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Take steps to keep home energy bill out of hot water

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NEW YORK (4/30/08)--Right as sky-high gas and food prices are squeezing family budgets, expect a sharp increase soon in home energy bills with air conditioner season right around the corner (SmartMoney.com April 23). Conservative estimates put electricity price increases at 2.7% this year, with regional surges where there’s a reliance on coal, natural gas, or petroleum to generate electricity, according to a report released by the Energy Information Administration (April 8). Tack on an unexpected heat wave or violent hurricane season, and prices could surge even higher. To help keep your home energy bill from busting an already tight budget, try these simple strategies now:
* Bite the incandescent bullet. Switch to compact fluorescents, which use 75% less energy than conventional bulbs and generate 70% less heat. If they break, they release a small amount of mercury, so open the windows, don some gloves, then put the remnants in plastic bags and take them to a designated disposal site. It’s not as easy as tossing them in the trash, but proper disposal is good for the groundwater. * Have your home inspected. A certified inspector can identify energy-draining air leaks. You’ll recoup the inspection or home energy audit cost in short order with the energy savings over time. Do it now, before the weather gets hot and repair requests fill contractors’ schedules. If you do it yourself, look for holes or cracks around doors, light, or plumbing fixtures. Close your fireplace dampers and check your insulation levels throughout the house. * Use less water. Use low-flow shower heads, repair leaky faucets, and insulate your hot-water storage tank and pipes. Drain a quart of water from your water tank every three months to remove sediment, which reduces efficiency (eere.energy.gov). Lower the water heater thermostat to 120 degrees. * Wash clothes on cold. Switching from hot to cold setting cuts a load’s energy use in half. * Clean the filters. Dirt and dust significantly lower both central air and wall unit efficiency. * Set it and forget it. A programmable thermostat--set to lower usage when you’re sleeping or at work--cuts cooling bills without sacrificing comfort. * Use ceiling fans. They make the room feel a few degrees cooler. Turn them off when you’re not there. * Close the blinds. Keep the sunlight out on hot days. * Hook up power strips. Instead of leaving microwaves, phone chargers, TVs, and other appliances plugged in 24/7, plug them into power strips that you easily can switch off. As long as they’re hooked to a power source, they’re generating heat and draining valuable energy.
For more information, read “Longevity on the Home Front: How Long Will That Furnace Last?” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Dig deeper to find senior discounts

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NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. (4/28/08)--If you’re traveling this summer and want to find money-saving discounts for seniors, you’ll have to look a little harder and be savvier about the process (Bankrate.com April 9). It’s estimated that people age 50 and older account for nearly 80% of all leisure travel spending (About.com April 2008). This travel cohort also tends to travel more frequently, go longer distances, be more flexible with schedules, and stay at their destinations longer than other groups. And with the cost of food and gasoline at record levels, it will be more important than ever to take steps to keep travel costs under control:
* Shop online. Start at seniordiscounts.com, which offers both freebies and membership options. * Sign up for e-newsletters. These tend to advertise current discounts. Check out newsletters for Orbitz.com and Travelzoo.com. * Look beyond the Web. Some discounts are offered only on websites, so shop to compare them by calling around and by clicking. For example, search hotel websites for special deals on room rates, then call them to see if they’re offering last-minute discounts. * Enjoy being carded. Many discounts require, for example, AAA or AARP membership, so carry those cards with you at all times. * Ask what age triggers the discount. Do you have to be older than 50, 55, 60, 62, 65, or 70? Also, ask about other restrictions such as day of the week, time of the year, or season. * Share senior discounts. Ask whether the senior discount can be applied to all individuals traveling together, regardless of age, as long as one person qualifies as a senior. * Check for deals not tied to age. The best discount may turn out to be less costly than the discount for seniors. Instead of asking for the senior discount, ask for the lowest possible rate or the best deal available for the time you want to travel. * Use a major credit card. If you run into problems and need to dispute a charge, you’ll have the backing of the credit card company. If you pay with cash or other form of payment, you may be out of luck if there’s a disagreement over the bill. * Consider house swapping. Home exchanges--particularly with individuals from other countries--save hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars in lodging costs.
For more information, read “Do You Need Travel Insurance?” in Plan It: Retire Ready Toolkit.”

