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Living in a one-income household is like being a gymnast walking on a balance beam. You have absolutely no margin for error, and the slightest misstep can spell disaster.
The tens of millions of jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic have left millions of families surviving as one-income households for the first time. That’s a really hard thing to do these days, especially if you’re not used to it.
The cost of essential purchases, like groceries and rent keeps going up, making it harder than ever for families to get by on a single income.
Does all this sound familiar? If you’re in this position, we’ve got seven money moves you can start making today:
1. Cut Your Food Budget by Planning Ahead
Groceries are a huge part of everyone’s budget, so they’re a big target for savings. Try preparing for the week ahead with some meal planning.
This goes beyond just making a shopping list. Real meal planning helps you save money because it helps you use what you buy, preventing food — and money — waste. It also prevents you from spending extra cash on emergency lunches or late-night takeout.
First, figure out how many meals you’re responsible for making every week. If it’s just you, your answer might be 21: seven breakfasts, lunches and dinners. If you have a family, count meals per person — a dinner for three people counts as three dinners, even if you all eat the same thing.
Now figure out how much food you’ll need to buy to make it until your next grocery trip. If you buy the same items repeatedly, you know which ones to stock up on when they go on sale. Stocking up on sale items also helps you freeze meals for the future. If there’s a way to buy in bulk and prep the foods you eat the most often, do it!
2. Get Paid Every Time You Buy Toilet Paper
No matter how strategic you are, groceries still account for a good chunk of your budget. Everybody’s got to eat. You may as well earn a little money back while your groceries are being bagged up.
A free app called Fetch Rewards will reward you with gift cards just for buying toilet paper and more than 250 other items at the grocery store.
Here’s how it works: After you’ve downloaded the app, just take a picture of your receipt showing you purchased an item from one of the brands listed in Fetch. For your efforts, you’ll earn gift cards to places like Amazon or Walmart.
You can download the free Fetch Rewards app here to start getting free gift cards.
Over a million people already have, so they must be onto something.
3. Stop Overpaying for Stuff Online
On a single income, you have to watch every penny. Wouldn’t it be nice if you got an alert any time you’re shopping on Amazon or Walmart.com and you’re about to get ripped off?
That’s exactly what this free service does.
Just add it to your browser for free, and before you check out, it’ll check other websites, including Walmart, eBay and others to see if your item is available for cheaper. Plus, you can get coupon codes, set up price-drop alerts and even see the item’s price history.
Let’s say you’re shopping for a new pair of shoes, and you assume you’ve found the best price. Here’s when you’ll get a pop up letting you know if that exact pair of shoes is available elsewhere for cheaper. If there are any available coupon codes, they’ll also automatically be applied to your order.*
In the last year, this has saved people $160 million.
You can get started in just a few clicks to see if you’re overpaying online.
4. Knock $540/Year From Your Car Insurance in Minutes
Living on a single income, every dollar counts. Cutting necessary expenses can make a huge difference. So when’s the last time you checked car insurance prices?
You should shop your options every six months or so — it could save you some serious money. Let’s be real, though. It’s probably not the first thing you think about when you wake up. But it doesn’t have to be.
A website called Insure.com makes it super easy to compare car insurance prices. All you have to do is enter your ZIP code and your age, and it’ll show you your options.
Using Insure.com, people have saved an average of $540 a year.
Yup. That could be $500 back in your pocket just for taking a few minutes to look at your options.
5. Stop Paying Your Credit Card Company
Credit card debt is the most expensive kind of debt, and your credit card company is just getting rich by ripping you off with high interest rates. But a website called AmOne can help you fight back.
If you owe your credit card companies $50,000 or less, AmOne will match you with a low-interest loan you can use to pay off every single one of your balances.
The benefit? You’ll be left with one bill to pay each month. And because personal loans have lower interest rates (AmOne rates start at 3.49% APR), you’ll get out of debt that much faster. Plus: No credit card payment this month.
AmOne keeps your information confidential and secure, which is probably why after 20 years in business, it still has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau.
It takes two minutes to see if you qualify for up to $50,000 online. You do need to give AmOne a real phone number in order to qualify, but don’t worry — they won’t spam you with phone calls.
6. Add $225 to Your Wallet Just for Watching the News
Living in a one-income household is just a little bit easier when you can add even just a little bit more income. For example:
It’s been a historic time for news, and we’re all constantly refreshing for the latest updates. You probably know more than one news-junkie who fancies themselves an expert in respiratory illness or a political mastermind.
And research companies want to pay you to keep watching. You could add up to $225 a month to your pocket by signing up for a free account with InboxDollars. They’ll present you with short news clips to choose from every day, then ask you a few questions about them.
