House hunting and credit: What you need to know

(BPT) – By now it is something of a cliche to call homeownership the American dream. But even if sitting on your own deck, looking over your picket fence and sipping lemonade doesn’t move you, homeownership is still one of the best ways to build wealth.

For many, owning a home is cheaper than renting and, in the long run, the biggest investment they will ever make. It is also a practical financial move thanks to the fact that you’re likely building equity while getting a mortgage interest tax break.

So although it is perfectly fine to dream about backyard barbecues and the smell of fresh-cut grass, the path to owning your own home should also involve taking the time to do some financial sightseeing.

As a leader in creating credit scoring models, VantageScore Solutions has made it a priority to educate consumers on the important role a good credit history plays in buying a home.

Whether you’re about to set out to buy your first home or if you are getting ready to sell and buy another home, here are the basics of how credit impacts the home-buying process.

Basics

If you are like most people, you will probably need to take out a loan. If you are able to pay cash for your home instead, count yourself among the lucky few!

A huge part of taking out a loan involves your credit history and credit score. Basically, you must prove to lenders that you can be a responsible borrower and can be trusted with a mortgage of many thousands of dollars. A strong credit score may provide proof of this trustworthiness.

Different types of loans have different credit requirements. Some loans require you to have a credit score of at least 620, although it is possible (with some difficulty) to be approved for a loan with a credit score as low as 580. But getting loan approval is only part of the story.

Better credit, better rate

Home loans come in all shapes and sizes. Some are fixed interest mortgages, some have adjustable rates or longer terms and the list of variables goes on. Just like anything else, some loans are better for you than others. To get the loan that has the lowest interest rate, which right now is around 4 percent, usually requires a higher credit score. Rates can be considerably higher when you have a lower credit score, and the result is paying significantly more monthly over the life of the loan.

The reason is that a higher credit score demonstrates that you are skilled at managing debt and have a history of responsibly paying back many types of loans. Therefore, the lender is taking on less risk when lending you money. The less risk for them, the better the interest rate for you.

While there are, of course, more nuances to the process, your credit score plays an instrumental role in determining the type of loan you may qualify for. Therefore, before you go to your first open house, check your credit score to better understand the factors that typically impact your scores. Many websites provide free access to your VantageScore, which is a perfectly fine barometer to use to directionally gauge your creditworthiness. Mortgage lenders use FICO scores in their underwriting.

You can stay on top of things by subscribing to the monthly credit scoring newsletter, The Score. In The Score, you can find information on VantageScore 4.0, the fourth-generation scoring model that will be available to consumers in early 2018.

Knowing your credit history and understanding the factors that could impact your credit score will help you plan, budget and come up with a realistic wish list for your house.

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How to save on healthcare costs in 2018

(BPT) – (BPT) – Your cable bill, entertainment expenses, grocery extras — these often top the list when people sit down to discuss where they can save money.

One expense you should consider in 2018 is your healthcare costs. Since autumn marks the beginning of the annual open enrollment period for employees, now is the ideal time to sign up for a new health benefit plan or make adjustments to your current plan.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) are two options for people looking to save money pre-tax in the New Year. An FSA, which is provided by your employer, allows you to save funds for eligible healthcare expenses. An HSA — which you can obtain on your own or through your employer — is a tax-advantaged savings account that allows you to set aside money to cover medical expenses throughout your lifetime.

Both accounts have the major advantage that the full amount of your pre-tax dollars may be used toward care that you or your family may need. Employees who enroll in an FSA can contribute a portion of their salary pre-tax to pay for qualified medical care expenses within the plan year, while an HSA provides people with qualifying high-deductible health plans the ability to rollover balances and pay for current and future medical expenses.

Awareness and interest in HSAs has increased this year, with the highest levels of interest stemming from Millennials and Gen Xers, according to the 2017 Flexible Spending Account and Health Savings Account Consumer Research study commissioned by Visa and conducted by C+R Research. This nationwide online research was conducted in March 2017, with the FSA survey conducted among 1,306 consumers and the HSA survey conducted among 1,090 consumers.

Key features of HSAs that are most appealing to consumers include the ability to roll over unused dollars from year to year, pre-tax contributions, and having money available to pay for healthcare services.

