Control mobile data costs by connecting to Wi-Fi at home

(BPT) – American’s use of computers has shifted dramatically in the last five years. In the past, desktop computers were the main tools for accessing the Internet and communicating with others. Today, mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are taking over.

The use of mobile devices has skyrocketed, with nearly 7 out of 10 U.S. adults (68 percent) having a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Tablet computer ownership is growing too, with 45 percent of adults owning this type of mobile device.

Mobile devices are popular because they provide instant access to virtually anything a person wants to do. From watching videos to online shopping and interacting on social media, mobile makes any task easy — and it’s all within an arm’s reach.

Along with this move to mobile devices comes a sharp increase in mobile data usage. Many Americans are quickly learning how expensive data on mobile devices can be.

One easy way to control mobile data costs is to connect mobile devices to your Wi-Fi network at home. Simply go into your devices’ settings, select Wi-Fi and make your home connection your default option. Most mobile devices will then automatically connect to your Wi-Fi when at home and reduce your mobile data consumption.

This is a useful technique, but what if you live in one of the 18 million households across the United States that does not have access to “traditional” wired Internet or are stuck with a slow connection?

The best solution for these households is satellite Internet. Hughes, the inventor of satellite Internet, has recently announced their new HughesNet Gen5 service. HughesNet Gen5 is the first and only U.S. satellite Internet service to offer Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined broadband speeds — 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload — from coast to coast. HughesNet Gen5 high-speed satellite Internet even comes with built-in Wi-Fi making it easy to connect wireless devices at home.

For these 18 million households, HughesNet Gen5 is a major breakthrough, providing speeds much faster than the slow DSL that many of these consumers are currently using.

In addition to fast speeds and built-in Wi-Fi, HughesNet Gen5 also comes with generous, affordable service plans. It is no longer necessary to rely on mobile data at home. Get the most out of your devices with a reliable, high-speed connection. HughesNet Gen5 lets you do more of what you love online, wherever you live. Learn more about HughesNet Gen5 at www.hughesnet.com.

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5 mistakes to avoid when buying your first home

(BPT) – Buying a home for the first time is comparable to the first time you ride a bike. You can learn about how it works from your parents and observe it from a distance, but you really won’t know the ins and outs until you actually sit down on the bicycle and start riding.

Like most beginners, first-time homebuyers will likely make a few mistakes as they initially go through the home-buying process in the upcoming year. Here are five mistakes first-time homebuyers often make, and how to best avoid them.

1. Waiting too long to make an offer

One of the biggest mistakes first-time homebuyers will make in 2017 is simply waiting too long to get into the real estate market, according to Jay Carr, a senior loan advisr for RPM Mortgage in Newport Beach, California. Because the rates look like they’re going to continually increase over the year, it’s important for buyers to get in as early as they can so that they can avoid paying more later on. If you see a home that you’re interested in and you have been thinking about entering into the market for some time, don’t hesitate too long.

2. Trying too hard to get less than the asking price

Many first-time buyers are younger, tech-savvy and are comfortable researching homes on their own. Overall, these are positive traits in a buyer. However, because these buyers are typically self-sufficient when it comes to other purchases, they often think they know best when it comes to what price they want to offer.

“Buyers rely too much on what they see on the internet instead of the good advice of what they would hear from a real estate agent,” Carr says.

Of course sometimes it pays off to be bold in an offer (in that you get to pay a lot less than the asking price), but often it can end up that the buyers are negotiating themselves out of a deal. It’s important to pay attention to your real estate agent, who is a seasoned professional, when it comes to putting in an offer so you don’t offend the seller and lose the house you want.

3. Not exploring all your financing options

Carr says many first-time buyers have grown up thinking that they need to save up for a 20 percent down payment before they can enter the housing market. While it is always great to have as much money to put down as possible before you purchase a home, it’s important to consider many of the new options available today.

One option is a home ownership investment such as the Unison HomeBuyer program, which typically provides up to half of the down payment you need. The money is an investment in the home, not a loan, so there are no interest charges or monthly payments. This new type of financing — which works in combination with a traditional 30-year mortgage — can offer greater flexibility and control to the home buyer. It allows you to cut the time needed to save for a down payment in half, lower your monthly payments and avoid mortgage insurance, or increase your purchasing power so you can buy the home you want.