Radio guest offers advice to improve investment returns

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WASHINGTON (4/25/08)--When it comes to investing for the long haul, “set it and forget it” may not cut it. Author Paul Merriman, one of the guests on Sunday’s H&FF Radio show, shares a four-step process that may help you triple your investment returns. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America 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. The Credit Union National Association (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 Web sites. Sunday’s 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:
* “Money Traps,” with Irene Leech, associate professor and extension specialist, consumer education, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.; * “New Tips for Families--Protect Your Family From Identity Theft,” with Adam Levin, chairman, Identity Theft 911, and former director, New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, New York City, N.Y.; * “The New Math of Credit Scores,” with Julie Wooding, senior manager, Fair Isaac, San Rafael, Calif.; * “Four Steps to Triple Your Returns,” with Paul Merriman, founder and director, Merriman, Berkman, Next; author of “Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money”; and publisher and editor of the educational website FundAdvice.com, Seattle, Wash.; and * “Go Green for Youth Week,” with Joanne Sepich, youth week coordinator, Credit Union National Association, Madison, Wis.
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, makers of cheddar cheese; Visa; and WesCorp. For more information, read, “Credit Savvy Is Key to Avoiding Costly Missteps” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Spring cleaning Spruce up your financial house

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McLEAN, Va. (4/23/08)--While you’re spring cleaning around your house and yard, take a little more time to reduce clutter and spruce up your financial house as well (MarketWatch April 7). These five tips will give you a head start:
* Straighten up your credit. You’re entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus. Visit annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. Dispute any discrepancies and follow up on questions you have. * Dust-bust your bills. Think you can’t live without cell phone extras and satellite TV? Do you really need all of those premium movie channels? It’s summer--you’ll be spending more time outside anyway. * Shred documents you don’t need. Keep receipts until warranties expire or if you’ll need them for tax purposes. Keep other receipts until credit card or account statements arrive. If receipts match up with the statements, use a cross-cut shredder on receipts. Keep credit union account statements and paycheck stubs for one year, then shred. When warranties expire, throw them out. Keep tax return documents indefinitely, as well as personal documents such as birth certificates and marriage licenses. * Buff up beneficiaries. Update beneficiaries on retirement and insurance accounts and review your will. Major changes such as a marriage, birth or death are triggers that you need to update your information (CNNMoney.com March 14). * Tidy up insurance policies. Review policies to make sure you have sufficient life, auto, and homeowners insurance. Contact your agent to see if you may be eligible for lower rates or discounts. “One key to acquiring the right insurance, in the right amount, is to identify the financial losses you could not recover from without help. But that's not a decision you only make once: The variables that affect those decisions change all through your life,” says Susan Tiffany, director of Credit Union National Association's adult finance publications in Madison, Wis.
For more information about organizing your finances, read the Financial Fitness Challenge, “Organize Your Financial Records,” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center. Also, read “Sell, Scrap, or Give: Useful Ends for Your Useless Stuff” to help get rid of more household clutter.

