Holiday Shopping on a Budget

Tips to limit what you spend on gifts this season

Woman holiday shopping online using a laptop and a credit cardThe holidays should be time for celebration and generosity, not for accumulating credit card debt and draining your savings. By sticking to a budget and following these simple strategies, you can bestow meaningful gifts while staying within your financial means.

Create a budget
Donna Montaldo, contributor to TheBalance.com, advises that you make a spending budget before the holiday season hits. Make this an informed amount, based on what you can truly afford to pay.

Make a list
Maya Kachroo-Levine, contributor to Forbes.com, suggests making a list of everyone you want to buy presents for along with a certain amount you should spend on each person. This will help you stay within your allotted budget.

Avoid using credit cards
Montaldo recommends leaving your credit cards at home to avoid racking up debt while shopping. Mellody Hobson, writer for ABC News, recommends using your debit card instead. This way, you won’t be tempted to spend beyond your means and you won’t have to pay interest on your purchases.

Start saving early
Kachroo-Levine advises starting a holiday spending fund as early as possible so that when the holidays approach, you will already have a surplus to tap into. Consider setting aside $30 a week starting two to three months before the holidays.

Compare prices
Hobson suggests that you research prices before purchasing any gift. If you’re shopping in person, use your phone to check online to see if there’s a discounted price if you order an item online. You can also check prices of that item at similar stores.

Re-gifting
Another affordable option to stay within your budget this holiday is to re-gift an item that you received but don’t use or need, explains Montaldo. Make sure the gift is new and wrap it in an attractive package to give it a fresh look.

Go homemade
Browse ideas on Pinterest and others websites for simple gifts that you can make yourself. Montaldo suggests visiting the dollar store to purchase candy or nuts that you can package in mason jars and wrap with festive bows. Handmade items such as cookies or homemade bath salts are two additional ideas great for teachers and coworkers.

Rethink gifts for your partner
It can be easy to overspend on the people closest to you, particularly your spouse or significant other. Kachroo-Levine recommends setting money aside earlier in the year to purchase a high-cost experience or household item that you both have been wanting. Another great idea is to give your partner the gift of quality time this year, to avoid focusing on material possessions as gifts.

Amp up your gift’s appearance
Montaldo advises enhancing the visual appearance of your present by investing in quality gift wrap, ribbons, bows and accessories. You can also add a personal touch by making your own gift wrap, following do-it-yourself instructions on sites like Pinterest and Instructables.

Say “no” to holiday guilt
A thoughtful gift doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive one. Also, you don’t have to buy an item for every coworker and acquaintance you know, explains Kachroo-Levine.

Stay within your budget by applying these practical suggestions for giving affordable holiday gifts this season.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

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Tips for Saving for Your New Car

Hands holdinga jar of moneyIdeas for affording that hot ride you have always wanted
It’s a common situation: your current car is on its last leg and you have your heart set on a new model that will last longer, look better and have more features. Unfortunately, your bank account isn’t on your side and is limiting your options. Instead of disregarding your financial limitations, find ways to overcome them by saving money and shopping wisely so you can eventually afford that dream vehicle.

Determining your financial goal
Before you establish a plan of action, it is vital to fully evaluate your current financial situation and what your goal is; a clear understanding will help you effectively plan how to reach your goal.

Once you identify which vehicle you want, you can estimate how much a down payment would cost. Ronald Montoya of Edmunds suggests that 20% of the total cost of the vehicle should be your down payment (resulting in a lower monthly cost), but that if you cannot comfortably afford that amount, a 10% down payment with GAP insurance mitigates risk while keeping money in your pocket.

Jamie Page Deaton of U.S. News & World Report emphasizes the importance of considering the ongoing price of monthly vehicle costs, such as repayments, insurance and maintenance. Depending on your cost of living and pre-existing debt, these expenses should not exceed 15-36% of your monthly take-home pay. Ensure you have a secure income to afford these monthly costs after you drive the car off the dealership lot.