You just have to answer honestly, and InboxDollars will continue to pay you every month. This might sound too good to be true, but it’s already paid its users more than $56 million.
It takes about one minute to sign up, and start getting paid to watch the news.
7. Leave Your Family up to $1M
Oh, to be a millionaire. Look, not all of us have the money to set up trust funds for our loved ones — especially living on a single income. But you could still leave them up to $1 million in life insurance — and you don’t even need to have the money in the bank.
You’re probably thinking: I don’t have the time or money for that. But this takes just minutes — and you could leave your family up to $1 million with a company called Bestow.
We hear people are paying as little as $16 a month. (But every year you wait, this gets more expensive.)
It takes just minutes to get a free quote and see how much life insurance you can leave your loved ones — even if you don’t have seven figures in your bank account.
Every little bit helps when you live in a one-income household. But by following these seven steps, though, maybe you can build yourself a little bit of a cushion.
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He knows what it’s like to survive as a one-income household.
*Capital One Shopping compensates us when you get the extension using the links provided.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency will allow homeowners to receive an additional three months of forbearance as it extends the COVID-19 relief options available.
The agency announced Thursday that homeowners with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can receive up to 18 months of payment relief. To be eligible for the extended forbearance, homeowners must already be signed up for a forbearance plan by the end of February.
The FHFA also amended its separate payment deferral option for homeowners so they can now miss up to 18 months of payments. Those missed payments can be repaid when the mortgage reaches maturity, when the home is sold or when the mortgage is refinanced.
Originally, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instructed loan servicers that mortgage borrowers could request up to 12 months of forbearance on their mortgages as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But earlier this month, the FHFA extended the forbearance period by an additional three months, for up to 15 months’ forbearance.
The new changes announced Thursday were made to bring the agency’s policies in line with the policies set forth by the Biden administration for loans backed by the federal government, including Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgages.
Beyond extending forbearance, the FHFA also announced that it was extending its moratoriums on single-family foreclosures and real estate owned (REO) evictions until June 30. The moratoriums were previously set to expire at the end of March.
Discovering that you owe the IRS money is never a good feeling. If you’re staring down a tax bill you can’t afford to pay from 2020, you’re no doubt in good company.
Countless people have turned to gig work to survive, which can result in surprise tax bills. Expanded jobless benefits have been a lifeline to millions, but even unemployment benefits are taxable. With confusion about PPP loans, the CARES Act retirement rules and the payroll tax “holiday”, it’s a safe bet that this year’s tax season will be even more migraine-inducing than ever.
4 Smart Strategies for Dealing With a Tax Bill You Can’t Afford
The most important thing to know if you owe: You do have options. But it’s essential that you take action. Here are four mistakes to avoid — and what to do instead.
Mistake #1: You don’t file a tax return because you can’t pay your bill.
The smart strategy: File a return, even if you can’t afford to pay.
The penalties for not filing a tax return are much tougher than the penalties for not paying on time. Here’s how it works:
If you don’t file a tax return: You’ll pay a 5% monthly late fee, up to 25% of the tax bill, plus interest.
If you file your tax return on time but don’t pay: Your late fee is just 0.5% per month, also capped at 25% of the bill, plus interest.
Note that filing for a tax extension only gives you more time to file. It doesn’t give you more time to pay taxes if you owe. But if you ask for an extension by April 15 and file your return by the Oct. 15 deadline, you’ll only be paying the lower late payment fee instead of the 5% monthly fee for filing a late return.
When you don’t file a tax return, the IRS can file a substitute return on your behalf. If that happens, you’ll still want to file your own return. The substitute return won’t include tax deductions and tax credits that could potentially lower your bill.
Mistake #2: Using a credit card or cash advance to pay your taxes.
The smart strategy: Apply for an IRS payment plan.
This one’s a head-scratcher because even the IRS suggests paying taxes you can’t afford with a credit card or cash advance. Apparently, the IRS doesn’t realize its own generosity as a creditor.
A much better option is to apply for an IRS installment plan. You’ll still accrue penalties and interest. But when you sign up for an installment plan, the monthly 0.5% late fee drops to 0.25%. With interest, that works out to 6% annually.
By comparison, a typical credit card APR hovers above 16%. Cash advance APRs are a gut-punching 25% on average, plus they often come with additional fees.
Typically, the IRS will automatically approve your agreement if you owe less than $10,000 and you agree to pay off your bill within three years, with no monthly payments required. If you owe more or need more time to pay, the IRS could technically ask for more financial information. But as long as your balance is $50,000 or less, odds are still high that you’ll be automatically approved. The maximum repayment time frame is 72 months, so your monthly payments can be as low as 1/72 of your balance.
Agree to the lowest monthly payment the IRS will accept and then pay extra each month if you can.
