaged with software, codes for required online access, digital content, study guides, or workbooks. If the course requires any of that stuff, make sure your copy includes it - or that you will still come out ahead financially even if you have to buy such materials separately.

    8. Know the rules

    Understand the refund policy when you buy, so you don't get burned if you end up not needing a book or if you drop a class. Unwrapped or marked-up books might prevent you from getting a full refund.

    9. Keep receipts

    Not only will you need these for returns, but you also might want them for tax deductions.

     

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    Self-employed and loving it!

    By Marilyn Lewis

    Being your own boss definitely has its advantages - flexibility, upward mobility, the chance to take your business in the direction you choose - but at tax time, being self-employed can be a challenge. Here's a look at what's expected of you when you go to work for yourself.

    Self-employment tax

    Like everyone else, if you're self-employed, you'll pay personal income taxes by filing Form 1040 on or before April 15. In addition, however, the self-employed also have to pay self-employment (SE) tax, which is a combination of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

    You probably know that when you're an employee, 6.2 percent of your gross pay is withheld from your paycheck for Social Security. What you may not know: Your employer also pays the government another 6.2 percent, bringing the total contribution for Social Security to 12.4 percent of your pay, up to $118,500.

    Your employer is also responsible for paying another 2.9 percent of your pay into Medicare, with no limit.

    When you're self-employed, however, you're covering all this yourself. You pay the entire 12.4 percent of Social Security, plus the 2.9 percent for Medicare. So while employees pay 6.2 percent of their earnings for Social Security, the self-employed pay more than 15 percent.

    If your business earned $400 or more in net profit, you'll owe SE tax. If your business netted less than $400, you may not need to even file a 1040. You may owe tax on your self-employment income even you aren't self-employed full time or if your solo work is just a sideline. To know if you owe SE tax, subtract your business expenses (more on this below) from your business income using IRS Schedule C (Form 1040), Profit or Loss From Business.

    If you owe self-employment tax, use a different 1040 form, Schedule SE (Form 1040), to report your income. Transfer your bottom line amount from Schedule C to the SE 1040.

    The IRS explains the details at IRS Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center.

    Schedule C-EZ

    You might be able to use the simplified Schedule C-EZ if you meet the following criteria:
    • You earn a profit.
    • You have expenses of $5,000 or less.
    • You have no employees.
    • You have no inventory.
    • You are not using depreciation or deducting your home's cost.

    The IRS has help deciding between Schedule C and C-EZ.

    Click here and learn to slash your taxes with our new tax course!

    Quarterly tax payments

    Self-employed workers estimate how much Medicare, Social Security and income tax they owe and pay it in quarterly installments. Use Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals (PDF) to calculate and pay quarterly taxes. It has a worksheet that helps estimate what you owe and vouchers to submit with your quarterly tax payments.

    You'll need last year's tax return to complete it. If this is your first year of self-employment, you'll estimate, making up any difference in subsequent quarters.

    In addition, there are other requirements. Your specifics will depend on the type of corporate structure you've chosen.

    Corporation types

    Depending on how your business is incorporated you may have other tax reporting requirements. The IRS describes business structures and their tax filing requirements here.

    Typically, self-employed workers, including contractors, operate as "sole proprietors." Few one-person and small businesses become corporations as these have more complex tax and legal requirements.

    Some small or one-person businesses use the S Corporation (S Corp) structure, though. The Small Business Administration, comparing incorporation options for businesses, says that "one of the best features of the S Corp is the tax savings for you and your business." However, forming and operating an S Corp requires strict operating and reporting procedures that not every small business wants to undertake.

    If you are curious about an S Corp, ask a tax adviser with expertise in this area to help you weigh the pros and cons.

    Sole proprietors

    You may be thinking, "Uh oh, I didn't incorporate at all." Breathe easy. The most common structure used by small-business people is a sole proprietorship. You don't need to do anything special to declare yourself a sole proprietor, as long as you are the only owner.

    Tax-wise, this is the easiest approach. For details on IRS filing requirements see the IRS forms for sole proprietors.

    Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)

    An LLC is a business structure established by your state that may give you some advantages, including some protection from personal liability. (The SBA has more on LLCs.) But having an LLC doesn't affect how you file taxes - you just file as a sole proprietorship, an S Corporation or whatever business structure you've chosen to use.

    State taxes

    Paying state and local taxes is another obligation of self employment. Each state and local government has its rates and rules. The IRS offers links to each state's tax authority. Check with your city government for local rules.