Saving money on daily expenses
Now that you’ve established a target amount of money to save for both the down payment and monthly fees, you can analyze your current spending habits and find ways to trim your daily expenditures and divert the difference into a savings fund.

Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar outlines dozens of methods for cutting expenses. For instance, consider using public transportation or carpooling to work. Cancel your unnecessary memberships, subscriptions or paid services. Buy bulk, generic, non-perishable items from the grocery store and make your own meals instead of eating out. Other ideas include shopping at thrift stores, selling unused items, consolidating your loans, lowering home thermostats, unplugging electronics and pausing your travel plans.

Getting the best deal on the car
Saving money isn’t just about having enough cash in your bank account; it’s equally imperative to ensure you’re getting a deal on the vehicle you are purchasing. There are methods for knocking some numbers off the sticker price to ensure you are paying the lowest possible amount rather than simply handing over your hard-earned money at the first price presented.

Kerry Hannon of Forbes offers nearly a dozen ways women can save on a new car; all of the methods can be used by men, too. Time your purchase so that you can take advantage of a seasonal sale, a reduced price on last year’s model or a rebate program. Do your research and have a clear idea of what the car’s value is and what competing dealerships in the neighborhood are offering for the same model. Don’t be afraid to negotiate; hold firm on the target price and don’t get drawn into add-ons or upgrades.

Another way to get a better deal on your car is by improving your credit score and thus receiving a better deal on financing. Investigate all your financing options and find the best loan offer that is best for you, whether that’s through your bank, a local credit union or the dealership.

With a solid plan and frugal spending habits, you will eventually be able to afford that new car without putting your finances at risk.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Cool Ways to Save Extra Money

A little creativity and thought can save you a lot of money
Couple Saving MoneyThere are many ways to save a little extra money each month, some of which have added benefits beyond financial ones. Have a little fun and get some great additional perks with these five out-of-the-ordinary ways to save extra money.

Forgo cable
With the popularity of Hulu, Netflix and other streaming services, cable isn’t considered a necessity anymore. These streaming services even produce their own shows that you can’t watch anywhere else. Plus, their fees are just a fraction of the average monthly cable bill—services like Apple TV only cost a flat fee up front for the device.

Another way to get media on the cheap is to dust off that old library card. Many local libraries are part of a network from which you can rent a vast selection of DVDs, TV series boxed sets, CDs and books. Even better, it’s absolutely free—as long as you return everything on time.

Socialize cheaply
Instead of going to the movies on date night or heading out for drinks with your pals, look for free activities happening in your area.

“Many cities offer a host of free activities, especially in the summer months. Use social media tools and the web to find listings for community activities and make your date night a little cheaper,” wrote money blogger Nicole Graham on LifeHack.org. “This will also push you to do something new or different, which will broaden your horizons and help you meet new people.”

You can also host your own social events. Save on menu items, tax, tips and parking by hosting a potluck supper. Or organize a clothing swap—it can be a fun, intimate event; and you can all get some free new outfits out of the deal.

Eat at home
Maybe your apartment is too small to host a potluck, but you can still plan your meals ahead and cook at home for yourself in order to pocket some cash.

“Taking a few hours every weekend to grocery shop and meal plan for the week will definitely save you money, as dining out is the No. 1 expense for most households,” said Brittney Castro of CNBC. “By eating at home, you save money that would otherwise be spent on tax and tip—and you usually save calories, too.”

If you do eat out—maybe it’s a special occasion or a reward—at least try to order take-out rather than dining in or getting food delivered. You won’t have to pay the double-fee of tipping the driver AND paying the delivery charge.

Get crafty
Take to Pinterest, beauty blogs and more to find cheap, easy-to-make and oftentimes eco-friendly cleaning or beauty supplies. These online resources can also give you cool ideas for repurposing items around the house or crafting in general, so finding a new hobby out of the deal is yet another advantage.

Charge yourself for bad habits
Quitting vices, such as smoking, can save you a ton of money. But the actual process of kicking the habit can save you some money as well. On LifeHack.org, Graham recommends labeling a jar with your designated bad habit and placing a certain denomination of money in the jar every time you find yourself partaking in said bad habit.

