Get Finances in Order With These Apps

mobile phoneIs one of your New Year’s resolutions to get your finances in better shape? Or manage your expenses more accurately? Maybe it’s both…or more. The good news is there are plenty of powerful, smart, and free apps to try out for the New Year. Here’s a roundup of some of the most talked-about ones by finance experts. All are free and available for iOS (iPhone), Android, and some for Windows.

Personal Finance

No surprise that Mint.com is one of the most popular personal finance sites out on the market.  Its app offers a secure way to track all of your accounts and credit cards in one location on the go. You can slice and dice account data to create graphs that show you the bigger money picture. You can also set alerts and reminders.

Dollarbird works from a calendar-based design to track expenses and income and also allows you to set up recurring transactions and bill reminders. You can also get a snapshot of where your money is going and even create a five-year financial projection plan.

Credit Cards and Check Management

Billguard monitors those “gray charges” on your credit card statements. It flags questionable or unwanted purchases and highlights merchants who frequently charge for products or services that are unnecessary or oddball fees.

MintBills (formerly Check) This app lets you pay checks from your mobile phone, either manually or by scheduling automatic payments. It also monitors bank or credit card accounts and notifies you if your checking account balance or credit limit is at risk.

Monitor everything about your credit score with the CreditKarma app.  Get notifications if and when there are changes to your credit report and a “report card” on factors impacting your credit score number.

Take the work out of expense reports

Hate keeping tracks of your work expenses? Most find it painful. Whether you’re a small business or employee, Expensify makes it easier with the ability to scan receipts, track mileage, and even link debit and credit cards. You can view usage and even create expense reports. Travel bonus: it allows you to set up currency converters and flight alerts.

For the online shopper

Slice offers its own version of “one stop shopping” for all of your online purchasing needs: track packages, view your spending habits, and also find out if there are price reductions that you can claim with a merchant after the purchase date. It also provides shopping insights and consumer recalls information.

Sharing the cost?

We all know how fun it is to split dinner three ways (or more). Square Cash makes it easy to link your debit card to the software and securely send and request money through email. You can beef up online protection with a security code too. Transactions typically take one to two business days.

Another big player in this market is Google Wallet. It allows you to send money to any user in the U.S. You can also track online orders and view your purchase history when you have the free Google Wallet Card.

So get ready, set, and app up for your personal finance needs in 2015.

 

 

 

 

Be a Holiday Hero with Debts of Zero

giftsThe warmth and good cheer of the holidays can grow cold  quickly when the spending of December wears off in January and you must pay for the merriment spent. However, there are ways to keep the good feelings rolling  financially. When you make a commitment to a “debt-free” holiday, you can ring in 2015 with a happier money outlook than seasons past.

Give a savings lesson

Saying “no” to a child with an extensive gift wish might be the hardest thing to do this time of year. The good news is that you can say “not yet” instead to some of those gifts. If your child has a high-cost present in mind, exceeding the current budget, start a savings fund aimed at buying that item later on. Delaying gratification not only allows your child to eventually have the thing he or she really wants, it also  teaches your child a valuable object lesson on the value of saving for a goal.

Break even

If you’re looking to avoid digging a financial hole, make a vow to have a “zero-sum” holiday. Sell possessions online that net what you are going to spend, or pick up extra income with seasonal work. No matter how you approach it, striving to break even is a positive way to keep your holiday bottom line from going off track.

Limit gifts to one item per person

Create a list of all the people you’ll be buying for to avoid buying excess presents for one person.  Always check off the names on your list as you go. Without a plan in place, it’s easy to load up on impulse items (not to mention gifting unevenly and unintentionally).

Donate time to a cause

Giving gifts doesn’t always mean spending money. Something just as meaningful—if not more so—is performing volunteer work in a loved ones’ name for a cause. Have a relative serving in the military? Consider devoting time to help injured veterans. Contributing to an effort close to the heart of your loved one can make for a gift that both you and the recipient will remember well into the New Year and beyond.

