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    Father and daughter putting money into piggybank
    Getty

    By Dr Penny Pincher

    Frugal people who pay off their debt and achieve financial independence don't succeed by accident. They establish habits that allow them to consistently reach their goals over the long haul.


    During the past few years as a personal finance blogger and author, I have noticed that the most successful frugal people tend to follow a common set of habits. These same habits remind me of the traits that Stephen Covey detailed in his popular 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For this article, I kept the original seven habits, but updated them for achieving financial independence today.


    What are the seven habits that allow some people to excel at being frugal?


    1. Be Proactive


    Frugal people are proactive about their money, taking action to monitor and control spending and maximize income. They find ways to spend less and reduce expenses - even if it requires effort and creative thinking. They direct most of the money they save from reduced expenses into savings and investments for long term goals.


    Although the first thing that comes to mind with frugality is saving money, many frugal people maximize income through side hustles or by generating passive income in addition to controlling their spending. An extra dollar saved or an extra dollar earned both contribute favorably to the bottom line.


    Frugal people know how much money they have coming in and how much is going out, often with great precision. This is accomplished by creating and following a budget and proactively monitoring spending. They focus on what they can control within their budget to achieve financial success.


    2. Begin With the End in Mind


    Why do frugal people work so hard to control spending and keep track of their money? Are they simply not interested in buying things? On the contrary, most frugal people are striving to reach financial independence so that they can travel or launch a second career or to have plenty of money to buy the things that matter to them. Frugal people are willing to worry about money now so they don't need to worry about it later.


    Surprisingly, many frugal people care more about their time than their money. Saving money buys financial independence, which buys time to do whatever you want. Frugal people want freedom to use their time as they wish and not be locked into working at a job until they reach old age.


    Frugal people begin with the end in mind. The end they want to achieve is financial independence. With that end in mind, they make a plan to reach the goal and follow it every day. The sacrifices along the way are worth reaching the goal.


    3. Put First Things First


    What is the first thing you pay every month? Do you pay your mortgage first? Perhaps you pay your utility bill or car payment first. Frugal people pay something else first - themselves.


    Paying yourself first means that you invest in your retirement fund or other savings accounts first, then you pay other bills using the money that is left. Most people pay their bills first, and then save or invest if there is any money left.


    Frugal people realize that having money to invest is the most important priority, and they take care of that priority first. If there is not enough money left to pay the bills, then frugal people find ways to make their bills smaller so they can fully fund their investment goals.


    4. Think Win-Win


    Stephen Covey talked about win-win situations in terms of structuring deals where both parties involved get something beneficial. His point was that someone doesn't have to lose in order to make a great deal - in fact, the best deals happen in win-win situations.


    Looking at this habit in the context of frugal success, just because you spend less money doesn't mean you have to benefit less or receive less value. In fact, frugal people find ways to spend less money and achieve greater benefit at the same time.


    Frugal people find plenty of win-win situations for their money. For example, why do many of them prepare most of their meals at home instead of dining out? Of course, making food at home is cheaper than paying the bill at a restaurant, but eating at home is healthier as well. The benefit of making your own food goes beyond just saving money.


    Buying a smaller house is less expensive than a larger house and it costs less for maintenance, insurance, heating/cooling, and lighting. In addition to the lower initial price and reduced ongoing costs, a smaller house also takes less time to clean and maintain, freeing up time for other activities.


    Most win-win scenarios involve not just price, but value. Frugal people consider the overall value that a purchase would provide throughout its life, including hidden expenses and potential benefits. Frugal people are willing to spend money to get a good value, and they shop around and use coupons to get the best deal they can on the right item.

    5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood


    Most frugal people don't start out being frugal. They start out as "normal" spenders and rack up credit card bills and student loans like most people. Over time, they come to understand that spending and debt are not the path to contentment. They realize that sometimes less really is more, at least when it comes to debt and spending.


    Frugal people reach an understanding of how much stuff they need to be happy, which is often far less stuff than most people think they need to be happy. Frugal people make spending decisions in terms of needs and wants, while most people think primarily in terms of having more and better stuff than their friends and neighbors.


    As far as being understood, most frugal people don't seem to care much what "normal" people think of them. Frugal people understand that spending money to keep up with the Joneses, or anyone else, doesn't make much sense and is certainly not the path to long term contentment.


    6. Synergize


    Synergy is the concept that sometimes, one plus one adds up to more than just two. How is this possible?
    If you decide that you can live without cable TV, you can save about $100 per month. Not only do you save $100 this month and every month thereafter, but you have significantly reduced the amount of money you need to retire by forgoing a recurring expense during your retirement years. You could retire years earlier due to the synergy of eliminating a recurring expense.


    Another example of synergy is reducing clutter. If you minimize the amount of clutter you collect over time, you will require less space to store your stuff. You will be able to live in a smaller, less expensive house. With less clutter, you will be better able to find and use the items that you do have. Savings of time and money will accumulate over the years greatly exceeding the small amount of effort it takes to nip clutter in the bud. This is another example where a seemingly insignificant action can allow you to achieve your goals years earlier due to synergy. (See also: 8 Ways Clutter Keeps You Poor)


    7. Sharpen Your Saw


    As you are reading this, you are sharpening your saw! If you have ever tried to cut something with a dull saw, you know that it takes a lot of work and a long time to get the job done. Keeping your saw sharp is time well spent.