4. Wanting the dream house right away

Everyone has a picture in their minds of what their first home will look like. Whether you envisioned a craftsman bungalow near all your favorite bars and restaurants or a classic ranch-style home with tons of land and no neighbors, chances are you’re going to have to trade up to that dream home from your first starter home.

“If you really like the house, you probably can’t afford it. If you think the house is just kind of below what you want it’s probably right in your price range. Get in the market rather than wait to get the dream house,” Carr says.

Carr advises those in the hunt for their dream home to focus on becoming homeowners now and to wait on their dream home until they have built up equity and have higher incomes in the future.

The median tenure of a homeowner in 2017 is about 10 years, but for the 20-year period before that it was only six. Believing that this won’t be your last house can take a bit of pressure off the home being perfectly suited for you.

5. Not having your own representation

Another mistake a first-time homebuyer can make is not having their own representation (meaning that they use the seller’s agent as their own buyer’s agent). While this is not always a bad situation, Carr cautions buyers to be careful that they have selected a good and trustworthy real estate agent that is looking after their best interests. In other words, you don’t want to pay an unfair price because someone is looking after their own best interest.

To learn more about the Unison HomeBuyer program and how it could help you, visit www.unison.com/homebuyer.

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The data dilemma: How to choose a monthly plan

(BPT) – How much data do you really need on your monthly cellular plan? Buy too much and you’re simply wasting money. Buy too little and you could end up socked with overage fees, or find your data speeds slowed significantly.

The average U.S. wireless customer consumes about 1.8 gigabytes (GB) of data each month, far below what’s included in many standard wireless plans. As a result, many carriers are beginning to shift away from rigidly structured monthly data allowances. Consumer Cellular, for instance, offers no-contract plans tailored to the 50-plus crowd that allow you to change your data plan whenever you need, without paying any additional fees.

Whether you’re a heavy or a light user, the data plan you choose represents a significant part of your investment in wireless service. By understanding some of the basics, as well as the potential pitfalls involved, you’re sure to find the plan that’s right for you.

How it’s measured

Anytime you send email, download a photo, stream video, view a web page, or post on social media, your phone is sending or receiving data. A megabyte (MB) and the larger gigabyte (GB) are the units used for measuring data.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much data an activity consumes, since file sizes and download times can vary significantly. As a general rule, for most cellphones, one megabyte of data is typically required to perform each of these tasks:

* Sending or receiving 50 emails, without attachments;
* Streaming 2 minutes of music;
* Viewing one web page;
* Posting three photos to your Facebook page;
* Watching 30 seconds of video on YouTube.

One gigabyte, equal to 1,000 megabytes, is consumed by:

* Sending or receiving 50,000 emails (without attachments);
* Streaming 33 hours of music;
* Viewing 1,000 web pages;
* Posting 2,800 photos to your Facebook page;
* Watching more than 8 hours of video on YouTube.

Tracking your usage

The best way to accurately assess your cellular data use is to review your monthly bill, which provides precise details about your utilization. Most carriers now even offer mobile account management apps so you can keep tabs right from your phone. This will give you a feel for how much you’re actually consuming, and let you develop an accurate forecast for the future.

In addition, both smartphone and iPhone models give you the ability to track overall usage, as well as the individual usage of specific apps, right from the Settings menu on your phone. You can choose to receive usage alert notifications from your carrier, either by text or email. These are helpful reminders that are triggered when you’ve used certain percentages of your monthly allotment of data. It helps to eliminate surprises and avoid running over your plan.

Unlimited has its limits

Regardless of how closely you track it, your data needs can fluctuate wildly from month to month. This is often due more to life events than technology; you might be in more places with Wi-Fi access one month versus the next. As a result, some cellular companies will push you to sign up for plans with a higher data cap, including expensive “unlimited” plans.

Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, most “unlimited” plans are more enticing than practical. In fact, some carriers promising “unlimited data” will actually limit your high-speed data to just a couple of gigabytes per month. Once you use up that allotment, you’ll have unlimited access, but it’s at much slower speeds. This makes it more difficult to load pages quickly, or to stream video, even though you’re paying a premium for “unlimited” access.

The choice is always yours

Cellular competition is fierce, so make sure you get what you pay for. Before you buy an unlimited plan, shop around. You may very well find a less costly plan that offers far more data than you’re likely to use.

Ultimately, your choice will be driven by the type of data user you are, or at least the one you plan to be. Invest time in a little analysis of your current habits. You’ll come away with the information you need to find the plan that fits both your needs and your budget.