Find alternate “spending” power

Think about your existing rewards programs before you put any gift purchases on credit. Gather a list of rewards or loyalty programs you are a member of, such as grocery stores, gas stations, credit cards, department stores, restaurants, and big box retailers, and use those rewards to purchase gifts.  Additionally,  airline mileage can often times be exchanged for merchandise so find out what gifts you qualify for on the airline’s website.

During the celebration season, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of shopping for gifts or buying traditional holiday items. But keep in mind that this festive time also “presents” new traditions for yourself, family, and friends. You might find that with some planning, you can create some new customs that provide just as much joy with far less stress to your finances all year round.

What You Need to Dispute a Credit Report Mistake

What You Need to Dispute a Credit Report Mistake

Have you ever found a mistake on one of your credit reports? If so, you’re familiar with the feelings of anger and injustice that come with discovering you’re being accused of something that isn’t true. Translating your motivation to fix the false information into a successful dispute takes more than just a sense of unfairness though—it requires specific steps to remedy the problem. Here’s what you need to get on the “fact track.”

Get updated credit reports
To start with, there are many different kinds and sources of credit reports. While there are three main credit bureaus that compile credit files—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—there are many different formats in which the information they record gets reported. To effectively and efficiently complete disputes with the credit bureaus, you’ll need copies of the consumer reports the credit bureaus produce. Without these reports, your dispute will be very difficult—if not impossible.

You are entitled to the reports free once per year according to federal law. You can get them by calling 877.322.8228 or by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.

Gather all incorrect information
There can be many reasons for a mistake on your report. A common one is mistaken identity: Incorrect information on one of your credit reports may be due to having a name, address, or Social Security number that is similar to another person. For this reason, it’s important to make a comprehensive list of all mistakes on your credit reports, even if your first look only turned up a single error. The list should include wrong names, addresses, employers, and birth dates.

Know your report identifier
When you contact the credit bureaus to dispute what you believe to be a mistake in your credit file, the bureaus may ask that you provide a report number or code so they can refer to the right credit report. You’ll need reports and report identifiers from each of the credit bureaus to ensure that the problem information is removed from all of your reports.

Get dispute website/phone numbers
While you do have the right to dispute credit file errors in writing, this method generally takes much longer than the online or phone options. Below is contact information for each of the three major bureaus.

Equifax
www.equifax.com
Phone number for disputes provided on your credit report

Experian
www.experian.com
Phone number for disputes provided on your credit report

TransUnion
www.transunion.com
800-916-8800

Keep track of progress
Ideally, your disputes will be processed quickly and you’ll receive a response promptly, but this isn’t always the case. Keep track of the dispute confirmation codes you are given by the credit bureaus. If entering your dispute online, print out the confirmation page after your dispute has been completed. With a phone dispute, have a pad and pen handy to record the confirmation code, the time you called, and the names of any customer service representatives you spoke with.

Stay organized
Start a dispute folder with copies of any supporting documents you have to bolster your case, such as credit card statements, receipts for debts paid, paperwork for dismissed judgments, etc. If your initial online or phone dispute fails, you can always follow up with a dispute in writing that includes your supporting documents. Also include notes or paperwork regarding any previous dispute attempts. Lastly, include in your folder confirmation from the credit bureaus when an item is ultimately removed your reports.

Understand your options
You also have the right to dispute false data with the company that originated it—whether it is a financial institution, mortgage servicer, county courthouse, or other entity. While waiting to hear back on your disputes, contact the information originator to get account documentation. Should you need to file a follow-up dispute in writing, you’ll have even more evidence at your disposal.

There’s never any guarantee a dispute will be resolved as quickly as you’d like. However, doing a little prep work can make it easier to navigate any twists and turns that arise during the process.

