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Fulfilling Charitable Resolutions Without Breaking the Bank

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how to keep your charitable resoltions

By Holly Tomlinson

Giving back more is one of the most popular resolutions made each year, but as we round out the first month of 2016, I find myself having done nothing towards my goal. If you’ve also made a commitment to improving the world around you, you might be wondering how you can do so on a tight budget when you find yourself often having less than you need. I always try to remind myself that there is always something worse off who could use a helping hand, and I’ve come up with a list of ways you can fulfill your charitable resolutions without breaking the bank.

Spring Cleaning

The phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” couldn’t be truer. Consider donating used goods that you don’t get much utility from anymore. Clean out your closets, including those of your kids, and put any things that you’ve outgrown or haven’t seen in at least six months into a bag. You can also go through recreational items, like hockey sticks from an abandoned hobby, old golf clubs, baby toys, and other things you can bear to part with. Take them to a local church, homeless shelter, or Goodwill and make a difference in someone’s life.

The Tax Breaks

While altruism should be the main reason behind your urge to give back, you can’t deny that tax breaks do give incentive to charitable contributions. A gift to an IRS-approved charitable organization may entitle you to a tax deduction if you itemize deductions on your tax returns. Most charities qualify for this deduction but make sure you do your research before banking on a tax break. You’ll also need to ensure you get receipts from your donations, as no deduction is allowed for anything over $250 if you don’t have documentation of it.

Unused Gift Cards

If you’ve got gift cards with small balances that you’re never going to use, consider giving them to charity or a homeless shelter. More often than not we let them hang out at the bottom of our purses or tucked behind credit cards in our wallet, and according to a MarketWatch estimate, almost $750 million worth of gift cards went unspent in 2014. Don’t hang onto it on the off chance that you might use it, and give it to people who could actually benefit from it.

For Online Shoppers

If you’ve got a mean online shopping addiction, use your purchases to donate money to charities that could use your donations greatly. Websites like iGive.com allow you to choose a cause to support initially. After you’re set up, all you need to do is shop on iGive-approved websites — they’ve got upwards of 1,700 online shopping sources to peruse. Everything from car rental websites to upscale clothing stores are on the list, meaning your every need can be met with the added bonus of donating to a charity that’s close to your heart.

Use Social Media

If you’re looking for ways to get involved, stay active on social media and follow different charities. Often local organizations will post about upcoming events, giving you the opportunity to participate and make a difference. Another handy part of the process? You’ll be able to share great things that come up and spread the news to your friends and family — you never know who’s looking for a way to get involved. Social media outlets like Facebook often have pages where likeminded volunteers can come together in their community and plan ways to get involved, so do a simple search and press join–you’ll be glad you did, I guarantee it.

The Ripple Effect

Even the smallest gesture can create a ripple effect of altruism within your community. Small generous efforts can mean big results, and you don’t have to spend a ton to get them done. If you’re a Starbucks addict, pay for the coffee of the person in line behind you — they might be so thankful that they’re inspired to pay it forward. If you know of a family friend going through a hard time, pick up a gift and drop it off at their home unannounced. Even something as simple as dropping off cookies at a children’s hospital will change someone’s day. Fulfilling your charitable resolutions is easier than you might think, and changing the world starts one person at a time. Consider what you can do to improve your community, and watch the karma dividends come back to you.

(Photo courtesy of Randy Heinitz)


6 Stay-at-Home Jobs I’ve Done as a Stay-at-Home Parent

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6 Stay at home Pic 1

Being a stay-at-home parent is inarguably one of the most fulfilling and frustrating jobs on the planet. For one, you get to see your children grow and change — but to do this, you must sacrifice the perks of the working world, including the camaraderie of co-workers. Fortunately, staying at home doesn’t mean surrendering the most useful aspect of having a job: additional income.

Even after just a few weeks of doting on my first baby boy, I was itching to get back to work. Instead of abandoning him to daycare, I sought job solutions that would allow me to stay at home while completing projects and earning pay. Today, I am still satisfied as a stay-at-home mom, and I receive extra satisfaction from my stay-at-home job. For other stay-at-home parents interested in having your kids and working, too, here are seven easy, flexible jobs I’ve tried that helped me be both a proud parent and an excellent earner.

