Picking a health insurance plan? Prepare for the unexpected

(BPT) – As many Americans know, fall is the season when we must select our health benefits for the upcoming year. Choosing a health plan can be a daunting task, but selecting the right coverage protects you and your family’s general health needs and can prepare you for an unexpected medical crisis. While no one plans on receiving a blood cancer diagnosis, for example, an estimated 173,000 Americans were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma in 2017. As there are no means of preventing or early screening for most blood cancers, a diagnosis can often appear without warning. Well-planned health insurance coverage can make an important difference in how patients can fare in fighting the disease.

This year’s open enrollment season, which runs approximately from October to December, is your opportunity to consider your health benefits and plan ahead. With the cost of care for major health events and severe illnesses increasing every year, you will want to select a health plan that ensures you and your family are prepared in the case of a health emergency. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) offers three tips to consider when selecting your 2018 health plan.

Compare physician and hospital networks: Be diligent when choosing a plan. While it is important to compare plan prices, including co-payments, deductibles and premiums, it is equally important that your primary care doctor and any specialists you visit are part of the plan’s network. Not all plans cover every doctor, hospital or comprehensive cancer center near you, so review the plan’s network list carefully. You also can call your doctors and hospitals to ask if they are in the plan’s network. If your spouse or children are on your plan, you will need to consider their physicians as well.

Prepare for the unexpected: No one expects to receive a serious diagnosis like blood cancer, but it helps to be prepared. The cost of cancer care is rising at an alarming rate and these costs include more than drugs and doctor visits. From diagnostic tests to hospitalizations to special home health equipment, there are many hidden costs to having a serious illness. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Russell Research on behalf of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society found that 84 percent of adults are not sure how they would cover all medical costs if they were diagnosed with cancer. That’s why it’s important to ensure that you have the coverage you’ll need at an affordable cost.

Pay close attention to the numbers: As you evaluate your coverage options — whether through an employer, Medicare, spouse or your parents — it’s important to estimate your health care costs for the following year carefully. Understand what your deductible and co-pays will be and take stock of where coinsurance will be required; review your health bills from the previous year to guide your choice, but make sure you are covered for unexpected health issues as well.

If you purchase health insurance from the federal or state marketplace, the plans you are offered will depend on your location and income. It is very important to make sure your personal information is accurate and up-to-date on the federal website, HealthCare.gov, or on your state’s website. Depending on your income, you could qualify to save on your insurance through advance premium tax credits. In fact, 8 out of 10 people who purchase insurance through the marketplace are eligible for lower premiums. Open enrollment in the marketplace will run this year from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15.

If you or a family member had or has cancer, or are at risk for cancer, there is a checklist available at www.cancerinsurancechecklist.org that can help you choose the right plan when shopping on the health insurance marketplace. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society also provides free information and resources about health insurance coverage for people living with cancer at www.lls.org.

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Paving the way to college: 4 things parents need to know

(BPT) – Senior year: It’s a time to finish college applications, solidify friendships and look forward to the freedom and the responsibility that come once that final bell rings. A lot of feelings surface during that final year, especially for parents. While your son or daughter might be overjoyed to finally fly the coop and live independently, you’ll probably be dealing with your own mix of emotions, and you’ll want to be sure they’re ready to begin college in the fall.

For families with a child headed to college, senior year is best thought of as a transition year. Plan ahead to make sure your family stays on track.

To help you and your child with a successful transition, here’s the essential list of landmarks on the road that will take your child from a senior in high school to a freshman in college.

1. Apply yourself in the fall

The journey to college begins early, and by the fall of senior year in high school, your child should be in full transition mode. They should be finishing campus visits and finalizing the list of colleges where they want to apply. Make sure they’ve spoken with admission counselors, thoroughly researched schools they’re interested in and have everything they need to complete their college applications.

Keep tabs on important deadlines and stay organized to avoid missing any critical due dates. For example, will they want to apply early decision or early action? If so, make sure you have weighed how this could impact your financial plan for college.

2. Focus on financial aid from the start

For many parents, one of the biggest anxieties around college is the cost. Don’t forget that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on Oct. 1, and some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you submit the form as soon as it’s available.

Because everyone has different needs, figuring out how to finance your child’s education requires some research.

At College Ave Student Loans, you can find private loan options for parents and students. Even if you’re not ready to take a loan out yet, parents and students can try out the fast and easy pre-qualification tools to find out if their credit pre-qualifies for a loan, and what interest rates they could expect, all without impacting their credit scores. Calculators are also available to help you explore your options and see how you can customize the loan payments to fit your budget.