As if watching exclusive media content, hanging with friends, helping the planet or bettering yourself could get any better—with these tips, you can save money while you’re at it!

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Food Shopping: The Blindspot in our Spending Plan

Woman pushing a shopping cart down a supermarket isleYour relationship with food is probably pretty complex. In addition to sustenance, you may use food for comfort, gathering with others, distraction or pleasure. When you really commit to tracking your food expenses as part of putting together a spending and savings plan, you realize food can be a complicated part of your financial life too. While meals are of course a necessity, take a look at your food-buying habits. Odds are that there’s room to save.

Eliminating “extra” expenses like dining out or buying pricey steaks is a good place to start. But also keep in mind that a successful food-purchasing plan isn’t just about cutting things out. It’s also about understanding your habits.

Going out to lunch at work
You may grab “a quick bite” at work because it’s easy. But it might actually take you less time at home to put together the same meal. Then you get to spend more of your lunch period at work relaxing, going for a walk or reading a book. Or you could just spend the time thinking about the hundreds of dollars you will save this year by brown-bagging.

Convenience store or check-out aisle buys
If you actually look at the prices, you realize that the mark-ups on the quick-grab items near store cash registers are incredibly high. But that’s just the thing. Stores realize you don’t stop to examine and consider prices in those situations. If you find yourself reaching for a pack of gum or some candy as you are about to check out, instead, make a commitment to stock up ahead of time and keep these items in your car or your purse or your desk. By buying them online or at a bulk retailer, you could pocket a bunch of extra dough.

Fast food
The fast burger or taco for $0.99 sounds like the perfect recipe for our modern sensibilities; we want food in a hurry and we don’t want to pay a lot. While the speed of delivery may be enticing, the end price may not be all that great. Consider: how many times have you gone to a fast food restaurant and ordered just one thing? The advertised item may be under a dollar, but when you add on a drink and fries or another side order, the costs add up.

Shopping when you are hungry
It’s silly to think that you are always going to shop on a full stomach. So instead of feeling like you need to plan all your grocery shopping excursions in tandem with meals, just be aware of why you are putting each item into your cart. Are you reaching for that plastic canister of candy rope because it’s a part of your spending plan or because your blood sugar is a little low?

“High end” grocery stores
You may like to go to the more expensive grocery in your area because they have a few specialty items that you can’t find at other stores. That is certainly understandable. But make sure those items aren’t available for a lower price at your regular grocery first. They may be tucked away in a place you hadn’t thought to look. Also, even though you might go to the more expensive grocery store for a few specialty items, doesn’t mean you have to pay a higher price on the regular items; try to just purchase the specialty items there.

Buying prepared items
Any financial coach worth their salt will tell you that cooking your own meals instead of buying prepared meals saves you mounds of cash. But also think about the fruits and vegetables you buy. Fruit medleys or even individual chopped fruit packages can cost much, much more than just buying the fruit in its whole form. Same goes for salad mixes. Is it really worth the extra money to have someone cut up your fruit or mix up some greens for you?

Failing to plan
If you are one of those people who wander around the grocery store until they find some things that look yummy, you are probably paying more than the list makers of the world. In a perfect world you would plan out your meals for a couple weeks and create a shopping list based on that. But at the very least, try to formulate a list of necessities. Allow yourself one impulse buy if that helps you stick to the plan. Remember that “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

Meat-centric meals
If you plan your dining experience with meat as the centerpiece, you are not alone. It’s a common tactic. But it doesn’t have to be an all-the-time way of looking at meal construction. By sometimes substituting in tofu, beans or legumes as your protein source, you can save significantly at checkout time.

Brand name insistence
There are certain consumer items for which you can make an argument that brand name goods are a better choice. But that isn’t generally the case with food. Lima beans are lima beans, whether the name on the can is the one you heard on TV or it is completely new to you.