    Business deductions

    You can deduct "ordinary" and "necessary" business expenses by subtracting them from your income. Here's the test, from IRS' section on deducting business expenses:

    An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your trade or business.

    Independent workers' deductions can include costs for travel, retirement savings, entertainment, insurance, license fees, taxes, and office equipment and software. These articles have the details on taking deductions:
    More deductions

    Some of your business expenses can be deducted only partially - your costs for a car used for both personal and business transportation, for example. If 30 percent of your car's use is for business, you'll deduct 30 percent of the vehicle's costs.

    As an alternative, you can deduct all of your business mileage, so keep a record with odometer readings for the start and end of each business trip and consult this chart for mileage rates the IRS allows.

    Some business costs - investments that become business assets - are treated differently. They are capitalized, deducted over a number of years. Nolo explains deductions versus capital expenses.

    Do you have experience paying taxes as a self-employed person? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

     

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    By Kimberly Palmer

    For football players, managing money is easy to fumble. Unlike most people, they often earn huge paychecks early in their careers, when they have the least experience handling money, and then those paychecks can abruptly drop off when they retire from the game. HBO even created an entire television series, "Ballers," starring Dwayne Johnson, around the concept. Former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, former quarterback Dan Marino and former quarterback Vince Young have filed for bankruptcy, lost millions in bad investments and defaulted on loans, respectively.

    Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 16 percent of players drafted by NFL teams between 1996 to 2003 filed for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the NFL. Those public troubles are part of the reason one former star, Phillip Buchanon, turned himself into something of a financial superhero last year, penning a guide to money, "New Money: Staying Rich," after his football retirement. The NFL's Player Engagement Department also runs financial boot camps for players and the NFL Players Association, a union, invests in financial literacy education, too.

    All those efforts might be paying off: Recent coverage of the Redskins players' lifestyle choices have centered around their frugality. A widely-shared January Wall Street Journal article revealed that some players are biking to work, driving beat-up vans and living in low-rent apartments. Their penny-pinching habits were attributed partly to their personalities, life experience and the availability of cheap housing near their training facility.

    At this year's Super Bowl on Feb. 7, the money-football connection will break new ground: SunTrust Bank will sponsor the first Super Bowl ad to promote financial wellness, with the goal of getting Americans thinking and talking about managing their money. We're used to seeing promotions for beer, snack food and cars, but for personal finance? Not so much.

    "We thought having an ad in the Super Bowl would help start a movement. This is an attempt to start a conversation around what needs to be done," says Brad Dinsmore, head of consumer banking for SunTrust. "It became really clear that one of the biggest issues facing Americans is financial stress - the stress associated with managing money ... It's not only impacting clients' financials, but their health and happiness."

    That's true for people of all ages, says Brian Ford, ​SunTrust's financial well-being executive. According to research from the American Psychological Association, almost three-quarters of Americans feel stressed about money. "If you look at millennials, it's that much worse. Most run out of money between paychecks," Ford says. That's why developing financial confidence through sound money management is so important, he adds. "We see people are stuck, and they need to be inspired."

    SunTrust hopes that after seeing the 30-second ad, which will air during the break before the last two-minute warning​ in the fourth quarter of the game, will drive people to the SunTrust website onUp.com, which offers financial tools and quizzes to encourage people to manage their money. The company also hopes that viewers take to social media to share their thoughts using the hashtag #onUp.

    The ad was created by director Dante Ariola​ and revolves around the concept of holding one's breath. "You're not really enjoying moments in life if you are stressed about your finances," Ford explains, just as you're not fully present when you're holding your breath.

    The visual impact of holding your breath is powerful and relevant to money worries, Dinsmore adds. "If you're spending your time worried about money, you won't have time to spend on the people you love and the moments that matter in life," he says.

    Over on the SunTrust website behind the campaign, onUp.com, visitors are encouraged to take a quiz on their "mental wealth" level and read articles about money management, from how to save more to how to plan and budget. Visitors can also sign up by email to "join the movement" and receive updates. Ford says the goal of the campaign is not to promote products or services but to address the country'sfinancial stress and get people talking about what they can do.

    "We find a lot of Americans are not comfortable talking about the issue, are embarrassed or aren't sure what to do. It seems overwhelming. The biggest thing is to take the first step," Dinsmore says, by committing to taking control over your money management.

    If they succeed in getting the millions of people watching the Super Bowl to do that, that would be reason for a touchdown celebration.

     

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    By Jim Gold

    Money remains a leading cause of stress in romantic relationships, according to surveys released ahead of Valentine's Day.

