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Budgeting & Saving

4 College and Education Related Tax Benefits

Investing in your education is important even though tuition costs keep climbing. College tuition, fees, and room and board average $42,419 at private institutions and $18,943 at public institutions, according to College Board.

While it can be difficult to keep higher education costs down, there are plenty of tax benefits to be gleaned.

Here are 4 college and education tax related benefits every student should be utilizing:

Deductions

During college I was able to benefit a lot from education related deductions. On behalf of yourself, your spouse or your dependent, you may be able to deduct qualified education expenses paid during the school year. This deduction can reduce the amount of your income that is subjected to tax by up to $4,000 if you’re single and can’t be claimed as a dependent.

If you graduate college with student loans and your modified adjusted gross (MAG) income is less than $75,000 (if filing single) or $150,000 (if filing jointly), you may receive special a special deduction. You can get student loan interest deducted from your taxes.

Tax Credits

Education tax credits can help reduce the amount of income tax you have to pay each year you’re in school. If the credit reduces your tax to less than zero, you may actually get a refund. Hooray for tax refunds!

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (formerly known as the Hope scholarship credit), can be claimed in tax-years from 2009 through 2017. The credit applies to educational expenses including tuition, fees, course materials and more. Expenses related to room and board, transportation, insurance, and medical expenses don’t qualify unfortunately. But students can receive a tax credit up to $2,500. 40% of the credit is refundable. To learn more about this specific tax credit, visit IRS.gov.

The Lifetime Learning Credit is another tax credit that can be utilized school expenses while in attendance. The credit helps students pay for undergraduate, graduate and professional degree courses. The credit is limited to $2,000. However, it can be used for as many years as enrolled. To learn more about eligibility requirements for the Lifetime Learning Credit, click here.

Scholarships

Scholarships are great because even though they’re competitive, you don’t have to pay them back. A fellowship can also be earned. It’s similar to a scholarship. But it’s paid to a student to pursue a certain type of research.

I earned quite a few various private and public scholarships during college. Sometimes I got worried that the money I desperately needed to pay for college was going to get taxed and counted as income. The best thing about scholarships and fellowships is that they can be tax-free if they meet the following conditions:

  • You are pursuing a degree at an eligible institution.
  • You use the scholarship or fellowship funds to pay for qualified educational expenses.

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To learn more about tax-free scholarship and fellowship requirements, check out this information from the IRS.

College Savings Plans

Qualified tuition programs, also known as 529 plans, are maintained by states. They allow you to either prepay tuition or contribute to a special savings account for future expenses. Either option is convenient. However, consider opportunity cost before you prepay for education. Earnings in a 529 plan are tax-free when invested and tax exempt when withdrawn for qualified higher education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies and materials.

State sponsored college savings plans are very popular for parents. While contributions are not deductible, there is also no income limit for contributors. This is an option everyone can consider.

Getting a head start on college prep is a great idea. No one enjoys last minute panic. Use one or many of these programs and your finances will thank you.

Higher education may always be pricey. But these tax benefits will definitely help. For further assistance, see our Ultimate Tax Guide and consult a tax professional.

How have you/how will you pay for college?

Originally posted 2015-10-14 10:00:25.

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Budgeting & Saving

Which is Better? Credit Union or Traditional Bank?

When it comes to choosing a bank, you may become stuck between settling with a traditional bank and a neighborhood credit union. On the surface, banks and credit unions are quite similar. They both offer checking and savings accounts, loans and other financial products. However, there are quite a few important differences.

This post will show you how they’re different. Then you’ll know which one is right for you!

The Main Differences

Generally speaking, a bank is a business that holds onto your money and creates a profit by investing the money or loaning it out to others. The bank also makes money by charging you with account fees and ATM fees.

Credit unions are member-focused institutions that operate as non-profits. A checking account is commonly known as a ‘share draft’ because when you deposit money at a credit union, you’re actually buying shares of the company. With a credit union, instead of being a customer, you’re a partial owner.

Credit unions generally offer the same services as a bank. On top of that, there is also a greater sense of community. It’s also common to find lower interest rates for loans. Basically, credit unions are known for friendly faces and low rates.

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Traditional Banks are Convenient

Traditional banks are on almost every corner, making it accessing your cash an easy feat. If you’re traveling or just need cash quickly and have a major bank like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, or JPMorgan Chase, you won’t have to go far to find a branch. You can even utilize their various different ATM locations when the bank is closed.