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Tips for paying less in taxes all year long

(BPT) – American taxpayers file roughly 140 million tax returns annually, according to the IRS. Of those, just 14 percent are the simplest type of form, the 1040EZ. In fact, all the 1040EZs, 1040s and 1040As filed — the least complex types of returns that you should, in theory, be able to do for yourself — account for just 22 percent of all tax returns, IRS data show.

“It’s not what you make that counts. It’s what you keep,” says Bill Harris, CEO of Personal Capital and author of a new book “Investment Tax Guide.” “Tax time is a great time to review your strategy for saving taxes on your investments — all year long. You need more than basic tips and last-minute tricks to efficiently benefit from all the complexities of the tax code.”

Several key strategies can help investors manage their tax liability.

Focus on tax-efficient investments

Of course the goal of any investment is to generate returns. Tax-efficiency refers to how much of those returns you have left after Uncle Sam has taken his share. The more you have left, the more tax-efficient your investments are.

Investment accounts can be taxable, tax-deferred or tax-exempt. For taxable investment accounts, such as money market mutual funds and individual or joint investment accounts, you pay taxes on income from those accounts in the year you earn it. Tax-deferred accounts like IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s allow you to put off paying taxes on returns as long as the returns remain in the account. When you finally withdraw returns in retirement, you will — in theory — be paying a lower tax rate because your income will be less.

Of course, tax-exempt accounts mean you never pay taxes on returns. Municipal bonds, REITs and 529 college savings accounts are examples of tax-exempt investment accounts.

Invest in tax-advantaged accounts

“You have numerous options for investing and each has different tax implications,” Harris says. “To maximize your portfolio’s tax efficiency, it’s important to invest in accounts that offer tax advantages.”

Harris offers these tips for choosing tax-advantaged accounts:

* Instead of investing in mutual funds, which have notoriously high tax impact, put your money in exchange-traded funds (ETFs). ETFs are generally more tax-efficient than mutual funds; their passive management means lower turnover and lower tax bills. ETFs are also traded like stocks, so you don’t need to sell the securities in your ETF in order to raise cash for redemptions.

* Municipal bonds can be a good option for people in very high tax brackets. You’ll pay no federal income tax on the returns, and if you live in the state where the bonds were issued, you won’t pay state tax either.

* Properly managed individual stocks are the most tax-efficient way to invest. Certain stocks do pay taxable dividends, but it’s up to you whether to invest in them or not. Mutual funds and ETFs both take that decision out of the investor’s hands.

Individual stocks, when properly managed, are the most tax-efficient way to gain exposure to equities. They leave control over realizing gains entirely in the hands of the investor. Of course, certain stocks pay taxable dividends; but the choice to own dividend-paying stocks is up to the investor. This is not the case with mutual funds or ETFs, where investors lack control over underlying securities.

Make losses work for you

Of course, not every investment produces returns. Sometimes you lose money, and that can be a good thing from a tax perspective. Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy that helps you benefit from investment losses.

By selling losing investments such as individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds, you can offset the amount of return you gather from taxable accounts. For example, if you sell individual stocks for a loss of $3,000, you may be able to reduce your taxable income by that amount.

Consider a conversion to a Roth IRA

Roth IRA gains are tax-exempt, you can contribute at any age, you can withdraw without penalty whenever you want, and you can use the Roth to leave a legacy for your heirs if you choose. However, high earners don’t qualify to open Roth accounts.

You can tap the tax advantages of a Roth IRA by converting a traditional IRA to a Roth at a later date. There are no income restrictions on Roth IRA conversions. However, because Roth IRAs are funded with taxed income, and your traditional IRA was funded with pre-tax income, when you convert to a Roth IRA, you’ll pay a conversion tax based on your ordinary income tax rates.

To get more information, you can download Harris’ book at www.personalcapital.com/tax.

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The lowdown on leasing

(BPT) – If you’re in the market for a new car, you might be thinking about leasing. After all, it seems very attractive on the surface — so attractive that leases accounted for one-third of all vehicles sales nationally in 2016. Taking a closer look though, you may be surprised to see there’s more than meets the eye in some lease offers. So, here are a few need-to-know nuggets about leasing a car.

Cash up front is required.

