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Financial resolutions for 2012 may trump joining gym

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NEW YORK (1/3/12)--Move over, health and fitness. When it comes to New Year's resolutions, beefing up personal finances is right up there with cutting calories and slimming down (USNews.com Dec. 22).

The number of Americans making financial resolutions this year jumped to 42%, up from 35% last year, according to Fidelity Investments' annual study (Fidelity.com Dec. 15). Nearly half (46%) of those considering a financial resolution say saving more is their top priority, with a median annual target of $2,400 for long- and short-term goals, double last year's goal of $1,200. And 66% say the recent economic volatility will help them stick with the resolutions they made in 2011.

The economy is consumers' greatest source of stress, followed by personal finances, job and health, according to a recent survey by Principal Financial Group, Des Moines, Iowa. About one of five workers say not saving enough during 2011 was their top financial blunder, while 18% ranked increasing debt as their top mistake.

If putting your financial house in order is a priority for 2012, experts advise focusing on what you can control instead of what you cannot. Develop a specific plan during the next 12 months to achieve one or more of these financial goals:

  • Stop spending more than you make. It's a simple, sure-fire way to stay out of debt.
  • Pay down debt. List all debts by interest rate. Apply a greater percentage of your total debt payment toward the highest interest-rate debt first while making at least minimum payments on all the others. Use some low-interest-bearing savings to pay down high-interest debt. Once the debt is paid off, use the extra cash to build up savings again.
  • Pay bills online, and on time. You'll save time and money, and eliminate late payment fees.
  • Reduce monthly expenses. Review insurance contracts and call competitors for quotes. Cancel unnecessary add-ons to your phone bill. Check out energy.gov for more ways to cut utility usage.
  • Automate savings. Transfer a set amount regularly and beef up that emergency fund.
  • Take control of investments. Diversify your portfolio, contribute the maximum or as much as you can to your employer's company plan if you have one, start an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or Roth IRA and fund it with equal monthly contributions; use several retirement calculators to figure out how much money you'll need in retirement.
Finally, set goals that are specific and measurable. "I want to save money" doesn't cut it. Change that to, "I will save $1,200 in 2012 by putting $100 a month into my emergency savings account with money saved from eating out less, borrowing DVDs from the library instead of renting them, and adjusting the thermostat." Make sure your goals fit within your overall budget and strive to be in better shape--financially and health-wise--at the beginning of 2013.

For more information, listen to "Build Your Emergency Savings Fund" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio shares college funding strategies

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WASHINGTON (12/30/11)--Sunday's H&FF Radio program covers college savings, financial planning for newly single women, job-hunting and financial lessons from the Amish.

This is a rebroadcast of an earlier H&FF Radio program.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Parents: The Buck Stops Here in Funding College." Roger Michaud, chair, College Savings Foundation, Washington, D.C., shares parent survey results that indicate challenges families face when saving for college, as well as strategies that work.
  • " 'Suddenly Single' Financial Planning." Jean Dorrell, certified estate planner and founder and president, Senior Financial Security, Summerfield, Fla., outlines financial management tasks for newly single women.
  • "Cracking the New Job Market:  Seven Rules for Getting Hired in Any Economy." Bill Holland, former human resources director, lecturer, and author, Virginia Beach, Va., offers interview advice and ways to increase your marketability.
  • "Money Secrets of the Amish." Lorilee Craker, author and freelance journalist, Grand Rapids, Mich., explains the Amish community's time-tested approach to personal finances and how it emerged from the economic crisis unscathed.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For more information, read "Create Financial Checklist to Ease Transition to College," "Rebuild Your Life After a Life Partner Dies," and "Get Back in the Game After Losing a Job" and use the "What Will It Take to Save for a College Education?" calculator in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Use flex spending account before years end

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MADISON, Wis. (12/28/11)--Before you hang up your 2012 calendar or plan your new year's resolution, add this important task to the top of your end-of-year to-do list: Use up the rest of the money in your flexible spending account (FSA), or risk losing what's left come Jan. 1.

