Single Mom Overcomes Obstacles
to Provide Home for Son with Down Syndrome

GailCunninghamBy Gail Cunningham

National Homeownership Month is the ideal time to remind Americans that owning a home represents much more than a mortgage. Tia Early, the NFCC Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence (PACE) Housing Client of the Year, is the picture of what a mother will do to provide a home for her son, redefining perseverance along the way.

Tia Early is no stranger to tackling tough situations and making the best of them. In 1999, when she was 8 months pregnant with her son, Hurricane Floyd came to Florida. She packed her car with her critical belongings, loaded up the dogs, and went to a friend’s house in Georgia. Coming home a week later, she was grateful that her rental home did not sustain any damage.

She was also grateful that she returned home when she did, as her son, Nicholas, decided to arrive a month early. As a single mom, she was ready for the challenge of motherhood. However, that challenge took on a new meaning when she was told that her baby boy had Down Syndrome. Not missing a beat, Tia took the news in stride and vowed at that moment that Nicholas would always have the best opportunities she could provide. Those opportunities included a home of their own.

By 2002, Tia was working as a computer programmer and making a salary of $65,000 per year. Keeping her eye on the prize of homeownership, she saved for her down-payment, set money aside for emergencies, and established a solid budget for her house payment and maintenance. She was proud when she and Nicholas moved into a home they loved and could afford.

But her company decided to downsize and outsourced all the programming functions. Tia immediately slashed her budget to the bare minimum and started looking for work. Determined not to use her severance, she found a new job within a month. Although the new job paid substantially less, $40,000, Tia persevered taking on additional assignments and tasks at work. Her employer quickly realized her value and she received regular salary increases and bonuses. She monitored her budget closely and continued to maintain her emergency savings account.

Then the economy dealt Tia an unwelcome blow. In 2008, as the economic crisis loomed, Tia was laid off again. Familiar with the drill, she immediately slashed her budget and started looking for work. This time, however, the best salary she could command was $30,000 annually.

Although many people would have considered giving up, these setbacks made Tia even more determined. By now, she and Nicholas had survived a lot, so it was no time to quit. She had done all she could on her own, but she was four months behind on her mortgage and knew she needed professional help finding a solution. That’s when she turned to NFCC member agency, Family Foundations, in Jacksonville, FL.

“I had to have a home. I have a special needs child so I can’t just live at a homeless shelter,” said Tia. “Rent was just as much as a house payment, so I didn’t know how I was going to make it. That’s when I went to Family Foundations.” Tia worked closely with John Doyle, her Housing Counselor, to obtain a mortgage modification. Despite being turned down multiple times over an 18-month period, Tia and John kept persevering until they finally achieved a modification that was affordable and sustainable with her new salary.

Tia and John did not limit their action plan to simply looking for foreclosure prevention relief. They took a holistic approach to her situation and jointly developed a comprehensive plan for her to not only achieve financial stability now, but to reach her long-term goals. Together, they determined that the computer programming field might not offer the job stability she so greatly needed, thus an alternate career path was in order.

Having her mortgage modified to a manageable level gave Tia the freedom to pursue a new career. She decided that she wanted to work in a field where she could directly help those in need, and because of her experience with her son, she had first-hand knowledge of the impact she could make on the lives of those who are not able to fully take care of themselves. Having determined that nursing was the right career path, she began classes and obtained work as a Certified Nursing Assistant in a nursing care facility close to her home, and is now attending college to become a Registered Nurse, working full time and taking care of her son.

Tia is thankful that her counselor at Family Foundations provided her with more than a short-term plan to relieve her immediate crisis, but also helped her construct life goals. She is confident that her new career will provide her with the long-term stability she has so desperately sought all these years, a stability that will allow her to raise her son to make the most of his life.

Tia has advice for others who may find themselves struggling to make their house payment. “Take the step to seek help. You will be in control of your finances instead of your finances controlling of you. It is not taboo to get help. You have to put pride aside and just do it.”