    Sharpening your saw means to continue learning and finding new inspiration to get the most from your money. Frugal people tend to seek out ideas on saving money from blogs, podcasts, books, and by talking with other frugal friends. Reading about the financial success and failures of others can provide inspiration to keep your goals firmly in mind and on track.

     

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    Meet Heather and Jake from Los Angeles, Calif. Their goal is to save up for a dream wedding in Paris next year. But as we all know, weddings aren't cheap - and so far, they've only saved about $5,000.

    According to Heather, her spending habits may be partially to blame. "I'm an impulse buyer," she admits.

    If you've got a habit like Heather's, don't worry, there's hope! Next time you're shopping and see something you really like, walk away. If it's still on your mind a day or two after, only then should you make that purchase. Chances are if you walk away, you'll realize you don't really need it.

    Jake also has ideas about where he and Heather could seriously trim their budget "We could cut out our gym memberships and just run," he suggests.

    The best way to see where you can make some much-needed cuts is to set up a spreadsheet to see how your expenses are divided every month. This way you can look at how to shift your priorities.

    Want to see if a magical Parisian wedding will be in the cards for Heather and Jake? Check out the video above!

     

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    Looking for ways to cut down on fuel costs? Here are a few tips that'll help you save more money and use less gas.

    It's no surprise that using your car's AC will drain fuel. That's why it's usually better to keep the windows rolled down if you want to save money. But once you go over 55mph, those open windows create drag on your vehicle, forcing your engine to work harder and guzzle gas as a result. So put the windows up and turn that AC on once you hit the highway.

    Keeping your car well maintained is another thing that will improve fuel efficiency. Changing the air filter, motor oil and inflating your tires properly can improve your mileage by up to 4 percent, which will save you in the long run. And if you want to squeeze in even more savings, clean out your trunk to reduce unnecessary weight.

    Lastly, remember that the harder you drive your car, the quicker you burn through gas. Rapid acceleration and constant braking don't only make you an annoying driver, they also cost you more cash at the pump.

    So the next time you're behind the wheel, take a few measures to reduce your gas consumption. It's better for the environment, and you'll save a few dollars in the process.

    Related: Great ideas for cutting your gas costs

     

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    I've said it before and I'll say it again, the hardest part is getting started. That applies to so many things in life, whether getting in shape, quitting an addiction, starting a relationship with someone you care about, and (as is most relevant to our discussion) becoming financially stable. Sometimes it can be tough to read these finance websites. Even the most basic ones will discuss subjects that seem impossible to attain: financial independence, home ownership, or even paying your bills on time. You've got to walk before you can run. If you're feeling overwhelmed by a financial situation that is in the toilet, you can change things. Here are a few ways to start turning the tide.

    Debt: Know Your Enemy. Debt sucks, and some people get overwhelmed by it their whole life long. It's easy to let debt get out of hand, and to ignore the problem the worst it is. Part of this is because debt can be a source of shame and fear. Many of us have had the experience of not wanting to check the balance of our bank account, for fear that it overdrafted. Debt is even worse. It can feel like a cancer growing in your finances...and it is.

    Enough of that. If you want to kill your debt, you can't dwell on the shame and fear. You've got to understand it for what it is, then pay it off. First, sit down with a pen and paper and write down what you're dealing with. It helps to see it in front of your eyes. If you have credit card debt, take careful note of the balance, the annual APR, and the available credit limit associated with that account, etc. When you have all of the sources of your debt arranged (including student loans, money you owe to your parents, etc.), arrange them in order from smallest to greatest.

    From here, start paying off the accounts, starting with the smallest. Of course, maintain minimum monthly payments on all accounts. But fire every extra penny you can muster at the smallest amount, even if it's just $25 extra per month. When it is gone, take that $25 and add it to the monthly minimum payment you were paying for the now paid-off account. If that minimum was $25/month, you now have $50 free in your budget to start throwing at the second biggest debt amount every month. Rinse and repeat until your debt is gone. This may take years, and you'll have to be careful not to raise new debt in the meantime, but it's a method that works.

    Spending: Know Your Limits. Many of us find it easy to spend money like it grows on trees. That works for people who don't mind being broke, but if you are determined to get your finances in order, it won't work for you. A budget will be your best friend as you pay off your debt and try to build wealth once it is vanquished. There are many good budgeting strategies out there, so I won't go into them here. Simply live well beneath your means and save the extra money, no matter what it takes.

    Save and Invest: Know Your Goals. Saving and investing is about building a better future for yourself and the people you love. In the above scenario about debt, you'll be using an ever-growing monthly payment to kill off the debt. Once it's gone, that's extra money that you can use for another purpose. When you're debt free, don't start spending your extra money on stuff you want. Continue to apply the spending limits you placed on yourself in step two, and save that extra money. Build an emergency fund until it is big enough to cover your expenses for a year, just in case you got sick or lost your job. Then start to max out your IRA and/or 401(k) every year. Start to consider buying a home to save loads of money compared to rental costs. Consider getting additional education to start making more money with a stronger skill set. In short, use your new "disposable" income to ensure that you'll never again be financially screwed.