Upromise Offers Education Savings Options

Upromise Offers Education Savings Options

Financial resources can be a challenge when it comes to paying for education, whether that means setting aside money for a child’s future expenses or paying for schooling you’ve already received. Luckily, there is a way to stash cash for educational expenses without sacrificing your other financial needs.

What is Upromise?
Upromise is similar to a credit card reward program – you get cash back for making purchases. However, the difference is that the rewards you earn shopping with participating companies can be directly linked to saving for a child’s future college bills, paying down your own student loans, or other education expenses.

Who administers the program?
Upromise is owned by Sallie Mae, the private student loan provider. Launched in 2001, Upromise states that it has helped generate over $850M in rewards for its users. 

Do I need to open a new credit card with Upromise?
Not necessarily. While Upromise does offer its own credit card, you can register your existing credit or debit cards with Upromise and receive cash rewards.

Where do the cash rewards go?
After you make a qualified purchase, the rewards cash is deposited into your Upromise account. This money can then be applied to an eligible 529 Plan for your child, put toward paying off a Sallie Mae-eligible student loan, or taken out in the form of a check. There are no limits to the awards you can acquire and the money never expires. Another benefit? You are not taxed for money in your Upromise account.

Where can I earn rewards?
Many popular brick and mortar and online retailers, grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses participate in the Upromise program. The amount of cash reward you receive depends on the percentage offered by each business and whether you make your purchase online or in-person. Many online buys can earn you 5% or more in cash back. 

What are the potential downsides to Upromise?
As with any rewards program, there is a risk of using the cash back incentive to rationalize purchases you don’t need and that weren’t part of your budget.

Upromise also potentially encourages purchasing more expensive products. You may miss out on better deals available elsewhere if you’re laser-focused on shopping with Upromise participants.

Another potential pitfall: Money accrued in an Upromise account doesn’t earn interest. Other rewards programs can directly deposits funds into a savings or checking account that can start earning interest for you immediately. 

Is Upromise right for me?
If you’ve set a goal to aggressively dedicate funds to education expenses, any money you can allocate to that purpose is a step in the right direction. Though you can participate in a general rewards credit card program (or pay into a savings account) to help with education expenses, a focused program could help add some discipline to the process.

Whether you are saving for your child’s college, paying off a student loan or setting aside money for education goals, Upromise is a solution worth consideration to keep you on the straight and narrow savings path.

The Slowdown 6: Avoiding Home Purchase Delays

The Slowdown 6: Avoiding Home Purchase Delays

No one wants to have a long, drawn-out home buying process. But if you’re the kind of person who sees every month spent not in a new home as weeks of equity lost, you’re even more motivated to finish the purchase in a timely manner. While it’s not a great idea to rush into a new house, there are steps you can take to make the journey as efficient as possible.

The roadblock: Not having a real estate agent
While some may advise you to forego a real estate professional in an attempt to save money, doing so may cost you both money AND time. An agent who is experienced in working with local laws and procedures can help you get those keys in hand much faster.

The roadblock: Lack of preapproval
It’s important to understand the difference between preapproval and prequalification. Preapproval is a more thorough examination of your readiness to buy a home than prequalification and as such, puts you much closer to finalizing a home purchase. Begin the discussion with your lender ASAP to find out what you will need to get preapproved.

The roadblock: Insufficient information
When buying a home, it’s vital to know when to slow down and when to hurry up. Slow down when you’re filling out information for your lender. You don’t want missing or unclear information to bog down the flow of paperwork.

Hurry up when you are asked to provide information to your agent, lender or other involved party during the process. If you want to close as quickly as possible on your new home, you need to prioritize supplying answers immediately.

The roadblock: Low appraisal
If your prospective home appraises for less than the sale price, your lender can pull the plug on the deal. Start the appraisal process as early as possible to avoid delays later. Set up the appraisal through your lender and plan on it taking 14 days.

The roadblock: Poor home condition
You may be fine with a fixer-upper, but if your lender has issues after the home inspection, repairs may be required before you can close. If quickness of closing is important to you, focus on homes in a well-maintained state. You may not be able to sniff out all potential problems in your initial walkthrough, but steer clear of the obvious TLC-needing homes. You can also seek out sellers who have a presale inspection report.