Daycare Provider

New parents have plenty of opportunities to connect with fellow new parents. During pregnancy classes, in doctor’s offices, and at baby classes (like music and swimming) I was able to cultivate a network of moms and dads who were going through the same situations I was. The difference was that most of them were planning on returning to work; fortunately for them and me, I wasn’t. Thus, I was able to start a small daycare among friends and earn a healthy income doing what I wanted to do as a new mother: take care of babies.

If you didn’t gain such a close-knit group during your pregnancy, you can still become a daycare provider. You can post fliers in your neighborhood to build awareness of your business, and you can even take in pets if you aren’t yet comfortable around others’ kids.

Crafter

Whenever I didn’t need to directly interact with my children, I usually had some sort of craft in hand. At first, crafting was simply a hobby I used as a creative time-waster, but eventually, I recognized that I could spin my diversion into another money-making scheme. With a few online stores and a spot in most of my city’s craft fairs, I was able to earn a sizeable chunk of change — and rid my house of all the crafting clutter.

Hundreds of hobbies translate well into small income generators: baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting, and more. However, before you can safely sell your goods, you should consider filing as a limited liability corporation, so you can protect you assets fully.

6 Stay at home Pic 2

Secret Shopper

As soon as my kids could walk, I knew I had to get out of the house. It didn’t matter where we went — as long as we were breathing fresh air. Fortunately, I was able to use my need for movement to bring in some cash. A handful of stores will pay shoppers to rate their in-store experiences. Now, secret shoppers can turn to apps containing lists of “missions” that make finding convenient, paying tasks a snap.

Tutor

When my kids started going to school, I quickly realized how much basic information I had forgotten. In order to be a better mom, I quickly enrolled in a handful of simple courses and bought textbooks to relearn all my lost knowledge.

Not only did that help me encourage my kids to succeed in class, but it allowed me to earn some side money as a tutor for other parents’ kids. Advertising with fliers at my kids’ schools — and eventually online on various tutoring websites — I accumulated a gaggle of well-paying tutees.

Salesperson

Eventually, my kids became teenagers, and the benefits of being a stay-at-home parent were fewer. Still, having been out of the regular work force for so long, I was reluctant to commit to a set schedule outside my home. Instead, I turned to sales. In the past, companies like Mary Kay Cosmetics and Tupperware allowed enterprising individuals to get a business up and running fast. Today, companies like this still exist, and with Web connections, the jobs are more flexible and fun than ever.

Freelancer or Consultant

I only recently turned to freelancing, and it is undoubtedly the most rewarding job I have ever had (besides being a mom, of course). It is as fulfilling as real work, as you work with clients and complete projects just like salaried positions — but you get the flexibility and authority of working for yourself. If you were successful in your field before your child or you have a wealth of specialized knowledge you are itching to put to use, freelancing or consulting is likely the best option.


How I’m Saving Extra Cash with My Car This Year

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When it comes to saving money, I’ve found that the best policy is to find little leaks that can be easily plugged, but the savings derived from them adds up over time. Recently I took a look at my car, and I took five steps that will save me hundreds of dollars this year. This is far from comprehensive from what you can do to save money on your car, but it can show that just thinking about how you might save in one area can help you come up with creative ways to do so.

Take off the Ski Rack

I haven’t been skiing for about 2 months, but I still had my ski rack on top of my car. It took five minutes to remove it and store it in the garage until next year, but doing so will improve the gas mileage my car gets because there won’t be the resistance and drag the ski rack caused. I have a bike rack too, but I won’t put it on until I need to use it, and I’m determined to take it off between uses this summer.