     

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    A lady stepped into my office concerned her financial advisor wasn't being straight up about her financial situation.

    She had purchased a variable annuity from the advisor and admitted she wasn't quite sure how it really worked.

    Uh oh. Red flag. She didn't know how it worked.

    I looked into the situation and found out she had paid over $3,500 in variable annuity fees and she didn't even know it.

    She fell into the trap of taking bad financial advice. In fact, it wasn't just bad financial advice, it was downright horrible financial advice.

    As a financial advisor myself, I meet people on a regular basis who have implemented very poor financial advice from what I'd consider to be financial product salespeople, not true financial advisors. A true financial advisor has their clients' best interests at heart. Unfortunately, many so-called "professionals" don't.

    If you're a hard-working American who focuses on your job outside of the financial industry, how are you to know when you're receiving good financial advice versus poor financial advice? How are you to know when you're being sold a good feeling rather than a good product?

    Here are some instances when you should ignore financial advice.

    1. When you're rushed to make a decision.

    Good financial advisors understand it will take time for clients to make a decision. If you're planning for your retirement, which might last 20 or 30 years, that's no trivial matter.

    If you ever feel rushed to make a decision, ignore the financial advice. There's nothing I hate more than a pushy salesperson, so I treat my clients like I'd want to be treated: I give them time to consider their options.

    2. When the financial advice is directed toward someone else.

    You might have heard specific financial advice given to a friend, family member, or someone on television or over the radio.

    Many times, the temptation can be to apply this financial advice to ourselves. But the truth is, financial advice should really only be accepted by the intended party.

    Say you're driving home from work one day and you hear someone over the radio call into a popular financial talkshow. The financial advisor is telling the caller that the most important thing they could do is to pay off their mortgage.

    You might think to yourself, "I have a mortgage. I have a little extra money coming in every month. Perhaps I should pay off my mortgage too!" While this is really an innocent thought, it's important to remember that your situation should be approached by priority.

    If, say, you have high-interest credit card debt, it's probably best to pay off your credit cards before you start throwing money at the mortgage. You might even have a few other more pressing financial obligations to consider before you knock out that mortgage payment!

    Be careful when listening to financial advice directed toward someone else. Don't assume you should do the same thing. You might be able to learn a thing or two from what other people are told, but certainly don't act on financial advice aimed toward others until you sit down with a financial professional to get a comprehensive financial plan in place.

    3. When the advisor doesn't have all of the information they need to advise you properly.

    Your financial advisor should request a great deal of information from you in order to give you the most appropriate advice for your situation.

    They need to know the balance of your bank accounts. Your net income. Your tolerance for risk. How much life insurance you have. Your pets' nicknames. Okay, maybe not that last one.

    In all seriousness, they do need to know a lot of information. But it's not just your current financial information they need - they need to know your financial history and your financial future, as well.

    Financial history is easy to give. But what about your financial future? Well, this is your intended or assumed financial future.

    For example, will you buy a second vacation home in retirement? How much money will you need to live on when you're 80? How likely are you going to need to financially support family members in the future? All of these questions matter.

    If your financial advisor hasn't taken the time to explore your financial history, present, and future, ignore the advise until they do so. The more work you put into this in the beginning, the better your financial wellbeing will be later on.

    4. When the advice didn't come from anyone but yourself.

    Unfortunately, when individuals are left to the advice they'd give themselves, the advice isn't always the best. Why? Emotions.

    Consider the stock market crash after 9/11. Many people called their financial advisors wanting out of the stock market. Against their advisors' warnings, they pulled their money out.

    Over time, the stock market recovered, and many were left without recourse because they needed the money for retirement. They decided they'd only listen to their own advice, not the advice of the professionals. And, unfortunately, the cost was astronomical.

    It's always a good idea to run your financial ideas past others. Ask several financial advisors for their opinions. Ask your friends and family who know you best. Gather as much advice as you can find. Then, once you've considered all of your options, consider what would be the wisest course of action to take and take it.

    5. When the advice is a too-simple-to-be-right solution.

    If financial advice feels too easy to execute, it might be too simple to be right. Life, unfortunately, is complicated. And, if you want to solve life's problems, many times it's going to involve a plan that isn't a walk in the park.

    "Just buy gold! It's all you need!"

    "The default mutual funds for your 401(k) are good enough."

    "Whole life insurance is the best investment for you"

    "Nobody knows what the future holds, so just live for the moment!"

    This is all horrible financial advice. It's too simple. It's too easy to implement. It's advice that would only work in an ideal world.

    Not all advice is good advice. Test it before you implement it.

     

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    How Meatless Monday Can Save You Money
    You love to eat meat, and just the thought of going without the occasional hamburger terrifies you. But what if you could save money by skipping meat for just one day a week?

    It's called Meatless Monday, and it's exactly what it sounds like. If a family of four spends about $20 on a meat lasagna for dinner, cutting out the meat from that one meal would save about $10 a week, or a whopping $520 per year!