The study indicates that 91 percent of FSA users agree that saving money, since contributions are pre-tax, tops their list of reasons for having an FSA. Sixty-four percent of FSA users believe that FSAs help them be more prepared and plan for healthcare expenses. In fact, 22 percent of their healthcare purchases (most notably routine doctor visits and vision expenses) on average would not be made if they didn’t have an FSA.

One of the most convenient ways to access funds in an HSA or FSA is with a Visa Healthcare Card, which allows people to use funds in their HSA or FSA to pay for qualified medical expenses wherever Visa debit cards are accepted, making it easy to pay for expenses such as:

*Co-pays and deductibles

*Prescriptions

*Dental services: Cleanings, orthodontia, dentures

*Physical exams

*Vision care, including exams, new glasses, laser eye surgery

*Hearing exams and aids

*Medical equipment such as blood pressure monitors, thermometers

*Smoking cessation programs

For added convenience, many pharmacies, grocery stores and other retailers that sell healthcare products have the capability to distinguish between covered items and non-covered items when you pay for them, so you don’t have to wonder whether something is covered.

By using a Visa Healthcare Card at these locations, you no longer have to pay out-of-pocket and then submit receipts to be reimbursed for your medical expenses, saving you time and money!

These are all great reasons why 80 percent of FSA users surveyed prefer to access their funds with their FSA card over other methods, and why 76 percent of HSA users surveyed say a debit card linked to an HSA makes paying for medical expenses convenient. As you review your options this open enrollment season, ask your employer if it offers an HSA or FSA with a Visa Healthcare Card to provide easy access to your funds. To learn more, visit www.visahealthcare.com.

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5 unexpected ways life insurance protects your loved ones

(BPT) – More than half of Americans who own life insurance say they purchased it primarily to cover final expenses if something happens to them, according to the 2016 Life Insurance Barometer study. Yet one in four also say they don’t think they have enough life insurance — and the mistaken assumption that life insurance is just for paying final expenses could explain why so many are underinsured.

While survivors certainly can use life insurance benefits to pay final costs, or to help replace lost income, life insurance proceeds can also fund other important financial objectives. Many of those goals cost far more than covering end-of-life expenses.

Here are five financial goals that life insurance can help fund for your loved ones after you’re gone:

Raising children

Raising a child born in 2015 to age 17 will cost a family more than $284,570 for basics like food, shelter and other necessities, according to the USDA and data from its Consumer Expenditures Survey. That figure does not include college tuition. Costs for special needs children can be even higher.

“Life is hard enough when you lose someone you care about, and financial stuff doesn’t make it any easier,” says Ryan McNany, whose mother, Mickey, passed away from colon cancer. McNany’s daughter, Mary, has Down syndrome, and had a special relationship with her grandmother. Their story is featured in Prudential Life Insurance’s Masterpiece of Love video series.

“Mom didn’t have a lot of life insurance, but what a gift to be able to have some insurance to help ease the burden,” McNany says. “I’m grateful that Mom had a little bit.”

College education

A four-year college degree can cost more than $100,000 for tuition only, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Factor in food, books, housing, transportation and other expenses and it’s easy to understand why the Institute for College Access and Success says that seven in 10 college seniors graduate with more than $30,000 in student loan debt.

Life insurance proceeds can help fund college educations, even if college is many years in the future for the child. Beneficiaries can invest life insurance payouts in tax-advantaged college savings accounts to ensure funds will be available when the child is ready for college.

Retirement income

The average cost of retirement is more than $780,000, the Motley Fool reports. Retirees with health issues, disabilities or high standards of living may need even more. According to the National Council on Aging, money challenges are common among retirees; 2.9 million senior households suffer from food insecurity, more than a third still owe money on a mortgage, and more than 61 percent have some form of debt.

Life insurance proceeds can pay off mortgages and other commitments to allow senior survivors to live debt-free, and can be invested in tax-advantaged retirement savings vehicles to help ensure retirement income.

Business continuity

After receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Dawn Fitch knew she needed to protect the future of her bath products company. Fitch had lost her own father, a lifelong entrepreneur, after a lengthy illness. She knew firsthand the impact such a loss can have on a business’s ability to continue operating and supporting surviving family members.

“People have invested time, money, energy into this business and into me, so I feel a responsibility to make it work,” says Fitch, whose story is featured in Masterpiece of Love. “I need to really make sure that this business, if I’m not here or if I can’t do anything, can run independent of me. Life insurance is peace of mind, and life insurance will help me take care of my family if I’m not here.”