Making money-smart choices about your food purchases doesn’t have to mean denying yourself the things you love. Instead, think of using these tips to get all the food you like, while giving yourself extra money to spend on things you enjoy.

Used with Permission. Published by BALANCE Includes copyrighted material of BALANCE.

Cut These Costs TODAY

Man buying groceriesHave you ever unexpectedly found out you’re quickly going to have less income? It’s enough to throw you into a panic. But the best way to get through hard times is to take a few deep breaths and put a plan together. Check out these common targets for quick and effective expense cuts.

Food
You might find it obvious that evenings dining out at fancy restaurants probably aren’t the best idea when experiencing a budget crunch. But think about your groceries too. Consider avoiding the higher-priced stores and stocking up on the basics at the more reasonably priced spots. You might find that cooking at home and taking your lunch to work saves you lots of money and ends up being healthier too.

Cable/Movies/Rentals
If you’re like most people, your visual entertainment comes from multiple sources. You may watch movies on cable, in the theater, via rental or online. In crisis situations, it’s best to focus on watching movies at home and using one particular way to do it. In other words, if you have both Netflix and premium movie channels, it’s probably time to go with one or the other.

Phone plans
It’s nice to use a smart phone to be able to look up information on the go, but you could probably make do without the data plan if you had to. Did you know that you could also be on a prepaid smart phone plan? Call your service provider to ask them to perform an analysis on which plan is best for you. You might be paying for more than you actually need. Also consider eliminating your house phone if you have one.

Gym
It’s important to get some stress-relieving exercise during this trying time, but there’s no reason why you should have to spend money to do it. Brainstorm ways to be active without having to fork over a big chunk of your paycheck. The main thing is to just get moving!

Shopping as entertainment
One activity that could put you in the trouble zone is shopping for fun or to ease tension. “I won’t buy anything, I’ll just browse” too often can lead you down the path of unnecessary spending. Eliminate leisure shopping or other activities that put you in temptation.

Gas
Is it an option to work from home more? Can you carpool or combine your errands into fewer trips? If your family has multiple vehicles, can you sell one and share the remaining?

Insurance
With the ease of using the Internet to compare rates, the insurance business is much more competitive than it used to be. Shop around for the best deals on any type of insurance you have—auto, home, life, etc. Check into bundling these with one company to save even more. How is your credit score? This might affect the cost of certain insurances. Also be sure to ask about discounts you might apply for, and the option of raising your deductible in exchange for a lower monthly payment.

Utilities
Think of ways to stay warm or cool more efficiently. Put on more layers in the colder months and spend more time outside during the warmer times. Be conscious of turning everything off and even unplugging electrical items when you leave a room.

Habitual items
When you have a comfortable financial situation, it’s easy to buy coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and convenience store snacks without thinking too much about it. But in these tighter times, think about what you are really getting out of these purchases and if there are expenses that are more important.

Taxes
If you have more money taken out of each of your paychecks than is necessary in order to get a large income tax refund check in the spring, you are over-paying the government each month. Cut this expense by using the IRS withholding calculator to determine the appropriate amount to have withheld from each paycheck.

None of these cost-cutting measures alone is guaranteed to immediately solve all cash flow issues, but in concert they can potentially save you hundreds of dollars per month.

Used with Permission. Published by BALANCE Includes copyrighted material of BALANCE.

Useful Apps for Managing Your Expenses

Using your smartphone to be smarter about budgeting
Creating and sticking to a budget is essential if you want to get out of debt and achieve financial security, but it’s easier said than done. The proper amount of money to spend on various expenses can be difficult to calculate, and summoning the willpower required to stay true to those set amounts can prove even harder. Fortunately, there are many apps designed to keep you honest—and in the black. Here are some of the best apps available for managing your finances.

Mint
The most popular app for managing your money is Mint, a free app from Intuit, the company behind TurboTax and QuickBooks. Mint allows users to connect all of their bank and credit card accounts, as well as their monthly bill statements, into one convenient, all-in-one application for managing spending. Bill payment reminders, specific advice based on your unique spending habits and free credit scores are among the other services that Mint has to offer.