Draining your FSA is no longer as easy as it used to be. While you may have stocked up on over-the-counter (OTC) medication at the end of 2010 to zero out your fund, a new rule in the health-care reform act makes OTC drugs ineligible for reimbursement in 2011 (USA Today Dec. 19).

Despite this new rule, you have a few options for spending the rest of your funds. Some plans offer grace periods, allowing you to continue using your current funds until March 15 (Bankrate Nov. 22). Not all companies extend this option, so check with your human resources department or benefits office to see if yours does.

If you take certain OTC medications regularly, consider asking your doctor to write you a prescription for them. With a prescription, you can pay for items like pain relievers with your FSA.

Also remember that you still can use your FSA to buy many eligible items other than OTC medications at the drugstore. Examples include:

  • Sunscreens with at least SPF 30;
  • Bandages;
  • First-aid wraps;
  • First-aid kits;
  • Reading glasses;
  • Contact lens solution;
  • Contraceptives;
  • Pregnancy tests;
  • Vaccinations, such as flu shots;
  • Screening tools, such as blood-pressure monitors;
  • Carpal tunnel wrist supports; and
  • Medical thermometers.
 

Again, check your plan details before you hit the drugstore aisles.

For more information, read "Health-Care Reform Changes Flex-Spending Reimbursement Rules" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Building repairing credit on HandFF Radio

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WASHINGTON (12/21/11)--Sunday's H&FF Radio program discusses credit-building strategies for students, workplace relationships, credit repair, and costs associated with caregiving.

This is a rebroadcast of an earlier H&FF Radio program.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Seven Smart Ways for Students to Build Credit." Brandon Farestad-Rittel, college savings expert, Kinoli Inc., Windsor, Colo., shares ideas to help college students build credit responsibly.
  • "Getting Along in the Workplace." Dr. Gary Chapman, marriage, family, and relationship expert, talk show host and author of "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace," Winston-Salem, N.C., offers guidelines for getting along with co-workers.
  • "Earning a Second Financial Chance." Susan Tiffany, certified credit union financial counselor and director, consumer periodicals, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis., explains how consumers can recover financially from credit problems.
  • "Family Caregiving: Its Costs--Financial and Emotional." Gail Hunt, president/CEO, National Alliance for Caregiving, Washington, D.C., addresses the impact of providing care to family members.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For more information, read "Understand All Your Options for Dealing With Debt" and "Earn a Second Chance" and watch the "Build Your Best Credit Score" and "Becoming Creditworthy" videos in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

(Editors' note:  News Now originally reported another H&FF Radio program would be aired Sunday. However, the broadcaster has changed the lineup.  This is the updated program agenda.)

HandFF Radio examines credit score rules

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WASHINGTON (12/21/11)--Sunday's H&FF Radio program addresses new credit scoring rules, ways to save on college textbooks, credit restrictions for stay-at-home spouses, and "money types."

This is a rebroadcast of an earlier H&FF Radio program.

The show, which also can be heard later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "New Rules on Credit Scoring Explained." Kim McGrigg, community manager, Money Management International, Denver, highlights key changes to credit scoring.
  • "11 Intelligent Ways to Save on Textbooks Without the Bookstore." Andrea Woroch, consumer savings expert, Santa Ana, Calif., shares ideas for saving money on textbooks--none of which include shopping at the college bookstore.
  • "New Credit Restrictions for Stay-at-Home Spouses." Michael Edwards, senior assistant general counsel, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Washington, D.C., discusses new ability-to-pay requirements that could affect nonworking spouses.
  • "Crazy About Money: What Kind of Money Type Are You?" Dr. Maggie Baker, clinical psychologist, Philadelphia, explains how understanding your "money type" can help you create better financial habits.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is sponsored by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For more information, read "Create Financial Checklist to Ease Transition to College" and "Stay-at-Home Spouses Face Credit Restrictions" and watch the "Build Your Best Credit Score" and "Becoming Creditworthy" videos in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Choose between tablet and e-reader

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NEW YORK (12/19/11)--Barnes & Noble has announced the release of a free update that moves its Nook e-reader closer to being a tablet. If you're one of the millions of shoppers in the market for an e-reader or tablet, here's the update you need to pick the right one for your needs--and budget (International Business Times Dec. 13).