    And that's just the estimate for one meal -- imagine the savings you could see for the entire day.

    Going meatless can also boost your budget by steering you to use ingredients you already have in your kitchen. Dried lentils, healthy sauces, and whole grains like brown rice or quinoa are a few meatless essentials; combine a few, and you'll have a meal in minutes.

    So next Monday, skip the meat and see how much you can save!

    Related: 10 organic grocery items that aren't worth it

     

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    Save Green by Going Green
    Did you know? April 22 is Earth Day!

    To celebrate, try saving some green by going green.

    Bottled water isn't only costly, it also creates tons of non-biodegradable plastic that gets dumped in landfills. By investing in a reusable glass water bottle, you can do the environment a favor and potentially save hundreds a year.

    And while you're at it, why not save more water too? Older model toilets are big water wasters, but they don't have to be. Simply wrap a brick or stone in a waterproof bag and place it into your tank. The weight of the brick will displace and significantly reduce your water usage in each flush.

    So give the environment a hand this Earth Day, so you can save more -- and waste less!

     

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    Spend Less on Prescription Meds
    Did you know? There are ways you can save big on your prescriptions at the pharmacy!

    Since insurance companies negotiate different deals with each store, the price of medication can vary widely from one pharmacy to another.

    Larger chains tend to be the priciest. They often charge twice as much as what you can find at places like Costco, where you don't even need to be a member to take advantage of their prices.

    Also check out GoodRX. This free app will find the best local deals -- in some cases, you can save up to 80 percent. Just type in your prescription and ZIP code, and you'll get a list of prices from nearby pharmacies. They'll even throw in coupons.

    Keep these tips in mind and you'll see that your prescriptions don't always have to come at a high price.

     

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    Tips and Tricks to Save at the Airport
    As travelers, we all know how expensive it can get on the road. So who can blame us when we feel nickel-and-dimed by the inflated prices at the airport?

    Here are a few ways you can keep your spending to a minimum.

    First, bring your own snacks and pack a water bottle. Food and water are the most commonly marked-up items at airports and can cost you up to 3 times more than usual. Just make sure your bottle is empty when you go through security or you'll either have to chug it or throw it out. Once you're through, fill it up at the nearest water fountain.

    Next, always keep electronic chargers and adapters on you at all times. We've all been there -- flights get changed, you get delayed, and before you know it, you're buying an overpriced charger for your dying cell phone.

    Unless you want a headache, be sure to avoid the marked-up prices of aspirin and other over-the-counter medication. At the airport, these can cost up to 35 percent more, so pack your own in a carry-on bag.

    Finally, while those last-minute purchases at the duty-free shop can be tempting, they typically cost 30 percent more than the prices you'd regularly find, so plan your shopping in advance to avoid any impulse buying.

    Try out these tips the next time you fly -- your wallet will thank you!

    Related: Ultimate Cheapskate's 10 ways to save money on travel

     

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    Female hands get money from a purse

    One of the most liberating feeling is knowing you have your finances in control. I know this from personal experience. We've all come across a point in time where we've either been in debt, wasn't saving enough, or didn't take the initiative to invest wisely. We now have access to online tools that the previous generation didn't have.

    While they were doing monthly reconciliation by paper and pen, we have automated tools to do this legwork. There has always been this argument on whether you should pay off debt or invest first. The theory is that you could make more money investing than the total amount of interest you'd pay on your debt. However, paying off debt can actually help you learn more about your spending pattern which in return can help you save money faster and invest more down the road.%

    Paying Off Debt - The Smart Way

    There are many ways to pay off debt: pay off high interest rate accounts first, balance transfer credit cards, consolidate debt through a personal loan, credit counseling, and even debt settlement. Some of these methods are less optimal than others given that it may affect your credit score. So how do you figure out the best way to approach this? If you have a steady job but can afford to pay extra principal every month towards your debt, try this first.

    There's no need to look for "alternative debt reduction programs" at this point. Millennial's have become obsessed with their credit scores (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) and are finally realizing the importance of their credit score. Ideally, you'll want to try to avoid credit counseling or debt settlement program unless it's your last resort.

    These type of programs will leave a negative remark on your report and may hinder you from getting financing in the future. It may seem like the best way since it represents the most amount of savings, but it still might not be worth it. The best way to pay off debt is to take a close hard look at your monthly expenditures and see where you're wasting money. It's not a fun task, but it's required.

    Saving Money - Cut Costs, But Don't Lose the Fun

    Saving money to fund your dream vacation or a home is a marathon, not a sprint. It's amazing at how many people try to cut costs at every corner just to save money. At the end of the day, it doesn't do you any good to live a sheltered life that prohibits you from having a little fun. This is where people can break and splurge on things they shouldn't.

    Sometimes we all just need to hit the reset button in life. Whether it's traveling, going out with friends, or treating yourself to a relaxing massage, we shouldn't be bound to cutting out the finer things in life. There are a lot of ways to save money and build wealth without having to give up your social life. For example, going on a vacation doesn't mean you have to spend an arm and a leg.