Regularly Rotate My Tires

I buy my tires at Costco. What a lot of people don’t know is that they will rotate your tires for free (Les Schwab, Big O, and some other tire outlets offer this service for free as well). I do this regularly because I didn’t do it with my last set fo tires and due to uneven tire wear, I ended up losing about 10,000 miles of life on them according to the tire guy. That ends up being enough miles that I would have to buy an extra set of tires for me car during its lifetime if I didn’t get the rotated every 5000 miles. With a set of tires costing hundreds of dollars, that’s a big saving for something that’s simple to do if you make the time for it.

Don’t Use My Car (as Much)

It’s such an obvious way to save money, but among my friends, I’m the only one who consistently does this. If I don’t need to drive the car, I choose an alternative method of transportation. I don’t drive to the grocery store that’s about 2 miles away. I ride my bike instead. Not only does it save gas plus wear and tear on my car, I get the exercise I wouldn’t otherwise get which has let me cancel my gym membership. It’s reached the point where I only use my car about 50% of the time when I leave my house. Most people I know use theirs 90% – 100% of the time.

Compare Insurance

You know all those commercials that say you can save hundreds of dollars switching insurance companies? A lot of them are correct and the Internet makes it easy to do. I actually love my insurance agent, that that hasn’t stopped me from getting better deals. Each year I do a search to see what the lowest rate Ic ould get from another company would be and take it to him. He hasn’t always been able to match it, but he gets as close as he can. I’m willing to pay a bit more to stay with my agent since I know I can count on him when there is an issue, but that doesn’t mean I can’t save money in the process as well.

Insurance Tracking

I let my car insurance company track my driving. I know a lot of people don’t like this, but I drive like an old lady anyway so it doesn’t bother me. My insurance company calls theirs SmartRide, but almost all companies have them now such as Snapshot. Basically, these devices track your driving and miles, and if you don’t drive a lot (like me since I take my bike on a lot of the shorter trips), you get a discount. I lowered my costs by about $100 a year by using it.

None of the above takes a lot of time or effort to do. It’s just a matter of doing it. And this is just one area of my life. I’m planning on doing the same thing to many other areas of my life to cut out excess spending fat that can be trimmed without much effort.


Top Common Myths About Mortgages

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By Dean McCarthy

As a mortgage broker, I find that people who are in debt, and those who are looking to purchase a home after being in debt, often have misconceptions and myths about how mortgages work, and these can cost a lot of money and aggravation to those looking to purchase a home. Don’t let these myths deter you from getting your dream home, and having the knowledge of how they work will put you in a much better position to get it.

Myth #1: Prequalification means you have a guaranteed loan

It’s always advised to get prequalified before looking for a home. This helps you and your realtor know the ballpark figure you’re working with for a home to purchase. The prequalification process, of course, requires your income and credit to be evaluated. However, lenders don’t dive deep into all assets and debts. So no financial lender can guarantee you this loan amount.

What I find confuses people is that prequalification and preapproval aren’t the same thing, although many people think they are. If you get a preapproval, your lender goes through all your finances with a fine-toothed comb. This amount is just as good as guaranteed. However, your credit and finances could be reevaluated at any point before they close on your mortgage, so you do have to continue to keep your credit and finances in good order.

Myth #2: You need to have 20% down before you can purchase a home

To be honest, you want to have a decent sized down payment available when you purchase a home. The myth that you need to put down 20% before you can purchase a home was for the purchaser’s benefit. That’s because for many loans, putting down anything less than 20% would increase your interest rate and require a Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) to be automatically added to your mortgage loan, costing you thousands to tens of thousands more over the life of the loan. However, now with more people qualified for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan, you can qualify for a mortgage loan with just 3.5% down. While I believe you should still shoot for that 20%, it’s important to know there are other options if you come across your dream house before you have that 20% saved up.

Myth #3: The FHA is the mortgage lender

Another misconception I come across is that the Federal Housing Administration is an actual mortgage lender. This is not true. They are a government agency under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. What they do is offer mortgage insurance stating they will back up a loan that a financial institution makes. So any losses such as a foreclosure or short sale of a property funded by an FHA loan would be reimbursed by the FHA to the lender.