Leaving a legacy

When he was just 10 years old, Hal Williams lost his father to a heart attack. “My mother was still working and my father’s little bit of life insurance helped keep food on the table, a roof over our heads and us going,” recalls the host of the Masterpieces of Love series. “When I had my own family, having plenty of life insurance for all of us was of singular importance.”

Williams’ loss of his father at such an early age, and the security life insurance helped bring his family, inspired his role in the video series.

Life insurance benefits can leave a legacy for survivors, whether it’s helping provide basic financial security, pay for college, start a business or fulfill a dream. To learn more about life insurance and to view more inspiring stories, visit https://www.prudential.com/thedrisin.

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How to lower your monthly mortgage payment

(BPT) – Owning your own home comes with many advantages, including escaping rising rents and the personal and financial stability associated with homeownership. Fortunately, millions of Americans, with less than 20 percent down, have been able to buy a home sooner thanks to mortgage insurance (MI). If you don’t put down 20 percent of the mortgage cost, you will likely be required to purchase MI, which enables low-down-payment borrowers to qualify for home financing from lenders.

While homeownership has many benefits and continues to be part of the American Dream, it is not without costs. Several surveys have found that the majority of first-time homebuyers — over 80 percent according to one study — put less than 20 percent down. For these borrowers, there is usually the added expense of MI, which may give some of these borrowers pause.

But there is good news: the monthly private mortgage insurance premiums do not last forever on most conventional loans. And when private MI (PMI) cancels, homeowners will have more cash in their pockets each month — money that is available for home improvements or other goals. It is important to understand, however, that not all MI is the same, and not all MI can be canceled.

There are numerous low-down-payment mortgage options available that include MI. The two most common are: (1) home loans backed 100 percent by the government through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that include both an upfront and annual mortgage insurance premium (MIP); and (2) conventional loans, which are typically backed at least in part by private sources of capital, such as private MI. The key difference is that one form can be canceled (PMI) while the other (FHA) typically cannot be canceled.

An FHA loan can be obtained with a down payment as low as 3.5 percent. However, be aware that you will typically have to pay a mortgage insurance premium (MIP) of 1.75 percent of the total loan amount at closing or have it financed into the mortgage. In addition to your regular monthly mortgage payments on your FHA loan, you will also pay a fixed monthly MIP fee for the life of the loan. This means you could pay hundreds of dollars extra every month — thousands over the life of the loan — until you pay off the entirety of the loan.

If you obtain a conventional loan with PMI, you can put as little as 3 percent down. Like an FHA loan, PMI fees are generally factored into your monthly mortgage payment. However, PMI can often be canceled once you have established 20 percent equity in the home and/or the principal balance of the mortgage is scheduled to reach 78 percent of the home’s original value. This means that the rest of your mortgage payments will not include any extra fees, so that your payments go down in time, saving you money each month. What you save in the long run can then be put toward expenses like home renovations, which can further increase your home’s value.

MI is a good thing because it bridges the divide between a low down payment and mortgage approval. But not all MI is created equal. If you want to buy a home but still save in the long run, PMI might be the right option for you. Check out lowdownpaymentfacts.org to learn more.

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Keeping up with the digital natives [Video]

(BPT) – The Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report explores timely mobile trends and forward-looking consumer behaviors that increasingly impact our everyday lives. The report includes the youngest generation — Generation Z — to better understand the future of mobile and the next era of banking. Head of Digital Banking Michelle Moore highlights key findings in this video.

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3 steps to help freelancers and gig economy workers avoid a tax blunder

(BPT) – More and more people are earning extra cash by freelancing in the sharing economy. That may mean writing on the side, playing music on the weekends, driving for ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft or selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. No matter how the money flows in, gig economy earners must be aware of the related tax obligations and potential pitfalls.

“While it’s easier now than ever to earn extra cash, it’s important for freelancers and independent contractors to get smart about their tax responsibilities,” said Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct, a leading provider of affordable do-it-yourself tax software. “Gig economy earners must remember they are responsible for paying federal and state income tax on any income earned. And, they’re also subject to self-employment tax, to cover Social Security and Medicare taxes.”