    But that doesn't mean you should avoid discussing finances, they say.

    In a Country Financial Security Index Survey called "'Til Debt Due Us Part," more than 9 in 10 of the 1,000 respondents told the insurance company it is important to discuss finances with their significant others.

    About 7 in 10 surveyed said they prefer to start conversations about personal finances within the first few months of a relationship or sooner. Joe Buhrmann, manager of financial security at Country Financial, says in a press release:

    If you haven't discussed money with your valentine, consider starting the conversation sooner rather than later. Talking about finances as your relationship is budding can help quell financial quarrels down the road.

    Millennials in the survey were more accepting of a significant other's debt level. Nearly 2 in 3 said they would rather date a college graduate with significant student loan debt than someone who doesn't hold a college degree.

    Also, 2 in 3 millennials were concerned with their love interest's debt, compared to nearly 8 in 10 of the general population. Almost 9 in 10 Americans over age 65 believe a significant other's debt should cause concern for someone who is single and dating.

    While money management isn't the greatest first-date topic, financial compatibility is a key ingredient in building a lasting romantic relationship, says a GoBankingRates.com survey about financial deal breakers.

    More than 5,000 people responded to the question, "Which of the following are the most significant financial deal breakers for you in a relationship?"

    Their answer choices:
    • Overspending: 37.6 percent
    • Secretive about finances: 35.9 percent
    • Too much debt: 32.6 percent
    • Too cheap: 19.8 percent
    • Poor credit: 18.2 percent
    • Doesn't make enough money: 13.9 percent

    "The biggest three financial deal breakers are about equally important to Americans - spending habits, debt and financial honesty," says Elyssa Kirkham, the lead GOBankingRates reporter about the study. "These are things that the partner has direct control over and can readily change, but if left unaddressed, can cause some of the biggest issues in a relationship."

    If you need to get your spouse on board with a savings plan, see our tips here.

    How does money affect your relationship? Sound off in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

     

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    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Is your house your castle? Or an albatross around your neck?

    Your answer might depend a lot on your mortgage. Getting an affordable property at a great rate can make you feel as if life couldn't be any sweeter.

    But ask anyone who bought a house with a mortgage they didn't understand and couldn't afford, and they will likely tell you their house has brought them nothing but frustration and tears.
    If you'll be in the market for a new place soon, make sure you avoid the following six mortgage mistakes.

    1. Not reviewing your credit first

    At least six months before you go to your first open house, you need to go to AnnualCreditReport.com. That's the official site to get free credit reports issued by the big three reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You're entitled to one free credit report from each agency annually.

    From our Solutions Center: Find a better mortgage in seconds

    In addition to your credit reports, it's also critical to see your credit score. Some banks and credit cards now offer the most widely used credit score, the FICO score, as a monthly perk for their customers. If you're not lucky enough to have access to a free score, you'll have to pay FICO $19.95 to see yours.
    You can get free scores at sites like Credit.com and CreditKarma.com, but they won't be FICO scores.

    You'll need your credit score to be in great shape if you want the best rates. A 2013 study from the Federal Trade Commission found 5 percent of consumers had errors on their report that could result in less favorable loan terms. If you're among that 5 percent, you want to find any errors and correct them before applying.

    And if your credit score simply stinks, you can try these tips for raising it fast.

    2. Failing to get preapproved

    The next mistake you can make when applying for a mortgage is failing to get preapproved.

    Getting preapproved by a bank is one way to avoid the heartbreak that comes from falling in love with a house you can never buy. It may also give you an edge if there are multiple offers for the same property. A seller will feel more confident selecting a bid from someone with a mortgage preapproval rather than a person who hasn't even begun the process.

    However, don't get carried away by whatever preapproval amount you receive from the bank. Remember, what the bank thinks you can afford and what you can actually afford may be two different things. A lot of people lost their homes in the Great Recession because they were given loans they couldn't pay back. Don't make the same mistake.

    3. Not shopping around for the best rate

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says nearly half of mortgage borrowers don't shop around, and that's a big mistake. Seasoned shoppers search for the best deals on soap, furniture and cars, but some fail to look for a better mortgage rate.

    It may be convenient to use your primary bank for a mortgage, but that could also be expensive if its rates aren't competitive. According to Bank of America, for every 0.25 percent you can reduce your interest rate on a $200,000 mortgage, you'll save $30.55 per month. Over a 30-year period that can add up to a lot of extra cash.