If you’re thinking that leasing gets you out of needing cash for a down payment, think again. That low monthly payment you’re after comes with upfront costs like taxes, registration, tags and other fees all due at signing. This could cost you thousands of dollars. And, if you want to lower the monthly payment even further, you’ll have to put additional funds toward the cost of the lease to get your payment where you want it to be.

Bells and whistles cost extra.

Just like when you’re buying a new car, the extras cost more. Advertised lease specials are usually for the base model — not the one with the navigation and safety packages you’re probably coveting. Adding on all the bells and whistles to your vehicle will mean higher payments because that raises the price of the car. Again, you may have to put an additional deposit down to land the payment you think you can afford.

Not owning means no asset.

Leasing is basically renting a car for an extended period of time — three to five years or so. Unlike buying a car, you won’t have an asset at the end of your lease. Which means you’ll have a decision to make: pay the residual value (the value of the car at the lease’s end) to own the car outright, finance the residual or turn in your leased car for another. Regardless, you’ll again need the cash for a down payment or the upfront costs for your next lease — whereas with buying a car you’ll have a definitive end to monthly payments. Once your loan is paid off, you can put that money toward savings or paying down debt. Or, you can use your car as a trade-in on another ride or for cash if you ever need to sell it.

Once you’re in it, stay in it.

If you get halfway through your lease and decide it’s not for you, you’ll be charged for early termination, something to keep in mind if your financial lifestyle changes often. In some cases, you might be required to continue to pay all regularly scheduled payments or your credit could take a hit.

Understand complex negotiations.

Understanding how a car loan works can sometimes be difficult for a first-timer, and things get even more intricate when you lease. Here are a few terms you may hear during lease negotiations:

Capitalized cost: Cost of the vehicle today.

Lease term: Length of the lease, usually expressed in months.

Residual value: Vehicle’s expected value at the end of the lease.

Depreciation: The difference between the capitalized cost and residual value.

Lease factor, or money factor: Cost of leasing, or interest — usually expressed as a very small number such as .003. Multiply this number by 2,400 to get your interest rate. In this example, that’s 7 percent. As a note, interest rates on leases tend to be higher than those on auto loans.

If you want to ace your lease negotiation, you should study the vocab and have A+ credit, too. You may not get the best deal if you’re unsure about your credit score, leasing terminology or the calculations mentioned above.

Mind your miles.

Depending on how often you get behind the wheel and how far you go, you could be forced to make some lifestyle changes if you lease. Most leases cap mileage somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 miles per year, or a total of 30,000 to 45,000 miles. Driving over this limit could cost you up to 25 cents per mile.

If you drive 30 miles round-trip for your commute, you’re traveling 150 miles over a five-day workweek. That’s nearly 8,000 miles just driving to work each year — 24,000 miles over the course of your lease. Depending on your limit, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room for things like road trips, traveling to sporting events, chauffeuring the kids to extracurriculars or even grabbing a bite to eat downtown. Those things could be taken off the table if you lease. If the freedom of driving whenever, wherever is something you enjoy, a lease may not be the best option.

The choice is yours.

Leasing might be for you if you want to drive a new car every three to five years, can drive within the limits and maintain good credit. On the other hand, today’s cars can easily last 10 years if maintained well, and once fully paid for, allow you to sock away monthly payments for other things. There are sites that offer side-by-side comparisons of buying and leasing to help you make the right choice. This calculator from Navy Federal Credit Union is just one example. In the end, it’s up to you. Armed with the details on the real deal of leasing and your buying options, you’re on the road to making the right choice.

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Key retirement milestones everyone should know about

(BPT) – Retirement can seem like a very distant destination in your early working years. However, as you age, that once distant destination starts to become more real. As you enter your 50s you can really start to think about how much you have saved and how that will translate into retirement income. You can also start to better understand the idea of allocating part of your retirement nest egg to guaranteed income based on your calculation of how much pension income and Social Security you will receive. Also critical during this final phase of working is understanding the key retirement milestones and how they will impact your ability to retire.

The following are the critical retirement milestone ages:

Age 55

If you are fortunate enough to consider the possibility of an early retirement, attaining age 55 is a critical date since you can start withdrawing from your 401(k) without the application of the 10 percent penalty tax applicable to premature plan distributions. This exception from the general applicability of the penalty tax, however, depends on you retiring from the company sponsoring your 401(k) plan during or after the year you reach age 55. You cannot continue to work at the company and decide you want to start using your 401(k) assets at age 55. In that circumstance the 10% penalty tax will still apply.