You’ll pay a $31 fee if you apply online and have money automatically withdrawn from your bank account each month. The fees are higher if you set up the plan by phone, in person or by mail, or if you choose a different payment method. Setup fees can be waived if the IRS considers you low income, which means your income is below 250% of the federal poverty level for your state.
While you’re in a payment plan, any future tax refunds will be applied to your balance until you’ve paid it off. But the IRS won’t take further action, like garnishing your wages or placing a lien on your property, as long as you’re paying as agreed.
Mistake #3: Hiring a tax settlement company.
The smart strategy: Negotiating with the IRS yourself.
If you’re seriously delinquent on taxes, you may need professional help. If you fall in this camp, only an attorney, a CPA or a type of tax adviser called an enrolled agent can represent you before the IRS. But most people who owe taxes won’t need the help of a pro.
Be extremely wary of companies that claim they can stop wage garnishments or settle your debt for a fraction of what you owe. The FTC warns that the vast majority of taxpayers don’t qualify for the programs they’re hawking. Many people who use these companies don’t get tax relief. Instead, they wind up deeper in debt due to high upfront fees and unauthorized charges.
You typically don’t need assistance to set up a payment plan. But even if you can’t afford to start paying your bill or your installment agreement isn’t approved, you do have options for negotiating with the IRS.
One option is to ask for currently not collectible status, which means the IRS will pause collection efforts until your financial situation improves. You’ll still owe taxes, and interest and penalties will continue to accrue. The IRS will require you to show proof of significant hardship and document your income, spending and assets.
Another possibility is an offer in compromise, which allows you to settle your tax debt for less than you owe. You can do this either with a lump-sum payment or with monthly installment payments. The IRS rejects most applications for an offer in compromise. Typically, your tax bill has to be large enough that the IRS agrees it can’t realistically collect what you owe. Use the IRS Offer in Compromise pre-qualifying screener to determine whether this could be an option.
Mistake #4: Taking a 401(k) withdrawal.
The smart solution: If you must touch your retirement money, stick with a 401(k) loan or your Roth IRA contributions.
We’d recommend an installment plan hands-down over touching your retirement money. But if that’s not an option — or if you’re determined to get rid of this tax debt ASAP at any cost — an early 401(k) withdrawal should only be the last option..
With an early 401(k) withdrawal, you’ll be racking up more taxes just to pay your taxes. Your distribution will be taxed as ordinary income, plus you’ll pay a 10% penalty.
A 401(k) loan may be a better option since you won’t be penalized. But it’s still risky. If you left your job for any reason, you’d have to repay the loan in full when you file your tax return the next year. Otherwise, it’s treated as an early withdrawal.
If you’re using retirement money to pay taxes, start with your Roth IRA if you have one. If you can limit your withdrawals to your contributions, you won’t pay taxes or a penalty, since that money has already been taxed.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected]
We stitched thousands of product photos together to make this video comparing the prices of reusable and disposable products. The costs reflect 2019 prices. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
Saving the planet doesn’t always come cheap.
Many of the disposable products we use and love are easier to buy at lower prices than their reusable counterparts.
But the convenience of disposable products often comes at a steep cost to the environment. Plastic bags and straws pollute the ocean and end up being ingested by sea animals. Disposable diapers take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills.
Reusable products often cost more up front, but you may be surprised to find out how soon they end up paying for themselves since you can use them again and again instead of buying more of the disposable versions.
9 Reusable Products That Will Save You Money Over Time
We took nine household products, searched for both reusable and disposable versions on Amazon and compared the costs. Here’s how they stacked up.
Editor’s note: The prices in this post are valid as of Jan. 29, 2021.
A stainless steel straw costing $0.50 (or $7.99 for a set of 16), is equal to the cost of about 8 disposable straws at 6 cents each. That means that after 8 uses, the reusable straw has essentially paid for itself — plus you’ve got 15 more left over.
One reusable water bottle costing $16.30 is equal to the cost of about 25 single-use water bottles at 65 cents each.
Translation: Refill your bottle 25 times and then you’re done paying for water entirely.
Diaper prices can vary widely. For example, cheap (read: leaky) store-brand diapers cost just a few cents each, while a box of Pampers can set you back nearly $25 a week. The same is true of cloth diapers.
For this comparison, take a cloth diaper costing $5 and a disposable diaper at 29 cents. The cloth diaper has paid for itself after 17 diaper changes.
Multiply that over two years of a child’s life before potty training, and there are major savings to be had by reusing cloth diapers — many of which are adjustable to keep up with your baby’s growth.
This set of 15 reusable, resealable bags costs $11.99, while a box of 150 Ziploc bags runs about $12.99.