“Tia is a wonderful example of perseverance through difficult times,” said Dawn Lockhart, president of Family Foundations. “What impresses me most is how she followed every detail of her Personal Action Plan in order to build a long-term solution for her future and for her son’s future. Her new career as a Registered Nurse means she will have stable income and she now knows how to manage every aspect of her expenses.”

NFCC member agency professionals are experts at helping people get into the house of their dreams and stay there. A house is usually a person’s largest investment. It’s also where memories are made. To ensure that you make a smart buying decision, or for foreclosure prevention solutions, take Tia Early’s advice and reach out for help to an NFCC member agency. To be automatically connected to the agency closest to you, dial (800) 388-2227, or to find an agency online, visit www.NFCC.org.

Gail Cunningham manages Media Relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 A New Breed of Prepaid Cards

alderman_color_1By Jason Alderman

Anyone who’s ever lacked access to traditional checking, savings, and credit card accounts knows how difficult it can be to manage personal finances. Everyday tasks like cashing payroll checks, paying bills, shopping online, and renting a car can be much more difficult and expensive – not to mention dangerous, if you’re forced to carry large amounts of cash to pay your bills.

That’s why many people use prepaid cards. Prepaid cards look and work much like regular debit cards except that instead of being funded through your checking account, you load money onto the cards by cash, check, funds transfer or direct deposit by an employer or government entity.

“More Americans are turning to prepaid cards as a way to manage money, but our research shows that these cards should be made more consumer friendly,” said Susan Weinstock, who directs consumer banking research at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization that provides nonpartisan reporting and research on a broad range of social and economic issues.

Prepaid cards often come with a host of fees, rules and restrictions that can be difficult to decipher and compare. As Visa Inc. President Ryan McInerney noted, “Consumers have been confused by an often complex prepaid landscape, where not all cards are created equally.”

But that’s about to change.

Visa, my employer, recently announced a new designation for consumer reloadable prepaid products designed to simplify fees, improve consumer protections and create opportunities for cardholders to improve their financial health. The new classification was developed in conjunction the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) and The Pew Charitable Trusts, both major industry thought-leaders.

To qualify for the new Visa prepaid designation, prepaid programs must meet a rigorous set of standards. “We felt it was important to go beyond current marketplace regulatory requirements and bring transparency to this growing product area so that consumers better understand the fees, protections and benefits associated with cards,” said McInerey.

Prepaid cards that meet these requirements will receive a seal – think Underwriters Laboratory or Good Housekeeping – that will be visible on card packaging and materials. Key features include:

Simplified fee structure and disclosures – a flat monthly fee that includes all basic day-to-day activities. Consumers will not be charged:

  • Fees for transactions being declined.
  • Customer service fees.
  • Fees for in-network ATM withdrawals or balance inquiries.
  • PIN or signature transaction fees.
  • Fees for cash back at point of sale.

Prepaid cards with the new designation will not include overdraft coverage, which means you can’t accidentally spend more than the card’s balance and thereby incur an overdraft fee. In addition, they will come with consumer-friendly communication of fees (e.g., prominent mention of fees and other disclosures), and a quick-use guide for finding the best ways to use the product at the lowest cost.

Greater level of consumer protections  

  • Funds linked to the card must be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the National Credit Union Association.
  • Dispute resolution rights as outlined in the Federal Reserve Board’s Regulation E.
  • All cards are covered under Visa’s Zero Liability policy.
  • Access to Visa’s Prepaid Clearinghouse Service, which offers enhanced fraud protection.

According to Cecilia Frew, Visa’s head of U.S. prepaid products, CFSI was instrumental in helping to shape the new prepaid card designation. “We drew on CFSI’s Compass Principles, a set of aspirational guidelines they developed with key financial industry participants, that define how providers can work toward a vision for the future in which financial services are safe and actively contribute to improving people’s lives,” said Frew.

To learn more about how prepaid cards work, visit this Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, or my read previous blog, The 411 on Prepaid Cards.