Are you paying attention to 401k fees

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WASHINGTON (4/21/08)--Even if you’ve been diligently directing funds into your company’s 401(k), hidden charges may be slowly taking a bigger bite from your nest egg than you think (Kiplinger’s May 2008). A study released last year by AARP revealed that 83% of 401(k) plan participants don’t know how much they’re paying in fees, and 54% say they don’t feel knowledgeable about how those fees affect the balance of their retirement savings. Investment fees--which make up the brunt of the fees you pay--aren’t easy to calculate. And don’t expect to find a line item on your statement that spells out the costs. To figure out what you’re paying for investment fees, use the investment fees calculator at Bankrate.com, or follow these steps:
* Go to your 401(k) Web site and look for the expense ratio--expressed as an annual percentage of your total investments--for each fund in your portfolio. Or, look it up using Kiplinger’s Fund Finder at Kiplinger.com/tools/fundfinder. * Write each expense ratio beside the balance in each fund listed on your statement. Multiply the expense ratio by your ending balance, which is the cost of each fund. If the ratio is 0.55% and your balance is $30,000, you’re paying $165 a year in direct investment fees. * Then, add up all the expenses for all the funds you own and divide that into your total balance. If your total expense ratio is 1% or less, that’s considered reasonable.
Even a one-percentage-point difference adds up to big bucks over time. If you think your plan’s expenses are too high, talk with your boss or a human resources representative to see if there are lower-cost alternatives. For more information, read “401(k) Fees: Know What You're Paying, What You're Getting” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Financial stress spills over to workplace

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WASHINGTON (4/18/08)--Workers hard-hit by financial pressures sometimes can’t help but bring those problems to the workplace. One of the guests on this Sunday’s H&FF Radio show explains how employers are affected, and what can be done to help financially distressed workers. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America 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. The Credit Union National Association (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. Home & Family Finance Radio welcomes KWDJ AM 1360 in Los Angeles, which is now airing the show each Sunday at 5 p.m. PT with a rebroadcast on Saturdays at 2 p.m. PT. Sunday’s 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:
* “Summer Vacation Tips That Save You Money,” with Elizabeth Kiss, extension specialist for family resource management, Department of Consumer Science and Retailing, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; * “Fraud Protection at Your Bank or Credit Union,” with Bill Freer, risk manager, Co-op Financial Services, Ontario, Calif.; * “Financial Stress: How It Affects Employees in the Workplace,” with Dr. Tom Garman, president, Personal Finance Employee Education Foundation (personalfinancefoundation.org), Summerfield, Fla.; * “Patient Advocates,” with Meg Gaines, clinical professor of law, and founder and director, Center for Patient Partnerships, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis.; and * Listener Q & A--Debt counseling; tips to save extra cash; protecting Social Security numbers; and teens’ first credit accounts.
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, makers of cheddar cheese; Visa; and WesCorp. For more information, read “Research, Plan and Budget for That Special Vacation” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Summer job outlook for teens looks bleak

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NEW YORK (4/16/08)--It’s likely there won’t be nearly as many “help wanted” signs, and that’s bad news for teens looking for part-time work this summer (MSNBC.com March 24). The recent economic downturn is the culprit. In a survey of 1,100 companies released in late March by SnagAJob.com, a job site for hourly positions, nearly half of hiring managers said they don’t have plans to hire seasonal workers this year. And teens are in for a particularly tough time given the increasing number of older workers and immigrants applying for jobs in the retail and food services industries. Good advice for teens who want to gain experience in a specific field: Don’t wait until the last minute to send out applications. For teens who are successful in landing a job, Lin Standke, manager of youth programs at the Credit Union National Association advises parents to take advantage of the teachable moment and instill valuable lessons that help establish a good money management foundation:
* Learn the value of a dollar. Once a teen earns a paycheck, she’s less likely to take money for granted. Those $100 sneakers take on new meaning when she realizes she has to work 17 hours--at minimum wage--to pay for it. Show her those “wants” come with a higher price tag. * Take on responsibility. Learning to handle a job--as well as a paycheck--leads to increased self-confidence. * Decide who pays for what. Discuss what the teen is expected to pay for out of earnings, and what you--the parent--will pay for. For example, if you pay for car insurance, you might require your teen to pay for gasoline. * Develop a work ethic. The earlier a child starts to gain experience and get to the job on time as scheduled, the more natural it becomes, instilling a good work ethic for life. * Live within one’s means. Learning to spend less than you earn--as well as the value of saving a portion of each paycheck--are two of the best money-management lessons for any child or young adult.
Helping teens become financially literate is critical in any economic environment, but it’s particularly important given last week’s disappointing financial literacy survey results released by the Federal Reserve. High school seniors scored a failing grade in the survey, correctly answering only 48.3% of questions about personal finance and economics. These results show that the nation’s teens need to beef up their money skills sooner, rather than later, so they can compete in today’s tough economic climate.