Get an e-reader--If your passion is for electronic books and you don't care to listen to music, play games, browse the Web, or watch movies on the same device, consider an e-reader:

  • E-readers cost less than tablets. You can pay between $79 and $200 for a good e-reader, depending on your preferences: with or without ads, keyboard, 3G cellular for when you can't access Wi-Fi, the ability to read in the dark, color displays, and so on. Before you enter the store (or website), research to decide which features are important to you.
  • E-readers are improving faster than you can click a mouse. Some e-readers are even going hybrid--they act almost like tablets. Be careful of hypes for inexpensive e-readers with color screens and apps. Check the quality of display and touch responsiveness, and make sure the apps are ones you will use.
  • Reading on an e-device has become natural. Displays are easy on the eyes, text is crisp, pages turn fast, some batteries last months, the devices are lightweight, fast, and you can fit one in your pocket or purse.
  • You can buy, borrow, and even lend books. One e-reader lets you lend books to friends, with restrictions. When you buy an e-book, you're also deciding which book seller you will support: Spend time browsing e-book stores before you commit, then check your local library to find out what format it uses.
Get a tablet--If you can spend more than $200, consider getting a tablet instead of an e-reader. If you choose carefully you can get all the features you want in a reader--but better:

  • Tablets give you access to great apps. Some third-party book apps allow devices to read books you purchase from any store. If you're serious about apps, look for Google services on your tablet. Your reading experience will be more fluid and stronger than if you wind up with a device that gets apps from an alternative store such as GetJar.
  • The large screen displays documents comfortably. The basic iPad has a 9.7-inch screen compared with the 6- or 7-inch screens on an e-reader.
  • Tablets display superior color. Conventional e-books do a great job of replicating real paper--in shades of gray. If you want to admire illustrated children's books, picture books, or glossy magazines, get a tablet.
  • You'll get more memory with a tablet. The basic tablet has 16 gigabytes of memory. More expensive versions have even more.
  • You can get cellular service on a tablet. Some tablets have built-in access to cellular networks. You'll pay a separate monthly fee, but you don't always have to sign a contract to get it.
  • You can choose an almost endless array of features. Look at the accessory keyboard and how it attaches, the design, how much battery life you can expect, cellular accessibility, screen size, the ability to draw or write notes, and whether or not the device has a USB port.
When purchasing a tablet, pay attention to price--you get what you pay for. Tablets cost $300 or more, depending on specs. Before you hit the big sales, decide your preferences for processing power, screen resolution, memory, display quality and touch responsiveness. Be aware that service-provider contracts lower the price but carry a risk--today's contract won't upgrade as fast as the technology will evolve, so make sure you buy the device you want.

iHandFF Radioi discusses holiday regifting

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WASHINGTON (12/16/11)--Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio program covers holiday gift-giving do's and don'ts, Alzheimer's disease, single moms in the military and managing credit card complaints.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "To Regift or Not to Regift?" Carole Townsend, author, "Southern Fried White Trash," Atlanta, describes the do's and don'ts of holiday gift-giving and regifting.
  • "Alzheimer's Disease and the Holidays." Nataly Rubinstein, author, "Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias," Miami Beach, Fla., provides guidance for sharing the holidays with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
  • "G.I. Jane." Jula Jane, founder, Operation G.I. Jane, Atlanta, discusses how you can make a positive difference in the lives of single mothers serving in the military.
  • "Credit Card Confusion." Bill Hardekopf, CEO, LowCards.com, Birmingham, Ala., addresses a report about credit card complaints issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and simplifies the process of shopping for and with credit cards.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For more information, watch "Managing Credit Card Debt" and read "Create a Spending Plan for a Special Holiday" and "Cope Financially During a Serious Illness" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Revisit revamp your American Dream

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NEW YORK (12/14/11)--The Great Recession has forced Americans to rethink their definition of the American Dream. Studies reveal a shift toward more modest goals--having a financial safety net and achieving personal fulfillment over becoming wealthy. Despite changing the yardstick, the dream is still out of reach for many (Time Dec. 1).