Most traditional banks also offer convenient tools like online banking and mobile apps so you can track and manage your account on the go. Large banks have the client-base necessary to create these conveniences. Expect smooth online operations at big banks.

The one downside with large traditional banks is that they can be very impersonal. You may be subject to long lines. You may never get the same teller twice.

Credit Unions are Personable

While credit unions may not be located on every corner, they take a more personalized approach and generally get to know their customers. At a credit union you’ll feel more like a member. You’ll have more of a say in what type of service and experience you want to have. When it comes to getting a loan, credit unions will be more lenient and willing to work with you and understand the financial factors that don’t show up on paper.

However, credit unions operate on a smaller scale than traditional banks and run fewer branches with stricter hours of operation. This may be an inconvenience for some people who live far from their credit union or work late hours. Friendly faces are nice but only when you see them!

The Truth about Fees and Interest Rates

Credit unions generally offer fewer fees and better interest rates for savings accounts, hands down. According to a recent report from Wallet Hub, credit unions continue to offer leading interest rates for savings accounts (while still being inferior to online banks) as well lower interest rates for personal loans. Credit unions also have lower checking account fees.

Most traditional banks have a long list of rules and requirements when you open a checking account. It’s important to read the fine print to ensure that you aren’t overpaying by getting charged a monthly fee, multiple withdrawal fee or any outlandish overdraft fees. At a credit union, there is less of a chance that you will get stuck with so many fees because these institutions do not rely largely on fee money for profit as is the case with banks.

Which is Better?

The answer to the age old question of whether you should choose a credit union or a traditional bank is almost always going to be subjective. In the end, it all depends on what you value: saving money or convenience.

If you are looking for convenience, easy access to your money when traveling, superb mobile banking tools and a wide variety of credit card programs, you may prefer to use a traditional bank. Just remember to read the free agreement before signing! If you don’t require the convenience of multiple locations and prefer a more member-focused type of institution with lower fees and better interest rates, you should consider a credit union.

It’s important to do your research and read the fine print before opening an account with either types of institution.

 

Do you prefer a credit union or a traditional bank? Let us know in the comments below!

Originally posted 2015-09-18 10:00:22.

Categories
Budgeting & Saving

Car Shopping on a Budget

Time for a new car?

One of the hardest parts about buying a new car is choosing something you can absolutely afford. Persuasive car sales people combined with shiny paint can ruin a person’s budget in a hurry!

At the end of the day, most people need a reliable car. The process of car shopping on a budget isn’t too difficult. But it does takes heaps of self-control. When shopping for a car, you can remain within your budget by taking the following steps:

Figure out How Much You Can Afford

Create a new budget by listing out all your current expenses. Compare your income and expenses. What you have left over can be used to pay for your car. If you feel you don’t have enough left over, you may have to cut your expenses and prioritize your spending by avoiding costly budget busters.

Consider expenses like fuel, auto insurance and maintenance. If you can only afford $400 per month to spend on a transportation, don’t sign for a $350 car loan. Instead you might, want to spend $200-250 per month on a vehicle and the rest for insurance, fuel and savings for maintenance and repairs. The car itself is only part of the overall transportation costs.

Bankrate has a very helpful tool to help you create a realistic car budget.

Try to Stick with Cash

If you have some savings and don’t want to deal with the burden of having a car note, try to purchase with cash. This may not be possible for everyone, but the earlier you start preparing the better. If you know you want to buy a car or notice that your current car on its last leg, start setting money aside each month. A little each month goes a long ways.

Unless you have $15,000+ lying around, you will most likely need a used car. Luckily, there are plenty of used cars in good condition for as little as $4,000. If you don’t have enough to pay for a car completely with cash, you should still try to save up a large down payment to lease or finance a car.

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Leasing or Financing?

There has always been a big debate between leasing and financing options. When you finance a car, you pay a down payment and a lender loans you the rest of the money. You then pay it back with interest for a certain amount of time. Once you’ve paid back the entire loan plus interest, you own the car.

With leasing, you pay a fixed amount each month (usually a lower than a monthly payment than with financing) plus interest. When the term is over, you must either renew your lease or return the car. You may also be able to buy the car once the lease expires.

If you can’t pay for a car in cash, financing is the wiser option. Often, when you lease a car, there is a penalty for driving a certain amount of miles so you watch your odometer. Also, there is no point in hustling to pay back your lender and make extra payments with a lease. Doing so won’t get any closer to owning the car.