The roadblock: Altering finances
Even if you’re preapproved, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a loan. Lenders give a preapproval based on a snapshot of your financial details at that particular time. So if you suddenly decide to leave your job or buy that $2,000 pool table for your new home, you could change your money profile in the eyes of the lender. Do your best to keep your finances static in the run-up to closing.

Speed should never be your primary concern in finding the right home or finishing the deal. After all, you don’t want to rush through the steps and end up making a big mistake. Your best option for having a smooth and timely home buying experience is to make the extra effort to educate yourself early in the process.

Tax Information Checklist

Tax Information Checklist

One of the most frustrating things about preparing for tax filing is tracking down all the supporting documentation you’ll need for the IRS forms. In a perfect world, you’d have all this paperwork in one folder, ready to be processed. However, if you’ve got it spread across several locations, use this checklist to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

  • Social Security or Tax ID number
  • Copy of last year’s return
  • Tax preparation expenses from previous year
  • Past overpayment applied to current year’s taxes
  • Taxes paid with filing of extension
  • W-2s
  • Business income
  • Interest income
  • Dividend income
  • Rental property income/expenses
  • Income from sale of stock or property
  • Retirement income
  • Hobby income
  • Farm income
  • Gambling income
  • Unemployment benefits received
  • Social Security benefits received
  • Retirement fund distributions
  • Alimony paid or received
  • Tax refunds received
  • Foreign bank account information
  • IRA contributions
  • Estimated tax payments made
  • Interest paid on student loans
  • Business expenses
  • Childcare expenses
  • Medical and dental expenses
  • Job-hunting expenses
  • Health insurance costs
  • Self-employed retirement fund contributions
  • Education expenses
  • Student loan interest paid
  • Mortgage interest and points paid
  • Real estate taxes paid
  • Moving expenses
  • Personal property (such as vehicle) taxes paid
  • Investment expenses
  • Health Savings Account transactions
  • Union dues paid
  • Unreimbursed business expenses
  • Casualty or theft losses
  • Jury duty records
  • Charitable contributions
  • Energy credits
  • Bank account and routing numbers

Remember that if you are filing jointly, you will need to have the above information for your spouse too. If you’re claiming a dependent, you will need the Social Security number and date of birth for that person.

Depending on your personal situation, there may be other documents or information you need to compile to complete your tax filing. Consult with a tax professional to understand all your required paperwork.

Exercising Your Right To Better Finances

Exercising Your Right To Better Finances

“Financial fitness” is a popular phrase used to emphasize the importance of healthy money habits. But it might just be more telling than you ever imagined. More and more evidence is piling up that there is a link between working out regularly and making the most of your money.

Stress relief
First, make a list of the types of purchases you most regret afterward. Next, write down next to each buy the emotional state coinciding with your poor spending choice. Chances are that feelings like anxiety, agitation or worry are closely linked to your problem purchases. As it turns out, these are just the kinds of negative states a vigorous activity can help alleviate. If you feel one these unhappy phases coming on, figure out a quick way to get a sweat going instead of reaching for your credit card.

Clear head
Exercise not only invigorates the body, but it can also help the mind function better too. If you’ve got a big financial decision coming up, a brisk workout can help you achieve a focused, meditative state. This in turn can help to make the pros and cons of your alternatives more clear and help you prioritize what really matters.

Better health
If you’re paying for your own health insurance, you’re probably pretty motivated to engage in healthy activities. But even if you’re on your employer’s plan, consider the benefits of paying less for prescriptions, sleeping aids, cold medications, pain relievers and other costs associated with health issues.

Increased productivity
Striving for that big promotion at work? Wanting to give your own business every last ounce of your energy? No matter if they company is yours or someone else’s, you’re going to be able to give it more effort when you’re operating at your highest level of fitness. Don’t believe it? Compare your output after a day of lethargy to one when you’ve coming off a great workout.