NCL launches MortgageTown for anxious purchasers

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WASHINGTON (4/14/08)--A consumer advocacy organization launched a new website to steer prospective buyers through the maze of purchasing a home, and to help homeowners facing the prospect of foreclosure know where to go for help (PRNewswire-USNewswire April 2). MortgageTown.org was launched in early April--at the start of National Financial Literacy Month--by the National Consumers League, Washington, D.C. Whether you’re buying a home or trying to stay in one, MortgageTown.org has user-friendly information and links that help take some of the confusion out of today’s chaotic housing market. A visit through MortgageTown.org explains the nuts and bolts of nine essential steps to financing a home: do your homework, find the right loan, what to watch for, learn the lingo, negotiate the loan, close on the home, how to keep it, fraud prevention, and foreclosure prevention. Even as foreclosure rates continue to climb--doubling to 225,000 from October 2006 to October 2007--the National Association of Realtors predicts that 5.7 million existing homes will be sold in 2008. For more information, use the calculator, “Do I Want a Fixed- or Adjustable-Rate Mortgage” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio guest How technology affects your accounts

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WASHINGTON (4/11/08)--If you’re still confused by check imaging, this week’s H&FF Radio lineup includes a guest who explains that and other new technology affecting your checking accounts and deposits. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America 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. The Credit Union National Association (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 Web sites. Sunday’s 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:
* “Will You Be a Middle Class Drop-Out?” with Walter Dartland, executive director, Consumer Federation of the Southeast, Tallahassee, Fla.; * “Tax Tips for Procrastinators,” with Eric Smith, national spokesman, Internal Revenue Service, Washington, D.C.; * “Check Imaging and Other Ways to Improve How You Make Deposits,” with Chris Kruger, account executive, Co-op Financial Services, Ontario, Calif.; * “Sleep Problems and Job Performance: What It Can Cost You,” with Dr. Barry Krakow, internist, sleep specialist and author of “Sound Sleep, Sound Mind,” Albuquerque, N.M.; and * “Paying for Your Vacation: Listener’s Best Money Management Tips,” with Susan Tiffany, director of personal finance information for adults, CUNA, Madison, Wis.
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, makers of cheddar cheese; Visa; and WesCorp. For more information, read, “Research, Plan, and Budget for That Special Vacation” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Kids learn early how to be online buyers

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NEW YORK (4/9/08)—Even when they’re not actually making a purchase, children are learning how to buy online simply by downloading digital files (eMarketer.com March 3). The navigational skills required to download video clips, music, games, or ring tones are similar to those needed to make a purchase, giving youth an “online purchasing preschool.” Children--ranging in age from two to 14--who were surveyed about downloadable content reported that video clips were at the top of the list with an average of seven downloads per month. Music videos were a close second with 5.7 and music at 4.2. These activities typically require the user to register, search and compare, and navigate between screens--all skills needed to make a purchase. Even surfing the Web for a school project or for fun gives kids experience in researching and using sites quickly and effectively. Why should parents care? Because the next generation of online buyers will be ready and able to shop online with a credit card just as soon as they can get one of their own--or talk you into letting them use yours. There are pros and cons to shopping online, and teaching kids what to watch for can save you time, money, and frustration. These tips from Credit Union National Association’s Center for Personal Finance can help ensure that your kids are good money managers:
* Shop secure sites. Look for a URL that starts with "https" and make sure the site has a closed-lock icon at the bottom at the page. * Supervise your child’s use of your card. Remind the child that the card numbers are private and not to be shared. Explain that credit card thieves may use the number to purchase items on your account. * Find and read the privacy policy with your child. Together, learn what information the seller is gathering and how it will be used. Explain why you may not want to get on some mailing lists. * Review the return, refund, and shipping policies. This is a good opportunity to discuss the risks of buying the product with your child. Is the item worth the shipping cost? Can you return it if it doesn’t fit or you don’t like the color? Will you get your money back, or get credit that you won’t use? Make sure you--and your child--understand all the seller’s policies before buying online.