To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

Jason Alderman is Senior Director, Global Financial Education, with Visa, Inc.            

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Father’s Day Advice from Financial Experts

GailCunninghamBy Gail Cunningham

Advice is only as good as its source, and in this case the advice comes from those who have decades of experience providing financial guidance: executives of NFCC member agencies.

When asked to complete the sentence “If I knew then what I know now” with what they’d have done different financially, those who offer financial advice and solutions to consumers each day provided the following fatherly advice – from the head and the heart – for people beginning their financial journey:

  • Require myself to wait at least 24 hours before making any major purchase; and I’m not sure 48 hours wouldn’t be a better suggestion. I still regret the emotional and impulsive decision that I made when I saw that old “Smokey and the Bandit” Trans-Am parked on the car lot many years ago. Despite the puddle of fluids accumulated on the passenger side floor-board, this was my dream car and I went in and signed paperwork without even taking it for a test drive. Worst financial decision ever!Although numerous hikes from a car broken down on the side of the road did provide a lot of exercise, I let my “wants” override my “needs” and paid for it over many years. Now, I find that if I just sleep on it for a day or two and give my mind a chance to consider all of the consequences and possibilities, I make a much more financially responsible decision.
  • I have three wonderful sons. They are all big strapping men who are kind, gentle, and intelligent. When they were growing up I, like many of my generation, spoiled them. I didn’t require them to mow the yard or do any of the chores that my father put me through. (He was a former tech sergeant during WWII.) When I became a dad I vowed that I would not make my sons do the required labor that my father imposed on me. What I should have done was seek a happy medium. Earning money and understanding the relationship between working hard and financial reward is so important. There’s a hunger that comes with wanting something so bad you will work tirelessly to earn the income to achieve it.
  •  My agency continues to see clients with overwhelming student loan obligations, and this year we’re seeing graduates with more debt than any other class before them. Therefore, I would stress the importance of saving for college. This is something I’m working on with my own kids and something I hope they pass along to theirs. A person can start by setting up a 529 plan or even just creating separate savings accounts for each child at an early age. Also, consider having them contribute to it so they are a part of the process. It might even make them study harder.
  • Seek professional management of your retirement savings early in your career. I saved a lot relative to my earnings and have been relatively conservative in my spending habits, but I have seen the real benefit of having someone follow my investments and pick the best managers for my retirement savings. It has really made a difference.
  • I would have lobbied earlier and harder to have financial education included as part of my school district’s curriculum.
  • Know that there are two ways of getting everything you want in life: 1) work harder and accumulate more, or 2) desire less. When I accepted number 2, life was much more enjoyable.

NFCC member agency professionals not only know how to find solutions to people’s financial problems, but they genuinely care about those in financial distress.  Many have spent their entire professional lives in the financial counseling sector helping others achieve long-term financial stability.

Money problems can impact people of any age, race, or income level. NFCC member agencies help millions of people each year to find a way out of their financial dilemmas. Don’t wait to reach out for help, as that will likely only make the situation worse.  The NFCC’s Sharpen Your Financial Focus™ program may be the answer you’re seeking. To learn more about the program, dial 855-374-2773, or go online to www.SharpenToday.org.

Gail Cunningham manages Media Relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 5 $mart $pending Tips

MarkFoster_CCOABy Mark Foster

Every day we’re faced with hundreds of choices. Here are five smart spending tips to help make good financial decisions:

1) Buy used whenever feasible. Good quality used furniture, for example, can save you a bundle versus buying it brand new. Buying a used car can save you a ton of cash by letting someone else take the hit on the new car depreciation.

2) Wear something out before replacing it. Just because you can afford to go buy a new refrigerator, washing machine or car doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. The longer you can keep using a machine that’s working fine, the longer you’ll keep that money in your pocket.

3) Avoid instant gratification. Stop and think before buying. Spending impulsively or emotionally can wreck our finances. Always ask yourself if you need it and can you afford it.