Think about it this way: Before you replace that box of disposable bags, you’ve already paid more than you did for your reusable set.
One cloth kitchen towel at $1.58 is less than the cost of one family-sized roll of paper towels at a cost of $2.75 per roll. Enough said.
If you’ve never heard of dryer balls, they’re little wool balls about the size of a tennis ball that you throw in your dryer with your wet laundry in place of fabric-softening dryer sheets. Because the wool can absorb some moisture from your clothes, manufacturers claim they cut down on energy use and drying time.
They can also save you some pennies. A set of six reusable wool dryer balls costs $9.97, while a box of 240 disposable dryer sheets costs just about a dollar less — but you’ll have to restock once you use them all. This one’s a no-brainer.
Did you even know there was a reusable alternative to those little pods of delectable, life-giving coffee? There totally is!
While a box of 40 Starbucks K-Cups will set you back $33.37 (OUCH), a set of four reusable pods that you just refill with your favorite ground coffee runs $10.95.
Razors are synonymous with disposable. A package of 24 of the plastic ones: $18.99. A single chrome reusable safety razor (that will make you feel like Don Draper): $14.66.
You do have to replace the blade on the reusable one. Don’t worry, they’re cheap. A box of 100 is $9.88 — about 10 cents each.
Listen up, gal pals. We’re here to tell you that you are not — we repeat, NOT — doomed to pay an exorbitant monthly fee for tampons and liners and pads (not to mention Midol) simply for the privilege of being female.
With a box of 40 tampons costing $12.25 and 66 pads ringing in at $6.38 times every month of your adult life, it’s … a lot. So consider this: One pair of Thinx period underwear is $23, and a Diva cup is $32.99.
That’s a considerable up-front cost, but these products — and really all reusable replacements — are all about long-term savings.
Not to mention tossing a little less waste in the landfill.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Senior editor Molly Moorhead contributed to this report.
The numbers: U.S. existing home sales inched up 0.6% to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 6.69 million, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. Compared with a year ago, home sales were up 23.7%.
Economists polled by The Wall Street Journal had forecast that existing home sales would fall to a median rate of 6.66 million.
What happened: The median existing-home price rose to $303,900 in January, up 14.1% from a year ago.
The inventory of homes for sale fell to a record low 1.04 million units by the end of January. That’s a 25.7% decline year-over-year. The market had a 1.9-month supply of homes for sales. A 6-month supply is considered a sign of a balanced market.
The South and the Midwest showed an increase in sales in January.
Big picture: Sales have been moving sideways since setting a cycle high in October. Economists think that low mortgage rates will continue to boost housing demand in coming months. Buyers are also looking for more room and more remote locations in the wake of the pandemic.
What the NAR said: “Home sales continue to ascend in the first month of the year, as buyers quickly snatched up virtually every new listing coming on the market. Sales easily could have been even 20% higher if there had been more inventory and more choices,” said said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.
What economists are saying? “In general, record low mortgage rates and families fleeing more crowded living situations are fueling demand for single family homes in spite of ongoing turmoil in the labor market and higher home prices. Indeed, this is one sector which is coming out of the crisis stronger than it went into it,” said Josh Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc.
Market reaction: U.S. stocks opened higher Friday with the S&P 500 index up 12.48 points in mid-day trading after declining in the past three trading sessions.
There are roughly 18 million U.S. military veterans. Together, they make up about a seventh of the country.
That’s a lot of people. In fact, only four states have more people than that.
Most of those veterans will become homeowners at some point. However, a lot of vets are first-time homebuyers, and a surprising number of them don’t know about a huge benefit their service affords them: VA loans. Or, if they’ve heard of VA loans, they’re not totally familiar with what that means.
Why is this such a big deal? If you’re a veteran, a VA loan could buy a home with zero money down. Seriously. For most vets, there’s no need to wait until you’ve saved up a big 20% down payment. That’s a huge obstacle for many homebuyers.
If you’re a veteran, and you’re looking to buy a home, a company called Veterans United Home Loans could help you buy one — no down payment needed.
How You Could Buy a Home Without a Down Payment
Veterans United Home Loans is the single biggest lender for VA purchase loans in the country. It’s licensed in all 50 states, and in 2020 alone, it helped more than 86,000 service members, veterans and military families secure more than $23 billion in VA loans. Veterans United has been the nation’s No. 1 VA purchase lender since 2016.
Here’s why: Veterans United offers competitive, transparent rates. And it acts as a resource for military homebuyers and their families, offering 24/7 customer support over the phone.
Also, Veterans United just makes it really simple to apply for a VA loan. You can use its website to see if you’re eligible, and it’s easy to apply for a free quote.