    It's a matter of doing your diligence to find ways to cut costs in every category: transportation, food, airfare, lodging, or activities. Your vacations can be a weekend trip that doesn't require airfare, and your accommodation can be as little as $100/night if you find a nice AirBnb. The possibilities are endless.

    Investing Money - Apps that make it Simple

    For most people, the thought of investing seems scary- especially since the financial fallouts in the 90's and 2008. Technology has changed the way we invest, making it simpler and leveling the playing field. A recent study by CNN shows that 93% of the people don't invest because of their distrust with the market and lack of knowledge.

    So how do you, as a millennial, get started in investing? For starters, you can try out a new app called Acorn. The app works by investing your spare change from your everyday purchase into ETFs. It's a fairly low risk investment given that you don't have to deposit upfront money into a brokerage account.

    If you're ready to invest in the market by picking and choosing your own stocks, the next step is to pick the right type of brokerage account to open up. You can follow the old adage of, "don't put all your eggs in one basket" as a good first step.

    Try to diversify your funds through different sectors. Investing in the stock market isn't intended to hit a grand slam in the first months. It takes years to build up your portfolio- so don't be afraid if you're seeing some losses in your investments.

     

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    During tax season, conversations about how to use that always-anticipated tax return pop up all over the internet. Many who get a refund use it on vacations and other big ticket items. And while this isn't always a bad idea, it may not be the wisest choice you can make for your tax refund.

    One option is to use your refund with an eye toward increasing your credit score. A good score can save thousands of dollars in interest on a new mortgage or enable a homeowner to refinance to a lower rate. A high FICO score also helps consumers qualify for cash back, travel, and other rewards credit cards. It can even lower your car insurance premiums.

    Whatever your financial goals, here are some tips on using your tax refund to increase your credit score:

    1. Catch up on late payments

    Your payment history is the single most significant factor in determine your score. Payment history accounts for 35% of your FICO score, according to the good folks at FICO. This means that a single late payment can have a disproportionately large effect on your credit score. It also means that the best way to maintain good credit is to make your payments on time, every month.

    If you're behind on any of your debt payments, use a portion of your tax refund to catch up as soon as possible. While it will take time for that late payment to fall off of your credit record, the sooner you catch back up, the more quickly you can boost your score.

    2. Pay down maxed out credit cards

    The next most important piece of your credit score is the amount you owe. This makes up about 30% of your overall FICO score. This section looks primarily at your debt-to-credit ratio, or how big a balance you're carrying compared with your overall credit limits on credit cards and other revolving loans.

    So your next most efficient tax refund move is to pay down credit card and revolving loan debt. The starting point is tackle cards that are maxed out. The credit scoring formula views a maxed out card as a sign a consumer is at the end of their rope. Paying this debt down can have a positive effect on a consumer's FICO score.

    3. Pay down other revolving debt

    If you aren't maxed out on a card, or if you've dealt with it already, consider paying down the rest of your revolving debt. This may include not only credit cards, but also lines of credit such as a HELOC. As a general rule, the lower your credit utilization the better. While FICO doesn't publish explicitly guidelines on what makes the ideal credit utilization, Tom Quinn of FICO has suggested that 10% or less is ideal.

    You may be surprised at how quickly paying down revolving debt can boost your credit score. And this strategy comes with another advantage: lower payments. Since your revolving debts likely carry the highest interest rates, paying them off can really reduce your monthly outflow. This makes it easier to continue making all your payments on time, so that your credit score continues to improve.

    4. Save for emergencies

    Saving for emergencies won't by itself improve a credit score. The FICO score is not based on a consumer's assets. In theory even a millionaire could have poor credit if he doesn't pay his debts on time.

    An emergency fund, however, will help you deal with the unexpected. Rather than charging a car repair, for example, those with money in the bank can have their car repaired without incurring more credit card debt. This in turn will help a credit score by keeping the credit utilization down.

    The accepted rule of thumb is to save an emergency fund equal to three to six months of expenses. A high yield savings account is an ideal place to keep your rainy day fund, as is a CD ladder. Whatever approach you take, saving for emergencies can improve your score and offer peace of mind.

    Getting started on building great credit isn't rocket science. It's all about managing your money well, making payments on time, and carrying low balances. If you can use your tax refund to jump-start some of those processes, you'll come out ahead in the long term.

     

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    What to Sell -- and What Not to Sell -- at Consignment Shops
    Did you know? There are places called consignment shops where you can buy and sell your unwanted items. With a few easy tips, you can boost your profits on your next visit.

    First, find a shop that stocks items similar to the ones you're trading in. The easier they can sell it, the more they'll pay.

    Clothing resale shops tend to pay best for things that are in season, so bring in those tank tops in the summer if you want the best deal.

    And don't forget to clean up your items before you bring them in. This can get you up to 25 percent more on your sale. Any stains, scuffs or missing pieces like buttons or laces can not only hurt your profit -- stores may even decline your trade-in entirely.

    So no matter what you're trying to sell, just a little know-how can get you big bucks.

     

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    Airline passengers in the airport

    The complex nature of airline loyalty programs has left many consumers who sign up for their co-branded credit cards wanting for more. Not only have airline miles becoming increasingly harder to use these last few years, but award availability can sometimes be scarce. To add insult to injury, new fees and fuel surcharges are heaped onto what used to be "free travel" all the time.