Myth #4: You need a high credit score to be eligible for FHA loans

Here, again, I think everyone should get their credit score as high as possible when considering a purchase of a home. While most mortgage loans do require good credit, this isn’t true in regard to FHA loans. Credit scores are not a factor when it comes to being approved for an FHA loan. These loans initially started as a way for those with no or low credit and low income to be approved for loans to live the dream of home ownership. Lenders must go through the applicant’s entire credit history on file and not just pay attention to a few late payments. These loans are even available for those with prior short sales, foreclosures, or a bankruptcy. Let me be clear, not everyone with poor credit will be approved, but if you have been taking steps to improve your credit, your chances are greater for approval than with a conventional mortgage loan.

As a broker, having the correct information is important to making a good decision which fits your circumstances. You want to be in the best financial and credit position possible when applying for a home loan, but you also don’t want to lose out on a great opportunity because you think something can’t be done when it can.


How to Make College More Affordable: An Insider’s Perspective

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By Gina Stewart

As a higher education advocate and counselor, I have helped many people, ranging in age from high school graduates to adult professionals, enroll in higher education, only to see them get in way over their heads when it comes to finances. Pressured to meet enrollment numbers, admissions advisors are often guilty of selling the my kids and clients “the dream” without painting a realistic picture of the financial burden that they’re going to saddle these students with after graduation.

Here is what I tell my kids and clients: College, at any level, is expensive. Anyone selling you the dream of higher education without also providing an accurate accounting of the costs and associated difficulties, is doing you a disservice. While I will not share with you the horror stories I have witnessed in an abusive and unchecked system, I can give you some advice on how to spend as little of your money as you can to get the best return on investment possible.

Here are the most important pieces of advice that I offer to every hopeful student I work with:

Get a Degree that Pays

The most important advice I can give to anyone running the financial aid gauntlet is to get serious about the investment, and choose a degree that will pay off in the end. While it is great that many schools offer degree programs in subjects like art history and music appreciation (I majored in music theory and composition so I know whereof I speak), these programs aren’t going to help you get hired outside of your field.

It is better to get your degree in a field that pays well from a school that has a solid track-record of placing students in jobs within the first six months of graduation.

For example, I helped one of my kids enroll in the radiation therapy bachelor’s degree program offered at Gwynedd Mercy U, located here in Pennsylvania. I explained that radiation therapy is a degree that she could carry with her wherever she went and, if she wanted to further pursue medicine or health would pay her enough to help fund that education while simultaneously giving her a leg up on her fellow students. Whatever university and degree combo you choose, make sure it is one that has a good chance of paying off (and that travels well).

Online University

If you are still carrying some doubt about the efficacy of online universities, get over it. When I was an admissions advisor for a major online university back in the day, I understood people’s reticence about joining the program. Today, though, we live on the internet and recent high school graduates are literally younger than household access to the web.

Many of the degrees that are now available online can lead to some highly lucrative careers in a variety of different industries. For example, you can complete a nursing degree online, which puts you on the fast track to paying for your education and earning a very nice living. There are always jobs available in the nursing sector, as hospitals, private clinics, and many other facilities require trained workers. The industry is expected to grow by 22 percent by 2018, since the country’s population is aging, giving you even more chances to find a great job.

Here’s what I told a man who had been downsized out of his retail management position: At the end of the day, you are going to get a solid education at an accredited school, and land a job that pays well. Your interviewer will not disregard your application because you went to a school with an online component. He went after a business degree from one of the most well known online schools in the country and now he’s making three times what he used to make.

Get on the Fast Track

Another thing that I tell everyone I work with is this: If you have the option to get it done quickly, get it done quickly. The longer you are in school, the more it is going to cost you. It’s good to look for programs that have an accelerated option. If you already have some college credits, see if you can CLEP out of the core. That could save you two years, and thousands of dollars. One of my students was looking to transfer from a community college to a four year university. We found her an accelerated program that let her finish the last two years of her bachelor’s degree in just one year. Her current employer was impressed that she took such initiative and even listed it as part of the reason my client was hired!

Let’s face it: College is expensive. But if you do it right, it is one of the best investments you will ever make.