    To review current mortgage rates, visit the Money Talks News Solutions Center.

    4. Ignoring mortgage fees

    While you're investigating rates, don't forget the fees. Many mortgages come packed with fees of all kinds. Some - such as your county recording fee - are likely fixed, but others are negotiable.

    Before your closing, you should be provided with a good faith estimate of the fees. Ask your lender to review what they are for and then see if you can negotiate a lower price. These are a few of the fees likely to have the most wiggle room:
    • Loan origination fee
    • Application fee
    • Broker fee
    • Underwriting fee
    5. Not having cash for a down payment

    Not having a down payment stashed away can sink your prospects of getting a mortgage. After being bitten by the housing market crash, traditional lenders shy away from giving mortgages to those bringing nothing to the table.

    Zillow says you generally need to have a down payment of between 5 and 20 percent to qualify for a conventional loan. And if you put down less than 20 percent, be prepared to pay mortgage insurance.

    6. Not understanding your mortgage terms

    Underwater mortgages weren't the only problem homeowners faced during the Great Recession. An untold number of people also lost their houses simply because they signed on the dotted line without understanding what the heck their mortgage entailed.

    For example, people thought they'd hit the jackpot with adjustable-rate mortgages, known as ARMs. Homeowners were fine for the first few years while their mortgage rate was fixed and low. But when it reset to the current market rate, that affordable monthly payment suddenly wasn't so affordable.

    A 2008 report from the Federal Reserve Board found that more than 75 percent of the subprime loans issued from 2003-2007 before the housing market crash were "short-term hybrids" that worked like ARMs. By 2008, more than 21 percent of these subprime loans were seriously delinquent.

    The moral of the story is to always understand what you're signing up for. It's not enough to know what your monthly payment is today. You also need to ask if the interest rate can change and if so, when and by how much will it increase.

    If you're not comfortable with the loan terms or don't understand them, it's better to walk away than to make an expensive and potentially life-altering mistake.

    What's your experience with borrowing to buy a home? Share in the comments in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

     

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    By Geoff Williams

    On the list of things you hate, somewhere in there is probably learning that something you didn't think you had to pay tax on, you do.

    Any money that comes into your life can be taxable, says San Diego-based tax attorney Sam Brotman.

    "Technically, under Internal Revenue Code Section 62, the IRS can find a way to tax almost every way of receiving money ... Even finding $20 on the street would be considered taxable, and the IRS would want their fair share of the money that you receive," he says.

    On a practical note, Brotman says most people don't report that $20 bill, and "the reality of the situation also is that the IRS does not have enough enforcement resources to come after people who forget to declare little items on their return. It would cost them more to come after those people than they would get in tax revenue for the government."

    Still, $10 you won from a lottery ticket and $1,000 in winnings is another story. If you want a heads up on what unusual monetary situations are taxable, and what you should be reporting when you file, read on.

    Employee awards. Were you an especially productive employee last year? You may have some bad news coming.

    "Rewarded for doing good work? Cash awards or bonuses from your employer are taxable. So are vacation trips for meeting sales goals," says Robin Solomon, a tax and benefits attorney with Ivins, Phillips & Barker in the District of Columbia.

    On the plus side, Solomon adds, "An exception applies for noncash employee achievement awards - such as a gold watch or iPod shuffle - presented for your length of service or safety achievement. These are generally not taxable if valued below $400."

    The same goes for other nominal (that is, cheap) holiday gifts, Solomon says. So if you were given a Christmas ham, she says you don't have to worry.

    Gambling wins. When you win the Powerball, the IRS takes a nice chunk of that money. But did you know it is entitled to smaller lottery wins, too?

    "Any gambling wins, including lottery and fantasy sports, are income," says Bob McKenzie, a Chicago tax attorney with Arnstein & Lehr. But there is an upside, he adds: "You can deduct your gambling losses against winnings."

    Money won in a lawsuit. You sued someone or settled out of court, and it all worked out in your favor. It's not all good news, unfortunately. You may have to pay the IRS, says Michael Eckstein, a tax accountant based in Huntington, New York.

    "Unbeknownst to most, legal settlements and awards can be taxable. Their taxability is usually complicated and often depends on the details of a particular case," Eckstein says. "To oversimplify things, the taxability of compensatory damages depends on what loss the award was meant to make whole, whereas punitive damages are generally taxable."

    Canceled debt. If you've been financially struggling for a while and finally achieved a minor or major victory, talk about disappointing news.