Nearly three quarters of Americans view financial security--in the form of savings to cover layoffs, illness, or other emergencies, as well as insurance and retirement accounts--as critical to achieving the Dream, according to the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream. However, nearly as many say they don't have a safety net in place, 53% report living paycheck to paycheck, and 38% report not having an adequate retirement savings plan.

The study also revealed that 76% of Americans are now taking a do-it-yourself approach to building their safety net and protecting their family's future, rather than relying on corporate or government programs.

Take steps now to get a better handle on retirement expense projections, whatever your definition of the American Dream. Ask yourself some simple questions and then do your own math:

  • Avoid the disappearing act. Identify spending patterns now and determine what you won't be paying for in retirement. Will you pay off your mortgage? Finish paying off the kids' college debts? Save on taxes once you're not working?
  • Get real. Count on higher health care costs, and determine if your dream includes travel plans.
  • Expect a spike, but not for long. Studies indicate that your first years of retirement will be your most expensive (Yahoo! Finance Dec. 1). For average households, individuals age 65 to 75 spent an average of $41,434 in 2010, or roughly 72% of the amount they spent during their prime earning years, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2010. In comparison, individuals older than age 75 spent only about 55% of their highest-earning years' income.
  • Size up current savings. Do you have a pension from your current or previous jobs? List your balances in employer-sponsored retirement plans, IRAs, Roth IRAs, or other accounts. Visit ssa.gov for your projected Social Security payout.
  • Know your life expectancy. Visit socialsecurity.gov/planners/lifeexpectancy.htm to calculate the average number of additional years you can expect to live.
  • Don't ignore inflation. Inflation has averaged 3% a year since 1925. If you need $50,000 in 2011 to cover annual living expenses, at 3% inflation you'd need about $90,000 in 2031, and $141,000 in 2041 just to maintain the same purchasing power.
  • Run the numbers. Use more than one retirement calculator and plug in the information you've collected. Expect different results across calculators--they all ask for slightly different information. Then tweak the data. By changing retirement age or expected interest rates, you get a sense of how small changes now have a big effect on how long your savings will last.
For more information, use "Calculator: How to Calculate Your Retirement Needs" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

New year brings changing retirement benefits

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WASHINGTON (12/12/11)--As 2011 comes to a close, familiarize yourself with more than your holiday shopping list. The year 2012 marks some significant changes for various retirement benefits (USNews.com Dec. 5).

Whether you're already retired or still working, understand the new rules. Some of them could affect your retirement saving strategy.

The benefits undergoing changes include:

  • Social Security. Checks will increase 3.6% in 2012, to about $43 more each month for a typical retiree. For workers, the amount of Social Security taxable earnings will also increase, to $110,100--up from $106,800 in 2011. And unless extended in the next few weeks, a temporary reduction in workers' Social Security taxes is also scheduled to end in 2012, increasing back to 6.2% from 4.2%.
  • Medicare. Part B premiums will increase slightly to $99.90 in 2012, up $3.50 for those who signed up in 2009 or earlier. Those who signed up in 2010 or 2011 actually will see premiums decrease, from $110.50 or $115.50 to $99.90. For singles with incomes exceeding $85,000 or couples with incomes exceeding $170,000, Part B premiums will increase $40 to $219.80 more than the standard rate.  And with the gradual phase-out of the Part D coverage gap--or the "doughnut hole"--recipients in the gap will be able to buy generic drugs at a 14% discount, up from 7% in 2011.
  • 401(k) accounts. Savers can sock away up to $17,000 in 2012, up from $16,500 in 2011. Plan participants will also receive a more complete explanation of account costs and fees, thanks to a Labor Department ruling that requires plans to disclose that information in more detail. The Labor Department will also require plan administrators to offer advice to account holders. Advice must be given by an adviser whose compensation is not affected by investments selected. Finally, many companies that suspended 401(k) matches during the recession report that they will reinstate those matches in 2012.
  • Individual retirement accounts (IRAs). For individuals with employer retirement plans, tax deductions for traditional IRA contributions will phase out for incomes between $58,000 and $68,000 for singles and $92,000 to $112,000 for couples, an increase of $2,000 from 2011. For individuals without employer retirement plans, income cutoffs will kick in between $173,000 and $183,000, an increase of $4,000. Income limits for making contributions will be set between $110,000 and $125,000 for singles (an increase of $3,000) and between $173,000 and $183,000 for couples (again, an increase of $4,000).
  • The Saver's Credit. Individuals with incomes up to $28,750 for singles, $43,125 for heads of household, and $57,500 for married couples can claim this credit worth up to $1,000 ($2,000 for couples). That's an income increase of $500 to $1,000 from last year. To claim the credit, workers must contribute to a 401(k), IRA, or other retirement account.
  • Pensions. Insurance limits will increase to $55,840.92 for a 65-year-old retiree, up from $54,000 in 2011.
For more information, watch the "Investing in an IRA" video and use the "How to Calculate Your Retirement Needs" calculator in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio covers holiday shopping gift-giving