    Still, the best airline credit cards continue to offer excellent value for those willing to jump through all of the additional hoops and hurdles. The key to getting the most out of them is understanding how to work the system, and of course, picking the right card to begin with.

    If you're tired of stressing over your unused airline miles, it might be time to try a different card - or simply find a better way to work with what you've got. Here are five tips to help you do just that:

    Save your airline miles for off-peak travel.

    If you feel like award redemptions are overpriced and scarce, take a look at off-peak pricing and you'll likely change your mind. Where holiday breaks and summer often come with higher prices for flights - even when you're paying with points - off-peak and off-season travel generally costs a lot less.

    Take the American AAdantage program, for example. Where a round-trip MileSAAver flight to Europe from the contiguous United States costs 60,000 miles during summer, it costs just 45,000 miles during their off-peak season, which is October 15th - May 15th.

    By saving your airline miles for off-peak travel, you can stretch them a whole lot further and perhaps enjoy better award availability, too.

    Consider a flexible travel credit card.

    If you're tired of navigating a single airline loyalty program or want as many options as possible, a flexible travel card might provide the options you want. With a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, for example, you can earn points that are transferrable to several airlines including Southwest, United, and British Airways to name a few.

    If you don't wind up finding the availability you need or don't feel like messing with airline programs at all, you can also use your points to book travel with any airline through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. Since the portal works a lot like Expedia.com, you just input your dates and choose the flight that works best for you with no regard for blackout dates or capacity controls.

    Sign up for a card with no blackout dates or better availability from your home airport.

    Speaking of blackout dates, some airline loyalty programs don't have them. One that comes to mind specifically is the Southwest Rapid Rewards program.

    If you have Southwest miles and find a seat on a plane, it's yours. This is a huge perk if you need to book several seats on a single flight or don't have a lot of flexibility in the time or date you fly.
    Points earned from the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card transfer to Chase at a 1:1 ratio, but you could sign up for the Southwest Premier credit card instead.

    Pursue signup bonuses, and convince your spouse or partner to do the same.

    While it's easy to earn airline miles if you travel all the time, it's much harder when you rarely fly. The best way to rack up miles quickly in that case is to sign up for new credit cards and earn lucrative signup bonuses when you can.

    While co-branded airline credit cards offer their own juicy signup bonuses to new customers, plenty of flexible cards offer signup bonuses as well. Combine a few signup bonuses together and you could be cruising for free in no time.

    Use shopping portals and dining programs.

    While you can use your co-branded or flexible travel card to rack up airline miles regardless, you can really speed up the process if you maximize shopping portals and dining programs.

    While each card and programs offers a slightly different program, most work similarly. The Chase Ultimate Rewards program, for example, lets you earn additional points when you click through the portal before making purchases with specific retailers online.

    Although participating retailers change in and out all the time, they often include merchants like Best Buy, Macy's, Home Depot, and Sears. Just by clicking through the portal before a purchase, you can usually earn an extra 1-4 points for every dollar you spend.

    The Bottom Line

    Airline loyalty programs are notorious for making their programs so complex that many people just give up. By maximizing the points you earn and avoiding peak travel season, you'll have the best shot at scoring the free and almost-free travel you crave.

     

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    Decoding Your Grocery Store's Sales Cycle Will Save You Bundles
    Grocery shopping is pretty routine. Week after week, we go in and buy the same items without thinking too much about it.

    But you should be wary of shopping on autopilot. Chances are, you're overpaying -- sometimes by as much as 50 percent. The secret lies in the store's sales cycle, and the sooner you learn it, the sooner you save.

    There are two types of sales cycles. The first is seasonal. A lot of seasonal sales are common sense; canned pumpkin is cheaper in October, chocolate sells for less in February. But there are a lot of other seasonal items that go on sale during months you wouldn't expect -- like oatmeal in January, and peanut butter in September.

    The next type is a rotational sales cycle. These sales are typically used to rotate the stock on the shelves every 6 to 12 weeks.

    This may seem complicated, but with some time and practice, you can learn how to keep tabs on the best deals.

    Start by making a list of the top 10 items you most often buy at the store. Then, start tracking those prices week to week. Grab a circular if there's one handy. After 6 to 12 weeks, you'll start to see a point where the price drops noticeably lower than the other weeks. This is when you should shop for this item, and potentially even buy in bulk. Remember, each item will have its own cycle, so track each product individually for the most accuracy.

    So if you want to maximize savings in the long run, start tracking your store's sales cycle. Some codes are definitely worth cracking!

    Related: Stop supermarket overspending

     

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    Deter Pests and Boost Your Garden with This Miracle Ingredient
    Did you know: Epsom salt can be your garden's greatest ally?

    You can easily find this miracle ingredient at your local pharmacy for about $4 for a 3-lb bag.

    While it's typically used for pain and stress relief, it's the magnesium found in Epsom salt that actually works wonders for plant growth.

    To improve seed germination, simply add 1 cup per 100 square feet of tilled soil, or sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons into the hole before dropping in your seeds. This will not only lead to stronger seedlings, it will also encourage blossoming and fruit production, without the need for costly chemical fertilizers.