Age 59 1/2

At age 59 1/2 you are no longer subject to the 10 percent penalty tax for premature withdrawals on all of your retirement assets, such as your IRAs, 401(k) or annuities. Therefore, for many this is really the earliest that one can consider retirement as a possibility. Of course, retirement at age 59 1/2 will increase the length of your retirement and the risk that you will outlive your assets.

Age 62

At age 62 you become eligible for a reduced Social Security benefit. In terms of managing your guaranteed income for retirement, in general you will be better served to not start taking Social Security at such a young age since the benefit will continue to grow. Only those with a shortened life expectancy should consider starting Social Security benefits at this age. And even someone with a shortened life expectancy might consider delaying benefits if married, since turning on benefits early will reduce a surviving lower earning spouse’s benefit. Unfortunately, the reality is many individuals do turn on their benefits at age 62, either because they have not saved enough for retirement or because they want to start getting money back from the system they have contributed to over the years.

Age 65

Age 65 is a critical year for considering retirement since you will become eligible for Medicare. Prior to age 65, retirement requires you to consider the cost of paying for your own health care insurance, which can be a very costly proposition. This health care analysis gets more complicated if you have a spouse who is not working and has not attained age 65 when you do, since you will need to consider the cost of health insurance for that spouse until he or she attains age 65. While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped ensure that you can obtain health insurance regardless of your medical condition, the cost of such health insurance remains a significant deterrent to those considering retiring before Medicare eligibility. Also, as this is written, Congress is planning to repeal and replace the ACA, and you will need to understand the replacement plan and how that impacts health care planning for those who are not Medicare eligible.

Age 66-67

At this age you will become eligible for full Social Security benefit payments, and not the reduced payment you can take at age 62. The full retirement age has been raised over time and varies depending on your year of birth. For those born from 1943 through 1954, age 66 is the full retirement age. For those born in 1955 through 1959, the full retirement age is 62 plus 2 months for each year. For example, someone born in 1955 has a full retirement age of 62 and 2 months, and someone born in 1958 has a full retirement age of 66 and 8 months. For those born in 1960 or later, the full retirement age is 67. Bear in mind that while attaining the full retirement age allows you to take an unreduced Social Security benefit, it does not maximize the benefit payment.

Age 70

Age 70 is the delayed Social Security benefit age, or when you must start taking your Social Security payments. By delaying to age 70 you can increase your full retirement age benefit by 8 percent a year from your full retirement age. Given that Social Security is an annuity that pays you for your lifetime, and the benefit itself is increased by inflation costs each year, the increase in benefit payments from the full retirement age to age 70 can have a material impact on your benefit payment in future years. Maximizing Social Security should be your first consideration when thinking about how to ensure that your assets last as long as you do. Unfortunately, many nearing retirement do not understand the importance of maximizing this benefit, from an insurance perspective, and take the reduced payout at age 62 or at the full retirement age.

Age 70 1/2

At age 70 1/2 you must start taking Required Minimum Distributions, or RMDs, from your retirement assets such as your 401(k) or IRA. Your RMD amount is determined by an IRS table, which effectively requires you to take an increasing percentage of your assets. The idea is that you will be forced to liquidate your account gradually over your lifetime. For example, at age 71 the table requires you to take out around 3.77 percent of your account value, determined on Dec. 31 of the year prior to the RMD withdrawal. At age 80 you must take out around 5.35 percent. At age 90 you must take out around 8.77 percent. You have a choice for the year in which you attain 70 1/2 to take your first RMD amount in that year or defer the distribution to before April 15 of the following year. Keep in mind that if you do defer this first RMD amount you will have to take two RMD amounts in the following year. You may want to consider carefully whether this makes sense since you could be increasing your overall tax liability.

RMDs are not required from a Roth IRA but are required from any funds you have in a Roth account in an employer plan. You may want to consider rolling funds, for example, from a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, if you want to eliminate RMD requirements on these funds. You should know, however, that the time you have invested in the Roth 401(k) does not carryover to the 5-tax-year period for income tax free withdrawals from a Roth IRA. So if that is part of your future strategy, you may want to open a Roth IRA ahead of time to start the 5-tax-year clock running, which could include making a Roth IRA contribution or converting some traditional account assets to a Roth IRA. Once the 5-year-clock has run it applies to all future contributions, even if a particular contribution has not been in the account for 5 years.