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WASHINGTON (12/9/11)--Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio program is set to discuss holiday spending trends, money management for unmarried couples, meaningful gift-giving, and universal home design.

The show, which can also be accessed post broadcast via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing the following topics with special guests:

  •  "Shopping at Hyperspeed." Britt Beemer, chairman and founder, America's Research Group, Summerville, S.C., recaps Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping trends and tells what to expect in the new year.
  • "Money Without Matrimony." Debra Neiman, certified financial planner, Arlington, Mass., explains how cohabiting couples can obtain financial security.
  • "It's the Thought That Counts." Rob Severson, financing coach and author of "Connecting Peace, Purpose, and Prosperity: A Survival Guide and Memoir," Deep Haven, Minn., shares why a thoughtful gift means more than an expensive one.
  • "Benefits of Universal Design." Dustin Struckmeyer, interior design instructor, Madison College, Madison, Wis., highlights the importance of universal design for your physical and financial health.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's website.

For more information, use the link below to read "Create a Spending Plan for a Special Holiday," "Smart Spending Puts Holiday Shoppers in Control of Cart," and "Universal Design Makes Home Comfortable for All" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Smart saving can build successful portfolio

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McLEAN, Va. (12/7/11)--With an uncertain economy and recent swings in the stock market, anticipating retirement can be scary. If you feel desperate to catch up on building your retirement funds, you might be tempted to jump in and out of the market to avoid losses and to catch gains. Be cautious: You're taking a big risk of sabotaging your portfolio. Smart and steady saving still wins the race (USAToday.com Nov. 29).

To help get--or keep--your portfolio in shape, take this advice from the Credit Union National Association's Center for Personal Finance editors:

  • Put away as much as possible. You might think that you can't afford to save any more but,  really, you can't afford not  to. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, make sure to contribute what you need to get the company match. If you don't, you're leaving free money on the table. Raising your contribution by even just 1% can make a huge difference in the amount you'll save by the time you retire. An easy way to increase your contribution without noticing much is to increase the percentage you contribute each time you receive a pay raise.
  • Rebalance. Rebalancing means periodically reviewing and adjusting the makeup of your portfolio to keep it in line with your asset allocation goals. Similarly, when life's circumstances change, review your plan. Those situations could include buying a house, having a child, sending a child to college, divorcing, retiring, losing a life partner and the like.
  • Diversify. You can't control factors that cause investment values to fluctuate, but you can diversify your portfolio to smooth out the ups and downs. Diversification is spreading your money over a variety of high-quality investments rather than putting it all in one place. No single investment or investment category will perform well all of the time, under all market and economic conditions.
  • Try dollar-cost averaging. Dollar-cost averaging is a method of buying stock or mutual fund shares by investing the same amount of money on a regular schedule, regardless of market price. Your fixed investment buys more shares when the market is down; you'll have more shares that will grow when the market rebounds. Regular investments play an important role in building your portfolio. Some fund groups even waive initial minimum investments if you make regular investments deposited directly from your paycheck or financial services account.
For more help determining if you're on track saving for retirement, use the "How to Calculate Your Retirement Needs" calculator in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Be gift-card savvy as giver and receiver

