5 simple ways to stay connected as a family on a budget

(BPT) – School’s out, summer’s here and the family is ready for some fun-in-the-sun memory making! It’s the perfect time to bond, catch up and enjoy the slower pace of the season. However, with fun on the brain, it’s easy to find yourself dipping into pockets a bit more for ice cream treats and new toys. To help keep summer full of fun but low on cost, here are five simple tips to ensure an unforgettable summer that won’t break the bank:

1. Staycation

When summer rolls around, the coast often calls. However, sun, surf and relaxation don’t come cheap if that also includes plane tickets, hotel expenses and all the other unexpected costs of traveling. The lakes and rivers of the U.S. make great alternatives to the far-away oceans, and for most, there are options just a short drive away. Pack the family and a cooler filled with your favorite refreshments and snacks, crank up the tunes and make an afternoon at the lake a cost-friendly summer getaway the whole family will love.

2. Family fun at home

With the kids home from school, the summer brings lots of opportunities for fun family time. A trip to the amusement park or movie theater is a tempting way to get out of the house, but those options turn expensive quickly. Instead, try finding ways to have fun together at home! Plan game and movie nights, camp in the backyard or organize a picnic with neighbors. You can have fun and bond as a family without breaking the bank.

3. New mobile plan

For busy families, staying in touch at an affordable cost is essential. Whether you need more data, have a set budget or simply need reliable coverage, a new family mobile plan could be the solution to your family’s wireless needs. Try Walmart Family Mobile, which now offers better coverage on T-Mobile’s nationwide 4G LTE network. Getting started is easy — with no contracts, no activation fees and a discount for every new family member added to your account. You can pick from one of four unlimited plans, starting at just $24.88 per month, and great deals on new phones. Walmart Family Mobile will also be offering an upgraded plan, offering you TRULY Unlimited Data* for $49.88. You can even keep your own phone and switch — it’s that easy. Check out the great new deals at MyFamilyMobile.com.

4. Plan meals

Family dinners are a great way to reminisce on the day’s fun, but it can be hard to find the energy to cook a homemade meal after all that fun or a long day at work. Ordering pizza might be a tempting way to feed the family, but the costs of eating out adds up quickly. To prevent last–minute and last-resort fast food dinners, try making a weekly meal plan in advance. Ask the kids to get involved with suggestions; they’ll enjoy getting the chance to contribute to a task typically left for adults, and if they are old enough, they can even have assigned days of the week to make simple meals for the family themselves. If not, they are never too young to do the dishes! Choose recipes that create generous leftovers and either freeze for future meals or pack for lunches the next day.

5. Break out the grill

Enjoy the thrill of the grill when making those homemade meals and turn dinnertime into a way to enjoy cool summer nights while cutting costs. Not only fun and seasonal, by grilling outdoors you can decrease your energy consumption — no need for the oven or A/C al fresco — and save you money.

Enjoying time with the family shouldn’t mean worrying about your wallet. By incorporating the tips above, you and your family can cut costs and stay connected while having a blast this summer.

† To get 4G LTE speed where available you must have a 4G LTE capable device and a 4G LTE SIM card. Actual availability, coverage and speed may vary. During periods of congestion, Walmart Family Mobile customers may notice reduced speeds versus carrier branded customers. LTE is a trademark of ETSI. LTE is a trademark of ETSI.

* Does not include tethering. Video typically plays at DVD quality. During congestion, top 3% of users (>32GB/mo.) may notice reduced speeds due to deprioritization.

Please always refer to the latest Terms and Conditions of Service at MyFamilyMobile.com.

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New ways to comparison shop for health care

(BPT) – As our nation seeks solutions to help improve the health care system, there is at least one goal we can all agree on: the importance of making health care quality and cost information more accessible to all Americans.

This is an important effort that has the potential to help improve health outcomes and make care more affordable — laudable goals considering the nation’s health care system ranks among the least efficient in the world, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis.

More widespread use of health quality and cost resources may be part of the solution. Providing health care prices to consumers, health care professionals and other stakeholders could reduce U.S. health care spending by more than $100 billion during the next decade, according to a 2014 report by the Gary and Mary West Health Policy Center.

That is in part because there are significant price variations for health care services and procedures at hospitals and doctors’ offices nationwide, yet a study by Families U.S.A. concluded that higher-priced care providers do not necessarily deliver higher-quality care or better health outcomes.