For the most part, leasing just allows you to drive a nicer, newer car at a lower price for a short amount of time. Buying with cash or financing are the superior alternatives.

Check Your Credit

If you do choose to move forward with financing a vehicle, you’ll need to check your credit first (this link shows you how do check it for free). Your credit score will be key in determining how much money you get approved to finance and your interest rate. If you don’t have good credit, you may run into problems.

Pull your FICO Score several months before you decide to go car shopping. Make sure it’s doing okay. Credit Sesame lets you monitor your credit for free and also lets you see credit scores and reports for TransUnion and Equifax. Make sure to always keep an eye on your credit score in the future. Here’s a way you can keep track of your credit score for free.

It’s important to pay off as much debt as you can before you take on more debt. Try to only use 25% of your credit limit each month. You might also want to wait for some of your old credit inquiries to fall off your report before you add new ones.

Try to increase your score as much as you can. Higher scores mean lower interest rates. Your credit score is your ticket to savings.

If necessary, wait until your credit score climbs before applying for a loan. Even just waiting 3-5 months for a new car may save you hundreds per year in interest. Wealthy people are usually patient people.

Compare Vehicles and Pricing

When you are car shopping on a tight budget, it’s important to focus strictly on your needs and requirements instead of becoming emotionally attached to a car. Logic should trump emotion when car shopping. Always be ready to walk out the door without the car.

To help keep the price down, you should search online for economical used vehicles with low mileage. A car will probably cost less than an SUV or a truck in most cases so keep it simple.

You should also research various makes and models to become more knowledgeable about which type of cars last longest and require the least amount of maintenance. It’s best to be open-minded and compare various types of vehicles before settling on one.

To compare vehicle prices online, use online vehicle pricing and comparison tools like TrueCar or Edmunds. Although not necessary. it’s wise to check Carfax before making an offer. Carfax gives buyers the scoop about how the car has been treated in the past.

Overall, it’s important to thoroughly do your research and stay within your means when buying a new car. All of these steps will make the car buying process easier and cheaper.

 

Are you car shopping? Do you plan to pay with cash, get a lease, or finance?

Originally posted 2015-09-02 10:00:24.

Categories
Budgeting & Saving

National Thrift Shop Day: Why Thrifting is Good For You (And Your Bank Account)

August 17 is National Thrift Shop Day this year. As if thrift stores and consignment shops couldn’t sell products for any less, this special day is the perfect time for frugal deal seekers to visit second hand stores in their neighborhood and score even better deals on the merchandise.

Most thrift stores have special discount days throughout the year, but National Thrift Shop Day usually offers some of the best savings. Getting the opportunity to be able to buy used everyday items and even furniture and electronics for an extremely discounted rate can really help decrease your spending and increase the amount you are able to save.

Here are a few ways thrift shopping can be great for you and your wallet.

Helping the Environment

When you shop at thrift stores, you’re not only helping yourself find great deals for less, you’re also helping the environment. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Savers help keep gently used items like clothes, toys, furniture, tools, electronics and small appliances from getting thrown out and sent to landfills.

Reusing, recycling, and repurposing are some of the most eco-friendly actions you can take to help eliminate waste and clutter.

The Best Place to Find Gems

Thrift stores are the best places to find high quality gently used merchandise that would normally retail at a higher value in mainstream stores. Whether you get excited when you come across a gently used designer handbag for cheap, name brand electronic devices or fancy home decor at an affordable price, I classify all these items as being ‘gems’ since they can be found at thrift stores for a quarter of the retail price.

If you want to spice up your wardrobe but don’t have money in your budget, head to the thrift store in search of these gems. It’s important to get past the thought of being uncomfortable wearing someone else’s clothes or using items that were in someone else’s home if you want to find top notch products at the thrift store.

[Tweet “It’s important to get past the thought of being uncomfortable with thrift store items. There are deals to be had!”]

When you think about it, we share and reuse tons of items with other people all day long whether it’s the dining room table at a restaurant, your shopping cart at the grocery store or even the gas pump handle at gas stations. According to America’s Research Group (a consumer research firm), about 16-18 percent of Americans shop at a thrift store during any given year. More people should be taking advantage of thrift store and resale shops to soak up all the savings.

Find Children’s Necessities For Less

Kid’s clothes, toys and books are some of the best items to find at thrift stores. As a parent of a young child who is constantly growing, it’s more economical for me to purchase some clothing items and toys from Goodwill so I’m not overspending on items that my son will either wear out or lose interest in over the next few months.

