What New Year’s resolution can you stick to and feel like you’re making a difference in the world?

(BPT) – This time of year, many Americans are setting (or already breaking) New Year’s resolutions focused on getting healthier, saving money, spending more time with friends and family, etc. These are great resolutions, but perhaps this year, you’re thinking about ways you can make a difference. Giving back by donating to a nonprofit can help you feel more connected to your community and more gratification in knowing your New Year’s resolution will have a lasting impact for someone else.

In many cases, however, starting the process of where to donate your hard-earned funds can be overwhelming. After all, the array of groups requesting donations is substantial and includes 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the U.S. alone.

In 2016, generous individuals donated a whopping $281.9 billion to U.S. nonprofits, a 4 percent increase from 2015. Because there are more than a million nonprofits to choose from, the decision of where to donate requires serious thought. When looking to donate, you should set some key criteria for choosing a group that means something to you. During that process, you should consider seeking answers to the following five questions:

1. Does the organization have a history of success? Take a good look at when it was founded, exactly how it has helped people and what it has accomplished to date. Do its achievements align with your ideas as to how the world can best be improved? Will this nonprofit have a real and lasting impact on a cause that you deeply care about?

2. Do its contributions appeal to you emotionally? Contributing to a specialized nonprofit that pulls at your heartstrings can be the most fulfilling option. As such, you should seek an organization that clearly communicates how your money will be spent and how it will help people in real, tangible ways. For example, for more than three decades The National Children’s Cancer Society (NCCS) has supported the families of nearly 42,000 children battling cancer, providing more than $65 million worth of transportation, emergency and emotional assistance, helping families stay strong, stay positive and stay together.

3. Can you easily find examples of individuals or families that have benefited from the organization? Actions speak louder than words. An organization may say how it helps others, but showing how it helps others is a proof point you should look for. Here’s an example of what you should be looking for. The NCCS was approached by a mother whose then 19-month-old daughter, Paisley, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Paisley spent several drawn-out months in the hospital, along with unexpected emergency room visits due to high fevers. Paisley’s mom, Paula, was a single mom spending enormous amounts of time caring for her daughter, and ultimately lost her job. Unemployed and with travel expenses quickly adding up, Paula almost lost her car. Paula was referred to the NCCS by her hospital social worker, and from there on out, the NCCS has been by Paula and Paisley’s side. Through the Emergency Assistance Fund and the Transportation Assistance Fund, NCCS helped Paula keep her car and pay for mileage expenses, ensuring that Paisley will get to each and every doctor’s appointment.

In another example, donations to the NCCS completely changed the lives of a family whose child has been struck three times by retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. Parents Daniel and Marian are blind, and two of their three children, now 5 and 9, have endured multiple treatments since having potentially fatal eye tumors removed as infants. NCCS has helped by funding transportation and lodging for appointments, allowing the children to receive medical evaluations and surveillance. As of now, the chance their cancer will return stands at only 5 percent.

4. Does it serve people beyond just funding? Multiple organizations can redistribute your money to support worthy causes, but you may prefer to find one that also assists people in more personal ways. NCCS, for example, equips families with skilled case managers who provide practical and emotional support to help parents and caregivers navigate throughout their daunting childhood cancer journeys. Further, youth 10 to 17 are offered emotional support by young-adult mentors who have already survived cancer.

5. Is it credible? Is the charity you’re looking to support accredited by the Better Business Bureau? That organization sets standards for charity accountability that include governance, fundraising practices, solicitations and more. While having an emotional tie to a charity is important, recognition by a comprehensive, in-depth evaluation service like the Better Business Bureau is imperative.

Families and the vast network of social workers who refer them know what they get with NCCS — a reliable, compassionate and transparent partner that truly understands the landscape of childhood cancer, and the mountains families need to move to come out the other side victorious. If you’re looking to make a lasting impact with your New Year’s resolution this year, consider donating to NCCS today.

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Common tax mistakes to avoid in 2018

(BPT) – Life changes — getting married, having a baby, buying or selling a home, sending a child off to college or retiring — often come with changes to your tax situation. Overlooking these changes when filing your taxes can lead taxpayers to make mistakes that leave money on the table, potentially impacting their refund at a time when the average refund is about $2,800. Here is a list of common tax mistakes to avoid in the 2018 filing season to help ensure you don’t miss any deductions or credits that you deserve.