    "If you are in financial trouble and are able to negotiate a cancellation of all or a portion of your debt, whether it is a mortgage, credit card or other personal loan, the amount canceled is considered income to you," says Anthony Criscuolo, a Florida-based certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group. (For those wondering, debt canceled in a bankruptcy case is a different matter, and you won't be taxed for that, Criscuolo says.)

    Even a personal loan from a friend or family member that was forgiven is considered taxable income, Criscuolo says.

    That said, he adds, "One workaround is to specifically document the forgiven loan as a gift."

    If the money is really serious - and in this case, that would be anything over $14,000 - you probably want to bring in a tax professional, and the person who forgave the loan will likely need to file a gift tax return.

    Alimony. It may be a lifesaver to get that relief from your ex-spouse, but, alas, "you will definitely be paying a tax on it," says David Hryck, a tax lawyer with Reed Smith in New York City.

    But it isn't all bad news. "If you're receiving property payments or child support payments, those will not be taxed," Hryck says.

    Renting out a room. Have you used Airbnb or another online site to rent out property? You may (or may not) be in the clear.

    "According to the IRS, if your rental period is less than 15 days, you do not need to pay tax on the profits. After 15 days, you should be paying tax on the profits," Hryck says.

    Found money. Remember the $20 bill you found? There's actually a name for that situation, Hryck says. It's "the treasure trove tax. Let's say you found an envelope of money. You should be paying tax on the sum. Same would hold true if you bought a car and there was a hidden amount of cash in the trunk," Hryck says.

    Class-action settlements. So a bank, gym or phone company or some other business did you wrong by charging fees that were later declared illegal by a court, and you received some money. Great - says the IRS.

    If you accept settlement proceeds, "even if they are small, that information is usually reported to the IRS, and the IRS often does come after you for tax on those amounts," Brotman says.

    So if you haven't picked up on the moral of the story yet, Brotman, who had the first word, can have the last one as well.

    "In short, you should report all the income that you receive within a given year. However, forgetting to report an item or two does not necessarily mean that you are going to get audited," Brotman says. "My advice is to be as careful as you can when preparing your taxes and to make sure that all the larger items are definitely reported."

     

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    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Debt is a four-letter word of the bad kind, according to some people. The type of thing that shouldn't even be considered by responsible adults. However, not all finance professionals agree debt is something to be avoided.

    "Not all debt is created equal," says Gary Poch, vice president of global consumer services for Equifax. "There may be some types of good debt."

    Specifically, experts told U.S. News it may pay to go into debt for one of the following four reasons.

    Reason No. 1: To Buy a House

    For many people, home ownership is only possible through debt in the form of a mortgage. The average cost of a home sold in November 2015 was $374,900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That price makes it impossible for many U.S. families to pay cash for property, unless they save for years or even decades.

    That's not something people should have to do, says Finder.com CEO Fred Schebesta. "I'm a big believer in saving money, but it's better to do some things while you're young," he says. Rather than waiting until the kids are grown and there is cash in the bank, taking out a mortgage at a younger age can improve a family's quality of life.

    Beyond that, a house is an appreciating asset that will grow in value over time. As a bonus, interest payments made on a mortgage can be included in itemized deductions for federal income taxes. Together, these factors add up to mortgages being a smart debt choice for many people.

    Reason No. 2: To Get an Education

    Despite chatter in some circles about a looming student loan crisis, many experts still say debt for educational purposes can be smart. "It's an investment in human capital," says Eric Meermann, a certified financial planner and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale, New York.

    Meermann has personal experience with this type of debt. He took out loans to cover the entire cost of his education at the Stern School of Business at New York University. The debt has since been repaid, and it was money well-spent in Meermann's mind since it opened up the opportunity for greater income.

    Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics backs up the assertion that higher education equates with higher income. The following are average weekly incomes by education level for adults ages 25 and older in 2014, the latest year for which numbers are currently available:Less than a high school diploma: $488
    • High school graduate with no college: $668
    • Some college or an associate degree: $761
    • Bachelor's degree only: $1,101
    • Bachelor's degree and higher: $1,193
    • Advanced degree: $1,386

    Even Schebesta, who isn't sold on the idea that everyone needs a degree, says debt for training or a technical course can be a good investment if it will unlock greater earning potential.

    Reason No. 3: To Start a Business

    Schebesta feels confident that taking out a loan for business purposes can pay off. "I saved my first company by borrowing $50,000 to cover payroll," he says. He was in his early 20s at the time, and the move allowed him to regroup and later sell the business.