If you’re one of the 55 million Americans who chooses to freelance, it can be difficult to correctly calculate and report to the IRS how much tax you owe. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Enrolled Agents found that, “independent contractors participating in the gig economy were cited as among those most at risk of failing to accurately report all of their income.”

Taxpayers who miscalculate taxes owed are likely to get a form called a CP2000 from the IRS. According to the agency, that form means, “the income and/or payment information the IRS has on file doesn’t match the information on your tax return.” That could result in issues with your tax bill.

Jaeger said the best way for gig economy workers to avoid a tax misstep is to be diligent and plan ahead now. He provided the following tips to help freelancers get on track so they’re ready to tackle taxes head-on this tax season.

1. Get organized

Whether you work full time and earn a little extra cash from a side hustle or you’re a full-time contractor, meticulous record-keeping is a must. One option is to keep track of all business expenses and related receipts in one large folder. Jaeger recommends taking that one step further by categorizing receipts into specific folders — for example, one folder for mileage and maintenance records, a second for rent or dues if you lease a workspace, and a third for office equipment and business-related equipment. Once a quarter, as you determine what you’ll owe for quarterly tax payments, make note of which of those receipts are deductible.

2. Keep track of your income

When you’re freelancing, you’re your own accounting department. Not only are you responsible for generating invoices and collecting payment, you must also keep track of all income earned and accurately report it to the IRS. That can get complicated when multiple income streams are at play.

For example, gig economy workers who make money freelancing for multiple clients while also moonlighting as an Uber or Lyft driver should track all income and expenses separately. That means keeping accurate records of any money paid directly by clients and keeping track of income reported on documents such as Forms 1099-MISC and 1099-K. These forms are issued when self-employment income exceeds $600 (1099-MISC) and when a contractor is paid through credit- and debit-card payment processors (1099-K). Come tax time, fill out a Schedule C for every company or client who has paid you to report all of the income you earned.

3. Make estimated tax payments

The IRS requires independent contractors to file and pay taxes on a quarterly basis, even if you anticipate getting a refund at the end of the tax year. Use a tax calculator to help determine whether you should make estimated tax payments. You can also use Worksheet 2.1 in IRS Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, to figure out whether you must pay estimated tax. Whatever method you choose, make sure you calculate adjusted gross income, taxable income, taxes, deductions and credits.

As a rule of thumb, if you will owe at least $1,000 in taxes, you should plan to pay estimated taxes during the current tax year. Jaeger added, “If you owe estimated quarterly payments but don’t pay them in full, you could face an underpayment penalty by the IRS.”

Earning extra money from your freelance work or side gig may not make you feel like you’re self-employed, but in the eyes of the IRS, you are. By planning ahead, getting organized and doing your own taxes with an affordable online option such as TaxAct, you can avoid tax missteps and stay focused on what matters most: earning income on your own terms!

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Traveling soon? Tips to stay sharp and avoid fraud

(BPT) – If your suitcase is full, don’t worry — protecting yourself from fraud doesn’t mean more packing.

But it does mean you should prepare for the challenge of keeping your personal info safe. According to an Experian(R) survey, 20 percent of respondents had sensitive information like credit or debit cards, personal identification or smartphones stolen while on vacation. “As you travel, your exposure to risk can expand,” says Chip Kohlweiler, vice president of security at Navy Federal Credit Union. “Before you head out, ensure your financial institution is up to date with your contact information. This will minimize disruptions in service, and you can leverage travel notifications and card freeze/unfreeze features,” he adds.

Fraudsters are waiting for you to slip into cruise control, so being alert can save you stress — and money. But when do you need to be on your toes and when can you kick back and relax? Let’s walk through a few travel checkpoints so you know where threats are lurking.

Travel planning

Window shopping for your perfect trip can ignite wanderlust. But keep your wits as you browse through destinations and travel offers online. You’ll want to be extra careful, especially if you plan to make a payment or provide personal information for bookings.

You’re probably using a phone, computer, tablet or combination of these to do your planning. Regardless of what device you’re on, you can use your travel savvy to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.

Watch out for:

* Offers for “free” trips, or travel prices that are too good to be true

* Fake travel websites

* Hidden costs in package deals — read the fine print!

* Requests for personal information

As with any online purchase, check the URL of the site you’re on. If you’re looking at a web page but the URL doesn’t match the site you had in mind, you could be looking at a fake site being run by a fraudster.

