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How to Afford All Your 2017 Home Improvements

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2017 @ 6:30 AM

A leaky roof or a sagging gutter can be hard to ignore. The same goes for some old-school wood paneling in your den or that hideous palm tree wallpaper you put up in a (misguided) attempt to recreate your honeymoon. Unfortunately, most home improvements don’t exactly come cheap.

In fact, it may even feel like you’re basically saving up another down payment on your home to fix it up. There are some ways, however, to sock some dollars away and have your new sink and bathtub in the new year, too.

Here’s how to work some much-needed home improvements into your 2017 budget.

1. Save

Sure, you may feel inclined to rush into renovations — and when it comes to certain home repairs, things must be readily done. But it still behooves you to save where you can before crossing things off the to-do list. One trick?

“[Set] an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account to take place every two weeks on your payday so that the money leaves your account before you ever have a chance to spend it,” Brian Davis, director of education for real estate blog SparkRental, said.

2. Use Your Tax Refund

Getting a big rebate from Uncle Sam this year? Put it toward your home repairs.

“While it’s easy to spend your refund impulsively, try to allocate some or all of it towards a big project that you’ve been holding off on,” Larry Greene, president at Case Design/Remodeling Indianapolis, said.

3. Get a Tax Break

Speaking of taxes, making improvements to your home could qualify you for certain tax deductions or credits the next time you file. For instance, if you take out a home improvement loan or a home equity line of credit (HELOC), you may be eligible to the deduct interest. You can also qualify for a tax deduction if the improvements happen to be related to medical expenses, like constructing entrance or exit ramps or widening doorways for a sick or disabled resident.

Plus, you could qualify for a tax credit if you make certain improvements that increase your home’s energy efficiency. These credits include a $300 credit for installing a biomass stove; a $300 credit for air source heat pumps; and up to $200 for installing Energy Star-certified windows and skylights. You can learn more about the energy efficiency tax credits that are available at Energy.gov.

4. Be Smart About How You Pay

While you don’t want to overextend yourself, you may want to look into borrowing some money to put toward your home improvements — particularly if they’re the kind you can no longer put off.

Of course, it’s important to consider all your financing options before you decide how to fund a project. We already mentioned that home improvement loans and HELOCs can qualify for a tax deduction, but those aren’t your only options. There are also bank-issued credit cards or that tout promotional financing offers which allow you to skip interest on your charges for a certain period of time, usually 12 to 18 months.

If you don’t feel you can stay disciplined with a credit card, depending on your credit, you may also be able to secure a low-interest personal loan. Just be sure to crunch the numbers so you understand what you’re getting into and whether you can really afford to borrow that select amount of money. (You can learn more about this kind of financing in our loan learning center.) 

5. Shop Around

Research the price of the materials you’re looking to use across “at least three, but on average five to six product and brand choices,” John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, a digital home management platform, said. Prices vary and you could conceivably drive down the costs of a particular home improvement project just for opting for different brands or materials.

Similarly, “if you feel hiring a contractor is the best approach, give them a list of things you want for your project, and go out and get at least three different bids,” he said. “This can help lower your costs by creating a competitive environment for the contractors.”

Another way to find the right person for the job: “Homeowners should ask around among everyone they know: family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, random strangers in line at the grocery store,” Davis said. “As referrals and recommendations come in, they should call up the contractors and ask to swing by a few of their jobs, to see their work and get a sense of their pricing.”

6. DIY

OK, so not everyone is going to be able to hang drywall (though there’s certainly no lack of how-to videos on the internet to help you learn). And, unless you’re particularly handy or formally trained, many home repairs are best left to the professionals. Still, there are several small projects you can do that could prevent bigger problems and/or help make room in your budget to cover your dream renovations. These DIY projects include:

  • Cleaning out your gutters
  • Swapping out HVAC filters
  • Power-washing your driveway
  • Caulking small holes or cracks around windows, pipes and doors
  • Changing doorknobs
  • Upgrading the hardware on your drawers and cabinets
  • Cleaning carpet stains
  • Simply breaking out the old brush and roller

“You don’t have to spend a ton of money to make major improvements to your home. Look for projects that have the most bang for your buck,” Greene said. “Sometimes even a fresh coat of paint can make your whole house feel new.”

For more DIY options, check out this 10 home improvement projects you can do in a day.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

5 fast facts that will help make filling out FAFSA a breeze

Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 @ 10:32 AM

Student Given $1M In Financial Aid by Mistake

It's that time of year again when parents and college or college-bound students fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

The idea of wading through a form – especially one that requires financial information – is definitely not an appealing idea, but the FAFSA could be a tremendous help in getting your student money to attend college.

RELATED: 20 financial aid terms every college student and parent should understand

The following points are what you need to know, as well as common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA.

Fill it out – you have nothing to lose.