3. Spring time is decision time

Early in the spring, your child will start to receive their first acceptance letters. Once they’ve heard from all of the schools where they applied, they’ll have a big decision to make.

They need to do more than just decide which school to attend; they’ll also need to send in a deposit, complete their housing form and accept financial aid packages.

A crucial step in this process is comparing award letters from the colleges where your child has been accepted. In reading these letters, pay close attention to how schools list the total costs. For instance, some schools will subtract the awarded loan amount from the total cost of attendance, while others will not. This could make the net cost of some schools appear less than others when in reality they are not, so take your time reading the documents.

4. Tie up everything in the summer

Before they head to campus, you and your children should create a budget to keep tabs on college bills. This will help you to stay on track financially and set the right expectations about how they need to manage their money.

You can help your soon-to-be freshman by working with them to outline a monthly budget that will take into account expected and unexpected expenses. Take a look at their financial aid packages and any income they might be earning and block out the monthly mandatory expenses. Then decide how much money they can spend on things like entertainment.

If you find that scholarships, grants and federal aid don’t cover everything, private loans could be one solution for some college-bound students.

For parents and students, senior year is an exciting period. Knowing what steps to take and staying ahead of financial matters with useful tools like the ones at College Ave Student Loans can help make the transition easier for everyone.

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Easy ways to make your data, and your dollars, go further

(BPT) – Wireless providers would love for you to believe that a modern lifestyle requires an endless, unlimited stream of data; and by the way, they’d love to sell it to you! On its face, there’s probably nothing wrong with this assumption. Just think about how much of your day is spent on data-dependent activities, like streaming video or music, searching the internet or using GPS on your smartphone. They all require data, in some form, to deliver what you need.

But in our fast-paced, plugged-in world, don’t lose sight of the fact that all of these things can actually be done while using far less, and sometimes even none, of the data from your cellular plan. This means that in just a few simple steps, you can save considerable money each and every month. Here’s how:

Tame the video beast

The convenience of watching video on your smartphone can sometimes obscure an important fact: it’s a data glutton. For example, viewing a full-length movie on Netflix consumes about 1GB of data per hour in standard definition video, and up to 3GB per hour in high definition. At that rate, you’ll burn through even the most robust data package in no time.

Try connecting to Wi-Fi instead. It’s widely available, and lets you stream without using any cellular data at all, often with a faster connection. While connected to Wi-Fi, you can also download videos, TV shows or movies to your phone or SD card to watch anytime at your convenience, with no data required.

In addition, when you’re streaming video on a small screen, such as a cellphone, you really don’t need high resolution. Many apps give you the ability to change video quality settings, and therefore consume less data. For Netflix, log into your account and switch to one of three settings: low (using 0.3GB per hour), medium (which uses 0.7GB per hour) or high (using up to 3GB per hour). In the YouTube app, just tap the three-dots menu and click “Quality” to lower it.

Manage social media and streaming music

Videos have also become a standard part of the social media experience. Adjusting your settings to prevent videos from playing automatically will prevent them from eating up your data. The steps to change this setting can vary between applications. On most platforms, like Facebook, you’ll go to your Account Settings and either disable the “Autoplay” feature entirely, or change it so that videos will only play automatically when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

All of the popular audio streaming apps offer ways to listen to your music without having to use a network connection, or even Wi-Fi. Spotify lets you download your albums and playlists right to your device. If you use Apple Music, you can add songs, albums and playlists to your library. With Google Play Music, you can download everything: songs, albums, playlists and even radio stations.

Try a smaller plan for bigger savings

By managing data effectively, you can save money by choosing smaller, less expensive data plans. Consumer Cellular, for instance, offers no-contract monthly plans ranging from 250MB to 10GB, for $5 to $40 per month. That’s far less than most “unlimited” options, and you also get the flexibility to change your plan as needed with no extra charges.

Also, be sure to take advantage of Usage Alerts, which most carriers provide for free. On an Android device, you can do this by going to your device settings, and then tapping the data usage option. Simply turn on “Alert me about data usage” to receive notifications about how much data you are consuming.

Follow these tips and you’ll enjoy streaming movies, listening to music and so much more while also keeping money in your pocket for things other than a colossal data plan. You can truly have it all, without needing an unlimited budget to do it.

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Gig worker gains: Are you grabbing the best possible tax relief?

(BPT) – If you earn all or part of your income these days from freelance or contract work, you’re far from alone.

A CNN report this year estimates some 34 percent of the U.S. workforce is now part of the so-called gig economy, a segment expected to reach 43 percent — representing some 7.7 million workers — by 2020.