The above analysis of retirement milestone ages highlights the importance of delaying your retirement as long as you can. Delaying your retirement ensures that you will not be subject to the 10 percent penalty tax on premature distributions from retirement plans and IRAs, that you will have affordable health care coverage under Medicare, and that you will maximize the Social Security lifetime benefit payment. Importantly, it also reduces the length of your retirement which, of course, increases the likelihood that you will be able to make your retirement assets last as long as you live.

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Tips to get the most out of your HSA dollars

(BPT) – Millions of Americans with high-deductible health insurance plans rely on health savings accounts to help them manage the costs of health care. If you’re among them, you know how important it is to maximize the value you get out of every HSA dollar.

If you don’t yet have an HSA, you may qualify for one if you receive health insurance through an employer-sponsored plan with a high deductible. Individuals may qualify if their deductible is at least $1,300, and families may qualify with a deductible of at least $2,600, according to the IRS. With an HSA, you can deposit pre-tax dollars into the account to pay for certain health and medical-related expenses — up to $3,400 for an individual and $6,750 for a family in 2017.

While there are approximately 17 million HSAs currently in use in the U.S., insurance industry watchers predict that number could rise significantly as the federal government again addresses health care reform, the Boston Globe reports.

You can maximize the value of your HSA in several ways, including:

* If you’re at risk for arterial or heart disease, you and your doctor may decide preventive screenings are in order. Screening proactively can help catch warning signs of trouble before a more serious problem develops. However, most insurers won’t pay for preventive screening for arterial health.

You can use your HSA dollars to schedule vascular health screening through Life Line Screening. You don’t need a doctor’s referral to schedule a simple, safe and painless ultrasound to detect possible plaque buildup in arteries — a leading factor in stroke and heart disease. Life Line Screening tells you the price of the screening up front and offers appointments in convenient locations throughout communities. Visit www.lifelinescreening.com to learn more and schedule an appointment.

* Keeping track of HSA-eligible expenses can be challenging, but budgeting software can help. Numerous free programs are available online. Most HSA providers also offer online access and digital tools to help you monitor your account, track saving and spending, and better understand the tax impact of your contributions.

* If your employer doesn’t provide vision insurance, you can use HSA funds to pay for eye exams, corrective lenses and even Lasik surgery. Studies show regular vision care is an essential component of overall health, and helps not only preserve your eyesight and eyes, but can also help detect other serious health problems.

* Only about half of American workers have dental insurance through their employers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who do have dental insurance, it typically does not cover all expenses. Yet dental health is intrinsic to overall health. You can use HSA money to pay for dental care, including exams, X-rays, braces, dentures, fillings and oral surgery.

* Smoking is one of the most damaging things you can do for your health, and your HSA dollars can help you kick the habit. Smoking cessation treatment is a qualified medical expense that can be paid for through health savings accounts. When you quit smoking, your body immediately begins to repair the damage caused by smoking, and you reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer, according to the American Lung Association.

“Smoking is associated with multiple chronic diseases, so quitting is one of the best things you can do for your overall health,” says Dr. Andrew Manganaro, chief medical officer at Life Line Screening. To help people understand their personal risk, Life Line Screening offers a program called “6 For Life” that outlines an individual’s risk for six chronic diseases and includes blood tests.

* Although controlling your weight is another important factor in overall health, few health plans will cover any kind of weight loss program. However, a doctor-prescribed weight loss program aimed at treating a specific disease such as obesity, high blood pressure or heart disease can be paid for with HSA money.

Your health savings account comes with many benefits and cost savings and tax breaks are just two of them. More importantly, when used wisely, your HSA can help you achieve better health.

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Learn the basics to avoid cell phone surprises

(BPT) – It’s easy to be overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a cellphone provider. Everyone claims to offer the best, cheapest and most comprehensive service. It can be especially baffling for seniors who, despite boundless wisdom elsewhere, may be newcomers to this technology.

When you boil it down, it’s actually fairly simple. You need two things: a device that does what you need it to do, and a way to connect that device to a reliable wireless network. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t get it all at a price you can afford.

It’s all about the phone.

The type of phone you choose will determine everything else you need. Will you use it primarily to make and receive calls? Do you want to send and receive text messages? Will you be searching the internet or using social media?