You might be thinking this sounds complicated. But here’s the thing: Veterans United makes it easy. It handles all the hard parts for you, and its VA loan experts on staff know how to navigate the whole process quickly and easily. They know the benefits and processes inside and out, making sure you get every benefit you qualify for.
How to Get Started
So, you’re ready to buy a home. Veterans United makes it easy to get started and even pre-qualify for a loan online. Just click here to tell them about which branch you served in, where you want to shop for a home, your price range and some other basic info. It takes just a few minutes, then you can get started house-hunting.
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He’s not a veteran, but he is a homeowner.
My name is Tiffani Sherman. The real Tiffani Sherman. Not the one who recently applied for unemployment benefits, an SBA COVID loan, five credit cards, a payday advance, two loans, and opened two bank accounts.
That wasn’t me.
It also wasn’t me back in early 2019 who ordered a bunch of expensive stuff online and then changed the shipping addresses, drained rewards points accounts to buy gift cards, hijacked Amazon and eBay accounts, and monitored and deleted emails for weeks.
For the second time in two years, I’m dealing with the fallout of identity theft.
Trust me, it isn’t fun.
I’m having to prove I didn’t apply for all of these things and that is taking a lot of my time and energy.
I’m not alone, which doesn’t make me feel all that much better.
Identity Theft Is Down, but the Damage Is Worse Than Ever
According to the The 2020 Identity Fraud Report by Javelin Strategy & Research released in May 2020, losses from identity fraud totaled $16.9 billion, which was up 15% from the year before.
According to the report, instances of fraud are falling but the damage they are doing is increasing. Thieves are shifting from fraudulent credit card changes to account takeovers. This kind of thing yields more, is more complex to prevent, and takes longer to fix.
Most of the damage happens within a short period of time. The Javelin research says 40% of the activity usually happens within a day.
With my latest go-around, all of the applications were completed within less than 72 hours.
“It’s a very rapid period of time because eventually they’re going to experience some friction,” said John Buzzard, fraud and security analyst for Javelin Strategy & Research. “They have a small working window of time to really do that total takeover.”
How Did Scammers Get My Data?
Almost everyone who heard about my ID theft problems asked me how people got my data.
I honestly don’t know. I do know I was part of several high profile data breaches, but who knows if that was it or not.
Scamicide founder Steven Weisman, a nationally recognized expert on identity theft, scams and cybersecurity, says most identity theft happens in one of two ways.
The first is when we accidentally give out our data. “We may have clicked on a link in a text message or an email that had keystroke logging malware that stole the information from our phone or our computer or we may have been tricked into giving personal information over the phone to someone,” he said.
We all get those calls and emails where the person says they work for a computer giant and noticed a problem with your computer, or they’re from the government and they need your Social Security number. Some of them can sound pretty ominous, so it’s easy to fall for them.
Also, think about how many places ask for information like your Social Security number and date of birth.
“Just because somebody asks you for information, that doesn’t mean you have to give it to them and that’s just something people don’t understand,” Buzzard said.
Recently, a grocery store employee asked for his Social Security number when he applied for a store rewards card. “I said, no, I’m sorry. You can have my cell phone number if you need an identifier. If you need a Social, we’re done here. You’re a grocery store, not exactly a high level security operation. The person folded, put in my cell, and off I went with my rewards card.”
The other way scammers get your data is through hackers.
“No matter how good you are at protecting your personal information we’re only as safe as the places with the weakest security,” Weisman said. “With so many people working remotely these days, people are going to be hacked at home and then through them, [hackers] will get at the networks of the companies for which they work. I think we’re going to have a massive amount of major data breaches.”
Then the information becomes like pieces of a puzzle.
“It’s like a patchwork quilt,” Buzzard said. “You pop somebody’s information in and you play around with it.”
7 Ways to Make It Hard for Scammers to Use Your Data
Since much of this is basically out of our control, there are some things you can do to make it a bit more difficult for a scammer to use your data if and when they get it.
1. Protect Your Credit
Thieves make easy money with your credit either by charging things on existing cards or opening new credit cards. Either way, they charge a bunch and leave the unsuspecting victim with the bill and damage to their credit.
Even though you’re not responsible for fraudulent charges on your credit cards, the hassle you go through to remove the charges is worth taking steps to prevent it.
Check your bills: Look at monthly statements and report any charges you do not recognize.
Set up alerts: Most credit card companies let you set up text or email alerts whenever your card is used. If an alert every time is too much, you can often change the settings to let you know if a card is used without the physical card being present, or if a charge is higher than a certain amount. I’ve received several notifications that have let me know someone was up to no good, and I was able to quickly report it and cancel the cards.
Remove saved payment methods: I know it’s convenient to not have to type in your credit card every time you order something, but having a saved payment method makes it easy for someone who gains access to an online account to do a lot of damage very quickly. This is what burned me in 2019 when someone gained access to my Amazon, eBay and other accounts and bought several things using my card.