4) Avoid falling into the monthly payment trap. It’s easy to rationalize expensive purchases by saying it’s a small monthly amount, but too many payments can financially drown you.

5) Be slow to buy new technology. Gizmos and gadgets drop in price after being out for awhile. Unless you need it for work or school, let the price drop some first.

Mark Foster is Director of Education with Credit Counseling of Arkansas (CCOA). CCOA is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. To schedule an appointment with a Certified Consumer Credit Counselor contact CCOA at 800.889.4916, or visit CCOA online at www.CCOAcares.com.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Explore Medicare Before You Turn 65

alderman_color_1By Jason Alderman

Each day, approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 – and thereby become eligible for Medicare. Many would argue that unlike most signs of getting older, that’s a good thing, considering how expensive individual health insurance has become.

But becoming eligible for and actually enrolling in Medicare are two very different things. In fact, if you miss the initial window to sign up for certain parts of Medicare and later decide to enroll, you could wind up paying significantly higher premiums for the rest of your life.

If you’re approaching 65, you might want to become familiar with these Medicare basics now, rather than waiting until you need to make last-minute decisions:

Medicare provides benefits to people age 65 and older (and those under 65 with certain disabilities or end-stage renal disease). For most people, the initial enrollment period is the seven-month period that begins three months before the month in which they turn 65. If you miss that window, you may enroll between January 1 and March 31 each year, although your coverage won’t begin until July 1.

Medicare offers several plans and coverage options, including: 

Medicare Part A helps cover inpatient hospital, skilled nursing facility and hospice services, as well as home health care. Most people pay no monthly premium for Part A, provided they or their spouse have paid FICA taxes for at least 40 calendar quarters. However, deductibles, copayments and coinsurance may apply, depending on the service provided.

Medicare Part B helps cover medically necessary doctor’s services, outpatient care, durable medical equipment, and many preventive services. It’s optional and has a monthly premium – $104.90 for most people, although higher-income people pay more. For most people there’s a $147 yearly deductible; after that’s met, you’ll be responsible for 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount of the service, provided the doctor or other provider accepts Medicare. Note: There’s no annual limit for out-of-pocket expenses.

Medicare Part C (a.k.a. Medicare Advantage) plans are offered by Medicare-approved private insurers as alternatives to Original Medicare Parts A and B. They’re usually structured like typical HMO or PPO plans. Most cover prescription drugs and some include additional benefits such as dental and vision coverage for an extra cost. You’re usually required to use the plan’s doctor, hospital, and pharmacy provider network which may be more restrictive than providers you can access through Parts A and B.

Medicare Part D helps cover the cost of prescription drugs. It’s optional and carries a monthly premium. These privately run plans vary widely in terms of cost, copayments and deductibles, and medications covered. If you’re enrolled in a Part C plan that includes drug coverage, you don’t need Part D.

Medigap Insurance. Many people opt to purchase additional Medigap (or Medicare Supplemental) insurance, which is offered by private insurers and helps pay for many items not covered by Medicare, including deductibles, copayments, coinsurance and sometimes, coverage when traveling abroad. Some employers and unions offer Medigap coverage to their retirees.

Medigap plans can vary widely in terms of cost, covered benefits, and states participating so compare your options carefully. Note that Medigap policies don’t pay for Medicare Advantage plan deductibles and copayments, so if you want to join an Advantage plan, you may want to cancel your Medigap coverage. Also, if you already have an Advantage plan, it’s illegal for anyone to sell you Medigap insurance unless you are switching back to original Medicare Part A and B coverage.