Using the correct filing status

One of the most common mistakes taxpayers make is selecting the wrong filing status. A taxpayer’s filing status can affect which credits and deductions they’re eligible for, the value of their standard deduction and their tax bracket. One situation that can make choosing a filing status difficult is when more than one filing status seems to fit. For example, if a taxpayer with children is in the process of getting a divorce, they may not be sure if they should file as married filing jointly or married filing separately or, in some instances, whether they qualify to file as head of household. In this case, the taxpayers should run the numbers to see if filing jointly or separately is more to their advantage rather than guessing.

In addition, common clerical errors such as mixing up names, forgetting to include information reported on your W-2, 1099 or other forms, or even making mathematical errors can also affect your tax benefits.

Commonly overlooked credits and deductions

Most taxpayers file their taxes using the standard deduction, but you may be eligible for a variety of itemized deductions that could possibly save you more. Also, you may be eligible for “above-the-line” deductions and tax credits, none of which require you to itemize. And it’s important to note that the newly passed tax reform generally does not impact these credits or deductions until you file your 2018 tax return in 2019.

Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers:

Twenty percent of eligible taxpayers, particularly lower-income workers, do not claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Depending on their income and the number of children they have, these taxpayers may be eligible for an EITC of $503 to $6,242. Since eligibility can fluctuate based on financial, marital and parental status, taxpayers can be ineligible one year and eligible the next.

Under the PATH Act, taxpayers who claim the EITC and who file early will have their refunds delayed until mid-February. Despite the delay, taxpayers should file as they normally would to get their refund as soon as possible.

Education credits:

Depending on your academic program, what year the student is in, income and other restrictions, there are federal tax credits that can help offset the costs of higher education for yourself or your dependents. To qualify, you must pay for post-secondary tuition and fees for yourself, your spouse or your dependent. Depending on the criteria, a student may use the American Opportunity Credit of up to $2,500 or the Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000.

Itemizing deductions:

Itemizing can save taxpayers hundreds of dollars, as only one third of taxpayers itemize but millions more should — especially homeowners. Owning a home is often the key that unlocks itemization, but some taxpayers with high state taxes and charitable contributions may also be able to itemize.

Itemizing enables eligible taxpayers to take deductions such as:

* Charitable donations

* Medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income

* Personal property taxes

* State income or sales taxes

* Casualty losses such as a fire, hurricane or earthquake

* Mortgage interest payments

Not filing

On average, the IRS announces annually that approximately $1 billion goes unclaimed in federal tax refunds. Taxpayers can claim a refund for up to three years after the filing deadline. So, in addition to filing your 2017 return, keep in mind to file your 2015 return by April 17, 2018. If not, you will lose your 2015 refund. There is no late-filing penalty if a taxpayer is due a refund. Also, even if you are not required to file a return, you may be entitled to a refund.

Taxpayers who want to ensure they get the maximum refund without a delay should visit https://www.hrblock.com/offers/refund-advance/ to see if you are eligible for a Refund Advance, or you can make an appointment with a tax professional.

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Here’s how the tax reform plan could affect you

(BPT) – With the newly passed tax reform bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), now is the time to start thinking about how this will affect you so that you can plan ahead for the outcomes you will start to feel in your paycheck as early as February 2018.

This tax reform affects virtually everyone; however, families, homeowners, residents of high-tax states, the medically uninsured and small businesses will be especially affected. Most taxpayers will experience changes that could reduce or increase their taxes owed. If you’re not sure how this may affect you, here is a summary of possibilities.

Families

Like most taxpayers, many families will be affected by the loss of personal and dependent exemptions of $4,050 per person. However, families with income under $200,000 ($400,000 for joint filers) will be eligible for an increased child tax credit of $2,000. Those with income over that amount may be eligible for a smaller credit. This, along with larger standard deductions, may or may not make up for the loss of the personal exemption. Families with dependents over the age of 16 may also qualify for a new family tax credit of $500 for each dependent who does not qualify for the child tax credit.

Homeowners and residents of high-tax states

Homeowners and residents of high-tax states like California, New York and New Jersey, who typically itemize because they have large expenses like real estate taxes and state and local income taxes, may not be able to get the full tax benefit for these expenses, which are capped at $10,000. Some may not find it worthwhile to itemize going forward. Itemizing deductions is only worthwhile if all expenses exceed the standard deduction.