Use digital wallets: This type of technology uses encrypted and tokenized data so if someone steals it, it is worthless to them.
2. Freeze Your Credit
Both Weisman and Buzzard said the most important thing to do is freeze your credit. Doing this should stop anyone from opening credit accounts using your information.
When someone wants to open a credit card or get a loan, the institution needs to check the applicant’s credit history to know if they are worth the risk or not.
When you have a credit freeze, nobody can access your credit history, so financial institutions will not be able to get the information they need to open an account. This becomes important when a scammer tries to use your personal information to open a fraudulent account. The freeze will automatically stop the account from being opened.
If you want to legitimately open a line of credit, all you need to do is temporarily unfreeze your credit. Just remember to freeze it again.
Each bureau operates separately, so freezing one does not freeze them all, as I found out the hard way. After my issues in 2019, I thought I had frozen all of my credit, but it turns out everything was not frozen. That’s how the scammers were able to do so much damage this go-around.
I think it should be easier to freeze your credit and protect yourself from identity theft. Weisman agrees. However, the bureaus make money by gathering your information and selling it to lenders.
“If you freeze your credit, [the bureaus] can’t sell the access to your credit,” Weisman said. “Freezing your credit makes you less valuable to the credit reporting agencies.”
Since Equifax had a huge breach a few years ago, freezing and unfreezing credit is free.
Everyone’s credit is separate, so a couple needs to each freeze their credit individually. Freezing one does not freeze the other’s. Also, parents can freeze the credit of their minor children.
Even with your credit frozen, check each bureau’s credit reports periodically to make sure nothing has gotten through. Also, check to make sure everything is still frozen.
3. Protect Passwords and Personal Information
Part of my problem in 2019 was that someone got hold of several of my passwords, including the email account I used for most of my logins and online commerce. I admit, at the time I was less than vigilant about having a different password for anything and everything. Trust me, that has changed.
As I said, lots of my information including several website and password combinations were part of several well-known data breaches that have happened during the past few years. During these breaches, fraudsters hacked into databases and got the info.
Then they sold that information on the dark web or in other ways. One of those other methods is something called a combolist service (CaaS), which is increasing in popularity. People pay a monthly fee for lists of updated and stolen credentials and personal information that is accessible in the cloud.
I looked and lots of my information is unfortunately part of these combolists.
Once the information is out there, it’s impossible to remove it, so all you can really do is change your passwords and keep changing them regularly.
If you forget a password, you can usually reset it by answering some security questions. These present their own set of problems because often the answers are things people can easily find out about you.
“The easy way around this is there is absolutely no rule that says you have to answer your security questions honestly,” Weisman said. “You can have really what seems like vulnerable security question like my banks, which is what’s my mother’s maiden name, but I can put down that my mother’s maiden name was firetruck or grapefruit, or something equally ridiculous. And the good thing there is, you will remember that security question, because it’s just so ridiculous and no one is ever going to be able to crack that.”
As for those password vaults, security experts are mixed about them. One remediation expert I talked with to help me with my issues said she doesn’t like them because if someone breaches the vault, they have access to everything. Other people say they are a good way to make sure you have strong passwords for everything.
4. Don’t Give Out Information on Social Media
I just saw a post on a friend’s social media page saying the song that was most popular the week you turned 14 defines who you are. It also defines the year you were born to any online scammer who is looking for that important piece of information.
The same goes for quizzes that talk about favorite pets, first cars, favorite teachers, school mascots, etc. Seeing those types of things now makes me cringe. Many people are making it way too easy for scammers.
5. Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Enabling two-factor authentication is also important. If someone tries to log into your account, the vendor will send a one-time code either to the email address or phone number on file.
“Data breaches will happen,” Weisman said. “People will make mistakes and fall for a spear phishing email and suddenly they may have had their usernames and passwords turned over. So you always want to have dual factor authentication whenever you can so even if someone has your username and password, they can’t access your account.”
Just make sure you protect your phone also by enabling its security features.
To save you the hassle of having to receive a code each time you want to log into your own accounts, some websites will allow you to save devices so the next time you log in, it will remember that device’s IP address and allow the login without the extra security.
Be wary of any email, phone call, or text you receive saying something has been compromised and to click on a link or call a number to reset it. Instead of clicking on the link, go to the website or app itself and reset the password directly from there.
6. Secure Devices
We live for our devices. They’re our constant companion and contain our whole lives. Protect them.
Update operating systems and security software: Companies issue updates once they identify a vulnerability a hacker could exploit. Sadly, this isn’t always foolproof. “Even if you get the most up to date security software, it’s always going to be about a month behind the latest what we call zero date defects,” Weisman said.