Cheap fun
If your usual entertainment options consist of trips to the mall, movie theatre, concert venue or trendy restaurant, the discretionary spending portion of your budget can really tip the scales. Consider instead active endeavors that cost much less, like hiking, swimming or bicycling. Your area likely has clubs dedicated to these activities that can help make staying fit a pleasurable and inexpensive activity.

Emerging research suggests that making positive change to your financial habits can follow directly from beefing up your exercise regiment. Time to put your exercise goals next to your savings chart on the fridge!

Before You Sign That Contract…

Before You Sign That Contract…

Dense legal text is foisted upon you every time you want to download software, start a membership, or take just about any action where money is changing hands. So it’s easy to get in the habit of skipping over the fine print. However, it’s wise to pick out a few important aspects to identify and understand with any contract you agree to.

Parties
The parties to a contract are the people or organizations responsible for upholding the agreement. Your name is supposed to in the contract, of course, but pay special attention to the other party. Is it the person or organization you’ve been dealing with? If not, why is that? Also make sure the contract can’t be assigned to another entity without your consent.

Pricing
This may sound like an obvious one, but make sure the pricing you agreed to is clearly stated in the paperwork. You don’t want a situation in which you verbally agreed to one price and then found out later the numbers in the contract were different. 

Rights and duties
Simply stated, what are you expected to give and what are you expected to get? This is an area where a little ambiguity can mean a big headache.

Delivery/Payment timeframes
It’s all well and good to have an agreement for what’s going to happen and how it is going to happen, but it’s important to be up front about WHEN they are going to take place.

Default
What is considered default on the contract: if payment is one second past due, or 30 days late? What kind of service or product is judged to be unacceptable? 

Termination/Renewal
When is the contract scheduled to end? What right do you have to terminate the contract early? Are there conditions under which the contract would automatically end? Does the contract automatically renew after a certain period? 

Dispute resolution
Contract disagreements are resolved through mediation, arbitration or litigation. Keep in mind that mediation in general is non-binding. With arbitration, you may not be able to demand information from the other party to build your case. Litigation is likely your best avenue for being made whole. 

Remedies
In a perfect world, contracts would always be honored. In the real world, though, one party sometimes isn’t able to live up to their end of the deal. With any financial decision, it can be helpful to weigh what would happen in the worst-case scenario. It’s no different with signing a contract. Make sure you won’t be penalized too heavily should you need to break the agreement. Additionally, make sure there is enough incentive for the other party to not simply walk away from the deal.

Keep in mind that contracts can be very complex and that if you aren’t experienced in reviewing them, you shouldn’t expect to always understand everything contained within. Enlist the help of an attorney if you feel overwhelmed by the technical language of a proposed contract.

Latest Scams To Watch Out For – Fall 2014

Latest Scams To Watch Out For – Fall 2014

As part of our ongoing series keeping you up-to-date on the latest identity theft, fraud, and theft scams popping up, we bring you a list of new list of schemes to be aware of.

The scam: Toll pass email
You receive a very official-looking email stating that your electronic highway toll pass payment information needs to be updated for security purposes or because it is out-of-date. You are provided with a link and/or phone number to give your current credit card information, Social Security number, etc. 

Preventing it
Such vital information should never be given out in response to an email request, no matter how legitimate the request looks. When you receive an email like this, call the company the email alleges to be from – at a number you have independently verified – and ask if they sent the email.

The scam: Additional video software needed
A “click bait” video with a scandalous or otherwise enticing title is posted via social media. When you click on the video, you are notified that you are missing the proper software to watch this must-see clip. You are then directed to a different site to download this special video-playing software, which turns out to be malware designed to harvest your personal information from your computer or device. 