Fortunately, there are many new online and mobile resources that help enable people to access health care quality and cost information, helping them to comparison shop for health care as they would with other consumer products and services. And people are starting to take action: nearly one third of Americans have used the internet or mobile apps during the last year to comparison shop for health care, up from 14 percent in 2012, according to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey.

These resources are far more accurate and useful than those of past generations, and in some cases provide people with estimates based on actual contracted rates with physicians and hospitals, including likely out-of-pocket costs based on their current health plan benefits. Some resources also include quality information about specific physicians, as determined by independent standards.

There are many resources people can consider when shopping for health care. In addition to online and mobile resources, people can call their health plan to discuss quality and cost transparency information, as well as talk with their health care professional about alternative treatment settings, including urgent care and telehealth options. Public websites, such as www.uhc.com/transparency and www.guroo.com, also can help enable access to market-average prices for hundreds of medical services in cities nationwide.

These resources can help people save money and select health care professionals based on objective information. A UnitedHealthcare analysis showed that people who use online or mobile transparency resources are more likely to select health care providers rated on quality and cost-efficiency across all specialties, including for primary care (7 percent more likely) and orthopedics (9 percent more likely). In addition, the analysis found that people who use the transparency resources before receiving health care services pay 36 percent less than non-users.

As people take greater responsibility for their health care decisions and the cost of medical treatments, transparency resources are becoming important tools to help consumers access quality care and avoid surprise medical bills.

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Credit union or bank: What’s right for you?

(BPT) – The banking and credit union worlds are as much the same as they are different. Both are eager to earn your business and to provide you with loans, mortgages, savings and checking accounts. With that said, there are some significant differences between the two financial institutions. In today’s world, with cutthroat competition for your money, it’s worth understanding the advantages of both, and perhaps making a switch to one or the other to put yourself in a better financial position.

Credit union and banks: The differences

The primary difference between a credit union and a bank is that a credit union is a not-for-profit cooperative, meaning it’s owned by its members or customers. Profits made by credit unions are returned back to members in the form of reduced fees, higher savings rates and lower loan rates. A bank, on the other hand, is for-profit, owned by shareholders and focused on its stock value.

Joining a credit union is fairly simple, and membership is inexpensive — typically a one-time fee of between $5 and $25. Depending on where you live, many credit unions serve a geographic area, such as a state or metropolitan area, and are open to anyone who lives in that area. Some credit unions are employer-sponsored, so that anyone (including family members) who works for that organization can join.

There is no membership fee to “join” a bank. All you need to provide is some money to open a checking or savings account, a government-issued ID card, and some personal information (address, Social Security number, etc.).

Credit union advantages

Credit unions, by and large, are able to provide better rates to their members. Unlike a for-profit bank, credit unions return their “profits” to members in the form of lower rates on loans, higher interest on deposits and more personalized services. Other advantages of a credit union are that they tend to have lower fees on checks, withdrawals and electronic transactions, and many offer checking accounts with no minimum balance and without a monthly service charge. Finally, because credit unions are smaller and have a focus on member service, they may be more flexible when it comes to working with someone with financial challenges.

Bank advantages

Banks, because of their size and scale, tend to offer more financial products than credit unions. For example, a credit union may have two or three different types of checking and savings accounts, whereas a bank may have dozens to choose from. Depending on where you live, banks will most likely have more locations for convenient access and more advanced online and mobile banking capabilities. Because of their geographic reach and wider range of offerings, a large bank could be a better fit for someone who wants specialized financial products (annuities, trusts) and needs access to nationwide locations.

Credit unions catching up

Depending on where you live, you may have numerous options for selecting a credit union. Some credit unions may have only one location and offer basic financial services like auto loans, checking and savings accounts. Other credit unions may have a large footprint in a market or state and offer the breadth of services you’d find in a bank. Most offer free, nationwide ATM access, and since many credit unions belong to cooperatives, members can access accounts across the country through other credit union branches. Bellco, for example, offers a full range of financial products and services, including mortgages, auto loans and checking accounts. Today, Bellco has more than 300,000 members who benefit from the advantages of a credit union, including lower interest rates on loans, higher yields on savings and access to thousands of ATMs nationwide.

Choosing a bank or credit union

Depending on where you live — urban vs. suburban vs. rural — your banking and credit union options will vary considerably. If you are in an area that offers both, there are several features to weigh and consider:

Services: Compare the basic banking services and access to specialized financial products, including advanced online services and mobile banking.