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DULLES, Va. (12/5/11)--You'll probably give and receive at least one gift this holiday season. Gift cards, a one-size-fits-all way to give a present, have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. With money tight, it's more important than ever to be savvy about buying and giving gift cards. And on the flip side, make sure you properly use the ones you receive (AOL Nov. 29).

Smart ideas for buying a gift card:

  • Consider how your recipient will use it. Gift cards come in two varieties: Retail gift cards are sold by retailers and restaurants and can be used only with those merchants. Bank gift cards display the brand logo of a payment-card network, such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and so forth. You can use these national-branded gift cards wherever the brand is accepted.
  • Avoid fees and expiration dates. Fees might be charged at the time of purchase or can be deducted from the card after you pay for it. In the store, fee details usually are posted on the gift-card sleeve. Online, look for details posted on the issuer's website. If you're buying by phone, ask about shipping and handling fees. Always check for expiration dates.
  • Inspect the location and condition of the card. In stores, look for gift cards located safely behind the cashier's counter or customer-service desk. Don't buy a card that appears to have been tampered with. For example, make sure the protective sticker is intact and the code on the back has not been scratched off. One form of gift-card theft is to write down an exposed gift card number, monitor it online and, when activated, quickly access and drain the card before the owner becomes aware of it. Online, avoid buying gift cards from auction sites--they may be selling counterfeit cards or cards obtained by fraud.
  • Watch the cashier. Make sure the amount you pay is the same as the value of the card. The best way to do this is to watch the cashier scan the card. One popular scam is for a cashier to pretend to activate the card, hand it to you, and pocket your money.
  • Investigate the financial condition of the card seller. The card may lose value if the issuer goes out of business or files for bankruptcy. Another possibility is that the issuing business closes a store near the recipient.
  • Give a receipt along with the card. If the receipt doesn't include the card's ID number, provide it as well. If the card gets lost or stolen, the receipt and ID number help the retailer track where the card was activated and used, and usually will qualify the recipient for a refund or replacement.
Tips for using a gift card:

  • Ask the giver for important card information. This includes the original purchase receipt and the card's ID number. If not obvious, find out where you can use the card, the terms, conditions, expiration date, and fees. Write down or photocopy the toll-free number for reporting lost or stolen cards; keep this information in a safe place.
  • Use it soon. This is especially the case if you still have a card you received last year. This helps you avoid possible maintenance fees, expiration, or misplacing or losing the card. Better yet, you can take advantage of post-holiday discounts.
  • Think of it as cash. Although some issuers will replace lost or stolen cards, you might not be able to recover any of its value, or might have to pay a fee to do so.
If you have a problem with a gift card--say the value has expired, you are charged a fee, or it's been lost or stolen--contact the toll-free number of the card-issuing company to see if it still will honor the card or reverse the fees.

For more information, listen to Home & Family Finance Radio, "Survey Shows Consumers Misunderstand Gift Cards," in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

IHandFF RadioI Consumer survey results revealed

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WASHINGTON (12/2/11)--Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio program covers consumer survey results, universal design, and positive relationships with money.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Gauging Your Financial Condition." Bill Hampel, chief economist, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Washington, D.C., shares results of a survey in which Americans reported that their financial situations remain difficult this year.
  • "Design for All." Dean Johnson, design/build specialist, Green Construction Services, Lakeland, Fla., describes how remodeling your home with universal design concepts can improve your quality of life.
  • "The Money Workbook." Roger Bruce Lane, author, "The Money Workbook," New York, explains how to stop thinking negatively about money and start creating a successful financial life. 
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For more information, read "Create a Spending Plan for a Special Holiday" and "Universal Design Makes Home Comfortable for All" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.