Keep in mind:

  • People who aren’t eligible for free Medicare Part A (usually because they didn’t pay sufficient FICA during their working years) may be eligible to purchase it provided they also buy Part B. (Monthly premiums cost up to $426.) However, if they don’t sign up when first eligible, they may have to pay a late enrollment penalty.
  • With Parts B and D, you’ll often face sizeable penalties if you don’t enroll when first becoming eligible – Part B premiums could increase 10 percent for each 12-month period you were eligible, but didn’t sign up (the Part D late enrollment penalty is somewhat more complicated to calculate); however, if you’re currently covered by an employer’s plan you can enroll later without penalty.
  • Terms of Medicare Advantage and Part D plans such as premiums, copayments and covered medications can change from year to year, so carefully review enrollment materials from your current plans to make sure they still match your needs.

Understanding and choosing the right Medicare options for your individual situation can be a complicated and time-consuming process. For assistance, call 1-800-633-4227 or visit Medicare.gov, where you’ll find:

  • Helpful publications, including Medicare & You 2014, a detailed guide that explains Medicare in easy-to-understand language.
  • Tools to compare prescription drug plans, hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and Medigap plans in your area.
  • A resource to find local doctors and other health practitioners who participate in Medicare.
  • Services covered by various Medicare plans.
  • Enrollment instructions.

AARP also provides a great Medicare Starter Kit that answers many common questions.

Bottom line: Choosing the right Medicare coverage is not as easy as shopping for a new pair of pants, so be sure to allow plenty of time to explore how the program works.

Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/PracticalMoney

Jason Alderman is Senior Director, Global Financial Education, with Visa, Inc.            

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

 

 

 

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 NFCC Poll Reveals Many Reluctant
to Assume Risk of a Mortgage

GailCunninghamBy Gail Cunningham

In recognition of June as Homeownership Month, the NFCC today released the results of a recent poll revealing that close to one in five respondents do not believe that taking on a mortgage is worth the risk. This attitude is consistent with the U.S. Census Bureau’s current report highlighting the declining rate of homeownership. The present rate of 64.8 percent representing the first quarter 2014 is the lowest homeownership rate in almost 19 years.

The housing crisis, recession, and continued economic instability appear to have shaken the confidence of many Americans, particularly when it comes to big-ticket items such as a house. However, the unwillingness to take on a mortgage loan may be a smart decision for some, as many borrowers have learned the hard way that homeownership does not come with a guarantee of continually increasing equity.

Although the benefits of owning a home are many, until a person is fully prepared to assume responsibilities such as a mortgage payment, home and lawn maintenance, improvements, and taxes and insurance, renting may be right for them. Homeownership is about much more than buying a home. Renting until they are in a position to buy can help a person avoid a costly mistake, including the negative ramifications of foreclosure.

Consider some of the benefits that renting provides:

  • Allows time to prepare for homeownership which can pay off. Saving money for a downpayment can decrease the amount of monthly mortgage payments, and building a stellar credit report and score can result in a lower interest rate on the loan.
  • Mobility.  A 12-month lease is a fraction of time compared to a 30-year mortgage. If it becomes necessary to move for any reason, a renter is not shackled to their home until they sell it.
  • Less money required up front.  Security deposits are much less than broker’s fees and closing costs.
  • Avoids costly purchases such as appliances, some of which are often included with the rental.
  • Renters insurance is less expensive than homeowners insurance.
  • Money is not tied up in the home, making it more readily available for emergencies or other needs and opportunities.
  • Luxuries that may not be affordable independently such as a swimming pool, tennis courts, gym and party room are extras often available through apartment complexes.
  • Avoids costly maintenance and repairs.  Upkeep of a home takes both time and money, whereas expenses associated with repairs are typically included in the cost of the rent.
  • No Homeowners Association fees.  Maintenance of the grounds and common areas is usually included as part of the rent.
  • Utility bills are sometimes included in the rental payment, making budgeting much easier

It is critical to remember that buying a home represents a large financial obligation extending over a long period of time and is usually a person’s largest investment. Consumers should consider homeownership only after careful deliberation and when the timing is right for their unique situation.

If buying a home is the ultimate goal, take advantage of an NFCC member agency homebuyer workshop. To find out more information, or to have personalized answers to your homebuying questions, reach out to an NFCC certified housing professional by calling (800) 388-2227. To find an agency online go to www.NFCC.org.