From my experience, young kids are only interested in certain toys temporarily (when they’re new) and have little interest in clothes AT ALL. So it always made little sense to me why parents would spend so much money clothing their children with outfits from retailers like GAP, OshKosh, and Under Armor. If I really wanted to find a GAP or Nike shirt at a thrift store for my son I probably could, but spending time together and investing in activities and outings that we both enjoy sounds like a much better way to spend my money.

Thrifting Can Be Therapeutic

As much as I hate to say it, shopping can be therapeutic when done in moderation. I wouldn’t exactly agree with the whole ‘retail therapy’ concept that embodies the idea of running out to the store when bad things happen in your life to buy items in an attempt to make yourself feel better.

On the contrary it has been proven that shopping with friends can help relieve stress and let’s face it, when you find a good deal on a household item you need, it’s hard to escape that feeling of success just by knowing that you kept more money in your wallet instead of spending it.

It’s important to set a budget before you go thrifting and plan your shopping trip with the intention of picking up something you really need and that would be of value to you. It’s a great feeling to walk away with items that you wanted without disturbing your budget.

What’s are your favorite thrift store finds? Do you take advantage of special discount days?

Originally posted 2015-08-17 10:00:53.

Categories
Young Finances

6 Free (and Fun) Ideas for Family Activities

Sometimes keeping kids entertained is easier said than done. When you’re looking to bond with your family and have a great time together, expensive outings like vacations and trips to amusement parks may come to mind. However, these expensive trips aren’t necessary.

You don’t need to spend a Space Mountain-sized pile of cash to entertain the family. In some cases, you don’t need any money. Here are 6 easy ways to have free family fun this year:

Family Activity 1: Have a Game Night

If you want to have a fun night in the house, without spending money, try to have the occasional old school game night. Classic games like Monopoly, Candyland, Sorry! and Guess Who are extremely affordable when found at garage sales and thrift shops like Goodwill.

Pop some popcorn, bake something sweet and turn on Pandora as you split up into teams and begin game play. Enjoy the comforts of being at home. It will be a be a special bonding experience for your family.

[Tweet “Families who play together, stay together.”]

Family Activity 2: Go on a Nature Walk

Don’t let the summer season pass without going on a family nature walk. If you have any walking trails near your house, it would be a great idea to take advantage of them. Getting outside is great for everyone’s health – no matter the age. You can even get on bikes if you don’t feel like walking. Consider visiting a national or state park for more scenic views and some light hiking. State parks are usually free to enter, but the guided tours cost money so be mindful of that. Some state parks are huge. There’s so much to see. You could still have plenty of fun doing a self-guided tour. Consider taking along a library book about the park. Books often contain more information than any human guide could remember, anyway.

Family Activity 3: Check out Museum Free Days

Every city has museums that offer a few free admission days. Take advantage of these free admission days and plan a family outing. In my area, the art institute, aquarium, natural history museum, the children’s museum and the zoo all have free admission days. I try to make most of them. What’s important is to plan these money-saving days in advance. Consult your city’s Chamber of Commerce to find free event days.

Pack a lunch and head out early to beat the crowd when visiting your local museum on free admission day. Sometimes the lines can be longer than normal as more people will be visiting. But the key is to get out early and beat the rush. You can still have a great time, even with a few extra strangers around.

Family Activity 4: Have a Picnic at the Beach

Have any beaches near you? Man-made beaches often cost money to visit but natural beaches like the ones along lakes or the ocean are always free. The best part about these is they have long hours. A beach picnic can even turn into an all-day event. Pack a meal or two, bring your sunscreen and let you kids bring their buckets and shovels for a fun filled day at the beach.

When I visit the beach with my family, we always pack a cooler with drinks, sandwiches and snacks so we don’t have to purchase any of the expensive(!) food from the vendors. My son can play in sand for hours, so it’s always a relaxing outing that helps keep him entertained. I’d rather he dig in the sand than dig in my yard.

Family Activity 5: Visit the Library

The library is one of the best free resources in a community. It’s also a great free place to go hang out when it’s hot outside and you need to get cool. The library can be just as fun as a paid entertainment center would be for kids.

There are books and movies to rent. There are toys in the children’s area, computer games to play, story time events to attend and craft stations. Did I mention that all of this is free? It’s free. At your local library, you can always walk away without having to spend a dime.

Some libraries host events not just for kids, but ones that the whole family can enjoy. Grab a calendar from your local library and make sure you don’t miss any free events. Again, planning is important for taking advantage of free resources.