    When small businesses need an inflow of cash, they typically either go into debt or raise equity through private investors. Although going into debt can be risky, particularly if the lender requires the business owner to be personally liable for payments, it can be an easier option than looking for investors who essentially become co-owners in the venture.

    Reason No. 4: To Take Advantage of Low Interest Rates

    The final reason why it might pay to go into debt is also a point of contention among financial experts. That reason is to take advantage of the current low-interest market.

    "If you want to buy a new purse and are thinking about putting it on a credit card with 15 to 20 percent interest, that's probably not a good decision," says Brandon Moss, certified financial planner and vice president of United Capital in Dallas. However, it may make sense to get a car loan at 2 percent rather than pulling cash from investments that are earning 6 to 8 percent.

    Meermann agrees it can be a smart move to take out a low-interest loan in order to let investments grow, but Poch isn't so sure. "I don't know that I agree with that advice," he says. Poch advises people to consider the term of the loan, the value of the car and how quickly it will depreciate before making a decision to finance.

    Using Debt as an Investment

    While these financial experts disagree on the details, they all agree that debt can be a useful tool, so long as it is used in a way that will generate cash.

    "What are the things that are going to create wealth over time? What are the things that are going to deplete wealth?" Meermann asks. Going into debt for the former - for houses that appreciate or a degree that could land a higher-paying job - can be smart while debt for the latter can be bad news.

    Still, people should carefully consider their financial situation before going into debt. A high debt-to-income ratio can reduce a person's credit score and may make it difficult to repay obligations. As Poch notes: "All debt can be bad if you don't pay on time.

     

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    By Josh Felber

    When we think of "cheat days," we tend to think of a sweet treat or indulgent meal that breaks a cycle of strict dieting. A cheat day is meant to satisfy cravings, and it's a great way to incorporate foods you normally wouldn't include in your diet without ruining your metabolism. Similarly, a financial cheat day can help you budget better and prevent an overindulgent, perhaps impulsive, shopping spree.

    There are plenty of financial resolutions that can help fatten your wallet this year. You can check your credit card history, increase your savings or adjust your lifestyle to live well below your means. The Internet and mobile apps make it easy to monitor spending, and even blogs like this one provide helpful tips on how to maximize your savings. But sticking to a strict money diet can be mentally exhausting, and even the most diligent saver can suffer the occasional slip up here and there.

    The discipline and patience needed to stick to your financial resolutions can be taxing, just like how following a strict diet can drive you crazy. Just like a cheat day when you diet, allowing yourself the occasional financial celebration can help you feel indulgent without going overboard. "Overspending and not showing cash available to support your debts can make it hard to get home mortgage financing or get a commercial or business loan," says Brad Hettich, founder of the finance and loan company Commercial Lending X. "But that does not mean you have to reserve all of your cash. I usually tell my clients they can still make a purchase here and there, but the key is not to overindulge every month but just occasionally, making it so most months they continue to build up their cash reserves."

    Culprits of Overspending and Indulging

    It's difficult to live a frugal lifestyle when we're surrounded by messages telling us to buy, buy, buy. We're pressured by our peers to spend money in order to keep up with our social lives; fashion trends encourage us to always be on the hunt for the latest styles so we can fit in with our friends. Shopping is a sport that requires time and mental energy. Last year, the National Association for Professional Organizers found that 54 percent of Americans feel overwhelmed by all the stuff they have, and 78 percent don't even want to deal with it. This habit of overspending has led to roughly $712 billion in credit debt owed by U.S. consumers, according to a NerdWallet analysis, and is why many financial advisors recommend planning and sticking to a monthly budget.

    Triggers such as stress or a bad day at work can also lead to trigger-happy spending habits that may leave you with buyer's remorse the next day. Extreme emotions like depression or sadness can encourage people to shop or make purchases as an easy way to cure their emotional state. Have you ever gone out and impulsively ordered something from Amazon when you were upset? Or how about dropping Benjamin's at a club to celebrate a bonus you received at work? Instead of waiting for a moment of overindulgence though, make it a point to reward yourself every now and then for your hard work. Small, semi-regular treats are a welcomed break from your regulated money diet and can provide an additional incentive to help you stay on track with your financial milestones.