You may think that you don't need to fill out the FAFSA, especially if you believe you might not qualify for need-based aid. But there's no income cut-off point with federal student aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, the FAFSA can help you qualify for all kinds of grants, loans and scholarships, including those offered by your state, school or private organizations.

By investing a few minutes of time, you could reap thousands of dollars in potential rewards.

Submit it ASAP.

The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better, according to consumer adviser Clark Howard. Although the federal deadline isn't until June 30, 2018, you should check with the financial aid administrator at colleges you're interested in to make sure their deadlines aren't earlier.

Submitting earlier will help you plan how you'll pay for college. You'll also have a better chance of getting as much aid or scholarship money as possible since some colleges distribute their available money on a first-come, first-serve basis, Howard says.

Gather the information you'll need.

The FAFSA asks questions about the student as well as his or her parents if the student is a dependent.

You'll need the following information on hand as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • The student's Social Security number
  • The parents' Social Security numbers
  • Driver's license number (if you have one)
  • Alien registration number (if you're not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information for the student (and his or her spouse, if applicable) and the parents. This can often be imported online, so you may not need your records.
  • Information on the student's and parents' assets, such as money held in bank accounts and real estate holdings (not your primary residence)
  • Records of the student's or parents' untaxed income, such as veterans benefits and interest income

Watch out for common mistakes.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators points out some common mistakes that can delay your form's submission or cause you to not get the aid and scholarships you might qualify for. They include the following:

  • Leaving some fields blank – Instead, put in a "0" or "not applicable."
  • Listing an incorrect Social Security or driver's license number – It pays to recheck these numbers.
  • Failing to use your legal name – Use the name on your Social Security card, not a nickname.
  • Forgetting to list colleges – Even if you're not sure of which college you'll be attending, add any reasonable possibilities to the list of colleges that will receive your information. You're under no obligation to apply to or attend these colleges, and they can't see which other colleges you're interested in.

Keep an eye out for requests for more information.

Your FAFSA may be selected for verification, which means you'll have to provide some additional or supporting information, U.S. News & World Report explains. This process doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything wrong. You may have a discrepancy or mistake on your form, but some FAFSAs are just randomly selected for verification (lucky you!).

These requests will often come to the student's personal email account or university email address, so he or she will have to be diligent about checking it and responding to any requests by the stated deadline.

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Is credit monitoring a scam?

Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 @ 12:01 PM

Clark Howard explains how to protect yourself.

With the recent massive security breach of Equifax — one of the three credit bureaus with which many may have thought their private information was safer than most — now many people are dealing with more insecurities, wondering where they can entrust their private information, if anywhere.

Here are some options:

Credit freezing

Better and cheaper than credit monitoring, an option for optimal security is freezing your credit through each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), according to WSB money expert Clark Howard at Clark.com.

The fee is $3 to $10 per person per bureau, depending on your state, to allow you to seal your credit reports — except now it's free with Equifax from here on out due to the recent data breach.

You will be provided with a personal identification number (PIN) that only you know and can be used to temporarily unfreeze (or "thaw") your credit when legitimate applications for credit and services need to be processed such as when you are buying a car.

This added layer of security means thieves can't establish new credit in your name even if they are able to obtain your personal information.

LifeLock vs. CreditKarma.com

While LifeLock advertises it can help consumers secure their information to guard against identity theft, LifeLock charges monthly services that start at $10 a month.

This kind of credit monitoring is not the same or as effective as a credit freeze, said Craig Johnson for Clark.com.

Instead, he recommends CreditKarma.com for free credit monitoring.

Equifax

If you haven't already frozen your credit, now would be the time since Equifax recently got hacked and the information of possibly 145.5 million people was attained by these hackers.

Information accessed primarily includes names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers.

To try to compensate, Equifax is offering free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring (but only through Jan. 31, 2018) with its TrustedID Premier.

Experian

Another point of confusion is the unsolicited free Dark Web Email Scan offered by Experian to your email, leading to a monthly fee for further scanning.

Experian IdentityWorks also offers a free 30-day trial membership for identity theft protection and resolution, involving a monthly automatic deduction of $9.99 for the plus plan or $19.99 for the premium plan.

It's free to cancel within the 30-day trial period, but the consequences are not revealed up front for those who decide to cancel their membership once the monthly fees begin.

TransUnion

The third credit bureau, TransUnion, also offers credit monitoring at $19.95 monthly. However, TransUnion says it offers free identity protection through its TrueIdentity program.

Free helpline

Those with specific questions about the Equifax breach and how it may impact them may contact Howard's Consumer Action Center — a free helpline open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST Monday through Friday with Team Clark volunteers available to answer concerns at 404-892-8227.

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4 of the best ways to turn your home into a cash cow

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 4:17 PM

Sites like Airbnb let you rent out your home to make money.
Sites like Airbnb let you rent out your home to make money.