Rates and incentives: Look at the current rates, fees, and incentives — as well as overall benefits to being a customer or a member of the bank or credit union. Are there good reasons for joining one over the other?

Location: Evaluate options to access your accounts, whether it’s branch locations or ATMs or mobile banking services, and decide whether a national footprint is a requirement for your banking.

Finally, it’s important to note that both banks and credit unions insure your money up to $250,000 per person, across a group of accounts (checking, savings, and CDs would be considered one group). The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures banks, and credit unions are backed by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).

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How to make sure your financial advisor is working in your best interest

(BPT) – Let’s face it: finances can be complicated. Whether opening a new investment account, saving for your child’s college fund or rolling over a 401(k), sometimes you need professional financial help.

But who to turn to? A financial advisor can be a great resource for professional guidance so that you’re not making critical investment decisions on your own, but did you know that not all financial advisors are equal? Some financial advisors may be little more than salespeople trying to sell you investment products that may or may not be in your best interest, but earn them a hefty commission.

If you’re looking for an advisor who truly has your back, you need to work with what is called a “fiduciary.” As a fiduciary, your advisor is legally required to place your interests ahead of their own.

It can be difficult to know who to trust — especially when advisors misrepresent their services with carefully crafted wording that gives the appearance of being a fiduciary, even when they are not. According to a recent survey from Financial Engines, America’s largest independent investment advisor, 53 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that financial advisors are already legally required to put their clients’ best interest first. Only 50 percent of investors who work with a financial advisor are certain that their advisor is a fiduciary, while 38 percent don’t know if their advisor is a fiduciary or not.

Most investors aren’t aware of how their advisors get paid and that advisors may not always be acting in their client’s sole best interest. For example, some advisors may recommend clients invest in funds or services that provide the advisor with a commission. Sometimes doing so is mutually beneficial for both the investor and the advisor. But other times, the investor may end up with higher or unnecessary fees and it’s the advisor who comes out on top.

So how can you tell if a potential or current advisor is a fiduciary? Here are a few key questions to ask before making a decision to work with them:

* Are you a fiduciary? A direct question deserves a direct answer. Pay attention to how the advisor responds. If your advisor has told you that he or she is acting as a fiduciary, ask them to show that to you in writing.

* Do you receive any type of compensation in addition to what I’m paying you? Some advisors receive commissions or other product-based compensation when they steer clients into particular investment products (including mutual funds, annuities and variable annuities). This is a clear conflict of interest and can indicate that the advisor is not, in fact, a fiduciary. Make sure your advisor is providing unbiased advice and not simply selling you investment products.

* Are you “dual-registered”? Some advisors are registered as both investment advisors and broker-dealers. Often, a broker-dealer is acting in the role of a salesperson. If your advisor is also a broker-dealer, make sure you understand which hat they are wearing when providing advice to you.

* Have you ever been cited by a professional or regulatory body for disciplinary reasons? To be extra sure, you can look up the advisor’s records on FINRA’s BrokerCheck to find out if they have any complaints — especially complaints related to providing financial and advisory services.

As your finances become more complex, you may consider getting help from a financial professional. Make sure your advisor is required to act in your best interest as a fiduciary before you trust them with your hard-earned money. By asking the right questions, you can confidently navigate the process and choose an advisor who is right for you.

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Crunching dollars and planning weddings: How to financially plan for the big day

(BPT) – Attending most weddings, with the exception of your creepy uncle’s third marriage, is great. You eat free food, get to dance to music and leave without having to take part in the cleanup or the costs.

It gets a little different when you’re the one footing the bill. Then you’re confronted with 127 different invitation styles, a guest list that keeps growing and awkward phone calls to cousins to tell them they can’t bring their bratty 7-year old twins.

Falling in love might have been easy and making the decision to spend the rest of your life together was probably a no-brainer. However, celebrating your love and funneling all that joy into one beautiful ceremony and one memorable party is where things get a little more complicated.

As a leader in creating credit scoring models and educating consumers on credit, VantageScore Solutions shares how important it is for couples to agree on how to manage their finances.

So let’s get into it and look at some of the financial topics you and your partner should go over.

Paying for your wedding

No doubt how to pay for your dream wedding will be one of the first conversations you’ll have with your loved one. Some people have months, sometimes even more than a year to plan and save up for the big day. Other times you may need to make a deposit or pay for something upfront and you might not have the cash to do it.