If your site checks out, read the fine print and know exactly what you’re signing up for before you enter any payment or personal info. Don’t hesitate to call and confirm any of the information you see. If the company or individual doesn’t offer a phone number, it’s probably not legit.

When it comes to calling, you should be doing the dialing. It’s illegal for companies to call you with an automated message if you haven’t given them written permission to do so. The voice recording that offers you a prize in exchange for your credit card could be trying to scam you.

While you’re traveling

You dodged the traps and booked your travel with ease. But the fraudsters haven’t called it quits, and neither should you. There are a few hot spots where you should stay alert, including:

* Airports

* Hotel lobbies

* Public hangouts (like coffee shops or popular tourist hubs)

Pickpocketing — one of the oldest scams in the book — is popular in these busy atmospheres. Avoid distractions that take your focus away from your belongings. Remember, your personal space is exactly that — personal!

Protecting your digital information is just as important as your physical space. High-traffic areas may offer public Wi-Fi. These networks are an easy access point for cybercriminals. Some fraudsters even create their own hot spots and name them based on the location.

“The last thing you should do is access your bank account or any sensitive account on a public network,” says Kohlweiler. Data on your phone becomes available to a criminal when you connect to these public networks. Your best course of action is to keep your phone or tablet stowed away until you can jump on a password-protected network, like in your hotel room.

Partner with a sidekick

The good news is you’re not in this alone. There are services and resources out there to make fraud protection easier. For instance, as a Navy Federal member, you can call or go online to set up a travel notification. You can also request account info via text. Tools like these can put you one step ahead of the criminals. If you are a victim of fraud, we have a team dedicated to resolving these issues, too.

When you return home, be sure to get in touch with a representative to check in. It never hurts to have two sets of eyes reviewing your account after a big trip.

If you’re planning to travel, do your research and remember to pack your fraud protections. And make security tools, like the ones available through Navy Federal, your travel buddy.

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Debunking home ownership myths for millennials

(BPT) – We’ve all been told, that owning a home is part of the American dream. It’s the biggest and most rewarding investment many people will make in their lives. Instead of paying rent every month and having nothing to show for it, paying a monthly mortgage builds equity and wealth.

While most know the benefits of owning a home, for many millennials and young people, it can seem like a distant prospect. In fact, while 52 percent of millennials say they no longer want to pay rent, only 18 percent think they can afford a new home, according to a recent survey conducted by loanDepot.

What is the source of this disparity? There are many reasons, but part of the problem is a vast majority of young people think there is only one way to buy a home, or that certain strict criteria has to be met to qualify for a loan.

There are many myths surrounding home ownership. Let’s break some of them down.

Misconceptions about the down payment

Many believe a down payment is the biggest obstacle that stands between them and home ownership. The accepted wisdom is that 20 percent of the home’s value is needed to make the down payment. This can be a rather substantial sum. Of those surveyed, 63 percent of people think they can’t afford a down payment; 43 percent believe poor credit history would prevent them from entering the housing market and 38 percent worry that too much existing debt would prevent them from doing so.

The truth is, a down payment can be as little as 10, 5, or even 3 percent. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to access these loan options. Rather than simply doing an online search, you should take a few minutes to explore your options and talk to a loan expert at loanDepot to fully explore what kinds of mortgages are available.

Student loans don’t have to be a barrier

One of the biggest sources of financial stress for millennials is the amount of student debt they carry. The effects of this debt can be paralyzing, and many believe they first need to pay off their loans before they can even think about owning a home.

The good news is that Fannie Mae recently announced several policy changes designed to help those with student debt qualify for home loans. Other lenders, like loanDepot, have special programs designed to help those with specific types of student loans, or even 40-year mortgage loan programs that have a 10-year interest-only initial repayment period, which can help borrowers tackle their student loan debt while they make lower mortgage payments.

Streamline the process with technology

So where do you start? How can home seekers find the loan that’s right for them?

Many millennials think getting a mortgage is a complicated maze. But with loanDepot’s proprietary digital lending platform, future homeowners have access to a web-based consumer portal that provides a fully digital mortgage loan application experience. With these features, as well as access to licensed loan consultants in 180+ retail locations, homebuyers have the ability to explore options they may have never thought existed, and to find the home loan that fits their budget to buy the home of their dreams.

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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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