Medically uninsured

Starting in 2019, there will no longer be a penalty for those without health insurance. The penalty, which had become more and more expensive since first implemented in 2014, will not apply to taxpayers without insurance in 2019. Taxpayers who did not have insurance for all of 2017 and do not expect to be insured in 2018 need to make sure to talk to a tax professional, who can help you identify if you qualify for a penalty exemption.

Small-business owners

Some of the largest changes in the tax reform legislation apply to businesses, both large and small. These changes may also affect some rental activities. Corporations will see their top tax rate reduced to 21 percent from the current top rate of 35 percent, starting in 2018. Pass-through entities (LLCs, partnerships and S corporations) and self-employed individuals will be able to deduct 20 percent of their business income, subject to some limits (based on the type of business and income) and phase-outs (based on the partner’s/shareholder’s total income).

Retirement

Under the current law, taxpayers can reconvert a Roth IRA into a traditional IRA. This allows taxpayers to avoid paying high tax bills on an amount of money that had fallen in value after the conversion. Now, taxpayers will no longer be able to reconvert a Roth IRA to a traditional IRA.

The bottom line is that with this new tax legislation, you’re still going to need to get your documents in order and file your taxes, as well as decide if you’re going to itemize and what deductions work for your personal situation. This year, it’s more important than ever to talk to a tax professional about how this affects you to ensure that your taxes are done right and that you have a clear understanding of how changes that take effect in 2018 will impact how you file in 2019.

To learn more about the tax reform, how it may affect you and what steps you can begin taking to reduce what you owe in 2018, visit www.hrblock.com or make an appointment with a tax professional.

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5 spring remodeling projects sure to brighten your home

(BPT) – During the coldest months of the year, it’s hard not to think about the warmer months to come — and all that they hold. You may already be planning your next vacation or outdoor activities to host in your backyard this summer. Now is the time to brainstorm about your spring home remodeling projects that can add enjoyment and value to your humble abode.

Home remodeling projects on the rise

As the U.S. economy continues to strengthen, home improvement project investment by homeowners has increased, according to the latest Residential Remodeling Index (RRI) study. As spring is a popular time for renovation projects, you may want to start checking out popular design trends, researching product choices and figuring out what you like and what works for your family.

Here are five projects that can help you reinvent your home this spring. Besides making your home more livable and meeting your family’s needs, you will be investing in the real estate value of your property.

* Take the mud out of the room. You don’t have to allow the mudroom to live up to its name. Consider installing a Fiat Molded Stone mop service basin with a multifunction hand shower to give your family a convenient and stylish spot to wash off boots and other bulky items. It’s also a great place to give your dog a bath or wash off dirty paws to ensure nothing is tracked into the house.

* Shed a little (more) light in your foyer. Your foyer is the entry point into your home, and the right lighting solution can make this space all the more welcoming. Newer LEDs or halogen light sources naturally generate a warmth that’s perfect for the entryway. Be sure to install a dimmer switch with your new lighting solution; it’s the best way to ensure your lights provide exactly the right ambiance for your entrance hall.

* A masterful master bath. Perhaps no room is more capable of providing luxurious relaxation than your bathroom. If yours isn’t living up to this billing, it may be time for some changes. The DXV Oak Hill bathroom collection offers a freestanding slipper tub for ultimate bathing comfort, along with a stylish high-efficiency toilet with a unique traditional farmhouse style. A coordinating high-back sink accented with a charming wall-mount faucet can finish off this bathroom remodel for ultimate enjoyment and function. This may be just the spruce-up needed to enhance your personal space, while adding value to your home at the same time.

* Make your outdoor space amazing. Once the weather turns warm, spending time outdoors will be top on your list. That makes now the perfect time to plan how you’ll use this outside space. A pergola is an easy-to-build addition that can give you a relaxing place to avoid the sun. Adding a flagstone seating area or creating a decorative border for a new fire pit might be perfect for your family. Try planting flowers for a pop of color, or invest more with new bushes or trees to round out your landscaping project. Plants like day lilies or hostas can survive in almost any environment and are an easy, effective way to optimize your green space.