YNAB
You Need a Budget, or YNAB for short, doesn’t just document your spending—it seeks to actively improve your purchasing habits and behaviors. For $5 a month or $50 per year, this app is best for those struggling to escape from the burden of debt. In addition to designing a budget that will help you achieve solvency, YNAB also provides helpful advice and community support in the form of an online forum made up of others suffering from the constraints of living paycheck to paycheck.

Level Money
Many consumers get into the bad habit of checking their bank account, seeing a healthy balance and then spending with carefree abandon. But there’s a difference between how much you can spend and how much you should spend, and Level Money is designed to illustrate that divide. This free app factors in essential monthly costs like rent, utilities and grocery bills to show the “spendable” amount of money in your bank account. You can also program it to take into account your saving goals, which helps you better prepare for the future.

Digit
When managing your expenses, it can be hard to remember to save money; fortunately, Digit does it for you. This free app makes an analysis of your spending and income and then automatically takes small amounts from your checking account, often anywhere from $5 to $50, and banks them in an account managed by the company. The app is fee-free and comes with a no-overdraft guarantee, so there is little risk involved. No interest is earned on your savings, since Digit is not a bank, but there is a “Savings Bonus” of five cents for every $100 saved over a three-month period.

Whether you are racked by debt and searching for a way out or simply looking for a convenient way to keep track of expenses and improve your saving habits, there are many free and affordable apps that can have a positive impact on your finances.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Four Mistakes People Make With Student Loans

Stay smart with a student loan strategy
Going to college is a life-changing experience that can open doors to new careers and increase your lifetime earning potential. If you are looking for a new student loan or are trying to make the best out of the repayment period, make sure you are avoiding these common student loan mistakes.

Not considering private loans
Many would-be-students shy away from private loans because they have heard that they lack the protections and benefits that come with federal loans. While it’s true that federal loans offer a fixed interest rate in contrast to most private loans, it is often possible for a student to get a lower interest rate with a private loan, particularly if a parent cosigns. If you are able to obtain a much lower rate with a private loan, then it’s worth seriously considering whether the security of a fixed rate with a federal loan is worth it.

Ignoring retirement savings
It is understandable, and even laudable, to want to repay student loans as quickly as possible, but undertaking an ambitious repayment plan at the expense of completely ignoring retirement savings isn’t wise.

“A recent report from Morningstar Inc. subsidiary HelloWallet found that someone with a starting salary of $50,000 who pays off a $20,000 student loan ahead of schedule but skimps on retirement savings—by contributing only enough to an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan to receive half the employer’s 3% matching contribution—will wind up with a net worth at age 65 that’s $150,000 below where it would have been had he or she contributed enough to receive the full match and repaid the loan over a longer period, by making the minimum required payment,” states The Wall Street Journal Reporter Anne Tergesen in an article from Sep. 2016.

Not making automatic payments
One of the best steps you can take to make sure the student loan repayment process goes as smoothly as possible is to set up automatic payments. Some people delay setting up automatic payments because they have ambitious goals of paying more than the minimum each month, and want to wait to see what their bank account balance is before determining the payment amount. While it’s great to pay more when you can (as long as you aren’t sacrificing retirement savings), it’s not worth the risk of making a late payment or missing a payment all together. Setting up automatic payments that you can afford each month is the safest bet, and if you find you have extra money after the payment is made, you can always make a supplemental payment.

Paying for assistance
If you are having trouble affording your payments, you may have been tempted by ads that offer to help you figure out your options for paying on a different schedule or seeking loan forgiveness on your federal loan.

“If someone asks you to pay for these services, you are not dealing with the U.S. Department of Education or our loan servicers,” according to Nicole Callahan, a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid in an article for HomeRoom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education. “We don’t charge application or maintenance fees. If you’re asked to pay, walk away (or hang up).”

The cost of an education that can help you start a profitable career or get a better job in your current field is money well spent, and you can make sure you are getting the best return on your investment by avoiding these four common student loan mistakes.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.