The Embarrassing Position of Being a High Risk Driver

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By Dana Rather

Here is the sad truth that nobody ever talks about: when you are in debt (or other disastrous financial straights) it isn’t just the decisions you make about your money that affect your life. Every decision you make, even the seemingly small ones, is incredibly important and can have a huge impact on your life. Here’s an example from my life:

I was running late for a job interview, so I took an unfamiliar — but supposedly faster — route than I had originally mapped out. On the way, I blew through a stop sign because I wasn’t looking closely enough at my surroundings. A quick glance at the corner said “nope, no sign, no worries.” Had I been paying attention, I’d have seen the great big red octagon that was only partially obstructed by a leafy tree branch. But I wasn’t and so, suddenly, I had a huge ticket that I had to find a way to pay. It might not have ordinarily been a big deal, but this was my fourth ticket and I had so many points on my license that I was in danger of losing it completely. My insurance agent called me to talk about my premiums and suddenly I was at risk of losing my insurance. To keep it, I had to let the insurance carrier classify me as “high risk.”

This isn’t the only way to be considered high risk, of course. There are others. The most common one is being caught without insurance. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case with me; it might have meant a suspension of my license as well as a huge hike in insurance costs for me.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that being classified as a high risk driver is not the end of the world. It can, however, be really expensive, if you aren’t careful. it’s also embarrassing because it’s something that can be avoided and really shouldn’t happen to anyone, but I was lazy and found myself in this position. Here are the things I did to keep my “high risk” classification from ruining my finances.

I ended up being labeled high risk due to a combination of unlucky situations that compiled upon each other to raise a bunch of flags when it was time to renew my insurance policy. There are a lot of other ways to get labeled this way, but all have to do with poor driving, but those aren’t the only reasons. Getting a DUI will also have a lasting effect and, even if you are lucky enough to keep your license, will definitely qualify you as high risk. Even age can have an impact. Drivers under the age of 25 and those over the age of 75 can and in most will be considered high risk. A friend of mine found out that her bad credit, and a cancelled insurance policy due to a missed payment lowered her into the high risk category. Fast sports cars and expensive vehicles, and/or living in area with high crime rates can also be considered high risk.

NOTE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure you know that being caught without insurance can also land you on the “high risk” list. This is especially worth knowing because, if you get caught without insurance — especially if you have a DUI on your record, not only are you considered “high risk” but you will likely not be able to actually get regular insurance. Instead, you will be forced to purchase a special type of insurance coverage called SR22 insurance. This type of insurance can be incredibly expensive, so if this happens to you, be sure to spend some time shopping around for the best rates. Speaking of which… Shop around

One thing that I noticed when I was trying to find a high risk insurance policy that wouldn’t bankrupt me is that insurance companies are always competing. This means that there are lots of opportunities for you to shop around to find the best price. What made things much easier for me is that the high risk market is big and getting bigger and many online companies are fighting for space. The online market is a great place to check offers and compare prices, even if you have to get special SR22 quotes.

I spent a few weeks diving into the details of a bunch of different policies, determined to get the best deal, so be prepared to spend some time doing your own research. It’s easy to get impatient but try to remember that a few weeks of taking the bus and bribing friends for rides is for a good cause. You can save lots of money by shopping around and comparing rates. I did. And then I used some of the money I’d saved to buy presents for all of the friends who had been so great about ferrying me from place to place while I was uninsured.

One of the things that surprised me the most was just how easy it is for the DMV to make mistakes on your driving. Like with a credit history, a driving record changes over time. Old tickets, accidents, etc fall off of it over time (the amount of time varies by state). This meant that by keeping my head down (not literally) and staying out of trouble, I could actually wind up with a seemingly perfect record after a few years. Unfortunately, like with credit companies, the DMV doesn’t really keep up with these things. I had to keep a close watch on my record to make sure that my strokes of bad luck were actually removed when they were supposed to be. You might have to spend some time on the phone with or, like me, actually visiting the DMV to make sure things are removed properly, but it’s worth the effort.