* Shower power for all. For the all-purpose family bathroom, upgrading to a highly functional shower system will deliver results efficiently and enjoyably for all users. The American Standard Spectra+ shower system employs first-to-market technology that allows you to change the spray patterns simply by touching the outside ring of the showerhead for a customizable experience. The Spectra+ eTouch system also includes a remote control that can be mounted to any surface, allowing anyone having trouble reaching the showerhead to enjoy the same personalized shower satisfaction. It’s luxurious and accommodating. What could be better than that?

Finding the perfect project for you

The spring season is home improvement season, so don’t let it pass you by. Start thinking now, while staying warm inside during the colder months. Figure out what needs to get done first, then look online or in stores for ideas and get inspired for your spring home renovations. It will be project time before you know it.

Headline: Start planning your home improvement projects now

Here are projects that can help you reinvent your home this spring.

* Take the mud out of the room. Installing a Fiat Molded Stone mop service basin with a multi-function hand shower gives you and your family a convenient place to wash off boots, pets and other bulky items.

* Shed a little (more) light in your foyer. Incandescent or halogen light sources naturally generate a warmth that’s perfect for the entryway. Be sure to always install a dimmer switch as well. * Shower power for all. For the all-purpose family bathroom, upgrading to a highly functional shower system will deliver results efficiently and enjoyably for all users. The American Standard Spectra+ shower system employs first-to-market technology that allows spray patterns to be changed simply by touching the showerhead for a truly customizable experience.

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Growing your business? These 3 financing mistakes can cost you big

(BPT) – Starting a business can be tough. Growing one can be even harder.

Dr. Nacondus Gamble knows this all too well. After her optometry practice, The South Eastern Eye Center, began to establish a reputation for great patient care, Dr. Gamble decided she was ready to expand. So she began looking for business financing to open another location in Georgia. That’s when she discovered that many lenders don’t share her commitment to high-quality service.

“I called a couple of places, but I just felt like they were taking advantage of me,” she said. “It was unnecessarily harsh.”

Dr. Gamble ended up borrowing through Funding Circle, an online platform focused exclusively on small business loans. Known for its speed, transparency and customer service, Funding Circle has helped more than 40,000 businesses around the world get financing, says co-founder and U.S. managing director Sam Hodges.

Today there are more options than ever before for businesses looking to grow. While some of these newer options can offer a significant leg up, others can actually end up doing more harm than good.

So how can you get the best deal on a business loan? It helps to watch out for these three common mistakes:

1. Not understanding the true cost of your loan

When shopping for a business loan, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by fast-talking salespeople, endless strings of acronyms and confusing terms. If it’s unclear how much you’ll really pay for financing, that’s a good sign you should walk away, Hodges cautions.

A good lender will always be willing to help you calculate the Annual Percentage Rate (APR) and explain all the terms of your loan clearly. They’ll also help you understand what fees you can expect over the life of the loan — some lenders sneak in additional hidden fees, concealing them in fine print or confusing legalese, which can significantly inflate the cost.

2. Getting trapped in daily or weekly repayment cycles

Some types of business financing can seem like a godsend for a company in need of fast cash. These providers promise easy approval with quick access to funds. However, that speed can come at a steep price — in many cases, the provider takes a portion of your sales on a daily or weekly basis until the debt is repaid.

Term loans are often the better option, Hodges says. They allow businesses to borrow a set amount of money for a specific purpose, like hiring new staff or stocking up on inventory. The funds are then paid back over a set amount of time, with consistent monthly payments and no surprise fees.

3. Not knowing what you deserve

While many finance providers have your best interests at heart, the truth is that not all do. Some use irresponsible or misleading practices and take advantage of small business owners’ need for cash.

After seeing countless small businesses get stuck with credit products they couldn’t afford or understand, a coalition of small business advocates, lenders and online credit marketplaces came together to launch the Small Business Borrowers’ Bill of Rights. As the first-ever gold standard for responsible business lending, the Bill of Rights outlines the rights and safeguards that small businesses should expect from finance providers.

These include the right to transparent pricing and terms — ensuring business owners can see the cost and terms of any financing being offered in writing and in a form that is clear, complete and easy to compare with other options — and the right to non-abusive products that won’t trap you in an expensive cycle of re-borrowing. Before you take out any financing, check if your lender has signed on at ResponsibleBusinessLending.org.

Considering a loan for your business? You should know the five things business lenders typically care about when evaluating your application. To maximize your success, read more at www.Made2DoMore.com.