This is when you reach for your credit card.

Even if you don’t plan to use a credit card, it’s more than likely you’ll have to put some things on credit. This might include just about anything you purchase online, from the cute decorations you find on Etsy or novelty gifts you find on Amazon. In addition, many venues require you to have a credit card on file.

The point is, it’s likely that at some point you’ll use credit to pay for your wedding. When you do this, both you and your partner need to be aware of the potential perils of racking up debt. Provided you can responsibly manage the debt and have a plan to do so, your credit score won’t decline, which can lead to more purchasing opportunities in the future.

But first, you need to talk about credit with your partner.

The talk

Talking about credit might not exactly be a champagne and strawberries moment, but it is probably one of the most important discussions you can have.

Because it might be hard to get started on this topic, many couples find it’s easier to start by taking The Credit Score Quiz. This 12-question quiz is easy to take and can do a lot to reveal the knowledge gaps you and your partner may need to fill.

While the quiz is a great way to get started, resources like The Score, a monthly newsletter from VantageScore Solutions that covers all things credit, can help you continue on your conversation and guide you on your journey.

So while you’re debating what shade of off-white is right for your invitations, take the time to talk and use these credit-related resources. After the big day has come and gone, you’ll be glad that together, both of you were smart about your finances.

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How savvy Wi-Fi use saves data and dollars

(BPT) – Access to cellular data has become the lifeblood of communications in the 21st century. We stay connected to keep up with news, weather and sports, listen to music, check email, watch movies and videos or grab new apps that let us do even more. With today’s technology, a few clicks on your smartphone screen can bring the whole world into the palm of your hand.

This is great news for cellular providers, who ply us with increasingly large (and increasingly expensive) data packages to feed our modern need to surf and stream wherever we go. However, it may not be such great news when your cellphone bill arrives each month and you find yourself ponying up big bucks for cellular data.

So what’s the easiest way to stay connected without breaking the bank? Fortunately, the answer is now all around us.

Find the hotspots

Wi-Fi networks (“Wi-Fi” is short for wireless fidelity) are available just about anywhere you go these days, from hospitals to coffee shops to hotels to department stores. By connecting to Wi-Fi, it’s possible to stay connected all day long without using any of your cellular data. With rare exceptions, it’s completely free.

Wi-Fi technology allows you to connect smartphones, laptops or tablets to the internet through a communal access point, or “hotspot.” The resulting data usage is not occurring on your mobile network, meaning it does not count against the data on your cellphone plan.

It’s easy to connect to Wi-Fi by turning it on in your smartphone’s settings. By leaving it on, your phone will always be searching for a strong Wi-Fi signal, and will either connect automatically or alert you to sign-in if an available network is password protected.

More speed, more power

There are other advantages. In many cases, the speed of a strong, dedicated Wi-Fi connection will actually be faster than your cellular network. The difference might not be that obvious if you are only reading email or checking out a web page, but it is very noticeable if you need to transfer larger files.

In addition, using Wi-Fi can make a difference in extending your device’s battery life. The further you are from a cellular tower, the more energy you need for that data signal to be of any use. Wi-Fi access points are typically much closer, and therefore use less power to communicate and transfer data.

An essential “Plan B”

While hotspots are now quite common, you’ll still find yourself in locations where Wi-Fi simply isn’t accessible, especially when you’re traveling. That’s why having an adequate cellular data plan is still a necessity, even if you’re using it very little.

How much data do you really need? After you’ve started using Wi-Fi on a regular basis, take a look at your monthly cellphone bill. Compare the amount of data your plan offers to the amount you actually use. The average consumer uses about 1.8 gigabytes (GB) of data each month, which is far less than what’s included in most standard cellphone plans.

Don’t pay for more than you need

Today, many carriers tout the advantages of having “unlimited” data. The reality is that most people will never need it. See if your carrier offers a plan that’s better aligned with your actual usage, and if so, find out if it’s easy to switch.

If not, look to carriers like Consumer Cellular, who specialize in providing smaller, more affordable data plan options along with the flexibility to switch plans from month-to-month with no additional fees. This gives you the freedom to adjust your data plan to fit your specific needs, rather than paying for more than you’re likely to use.

Regularly connecting to Wi-Fi lets you preserve your cellular data for those situations when you really need it. Perhaps more importantly, it can help you save significantly on your monthly cellphone bill. It is a great way to enjoy the best of both worlds.

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