The gig workforce includes people paid per task through companies such as Uber and Lyft and those paid per project in more traditional roles such as writer, tutor, entertainer, carpenter or electrician. Some freelance by preference, enjoying the sense of freedom that comes with being their own bosses. Others become gig workers because they can’t find other work. And a certain portion holds down a part-time gig in addition to a steadier job so they can gain extra income or experience.

Because the surge in gig work is relatively new, however, many remain unsure how to maximize the multiple tax breaks available to freelancers. If you’re among them, user-friendly, online tax preparation software available through TaxAct can tell you everything you need to know about maximizing your gig income when tax time rolls around — regardless of your freelance profession. For example, did you know the following expenses are tax deductible?

* Home office and utility costs: Even if you only use a corner of your dining room as your work space, you can count that area as a deduction. Opting for the Simplified Home Office Deduction (instead of the regular deduction) lets you deduct $5 per square foot, with a 300-foot cap, of any portion of your home used exclusively for business. Conversely, the regular-deduction method allows a more specific professional-space deduction while also allowing you to write off the portion of your electricity, gas, cable and cell phone bills pertaining to your business. Further, under either method, a portion of your mortgage interest and real estate taxes could also be deductible under Schedule A guidelines.

* Website expenses: Many savvy freelancers invest in their own websites to further their self-employment. Related fees are all deductible, including anything spent over the last year on domain rights, design, building and maintenance.

* Equipment and supply costs: Save your receipts! If you’ve never taken time to identify and list the costs of doing business, you may be surprised how quickly they can add up in the form of a tax benefit. You can deduct all expenses related to purchasing computers, software (including standard programs such as Microsoft Office), printers, cameras and supplies, pens and paper as well as any other equipment needed to complete your work effectively.

* Professional development fees: Conferences, seminars and other educational opportunities that relate to your freelance career are all deductible. The same goes for travel and accommodations for business-related events and half the cost of your business-related meals. Are you networking through your local trade group or business association? Good news: Dues and membership fees associated with professional organizations also qualify as deductions.

* Unpaid invoices: One of the biggest thorns in freelancers’ sides can be unreasonable employers and/or disorganized accounts payable departments that don’t pay up in a timely manner. Unpaid invoices can be hugely problematic when you’re trying to stay on top of your expenses. Fortunately the IRS has sympathy for such woes. If you previously recorded the invoice as income, you can likely deduct the amount you weren’t paid as a bad debt.

Have more specific questions about your tax benefits as a freelancer? TaxAct has the answers. Let us demystify the complexity of your taxes so you can focus on maximizing your freelance income.

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An overlooked benefit to consider this open enrollment season

(BPT) –

Being a parent is a balancing act. You are constantly being pulled in different directions and it can be challenging managing all of the things you need to get done. Your company’s open enrollment period is a chance to take stock of what benefits your workplace offers that may be able to help you manage some of the issues you face.
One often overlooked benefit is a group legal plan, which provides access to a nationwide network of attorneys for help with personal legal issues for around $20 a month. Here are just a few reasons why a legal plan can be a valuable benefit for a parent:
It helps with the things keeping you up at night. Have you considered who would take care of your children if something happened to you or your spouse? Or what if someone in the family became disabled? Do you have financial and health care directives in place to protect your family? If you have kids, you need to have estate planning documents. A group legal plan covers the cost of drafting documents like wills and powers of attorney for you, your spouse and dependents.
It can help protect or restore your identity. Identity theft is on the rise, with child identity theft quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing identity theft crimes. Contacting creditors and other agencies to resolve an identity theft issue can be very time-consuming and costly. In fact, the average cost to resolve an identity theft issue, including legal fees, is around $1,300, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study cited by CSID. Access to identity theft assistance through a group legal plan connects you to experts who can do the work for you, saving you time and money.
It helps with buying or selling a home. Having children can mean having to move to a bigger house. There are numerous legal issues involved in buying or selling a home. Attorneys can review contracts, draft documents related to the purchase or sale, as well as attend the closing for you. A legal plan provides you with access to an attorney to guide you through the homebuying or selling process, taking away the stress of dealing with complicated paperwork and legal issues.
It can help with school-related issues. As your child enters school, there are many complicated issues he or she may face. Dealing with special needs requests, administrative hearings at school or even juvenile court for traffic infractions are all legal issues that can be difficult for most parents to maneuver without legal help. When you are enrolled in a legal plan, it’s similar to having an attorney on retainer. You can contact an attorney for any questions you have related to issues your children face throughout their school years.
Having access to affordable legal help through a group legal plan can help you navigate many of the issues you face as a parent. If your company offers this as a benefit at your work, it’s one to consider this open enrollment season.

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