Your house is a large expense with many associated costs like a mortgage payment, insurance, maintenance and more.

RELATED: How to Cash In on Short-Term Rentals Like Airbnb, VRBO

It provides a roof over your head, of course, but since it usually costs you money each month, why not put it to work for you and earn some cash in the process?

The following are four ways your house can make you money:

You can relax on the lake, in the woods or even in the back of a van when you're looking for a staycation in Gwinnett County.(Airbnb)

List your home with Airbnb or VRBO.

If you're planning to be out of town for a few days or don't mind bunking with a friend, you may be able to make some money by renting out your home through sites like Airbnb and VRBO.

Before jumping in, you'll need to take time to learn about the market, your expenses and any taxes you may need to pay. And before you list your property, you'll need to understand how to make it stand out with a good listing, including compelling photos and competitive pricing. Airbnb has a series of toolkits to help with this.

RELATED: Atlanta has Airbnb's most desired rental property in the world.

Rent it out to the area's growing TV and film industry.

When TV, film and commercial producers want to depict a home on screen, many times they'll rent the real thing, according to Money. It can be inconvenient for owners, however, since their homes may be taken over by a large crew and be completely rearranged.

On the other hand, homeowners often have fun with the experience while making some extra money. And while you're watching TV or a movie, you may be able to spot your home.

Host a foreign exchange student or faculty member.

Temporarily hosting a foreign exchange student or faculty member who's studying or teaching in this country can help you make some extra cash for anywhere from six weeks to six months at a time. You'll also be exposed to a different culture and language, and the experience could help you form a bond that lasts even when your guest returns home.

The Penny Hoarder suggests contacting student housing offices at local community colleges and universities, asking to be placed on their list of host families. After this, you'll have to apply, be interviewed, and allow your home to be toured. You'll also need to pass background and reference checks.

The 4-bedroom house sits on a corner lot with a concrete driveway that leads up to the two 2-car garages both having rear service doors. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS BY KATHY TYLER

Rent out your driveway or storage space.

If you have extra space in your driveway, you may be able to make some money by letting others park there, according to Men's Health. This is especially true if you live near a commuter rail line or sports stadium, but you'll need to check to make sure you're not violating any local ordinances. Check out websites like JustPark to get started.

The Balance also suggests renting out any extra storage space you may have. From vehicles to personal items, your garage or home could help you make money through a site like StoreAtMyHouse.

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5 ways to get the most out of your health insurance plan

Published: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 @ 3:15 PM

Here are five ways to ensure you're getting the most out of your health insurance Choose your plan carefully Take advantage of preventative care benefits Work within your formulary Utilize HSAs and FSAs Watch out for surprise out-of-network charges

Health insurance has a large impact on your finances, so it pays to get the most out of your plan.

Understanding its ins and outs can be confusing, but it's worth your time to check on benefits you could be losing out on or mistakes that could cost you money.

Here are five ways to ensure you're getting the most out of your health insurance:

Choose your plan carefully.

When it's time to renew your health care coverage, consumer adviser Clark Howard recommends not just blindly signing up for your current plan, even if you've been happy with it.

Your plan – as well as other options you may be able to sign up for – may have changed. Take a close look at the co-pays, deductibles, in-network providers and other specifics to make sure you're making the best possible choice.

Take advantage of preventative care benefits.

Almost every plan, according to healthcare.gov, offers preventative care benefits that are free. You won't have to pay a co-pay or meet your deductible to get these services at no charge.

Services for adults include age-appropriate vaccinations and colorectal cancer screenings for patients over 50.

RELATED: 8 ways to get the cheapest car insurance possible

Work within your formulary.

Health care plans typically have a formulary, which is a list of medications that they're willing to pay part of or the entire cost of. It may include a list of preferred medications, for which it will pay the highest percentage of the cost.

It pays to be familiar with your formulary before you get an unpleasant surprise at the pharmacy, according to NerdWallet. Print out a copy of the document from your health insurance company's website, or call up an online copy at your doctor's office. Your doctor can work with you to make sure you get an effective medication that you can afford.

Utilize HSAs and FSAs.

If your health insurance plans allow you to put aside tax-free dollars in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you should learn how they can help you. Consumer advisor Clark Howard's website, Clark.com, has a chart that explains the pros and cons of each.

An HSA is usually associated with high-deductible plans, and like an FSA, it helps you save money to pay for health care expenses. These can include everything from prescription eyeglasses to medication.

Watch out for surprise out-of-network charges.

Your insurance plan has a list of network providers, and when you can, you should stay in-network. That's easy enough if you're visiting a single doctor, but if you need to have surgery, things can get more complicated.

For pre-planned surgery, Consumer Reports recommends talking with your doctor's billing department to get a list of everyone who will provide your care, including radiologists and anesthesiologists. Call your health care company to see if they're in-network, and if not, ask your doctor if in-network providers can be used.

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