Family Activity 6: Go to the Fire Station

Your kids don’t have to wait for a school field trip to see a fire station! Visiting your neighborhood fire station tops the list of fun and free family activities. It can be a great learning experience for your kids and yourself as well. Give the fire station a call ahead of time and ask if you can have a brief tour of the station, look at the trucks and meet the firefighters. Sometimes fire stations offer group tours and other times you may get your very own private tour.

There are tons of free ways to enjoy family time!

What’s your favorite way to have free fun with your family?

Originally posted 2015-08-03 10:00:28.

Categories
Budgeting & Saving

How to Get Along with a Thrifty Spouse

A thrifty spouse may seem like a handful to deal with. They may be extremely logical. You may not always see eye-to-eye. But a frugal spouse can be an asset to your family.

Luckily, when I started becoming thriftier, I set an example in my household and encouraged my partner to follow suit. And it worked. We all love being frugal now.

You may learn to love the frugal side of your spouse. But even if that never fully happens, it’s important to still accept and get along with them. This post lists a few ways to help you both get along financially.

Realize You Both Have Different Perspectives

You need to understand where your partner is coming from so you can work as a team. Your spouse may be focusing more on the future while you live in the present. There’s nothing wrong with that. You could both balance each other out quite nicely.

If you are both trying to make the other one ‘see the light’ or the positives of your perspective, you need to step up, be the bigger person and accept your spouse’s choices and preferences. Opposites attract. Would you really want to marry an identical person?

Try to understand their mindset and support what they are doing. Being thrifty isn’t the worst thing in the world and it’s definitely something you can work through in your relationship. If your spouse sees you accepting and supporting them, they will be more willing to accept and support you as well.

Don’t Use Offensive Words or Phrases

As a part of accepting your spouse’s perspective, you shouldn’t use offensive words to describe their thriftiness. Avoid doing so even if you aren’t just being playful. Everyone finds different things offensive, but saying things like, “Why do you have to be so cheap?” or “You make us look broke!” or “You’re always penny-pinching…” can make you look argumentative and cause tension between the two of you.

Your word choice and the way you talk to your partner can put them in a defensive state, and that could easily start an argument. As a married couple, neither of you should have to feel defensive about your habits or characteristics as long as they are not hurting yourselves or anyone else.

Using offensive words and phrases to discuss your partner’s thriftiness isn’t helpful. Think about it from their perspective. They are trying to save the family money in order to improve your lives. Not only are you not thanking them, you are making fun of them.

Embrace the Benefits of Being Thrifty

Being thrifty is an acquired taste. There are much worse habits or addictions your spouse could have: gambling, hiding money or cheating. Try to embrace the benefits of frugality and understand that your household will save a lot of money and be more financially stable due to your spouse’s thriftiness. Be happy! Think about all the headaches you’re avoiding by having a frugal spouse:  the threat of bankruptcy or foreclosure, no emergency fund, massive credit card debt, and more!

Realize that ‘tightening your belt’ can actually lead to greater long-term financial fun opportunities. For instance, if you avoid driving a BMW today, over time, you will be able to buy it used and still have money to build a garage for it.

[Tweet “A frugal partner is a blessing, not a curse.”]

When you adopt a positive mindset and embrace the benefits of being thrifty, you’ll get along with your spouse better and understand where they are coming from.

Compromise

To help improve your relationship, you both could compromise so that each person’s views are honored. Both you and your spouse can hold on to a guilty pleasure. You can even keep doing something you both enjoy that isn’t necessarily frugal. Meanwhile, you also commit to a certain level of thriftiness each month whether that includes shopping around for the best deal, meeting a particular savings rate or eating at home more often than usual. Compromise with your partner.

Embrace low cost entertainment options that don’t make you feel extremely thrifty. Accept simple ways that your spouse intends to save money – even if that means pretending to look away when they present a coupon after a romantic dinner. At least you’re dining out, right?

If you want to attend an event or go on an outing that could be costly, tell your spouse about it weeks or months ahead of time. This way, you can both start saving up. As a result, you get your outing and they get the reassurance that it was a planned expense and have time to budget.

Some couples even allow each other a monthly allowance to spend as they please with no questions asked. If you and your spouse each get $100 to spend freely each month on anything you want or need, that could be a nice compromise.

How do you enjoy a spendy + thrifty relationship?

Originally posted 2015-07-27 10:00:00.