Preventing it
Instead of relying on what some random post is advising you to download, avail yourself of the most popular online video players like QuickTime, Adobe Flash and Real Player. Makers of online videos produce clips formatted for these players because they want the highest number of people possible to see them. You don’t need anything beyond these few major players and periodic updates. Also, it helps to simply slow down a bit when shuttling around the internet. Think about what is you are clicking on and how well you know what you are getting yourself into. 

The scam: Dropped cash at the ATM
A thief stands behind you in line at an ATM and waits until you your cash withdrawal has been processed. At the moment your dough is being dispensed, the criminal places a bill on the ground and tells you that you’ve dropped some money. When you bend over to pick it up the thief takes the money from the machine or from your hand. 

Preventing it
Be wary of anyone trying to speak to you at the ATM. Common courtesy dictates giving someone privacy when they are handling financial transactions. Secure your belongings before responding to a stranger in this sensitive area. 

The scam: Multiple cell phone cancellations
You are offered the chance to make big money quickly by starting several cell phone contracts, selling the discounted phones you receive to a ringleader, and then cancelling the contracts. The crook’s pitch is that since you are no longer under contract once you cancel the phone plan, you don’t owe the phone company anything. What you aren’t told is that you are required to return the phone when you cancel the contract. You are left on the hook for the fees charged for not returning the equipment. In other cases, you may not be able to even cancel the contract, which means you are responsible for paying for the phone and the agreed-to service plan. 

Preventing it
Get rich quick schemes have earned a bad rap for a reason. Steer clear of anyone paying you to do something on their behalf. If it were on the level, they would be doing it themselves.

If you have encountered any of these or other scams, contact local law enforcement, your state’s attorney general office and the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.

Scary Good Halloween Party Savings

Scary Good Halloween Party Savings

There was a time when Halloween budgets focused on kid items: colorful plastic superhero costumes, paper spider decorations with moveable legs, and bags full of little sugar bombs. But more and more, Halloween is becoming a major celebration for adults, too. If you’re one of those overgrown kids who loves to celebrate the scariest night of the year, you can do so without being terrified to look at your checking account on November 1.

Creative costumes
If you wanted to invest in an industry growing at an explosive rate, you could do a lot worse than the adult costume racket. Unfortunately, the price tags on the grown-up get-ups can also be explosive. Instead of having everyone buy elaborate and expensive disguises for your shindig, focus more on tapping into your collective inventiveness. Tell attendees they must create a costume out of whatever spare items they have in their household. The resulting creations will make for much better party conversation than, “So…I see you’re a pirate. How’s that going?”

Horrifyingly bad movie night
Sure, you can shell out the $15 to buy the latest horror movie release to screen at your party. But that’s so blasé…and not at all conducive to interaction. Instead, head to your local public library and try to find the absolute worst horror movie in their collection. And by worst, we mean low production values and high cheesiness. We suggest Troll 2, if it’s available. Engage in a running commentary with your friends as you watch it. This will be a lot more fun than sitting in silence – you can do that by yourself!

Campfire theme
If you’re worried about having to shell out a lot of money for food, consider having a campfire-themed party. S’mores and hot dogs are inexpensive and can be quickly prepared in the microwave. Organize chairs/couches in a semi-circle around a candle or flashlight for that camping in the forest feel. Require that attendees tell a personal ghost story or one from their hometown.

Make boo-tiful music together
If you’re the kind of person who likes to have some creepy tunes to play during your All Hallows’ Eve bash, you may be used to selling your platelets every October to pay for the playlist. After all, even if you’re just paying $0.99 per song, that could still be well over $50 for a 4-hour party. Your guests will feel more integral to the party if you ask for their help in compiling some eerie music. Plus you’ll definitely get some great conversation-starter ditties. Have everyone on the invite list send you 3-4 songs that give them the heebie jeebies ahead of time.

With holiday celebrations, you may find yourself wanting to throw “The Best Party Ever” or outdo another event from the past. But the important thing is getting good people together and having a fun time. Halloween is about being scared, but not about the expense of it all.