    And to help deter slugs, snails and other vegetable bugs, try sprinkling some Epsom salt around the garden for natural pest control.

    So give Epsom salt a try, and watch your garden -- and savings -- flourish!

     

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    The federal government has offered student loan forgiveness programs for decades, especially for veterans and individuals who are disabled. However, until recently, these programs have not been easy for borrowers to take advantage of.

    This April, the U.S. Department of Education announced a plan to streamline this program. The new program is part of President Obama's "Student Aid Bill of Rights" plan. This plan will forgive around $7.7 billion in federal student loans held by around 387,000 permanently disabled Americans.

    In reality, there's not much that's changing with this program. It fits into the Higher Education Act, which already allows for loan forgiveness for borrowers who are totally and permanently disabled. But the big change is that the Department of Education will now be proactively finding borrowers who are eligible for this relief, making it easier for these borrowers to take advantage of the program.

    The Department of Education started identifying and reaching out to borrowers on April 18, 2016. They'll be sending a customized letter explaining the steps a borrower needs to follow to complete the discharge process.

    Typically, borrowers need to submit documentation demonstrating that they are totally and permanently disabled and, thus, eligible for the forgiveness program. However, borrowers who are identified through this program will not need to submit this documentation. They'll follow a few simple steps to apply for forgiveness after they receive the letter explaining the program.

    The notification for this program is set to be sent out over the 120-day period after April 18, 2016. Anyone who doesn't respond to the letter will get a second letter notifying them of this information.

    Are you eligible?

    It's not hard to know if you qualify for a total and permanent disability (TBD) discharge. There are three ways to qualify:

    Veterans can submit documentation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) showing that the VA has determined you are unemployable because of a service-related disability.

    If you're currently receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you can submit the Social Security Administration's notice of award for your benefits that states that your next disability review will take place in five to seven years from the date of your most recent determination.

    You can also submit a certification from a doctor that you're totally and permanently disabled and unable to engage in gainful activity due to a mental or physical impairment that

    • Can be expected to result in death,
    • Has lasted for at least 60 months, or
    • Can be expected to last for at least 60 months.

    If you can meet one of these requirements, you may be eligible for forgiveness of the following loan types:

    • William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan)
    • Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL)
    • Federal Perkins Loan

    If you received a Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, you may also be eligible to have your service obligation discharged. These loans are all federal student loans. Private student loans do not qualify, although you may be able to refinance private loans to a lower interest rate.

    What about taxes?

    If you receive a letter from the Department of Education about your eligibility for the TPD program, you'll also get notifications of the tax implications of this discharge. The discharge will likely result in a tax bill at the end of the year, since the government can count the discharged student loan amount as income.

    While President Obama is working to exclude TPD and other loan forgiveness programs from taxable income, this hasn't happened yet. So be sure to ask when you apply for this process what the tax implications will be in your particular situation.

     

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    Genius Money-Saving Home Decorating Ideas
    Did you know: Using tape can be a low-cost way to decorate your home?

    Washi tape is a Japanese masking tape made of rice paper, and comes in all types of patterns and colors. Since the tape can be used and repositioned easily without damage to surfaces, the decorative options are endless.

    Walls, cabinets, window blinds -- even your furniture and shelves can be completely transformed with the colors and patterns you choose. And for only around $4 a roll at most office and art supply stores, it's a small cost with big possibilities.

    So get creative, and break out the tape!

     

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    If you've followed my past posts on cars I've owned, you'll know that I learned the hard way that expensive new cars are a stupid idea unless you've got more than enough money to pay for them. When I bought my first expensive car, I was in no place to afford that kind of luxury. Years later, I sold it for a loss and slummed it in a vehicle much less impressive, but much more affordable. Today, that decision has paid off in lots of ways. I may not have the car I lusted after when I was young and stupid (even though it would have depreciated enormously by now, if I still owned it at all), but I've been able to buy a home, start a family, and build my personal finance blog and other businesses at a rate I would never have before if I'd been weighed down by a big car loan.

    If you need a car, you need a car. Since my fling with the sports car, I've owned several older vehicles, each with strengths and weaknesses all its own. I'm not going to give recommendations for specific makes and models here. Instead, I'm going to explain the techniques I used to find cars that worked really well for my finances and personal needs, all while being incredibly affordable.

    Do Your Frickin' Research. If you need a car that's affordable and reliable, prepare to do some digging. These vehicles exist, but they're diamonds in the rough and you'll have to look around to find one that's right for you. The good news is that there are some car models out there which are remarkably reliable, even after ten years or more. To find out which ones those are, you'll want to talk to friends and family who know cars. Take note of their recommendations. Read online reviews by the hundred. Create a list of contenders, then look for common mechanical failures in these specific models. All older cars will need maintenance. Depending on your skill set and your financial means, you may be willing to take on the responsibility of one over another. The German-designed model might take monthly trips to a specialty mechanic that are expensive, though the effort will pay off in a car that runs forever. The American made vehicle from 2004 may have no issues at all...until the transmission falls out. You can't predict the future, but research will show you if a certain problem is an outlier or a motif.