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New year deals: Why winter is the perfect time to buy a boat

(BPT) – Winter may be frigid for many, but it’s an ideal time to plan for warmer days ahead and make dreams of owning a boat a reality. Beginning in January, boat shows across the country offer some of the hottest post-holiday deals around, with special pricing and incentives on new boat models and marine accessories — a major draw for the 142 million Americans who take to the water each year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. For those ready to plan their summer adventures on the water, boat shows are the best place to start.

Whether you fish or sail, enjoy cruising, riding personal watercraft or wakesurfing, boat shows provide the unique opportunity to browse and board hundreds, sometimes thousands, of boats while taking advantage of once-a-year pricing and boat show specials. Boat shows also provide an avenue to enjoy a taste of the boating lifestyle during the off-season, plus they offer educational opportunities and alternative ways to get on the water for novices looking to get their feet wet.

Whether you want to fulfill that New Year’s resolution of spending more time on the water with family and friends, or are simply in the mood to escape the winter doldrums, Discover Boating, the national awareness program to help get people on the water, offers three tips to get started in boating at a 2018 boat show:

* Escape cabin fever for the year’s best deals. Unlike auto shows, boat shows are the place to buy. Hundreds of new-year models are available to buy right on the show floor at some of the best prices of the year, with many exhibitors offering special show pricing and other incentives. Boat shows make it easy for you to shop all the region’s dealers in one location. Plus, it’s the perfect time to order a new boat to ensure it arrives ready to launch in the spring.

* Test the waters. Boat shows are a great place to learn the ropes of boating and take advantage of onsite training, which is usually offered at little to no cost. Educational opportunities at boat shows include everything from knot-tying and DIY boat maintenance seminars, to sailing simulators and boating lessons. You can often find fun activities to entertain the family and get everyone into the outdoors, from practicing how to reel in a fish to learning to dock and more.

* Look for the seal of approval. When shopping for a boat at a show, online or at a dealership, always check to make sure it is certified by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. An “NMMA Certified” seal means a boat has met strict industry standards for safety, construction and federal regulations, enhancing an improved and safer boater experience. Look for the NMMA Certified sticker near the helm of a boat, and find a full list of certified boat manufacturers at DiscoverBoating.com.

Visit DiscoverBoating.com to find a boat show near you, a list of certified dealers and manufacturers, and unbiased advice for getting started in boating.

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Girls celebrating after receiving college acceptance letter

Options available to help students pay for college

(BPT) – With student debt increasingly becoming a long-term burden on graduates and families, says Peter Gayle, a vice president for Prudential Advisors, it’s never been more important to minimize the out-of-pocket expenses to put a student through college — and reduce reliance on student loans.

To put the weight of student debt in perspective, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York noted that in 1995, 54 percent of graduates had loans averaging $11,491. It’s more recent data in 2015 showed 71 percent of graduates joined the workforce with student debt averaging slightly more than $35,000. What’s more, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates 25 percent of those who owe federal student loans are delinquent or in default.

The good news is that anyone willing to put in the time can likely find programs that help foot the bill — helping to reduce the need to take out loans — so a student’s education won’t break the budget or jeopardize a financial future. According to Gayle, families can take a few initial steps before choosing a school:

* Learn how the financial aid process works and get the most out of options that don’t need to be repaid.
* Understand each school’s actual net price — after financial aid — and set realistic expectations, choosing from the most affordable institutions.
* Explore types of financial aid, including grants, work study programs and scholarships; examine the specific types of aid available per school and find out how much of a family’s demonstrated financial need each school will cover.
* Understand the kinds of loans available, including a variety of federal loans and private loans, which may be used to fill any financing gaps after exhausting other options.
* Understand how parents’ “available income” is used to calculate how much parents are expected to contribute to their child’s education, especially for federal financial aid purposes.

Several guides, including Prudential Financial’s www.prudential.com/payingforcollege, can help families take a carefully considered approach to financing a college education while safeguarding a student’s long-term financial future, including the ability to save for retirement.

For families that must use student loans, the federal government is making it easier to understand how to borrow, process applications and repay loans through new online tools. Since 2010, all new federal loans, except Federal Perkins Loans, have been issued through the U.S. Department of Education, which offers information about borrowing and repaying loans.