Install malware protection: Malware is short for malicious software and it is basically anything that can harm or exploit a device. There are many different kinds. Often, it finds its way on to our devices because we click on a malicious link or open an attachment that unleashes the software. Don’t forget to protect your phone.
Secure Wi-Fi connections: Make sure you secure your wireless router and change the password on it.
Secure IoT items: It’s true. Your refrigerator may be spying on you. Many things in your home connect to the internet and can provide access to your network and other items on it which can contain personal information.
Weisman suggests taking one more step to secure your phone which is locking your number. This way, a scammer can’t transfer your phone number to another carrier.
Think about it. With many two-factor authentication codes coming to your phone, if someone had your personal information AND took control of your phone number, you wouldn’t get your codes. They would.
Locking my number was easy to do from my provider’s app. If I ever want to change cell providers, I can use the app to create a temporary PIN to allow the change.
7. Don’t Rely on Protection Services
There are many services out there that say they will protect you from identity theft.
Weisman is not a huge fan because they don’t usually protect you. They just alert you sooner.
“I liken them to crossing a street and I get hit by a bus and someone runs out into the street and tells me, ‘Hey you just got hit by a bus,’” Weisman said. “That’s what the identity theft protection services are doing. They’re telling you sooner that you’ve been victimized. They don’t do anything to protect you from becoming a victim.”
Since most of the personal information out there comes from data breaches, phishing emails, etc., it isn’t possible to totally prevent the theft of personal information. The best we can do is attempt to control what the scammers can do once they get it.
My friends keep asking me if I stopped everything. Sadly, I cannot answer that question. The flurry of attempts to open new accounts seems to have calmed for now, but I’m waiting for the next round.
It’s a helpless feeling.
Tiffani Sherman is a Florida-based freelance reporter with more than 25 years of experience writing about finance, health, travel and other topics.
INSIDE: Worried about how to pay for braces? Costing more than $3,000, they aren’t cheap! Learn the simple ways to save money on braces or spacers.
Braces are expensive. There’s no getting around that. But there are things parents can do to help pay for orthodontic care.
I’ve got three kids, and the youngest is already getting a spacer (also called a palatal expander). My oldest will need braces this spring, and my son will be in his spacer in a few months as well.
If you have a dental insurance plan, it may cover as much as 50% of the cost. You may be able to get dental insurance through your employer, or you can get it through the Health Insurance Marketplace when you enroll in an eligible health plan or dental plan during the Open Enrollment Period or Special Enrollment Period. But even if insurance pays 50% of the cost, that still leaves the remaining balance as your responsibility. You’ll need to find a way to save money on braces and spacers.
HOW MUCH DO BRACES FOR KIDS COST?
Depending on your child’s needs and the area you live in, the cost of braces can run anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 or more!! While the cost of the expander may be included, it may not be. Traditional metal braces typically cost less than ceramic braces, lingual braces (braces placed behind the teeth) and clear aligners, such as Invisalign.
We recently visited our orthodontist for our oldest daughter. The total cost for the spacers for braces, expander, braces, retainer and all visits will be $3,300. That’s a lot of money!! And because we’ll need to do this for three kids, it will cost around $10,000 out of our pocket!! YIKES!
This is a situation all too familiar to many parents. How can you save money on braces when there’s no sale or discount? It seems impossible. But it doesn’t have to be. There are some ways to lower the cost for your child’s orthodontics.
HOW TO PAY FOR BRACES & SPACERS
1. COMPARE PRICES OF BRACES
Not all orthodontists charge the same amount for braces. You’ll find that costs vary greatly between offices. Before you decide where to go, do your research. Most offices offer a free orthodontic consultation, so you can find out the cost, payment plans and discount plans they may offer.
Make sure it’s also the right office and you like the doctor. While one doctor may be less expensive than another, he or she may not have the best reviews or do the best work. You certainly don’t want to use the wrong orthodontist; it could end up costing you more in the long run.
2. PAY FOR YOUR BRACES WITH CASH UP FRONT
Many offices offer a discount if you pay your entire bill up front. The office we go to gives a 5% discount when the bill is paid at the time of the first visit.
When you have your initial consultation, ask the office manager about possible cash or sibling discounts. We were able to save more than $100 by going back to the same office. Between the cash and the referral discount, we shaved hundreds off the total cost.
Some offices may not initially show you a cash discount offer, so be sure you inquire. And while 5% doesn’t sound like much, it’s still money in your pocket. In the case of our family, which will have three kids go through this, we’ll save more than $600 in total!!! So every penny counts!