    Moderation Is the Name of the Game

    A financial treat doesn't have to be a large purchase; it could be something as simple as buying a grande mocha from Starbucks or buying lunch instead of bringing leftovers to work. Or a financial indulgence can be an investment toward a more expensive reward, like a piece of clothing or a new bag. Giving yourself a specific reward or goal to work toward can help you to avoid temptation and keep you from spending your paycheck on a single item. It also helps to keep some sort of schedule in order to keep track of your financial rewards. Consider creating a calendar with an end goal so you can always keep your eye on the prize. For example, mark in your planner when you want to treat yourself with a trip to your favorite coffee shop.

    It's important to remember that financial cheat day's only work when they're incorporated into your regular saving habits. If you find you're overspending monthly, try holding on to your pay stubs and calculating how much you spend in one week. Consider switching to cash and leaving your debit and credit cards at home to avoid spending on a whim. Sometimes all it takes is bringing your lunch to work everyday to help you reach your financial goals and free up cash so you can reward yourself.

     

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    By Matt Schulz

    Rewards junkies are always looking for a way to pile up more miles or points without getting on an airplane.

    The good news is that there are plenty of great ways to do that. Applying for a credit card with a big sign-up bonus is maybe the best example, but is hardly the only way. Dining in the right restaurants can get you extra points, too, as can buying items through a card issuer's shopping portal. There are seemingly as many ways to boost your miles as there are cardholders seeking to boost them.

    However, that doesn't mean every way to grab more rewards is a wise move. Take, for example, paying your taxes with a credit card.

    What a great idea! I have enough money to pay for my taxes, but why not just pay for it on my credit card and pocket the extra miles?


    It's simple: The math usually doesn't work.

    Here's why ...

    Most rewards credit cards give one point per dollar spent. Yes, those multipliers can be far higher in certain cases, especially when rotating bonus categories are involved. However, one point per dollar - in other words, a 1 percent return - is typical in the industry. That's all well and good until you notice that the typical convenience charge for paying taxes with your credit card ranges from 1.87 percent to as high as 3.93 percent.

    Paying 3 percent to get a return of 1 percent?

    You don't have to be an accountant to understand why that's a bad deal. Overpaying to get rewards is seldom a good idea. It's the same trap that awaits people who want to pay college tuition with a credit card. The convenience fee that you'll be stuck with will typically turn a sweet, alluring deal into a money-losing proposition.

    Can it ever work?

    That doesn't mean paying for taxes with a credit card can never make sense. Again, it's all about the math.

    The Internal Revenue Service lists four payment processors through which you can pay via credit card when you file electronically and then three other payment processors that let you pay your taxes via credit card over the phone. The phone-based options have the lowest convenience fees, ranging from 1.87 percent to 2.25 percent.

    If you have a cash back card that gives you 2 percent back on every purchase - the Citi Double Cash card, for example - and you opt to pay your taxes via the processor that charges the 1.87 percent fee, the math actually works in your favor, albeit narrowly. You'd pay 1.87 percent to get 2 percent back, turning a 0.13 percent profit. In real money terms, if you were paying a $5,000 tax bill with your credit card, you'd pay a $93.50 convenience fee in order to earn $100 worth of rewards - a $6.50 profit. It's not going to make you rich, obviously, but it is a profit nonetheless.

    The plan isn't foolproof, however. If you can't pay the balance off immediately, there's a good chance that all of your profit will be eaten up quickly by interest charges.

    Is it possible to write off the processing fee?

    In the long run, it might even be possible to boost your profit a bit further by writing off some of your processing fee. The credit card processing fee can be included as a miscellaneous deduction on Schedule A. According to the IRS, miscellaneous deductions include: tax preparation fees; unreimbursed employee expenses, like costs involved in searching for a new job; and other expenses, such as credit or debit card conveniences fees.

    It's not quite as simple as it may sound, though. In order to write off miscellaneous deductions, the total amount of those deductions must total at least 2 percent of your adjusted gross income - and you can only deduct the amount exceeding that 2 percent. Here's an example:
    • Say your AGI was $75,000 in 2015, and your miscellaneous deductions total $1,800.
    • You would be eligible for a write-off, since $1,800 is more than 2 percent of $75,000. (Two percent of $75,000 is $1,500.)
    • However, since you're only able to deduct the amount of deductions exceeding 2 percent, the amount that you'd be able to deduct would be only $300.

    So unless you have a really large tax bill or a lot of other potential miscellaneous deductions to include, it is probably best to not count on writing off that fee.

    The Bottom Line

    For most Americans, paying taxes with a credit card isn't wise, simply because of the math. It just doesn't make sense to pay a 2.5 or 3 percent convenience fee in order to get a reward of 1 percent back.