    Look in Weird Places. You're more likely to find a deal by searching for cars out in the country through sources like Craigslist. Of course, if you're not buying from a traditional dealer, you run the risk of buying a lemon or getting screwed. Nonetheless, I've found that finding a model that works for you, then looking for deals on that model from private sellers is a great method. Just make sure you follow the next step.

    Get It Inspected!!!!! Car inspections aren't expensive. If you find a car you might want to buy, offer to get it inspected at your cost. If problems are revealed, ask that the repair be deducted from the purchase price. If the owner doesn't want to let you get the vehicle inspected, or doesn't want to pay for important repairs, walk away. In addition to this, look for owners who provide inspection and maintenance histories. This will show you not just what's going on with the car now, but problems it may have had in the past.

    At the end of the day, you can find a reliable vehicle for not very much money. It takes research and patience while you find a deal. You might have to travel to get to the used car you're interested in. But if you have actually found a low-mileage, low-wear vehicle in good repair, it's worth the work. If you can buy it with cash, you'll have a great car that you own free and clear. If you have to finance it, the monthly payments will be so much cheaper that you'll have a lot more free dollars to spend on the rest of your life.

     

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    An excellent credit score can unlock low interest rates on mortgages, auto loans and credit cards. In many states, a good score is also the key to lower auto insurance premiums. Although there are hundreds of credit scores out there, FICO remains the industry standard and isn't shy about telling people how to improve their scores. If you want to have an excellent score, you should follow these three steps.

    Always Pay On Time

    The single most important part of your credit score is making payments on time. Even a single missed payment that becomes thirty days late could take 90 points or more from your credit score. Banks use credit scores to predict whether or not you will make payments on time in the future. It should not be surprising that the most important part of a score is how often you have made payments on time in the past.

    To make sure you never run the risk of missing a payment, sign up for automatic payments with your creditors. By automating your monthly payments, you can ensure that you avoid a big, unexpected hit to your score.

    In addition, be particularly careful with your medical bills. If you don't pay your doctor or hospital bill on time, it could quickly end up with a collection agency and on your credit report. Even a small medical bill can have a big negative impact on your score.

    Keep Your Credit Card Balances Low

    The second most important part of your credit score is the total amount of debt that you have. FICO tends to treat some debt as good debt, and other debt as bad debt. Mortgages, auto loans and student loans are considered good debt. Credit card debt is considered bad debt. In particular, you can lose a ton of points if you max out your credit cards.

    FICO uses a measure called "utilization" to determine how risky you are. You calculate utilization by dividing your current statement balances on all of your credit cards by your credit limits. If you have $10,000 of credit limits and a $1,000 balance, your utilization would be 10%.

    In general, people with the best credit scores have a utilization ratio of 10% of lower. To keep your utilization low, you should pay down credit card balances and avoid closing old credit card accounts. If you close an unused credit card, you will be reducing your credit limit and increasing your utilization.

    Feed Your Score With "Good" Activity Every Month

    Do you remember your days in elementary school, when you would get a "gold star" for a job well done? Your goal with your credit score is to accumulate as many "gold stars" as possible. And that means using a credit card each month responsibly. Ideally, you will use less than 10% of your available credit with transactions each month. You will then pay your statement balance on time and in full every month. By doing that, you are showing that you have self-restraint (by not maxing out your credit cards) and responsibility (by making your payment on time). Every payment you make is a "gold star." And your goal is to repeat that behavior every month.

    You Don't Need To Pay Interest To Get A Good Score

    Contrary to a popular credit score myth, you do not need to go into debt and pay steep interest bills in order to get a good credit score. The MagnifyMoney Credit Score Guide explains that "carrying a credit card balance month to month and paying interest will not boost your credit score any more than paying in full each month. Just having one credit card and paying it off on time and in full can lead to an excellent credit score."

    It is very easy to keep a good credit score. Just make your payments on time, keep your balances low and repeat your behavior every month. The best way to ensure you keep your score high is to automate responsible behavior.

     

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    Boost Your Wardrobe with Memorial Day Sales
    The Memorial Day sales frenzy is fast approaching. To separate the legit deals from the spending traps, you have to know what to buy. Here are a few bargains to hit -- and a few to skip.

    First, avoid buying summer items. While it may be tempting, items like BBQ grills and patio furniture don't typically reach their lowest prices until the end of summer, so hold off until then if you can.

    TVs and laptops are also cheaper towards the end of the year. Go for laptops during back-to-school sales in September, and TVs during Black Friday in November if you want to score bigger savings.

    So what do you buy?

    If you're looking for the best deals, spring clothing and accessories is the way to go. You'll see discounts ranging from 40 - 90 percent off at stores like Macy's, H&M, J.C. Penney and Eddie Bauer. Plus, designer brands like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Steve Madden will also be slashing prices by up to 75 percent off.

    Lastly, don't overlook the stackable coupons and promo codes that typically accompany these sales and can take up to 40 percent off the already discounted price.

    So make the most of your time and money this Memorial Day, because knowing what to buy can make all the difference.

    Related: 6 best things to buy at Memorial Day sales

     

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