Related: How the Cash Envelope System Saves Me Money
3. START EARLY
With many medical conditions, early intervention is key. The same is true with braces. If you can get your child into an expander at the right age, the final costs and needs when he or she is older may be minimized.
In addition, if you know your child will need braces in three to four years, you can start saving now so you’re prepared when the bill arrives (and can then take advantage of that cash discount). Start cutting back on your monthly bills, such as groceries and dining out. When you need to save for a big expense such as this, the sooner you start, the better!
Related: Why You Need to Set Financial Goals; How to Build Your Savings (i.e. How to save money for braces)
4. GET LESS-EXPENSIVE BRACES THROUGH A DENTAL SCHOOL
If you live in an area that has a dental school, it’s a great way to save money on braces. The students need to learn, and helping them do so can save you as much as 50% or more on the cost of braces.
All work is done alongside a dental professional, so you know it will be done the right way. The only downsides to using a school are that the visits can take longer and the number of available office visits each day is limited.
5. SEE IF YOU QUALIFY FOR FREE BRACES
Oh, how I wish this program had been around when I needed braces!! It would have helped my mother immensely because she could not afford them. Therefore, I had to go without.
That’s something I wish on no one. If your child needs braces but you are financially strapped, you may want to learn if you can qualify for free braces. Smiles Change Lives offers nearly free braces to families in all 50 states. You need to complete an application and pay a $30 application fee. If you’re accepted, you’ll pay just $650 – instead of $3,000 or more!
If you don’t qualify for Smiles Change Lives, there are other subsidy programs to help you pay for braces. Check with your orthodontist about the American Association of Orthodontists program called Donated Orthodontic Services. It initially launched in select states but has recently expanded nationwide. This is another program that offers deeply discounted orthodontics to select lower-income families who don’t have any type of dental insurance for their children. Because this is only available through select offices, you’ll need to call 866-572-9390 to find a participating office near you.
Medicaid also often covers orthodontic care when braces are deemed medically necessary for a child in a low-income family.
6. PAY FOR BRACES THROUGH YOUR FLEXIBLE SPENDING ACCOUNT
If your employer offers a flexible spending account (FSA), be sure you use it! With a flexible spending account, the cost of the braces or expanders is paid before you have to pay income tax on the money. A similar plan is a health savings account (HSA), which is paired with a high-deductible health insurance plan. An FSA or HSA won’t save you money at the orthodontic office, but at least you won’t be paying Uncle Sam before you pay your orthodontist. (Note, though, that you typically must use the money you contribute to an FSA within a year or it is forfeited.)
7. SET UP A PAYMENT PLAN
Orthodontists realize that the cost of braces is a financial burden for many families. Most of them offer flexible payment options, such as an installment payment plan. Rather than paying the total up front, you can break up the cost into easy-to-manage monthly payments.
And most will not charge interest, which makes it a better option than taking out a loan or paying the fee with your credit card. But be careful about using a third-party provider because it may charge interest at a higher rate than you would be charged elsewhere.
First published in 2018. Updated in February 2021.
The numbers: The construction industry’s outlook improved in February amid better foot traffic from home buyers, even as the cost of building homes increased.
The National Association of Home Builders’ monthly confidence index rose one point to a reading of 84 in February, the trade group said this week. The modest increase comes after two consecutive months where the index has dropped.
Index readings over 50 are a sign of improving confidence. Last spring, the index dropped below 50 as concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic grew, but the index rebounded and later hit a series of record highs in the fall.
What happened: The index that measures sentiment traffic of prospective buyers increased four points to 72. Comparatively, the outlook regarding current sales activity held steady between January and February, while the index of expectations for future sales over the next six months declined by three points to 80.
On a regional basis, builders’ confidence regarding the housing market in the Northeast improved dramatically, rising from 68 in January to 89 in February. Builders also grew more confident about the state of the market in the Midwest and maintained their positive outlook on the South. Confidence worsened slightly in the West, however.
The big picture: Demand for new homes remains extremely high. The lack of existing homes for sale, plus renewed interest in suburban living amid the pandemic, is pushing buyers further out from major cities and toward newly-constructed developments. But price pressures could begin to affect builders and buyers alike in the coming months.
“Lumber prices have been steadily rising this year and hit a record high in mid-February, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home and causing some builders to abruptly halt projects at a time when inventories are already at all-time lows,” Chuck Fowke, who is the current chairman of the National Association of Home Builders and a custom home builder from Tampa, Fla., said in the report.
“Builders remain very focused on regulatory and other policy issues that could price out households seeking new homes in a tight market this year,” Fowke added.
What they’re saying: “Housing starts and permits should moderate, but from the highest levels since 2006, as building activity continues to be supported by strong demand for homes — especially single-family construction — and low inventories,” Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a research note.
Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index were both down slightly Wednesday morning.