Everything becomes a major balancing act. I found out that the cheapest cars were often the hardest to insure because they rarely had clean title records. Plus, very old and very cheap cars can also be very unsafe and that makes them more expensive to insure. So it was important for me to spend time searching around for a reasonably priced and very safe car. I quickly learned, the safer the car, the cheaper the insurance, and helped me to save money in two ways! It’s possible to overcome a high risk insurance status. I know it’s possible because I did it. It takes time and it might be frustrating, but you can do it.


How the Payment Box Allowed Me to Buy a Car

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By Darren Stevens

I thought my story might help some people who find themselves in a similar situation. I was recently able to get a car because of the payment box when I likely wouldn’t have been able to any other way. Getting that car was vitally important because it allowed me to keep my job, which in turn allows me to pay for my apartment and stay off the streets. It’s a rather long and complicated story, but I will give you the concise version to give you a bit of background.

I’ve been in and out of the hospital for some years now due to chronic illness. The illness has also led to me having huge medical bills and even filing for bankruptcy. Due to all of this, my credit isn’t what could be called close to being good. It’s terrible, and that makes it difficult for me to qualify for any credit or loan. That hasn’t been a problem because I went to an all-cash system that had been working well. That was until my employer decided to move locations which meant that I would no longer be able to take public transportation to work.

The only option I had was to get a car or lose my job. I was terrified because I thought there was no way I could qualify with my credit history. Then I remembered an article Tricia wrote about payment boxes when they first came out years ago. Since my choice was to have a job and a roof over my head or not, I immediately went searching to see if I could find something that could help me get a reliable used car that would get me to and from work each day.

For those not familiar, a payment box is a device that lenders place in the car that give them control of whether or not the car starts. , it allows lenders to disable your car so that it won’t run if you don’t make a payment that’s due. While this sounds like a terrible thing for the car owner, for me it was a lifesaver. That’s because the payment box gives the lender some control over getting payments, so they’re willing to give people like me who have terrible credit a loan when otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the risk.

By having control of the car, it mitigates their risk and allows them to easily disable the car. It won’t start if a payment is missed, and to recover the car (the device also has a GPS tracking system) if a missed payment isn’t immediately made. On my side, as long as I make the monthly payments on time, there is no issue, and I have a car that gets me to and from work. With these safeguards, they’re willing to make a loan to someone they might not normally approve. To qualify, I had to show my paycheck stubs to prove that I could make payments.

There are a lot of people who think that payment boxes are a bad idea. I read a survey conducted by Stoneacre that said the public is still evenly divided on whether or not this is a good idea. It said that 35 percent of people thought the payment box is a good idea, 34 percent thought it’s an invasion of privacy, and 31 percent had no specific view on it. My guess is that those who though it was a bad idea or an invasion of privacy have never been in a position where they couldn’t get a car they needed without this option.

I must admit that I would prefer not to have the box in my car. They claim they only use the GPS capabilities if they need to repossess the car, but that doesn’t mean the NSA doesn’t have access to it. I’d rather there not be a possibility of someone knowing where I am at any time. If, however, the choice is that or living on the streets because I can’t get to my job, I’ll gladly accept the conditions.

So you may be wondering why I’m writing this for BAD. I wanted people to know that not all people who have terrible credit are people who just racked up credit card debt and decided not to pay, or people who don’t understand how credit works. Not everyone who gets a bad credit car loan is someone who is lazy and didn’t have what it takes to organize their finances. Until I came down with my illness, I had great credit, and I’d never failed to pay a bill on time. When you get sick, and your choice is getting the medication you need to stay alive or paying a bill that has come due, priorities change pretty fast.

There are some of us who were thrust into the poor credit world because of the genes our parents gave us without ever intending to get anywhere near it. I hear from a lot of people who say that those with bad credit shouldn’t be able to get any credit because they have already shown they aren’t reliable, and they should live with the consequences of their prior choices. The truth is that there isn’t a one-size fits all designation as to why people have credit problems. And if the system didn’t find ways to try to help those who do have bad credit, I would probably be living under a bridge somewhere instead of having a job, paying taxes and being able to contribute to my community.


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