    If, however, you're willing to take the time to use the least expensive credit card processing option offered by the IRS and you can pay for it with a card that rewards you with at least 2 percent on purchases and you're absolutely, positively, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt sure that you can pay the entire bill off immediately without paying your credit card issuer any interest, you might be able to make a profit by paying your taxes with a credit card.

    That profit would be tiny, though - about one-tenth of 1 percent. Knowing that, you're probably better off choosing another way to pay Uncle Sam and focusing your rewards efforts on more lucrative goals.

     

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    By Jim Gold

    Money never sleeps. However, you should, especially if you want to keep your fiscal health.

    Just one night's lost sleep can cost you a bundle.

    "You need good self-control to make good financial decisions and plans," says Todd Kashdan, George Mason University psychology professor and co-author of "The Upside of Your Dark Side." "Sleep hygiene helps you get there."

    Kashdan tells MoneyTalksNews.com that high-quality sleep is linked to better mental functioning,
    including self-control, a key to financial well-being.

    He says self-control includes the ability to:
    • Delay gratification
    • Resist temptations
    • Conduct complex analyses
    • Alter or resist your emotions as needed in the short-term

    "Each of these abilities will help you in making healthy financial decisions by considering the short-term and long-term view, by resisting the allure of immediate mood boosts and the pull to avoid anxiety-provoking situations," he says.

    Keeping control, maintaining your money

    Unfortunately, you may be sabotaging your own sleep, warns Joel Anderson, instructor and lead researcher for a Utrecht University, Netherlands, study of bedtime procrastination.

    Anderson says it is important to avoid bedtime procrastination. Bedtime procrastinators delay going to bed even though they expect their sleep-deprived selves to be worse off and don't have a compelling reason for delaying rest, he says.

    "A significant portion of sleep insufficiency is caused not by medical conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea, but by poor choice - everything from binge Netflix viewing to late-night knitting," Anderson says.
    Such procrastination can spark a "vicious downward spiral," he says.

    "Since resisting the tendency to procrastinate requires precisely the willpower resources that are undermined by not getting enough sleep, bedtime procrastination is likely to lead to even worse sleep deprivation, none of which is good for your decision-making, including financial decision-making," he says.

    A 2011 Duke University study revealed sleep deprivation not only impairs our ability to make decisions, but also leads us to be optimistic about financial decisions. Using a functional MRI on 29 participants who had to make gambling decisions, scientists showed that a night of lost sleep led to increased activity in brain regions that assess positive outcomes while decreasing activation in brain areas that process negative outcomes.

    How much sleep do you need?

    Last year, the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation revised its recommendations on how much sleep you should get.

    An 18-member panel of experts spent nine months reviewing 10 years' worth of research and voted on the appropriate amount of sleep for each age group. They focused on outcomes for memory, mood, performance and health conditions such as stroke and obesity while factoring in overall health and cognitive, physical and emotional health.

    NSF recommended amounts of nightly sleep vary by age:
    • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours (previously: 12-18 hours)
    • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours (previously: 14-15 hours)
    • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours (previously: 12-14 hours)
    • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours (previously: 11-13 hours)
    • School-age children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours (previously: 10-11 hours)
    • Teens (14-17 years): 8-10 hours (previously: 8½-9½ hours)
    • Young adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours (new category)
    • Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours (no change)
    • Older adults (65+ years): 7-8 hours (new category)

    5 sleep tips

    Here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic to help you get a better night's rest.

    Manage stress: Start with the basics, such as getting organized, setting priorities and delegating tasks.

    Take a break when you need one. Share a good laugh with an old friend. Before bed, jot down what's on your mind and then set it aside for tomorrow.

    Stick to a schedule: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends, holidays and days off. Being consistent reinforces your body's sleep-wake cycle and helps promote better sleep at night.

    Limit food and drink: Don't go to bed either hungry or stuffed. Also, nicotine and caffeine take hours to wear off and can wreak havoc on quality sleep. Alcohol might make you feel sleepy at first, but it can disrupt sleep later in the night.

    Create a bedtime ritual: Do the same things each night to tell your body it's time to wind down - taking a warm bath, reading a book, listening to soothing music - preferably with the lights dimmed.

    Get comfortable: Create a room that's ideal for sleeping. Consider room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs. Choose a mattress and pillow that feel most comfortable to you. If you share your bed, make sure there's enough room for two. If you have children or pets, try to set limits on how often they sleep with you.

    Do you have any other sleep tips? Share them in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

     

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