The NFCC poll question and answers are below:

Which of the following best represents your attitude toward owning a home?

  1. Owning a home remains a critical part of wealth building = 82%
  2. A mortgage is a risk I’m not willing to assume – 18%

Note: The NFCC’s May Financial Literacy Opinion Index was conducted via the homepage of the NFCC website from May 1–31, 2014, and was answered by 829 individuals.

Gail Cunningham manages Media Relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Six Ways to Find Unadvertised Jobs

MaryHuntHeadshot-New as of 2-5-13By Mary Hunt

Looking for a job these days is a lot like participating in a treasure hunt with thousands of other “hunters.” You don’t want to dig where everyone is digging. You want to scope out places others are not searching so you have the best chance of scoring a real find.

That does not mean you should give up your current plan of attack, but in addition to sending resumes, consider these ways to strengthen your network and expand your job-hunting horizon.

Search bankruptcy filings. Many companies that file for bankruptcy protection go through “reorganization” rather than liquidation. It is not unusual for a company to emerge from this process stronger than it was before. Usually, the old management is gone. What a great opportunity for someone like you to show your management and survival skills.

Volunteer at non-profit organizations. While you are searching for employment, why not give back to your community by volunteering your services and talents with a non-profit organization? Besides the obvious benefit of helping others, you will meet all kinds of influential people from the community, including leaders of successful companies around town who sit on the boards of non-profits or who volunteer their time as well. Build relationships with these people and you might find yourself employed at their company.

Awards ceremonies. Check the local paper and chamber of commerce for scheduled awards ceremonies. If they are open to the public, plan to attend. You will discover that people in decision-making positions from other companies will also be in attendance because they want to be seen and associated with winners. Attend the banquet and you might find yourself seated next to an influential individual. Reach out. Introduce yourself and begin a conversation. Each person you meet is a new addition to your network.

Small companies. One advantage of a small company over a large corporation is the lack of layers. Many times, they have the flexibility to create new jobs on the fly if you present yourself in a way that compels them to think you would be a great addition to the team.

Trade journals. It’s possible the trade journals for your industry are available at your local library. If not, you may want to subscribe. These journals can be a great resource to scope out unadvertised jobs. Read between the lines of stories. Are there technological developments in your field? Are there changes in the way your industry is funded? Are there new programs, products, or services that are being developed or launched? All of these developments could mean job opportunities. If you come across an interesting article, contact the author as a starting point to launch a conversation.

Company websites. Companies often advertise job openings and have career information posted on their websites, and that can open up a world of positions that aren’t advertised in the classifieds. Use Internet search engines to identify companies in your area that are of interest to you.

Mary Hunt is the founder of DebtProofLiving.com and author of 23 books, including her latest, “The Smart Woman’s Guide to Planning or Retirement.”

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Keep a Lid on Vacation Costs

alderman_color_1By Jason Alderman

Summer vacation is right around the corner. I’m not a big believer in pre-planning every single detail – sometimes the best vacation moments are spontaneous. But unless your rich uncle is paying for the trip, you’ll need to do a certain amount of preparation or your budget will fly out the window.

You do have a vacation budget, right? If not, here are a few suggestions for creating one and some cost-saving ideas to help keep expenses down:

First, be realistic about what you can afford. If your vacation will take more than a month or two to pay off, you may want to scale back on this year’s trip and start setting aside money now for next year.