There are multiple options to repay federally funded student loans, which generally require repayments to start six or nine months after a student graduates, leaves school or drops to half-time enrollment. A few popular choices for repayment include types of income-driven plans, which calculate payments based on a borrower’s ability to repay. One catch: It’s critical to re-certify income and family size annually to avoid huge monthly payment increases.

When debt becomes too burdensome, some loan programs offer forgiveness through public service, federal government employment, and options like teaching in underserved school districts.

Private loans are trickier since there is no standard: Interest rates and repayment terms vary from lender to lender. It’s also worth considering the need for life insurance to cover the full loan balance to aid co-signers or beneficiaries in the event of the borrower’s death, says Gayle. Financial advisors would be well-equipped to help explore this and other options, Gayle notes.

Employers are also beginning to offer employee student debt benefits to put their employees on a course for financial security. At Prudential Financial, for example, new employees hired through the company’s campus recruitment program beginning in January 2017 could earn an incentive of up to $5,000 toward paying off student loans after one year of service. Other companies match student debt payments with contributions to employee retirement savings plans.

Studies show college education can be worth the price. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that students who attend college can earn nearly twice as much over their lifetimes as those with only a high school diploma. But with college tuition continuing to rise, families must find the most effective way to finance a child’s college education to avoid jeopardizing their ability to save for retirement.

“Prudential Advisors” is a brand name of The Prudential Insurance Company of America and its subsidiaries located in Newark, New Jersey.

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Retirement readiness: Hitting the retirement preparation sweet spot

(BPT) – A recent study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College suggests an alarming state of awareness about retirement readiness: Of surveyed households, 33 percent realize they are not well prepared, 19 percent are not well prepared but don’t know it, and 24 percent are well prepared but don’t know it.

For the Americans at risk of not being able to maintain an adequate retirement lifestyle, it’s critical to take action. For the households that are well prepared and don’t know it, they risk sacrificing a comfortable retirement. Understanding the behaviors associated with good retirement planning, in turn, can help you get a better sense of where you stand. Consider the following behaviors, which are more likely to be modeled by those who are well prepared for retirement.

Asset accumulation

A high-level approach to ensuring adequate retirement assets is to save a minimum of 10 percent of your gross income each year. You may need to save even more depending on your asset accumulation goals and how many years you have left to save before retirement.

If you would rather have a dollar goal, multiply your annual income goal by 25 to arrive at the amount you should try to save. For example, if after considering Social Security and any pension payment, you want $30,000 more of annual income in retirement, you will need to save $750,000. Lower goals mean you need to withdraw at a faster rate and increase the risk you will deplete your assets too soon.

Budgeting

Not all budgets need to detail specific spending items. Rather, you can consider yourself working within a budget if you know that each year you are saving and not creating new debt (and paying off legacy debt for your education or home). If you want to squeeze out more savings, a line-by-line review of spending may well be fruitful.

Personal debt

Many of us are saddled with personal debt from college and graduate school. This debt has become so burdensome that the customary progression to home ownership has been delayed for many. The debt has also had a domino effect on the ability to save for retirement. Paying down personal debt should be job one. Other personal debt, such as for a car purchase, should be avoided, minimized or paid down as quickly as possible. Credit card debt, which carries high interest rates, should be avoided entirely. Remember, each dollar of debt limits your ability to save for the future.

Mortgage debt

It used to be commonly accepted that you pay off your mortgage before retirement, but more and more retirees are entering retirement with mortgage debt. The old rule remains the best approach, since any indebtedness in retirement will limit your ability to react and adjust to poor investment return on your assets.

Social Security

With traditional pension plans less commonly offered by employers, Social Security has become an even more important source of guaranteed lifetime retirement income. By waiting to age 70, you can increase the benefit payment significantly, which is also the base for annual Social Security cost-of-living increases for the rest of your life. That increased Social Security benefit may also increase the benefit that a surviving spouse will receive after you die. Unless you have a health care issue that could reduce your life expectancy and no spouse who might need a spousal benefit based on your earnings record, claiming Social Security early is the greatest retirement planning mistake made.

Health care

Health care is the single greatest cost in retirement, and various studies estimate the cost to be $250,000 or more for a healthy 65-year-old couple. The cost of health care will be even greater to the extent one retires before age 65 and Medicare eligibility. Moreover, health care costs can vary and may come sooner than expected. The best plan, then, is to work until at least age 65 and understand that health care is a unique challenge in retirement. To the extent possible, utilize Health Savings Accounts and bank any unused amounts annually to build up a tax-free health care fund for retirement.