Five ways to manage rising food costs

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CHICAGO (4/7/08)--Last year, U.S. consumers experienced the highest food price increase since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And there is every indication that prices will continue to increase this year, thanks to weather-related setbacks and changes in the global economy (CNN.com Mar. 25). Despite more money being shelled out at the grocery store, farmers aren’t profiting from the increases at the checkout (NYTimes.com April 1). The bleak outlook means it’s even more important to find ways to save:
* Write down the amount to spend. Include funds for groceries, dining at restaurants, and take-out. Then remember that budgeted amount when you’re at the supermarket as well as making decisions about whether to order pizza delivery. * Plan a menu. Develop a plan each week before heading to the supermarket so you purchase only the items you need for your culinary creations instead of making last-minute decisions in the aisles. * Eat before you shop. Shopping on an empty stomach typically results in tossing more items in your cart. Eat before you go to resist shiny packages and impulse purchases. * Brown bag it. Eating out costs more on a per-meal basis. Consider that a sandwich, chips and beverage from a restaurant will cost you $6 and last for one meal. A loaf of bread, deli meat, and a two-liter bottle of soda from the supermarket will cost roughly the same and last for several meals. * Make a meal with that special someone. Try a new recipe in lieu of going out for an expensive date.

Regulatory expert How NCUA safeguards your money

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WASHINGTON (4/4/08)--How safe is your money when you deposit it at the credit union? National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) Vice Chairman Rodney Hood explains the ins and outs of deposit insurance and what it means for you. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America 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. The Credit Union National Association (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. Sunday’s 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:
* “How Will You Live When You’re Old: Housing Alternatives for an Aging America,” with Anne Sweaney, Ph.D., professor and head, Department of Housing and Consumer Economics, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.; * “Is Your Money Safe: Deposit Insurance,” with Rodney Hood, vice chairman, NCUA, Alexandria, Va.; * “Economic Stimulus Package: How Much Money Will You Get and What Do You Do to Get It?” with Barbara Speedy, AARP, Washington, D.C.; * “Get Better Mileage From Your Fuel Dollars--Listener Tip of the Month,” with Susan Tiffany, director of personal finance information for adults, CUNA, Madison, Wis.; and * Listener Q&A.
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, makers of cheddar cheese; Visa; and WesCorp. For more information, read “Totaling It Up: The True Cost to Drive Your Car” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

How to avoid a tax audit

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ATLANTA (4/2/08)--It pays to be proactive, particularly when it comes to avoiding a tax audit. Whether you’re facing an audit or trying to side-step one, you can take steps to ease the pain (CNNMoney.com March 14).
* Keep it neat. If you turn in a messy return--which is more likely to contain math errors and omissions--you’re more likely to be targeted by the tax man. Use tax software and file electronically to make sure all numbers are legible and all boxes are filled in. * Watch home office deductions. These typically are red flags for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), so experts recommend you estimate on the low side when it comes to listing square footage of your home office as well as the percentage of home expenses you’re writing off to the business. Keep detailed records. * Report all income--including cash. IRS agents look for unreported income, particularly from individuals who receive much of their income in cash, such as waiters and people who work in the gaming industry (MSNMoney.com Feb. 20 and MSNMoney.com Jan. 18). * Keep receipts. Being able to substantiate your deductions can help during the audit itself, particularly with respect to auto, travel, meals, and entertainment. The rule “no receipt, no deduction” applies for meal and entertainment expenses of more than $75. Keep a detailed record of dates, people entertained as well as their business relationship to you, and notes about the business discussion. * Get--and stay--organized. If you meet with an auditor and present a disorganized box of receipts, you’re more likely to prolong the pain. But if you have full substantiation, you give the auditor the impression that you’re confident you owe no additional taxes.