When building a trip budget, try to anticipate all potential expenses. Consider things like:

  • Airfare-related expenses. Include taxes and fees for items like changing flights, extra leg room, priority boarding, Wi-Fi access, meals, and checked, oversized or overweight baggage.
  • Kayak, Airfarewatchdog.com and Travelnerd.com provide handy charts that compare various fees for popular airlines; however, always double-check the airline’s own posted rules before booking your flight.
  • Transportation to and from the airport – at home and all travel locations.
  • Car rentals. Factor in taxes, gas, fill-up penalties and insurance (check your auto insurance and credit card policies to ensure you don’t pay for duplicate coverage).
  • Hotel/lodging. Don’t forget taxes and other local fees, charges for phone/Internet, room service, early check-in or departure, gratuities, etc. Consider lodgings with a kitchen to save on restaurant charges.
  • Hotel room rates often are based on double occupancy. Although kids usually can stay for free, many hotels charge extra for additional adults.
  • Entertainment. Include meals and snacks, event admission and ticket-ordering charges, transit passes or taxis, sporting equipment rental, babysitters, and special clothing or accessory requirements (sunscreen, hiking boots, etc.)
  • Cell phone roaming charges, especially in foreign countries, remote locations and at sea. Ask your carrier ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises.
  • Throw in an extra 10 or 15 percent for unanticipated expenses – lost luggage, flat tire, etc.

Search for deals on flights, hotels, and rental cars at comparison sites like Orbitz, Kayak, Priceline, Hotwire, Hotels.com and Travelzoo. But beware: Before clicking “confirm,” make sure the final price matches the initial quote. I’ve seen fares jump $50 or more in just minutes or had the seat I was booking suddenly become unavailable.

A few additional tips:

  • Follow and “like” airlines and ticketing sites on Facebook and Twitter. They’ll often share sales, discounts, and promotional codes with their followers.
  • If the airfare goes down after you’ve purchased your ticket, ask the airline or ticketing site to refund the difference – it couldn’t hurt to ask. Sites like Yapta will notify you when airfares drop.
  • Print and carry a copy of your airline’s Contract of Carriage, which outlines your rights and the airline’s obligations should your flight be cancelled or delayed for reasons besides weather or other “acts of God.”
  • Consider vacation rentals listed on sites like Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner and HomeAway.com. You can often find cheaper accommodations with more space and amenities than hotels offer.
  • Before booking a hotel room online, call the individual property to see if they can beat the company’s posted rate. Also ask for member discounts for organizations you belong to like AAA or AARP – 10 or 15 percent here and there can add up. (Use the same strategies when renting a car.)
  • If you’re traveling internationally, check the U.S. State Department’s website for travel advisories, entrance requirements, passport and visa information, etc.
  • If camping is your game, visit the National Park Service’s website or check your state or city’s website for state and local campgrounds.

Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by my employer, Visa Inc., has a handy web-based travel calculator that can help you estimate travel costs and rejigger them to meet your budget needs. It’s also available as a free iPhone app, which you can download from iTunes.

For more travel tips, visit the Practical Money Skills for Life Summer Travel Budgeting site, AARP’s Travel site, and my previous blogs, Avoiding Hidden Flight, Hotel Fees and How to Protect Your Finances While on Vacation.

Bottom line: A little pre-planning now can ensure you don’t blow your whole budget on unexpected vacation expenses.

Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/PracticalMoney

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax, or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Survey Reveals Varied Perspectives
Regarding Student Loan Debt

GailCunninghamBy Gail Cunningham

The NFCC 2014 Financial Literacy Survey revealed that U.S. adults have a varied range of opinions and experiences when it comes to how they view student loan debt.

By a two-to-one margin, borrowers were more likely to say that their student loan was a good investment than a bad investment. At the same time, however, more U.S. adults would not recommend student loans as a way to finance a college education compared to those who would recommend doing so. Some felt that if they had realized the amount of student loan debt that they would accumulate, they never would have taken out the loan(s).

Many adults say that they would have benefitted from financial counseling on both ends of the loan – before taking out their loan, as well as after – for many admitted that it is difficult to find the right student loan repayment program for their situation. Others in the survey expressed interest in obtaining a graduate degree, but felt they could not afford it.  Some predicted that they would probably still be paying for their own student loan when their children begin college.

It is disconcerting that graduates cross the stage with a diploma in one hand and student loan debt in the other. Young professionals face a tepid job market, which could make repayment even more difficult.  However, NFCC member agency certified consumer credit counselors stand ready to help borrowers find programs that are appropriate for their budget and unique situation.