Income planning

No later than 10 years before your planned retirement, you should be translating your retirement assets into an annual or monthly retirement income stream. Start with your Social Security and any pension plan payments as your income base, and then consider how much income your other assets can safely generate. Depending on this analysis, you may want to consider purchasing an annuity to make more of your retirement income guaranteed and avoid the twin risks of poor investment return and living longer than expected.

Consider also that many of your retirement assets have an embedded tax liability. You will need to look through your retirement assets to determine after-tax income, since your food, rent and cable bills are paid with after-tax money. Only by seeing your after-tax income can you decide if you have enough to live on.

Annual financial wellness check-ups

During your early working years, you are likely to be focused on debt reduction and asset accumulation. As you get closer to retirement, you will need to focus on the strategies associated with Social Security, health care and income generation. At all times you should annually revisit your goals and make adjustments, as needed, to how much and where you are saving, how much you are spending, how aggressively you are investing, and when your target retirement date is.

Modeling such behaviors will make it more likely you will be well prepared for retirement. By doing so you will also make it more likely that you are properly assessing the state of your retirement readiness and not over- or underestimating your financial health.

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Seeking a smartphone? Here are 10 things to look for

(BPT) – There are many choices when shopping for a smartphone these days, and the differences can be very subtle. Here are some of the key things you’ll want to look at to make sure you find the one that works best for your needs.

Operating System (OS): There are two different operating systems to choose from. iOS works with iPhones, while Android operates with a wider variety of smartphones, like those from Samsung or Motorola. In general, iOS is considered easier to use, but you need to have an Apple device. Android gives you more options, plus the ability to customize with third-party software and widgets.

Screen size: Get the right screen for the things you’ll want to do. Buy a phone with a screen smaller than 5.5 inches if one-hand use is important to you or if you have smaller hands. Get a bigger screen if you like to watch a lot of videos or play games, or simply want to have an easier time navigating on your touchscreen.

Camera: Most people now use their phones as their primary camera, so the right selection here will be especially important. More and more smartphones boast cameras with at least 12 mega-pixels, so don’t go by only that stat. Instead, focus on individual camera specs and features like dual lenses or the ability to edit and enhance photos.

Display: For a phone’s display, color quality and brightness matter more than resolution. Pay attention to how bright the display is, if it will be easy to see outdoors, and how colorful the panel is. The latest phones offer high dynamic range (HDR) for displaying even more colors.

Design: Determining good smartphone design is purely subjective. Many people prefer a metal or glass design; others, plastic. If you’re concerned about durability, look for a phone that is water-resistant. A handful of phones also now feature a shatterproof glass display, and many include a Gorilla Glass display to protect it from short drops (A protective case will help with that, too.).

Processor: Even midrange phones now offer satisfactory performance for nearly any user level or basic task. A good processor inside a phone will translate to faster open times for apps, smoother navigation and quicker photo editing.

Battery: Many factors, including the screen size, processor and operating system, determine how long a smartphone lasts on a charge. A decent benchmark is to look for a smartphone with a battery capacity of at least 3,000 mAh. Any phone that lasts longer than 9 hours of straight 4G LTE use is considered very good.

Storage: Given that some apps and games can easily take up more than 1GB of storage, not to mention how many high-res photos and videos smartphone owners are capturing, go for as much internal storage as possible. Some models offer just 8Gb or 16Gb; however, the minimum on premium handsets these days is usually 32GB. Adding a micro SD card can also help expand your storage. This option is available on many Android phones.

Price: Don’t pay for more than you need. The latest iPhone and premium Android phones start around $650, and can easily run you $800 or more. But there are great options below $500, and even some solid choices for less than $200.

Carrier: A smartphone requires a talk and data plan. Choose a service provider that offers what you’ll really use. Avoid expensive, one-size-fits-all plans. Consumer Cellular, for example, offers a wide variety of smartphone choices from entry level to top of the line, along with talk and data plans that cost their average customer less than $25 a month, with no contracts.

Let today’s top technology work for you! It’s a competitive marketplace, so by shopping wisely, you’re sure to find a smartphone that keeps you happily connected at a great price.

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