Even if a person secures a good-paying job, an average student loan debt of close to $30,000 can start graduates off in a financial hole, especially as interest continues to accumulate on their loan. While the federal government offers a number of income-based repayment plans for borrowers of all income levels, sorting through them to find the right plan can be challenging. NFCC Certified Consumer Credit Counselors can help graduates identify optimal repayment plans that can minimize the amount of interest paid over the life of the loan, while maintaining an affordable monthly payment.

Because student loans are reported to the credit bureau, depending on how they’re handled, they can either wreck a person’s credit history or help build a positive one. When student loan activity is reported, it is treated as an installment loan, thus paying a student loan on-time or paying it late will be treated like other installment debts such as car payments. Since payment history is a highly weighted element of the credit scoring model, ignoring student loan payments can have a long-term negative impact on a person’s credit report and subsequent score, thus potentially hindering future borrowing power.

Some employers will pull credit reports as part of the hiring process, thus a poor report could count against the applicant. To counter this, those who have already fallen behind with their student loan payments should be prepared to present a solid plan of action that identifies the steps that will be taken to improve their credit situation moving forward.

Graduates, even those who remain unemployed, are advised to make repayment arrangements before their grace period or deferment expires. By doing so, they will not risk the negative consequences associated with missed payments. For help understanding the options available and determining the most suitable repayment program, reach out to a certified professional at an NFCC member agency. To be automatically connected to the agency closest to you dial (800) 388-2227, or to find an agency online, visit www.NFCC.org.

The 2014 NFCC Financial Literacy Survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of the NFCC between March 4 and March 6, 2014 among 2,016 adults ages 18+.

Gail Cunningham manages Media Relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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 Bitcoins – What They Are

Jana CastanonBy Jana Castanon

There have been a lot of stories in the news lately regarding bitcoins – their value diminishing, accusations of money laundering, and owners of bitcoins being unable to access their funds. But many consumers don’t know what they are, or how they work.  Simply, a bitcoin is a virtual form of currency. They only exist in computer accounts called wallets. A similar concept would be your online bank account, but there are no actual dollars attached to it.

Part of the controversy regarding bitcoins is lack of regulations and consumer protection. While real dollars in US banks are insured by the FDIC, there are no protections for bitcoins. They only are worth something because someone is willing to give you currency or products in exchange for one. The moment people believe that bitcoins have reduced value, or worse, no value at all, they become worthless. At this time, there is no way to formally regulate bitcoins.  Governments are actively trying to develop guidelines, but are struggling due to the anonymous identity of the users.

Spending bitcoins is as easy as transferring them from one wallet to another; again, similar to transferring money from your bank account to another account. Your “wallet” is housed on your computer so it’s as simple as imputing the amounts and hitting send. As with anything stored on your computer, your bitcoins are subject to fraud and mishap. As we have seen recently computer hackers have been able to compromise many retail outlets and get credit information. Precautions are in place to help prevent this, but who knows what could happen. Or, your hard drive could crash and if you don’t have it backed up you could lose everything. One early buyer of bitcoins lost more than 7 million dollars by accidently throwing the computer hard drive containing the records of his wallet into the trash. Once your bitcoins are gone, they are gone.

For most people, the concept of using bitcoins is still foreign. Just as online banking was an unstable concept for most people in its infancy; it has become mainstream for most consumers. So it will be with the bitcoin or some other form of virtual currency. Most people are resistant to change, especially if it involves their money. However, as we grow into a more global economy and more retailers and servicers are beginning to realize virtual currency is a more efficient way to do business, public resistance will lesson over time, just like with the online bank.

Jana Castanon is Media Relations/Outreach Manager for Apprisen. Apprisen is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. To schedule an appointment with a certified financial professional call 800.355.2227, or visit Apprisen’s website at www.apprisen.com.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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