Familiarize yourself with the types of phones on the market, and decide which is the best fit. Cellphones range from simple models offering basic call-and-text functions to sophisticated smartphones, capable of performing a mind-boggling array of tasks. Make sure you’re getting what you really need, and don’t tie yourself to something you’ll quickly outgrow.

Coverage is key.

Your cellphone is only as good as the network it connects to. Before you sign up for service, you’ll want to be sure a provider can deliver coverage to the places you’ll be using your phone the most.

While most providers display general coverage maps in their retail stores or on their website, distinctively local things can impact cellphone reception. Your home’s building materials may create interference, or tall buildings standing between your neighborhood and the nearest cellphone tower could disrupt the signal.

Rather than relying solely on a map, ask around. Check if your neighbors are happy with the quality of their cellular service. Or have friends make calls from your house to hear what the reception and sound quality are like. This could go a long way toward narrowing your choices.

Minutes, texts and data: Solving the plan puzzle.

The last piece of the puzzle will be deciding what type of monthly service to sign up for. Cellphone plans are packaged in a dizzying array of formats, but there are three basic types.

Contract plans bound you to a carrier for a fixed term, usually two years. This means if you’re dissatisfied, there’s no opportunity to change until the contract expires without paying a significant penalty. Prepaid plans allow you to buy a fixed amount of minutes, texts and data, and use them until they run out. At that point you’ll have no service until you purchase more.

No contract, post-paid plans offer a nice mix of both. There’s no long-term agreement, so you can make changes without penalties. Unless you cancel, your plan renews month-to-month, so there’s no worry about running out of minutes and losing your service. There are even special rates just for seniors: Consumer Cellular, who specialize in wireless service for users over 50, offers exclusive discounts to AARP members.

Avoid surprises on your bill.

Before you sign up, ask about any penalties or hidden fees that may apply. Some carriers charge a fee just to activate your service. On contract plans, you’re required to pay a hefty “early termination fee” if you cancel your service early. Find out up front to avoid being ambushed later on.

Whatever you choose, your monthly bill should be straightforward and understandable. You should be able to tell at a glance what period of time the bill covers, what your monthly charge is for accessing the carriers network, the cost of your monthly plan (and what it includes), plus any applicable taxes or fees.

Put yourself in charge.

Shopping for the best deal on your cellphone service is no different than shopping for a dishwasher or an automobile. No one knows better than you do what your needs are.

Just remember: there’s no shortage of wireless carriers in the market, and they’re all vying for your business. Use this advantage wisely — do your homework, ask questions and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t get the answers you want.

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Security in an insecure world

(BPT) – The year 2016 was devastating for some safe deposit box holders. In New York, thieves cut holes in the roofs of three banks and brazenly emptied hundreds of safe deposit boxes, leaving the victims’ pillaged boxes on the roof and strewn around the vault.

A stealthier thief in Florida picked safe deposit boxes in several banks, emptying the contents without damaging the box or leaving any visible sign of the theft.

These are not isolated incidents. On average, there are between 15-18 robberies or burglaries involving bank vaults every year according to the FBI. Millions of dollars of jewelry, cash, gold and family heirlooms are stolen, leaving devastated box holders dealing with unrecoverable losses.

Still the safest

Despite these occurrences, law enforcement agencies, FEMA, the American Red Cross and AARP all recommend safe deposit boxes to store valuable items, heirlooms and documents. A safe deposit box in a vault is superior to home storage even with a safe. Why? Because a residence is almost 20 times more likely to be robbed than a safe deposit box in a bank. And with rental costs starting at around $30 a year, safe deposit boxes remain one of the best values offered by a financial institution.

Required step

Today, most people who rent a safe deposit box assume the bank or a federal agency insures the contents. This is not true, and unfortunately, too many people learn this the hard way.

A standard homeowners policy provides limited coverage for some items in a box, but excludes losses from flood and other risks. They may also have a high deductible.

Specialty insurance designed to cover and protect everything inside of a safe deposit box — including cash, gold and important papers such as wills, titles, deeds, photos and digital backups, is now available. There is no deductible, and risks such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes and earthquakes are covered.

And because you do not need to identify what is stored inside the box to obtain coverage, you can maintain your privacy.

Protect yourself

Clearly, there are events that no vault or safe deposit box can protect against. However, there are steps you should take. Safe Deposit Box Insurance, LLC (SDBIC), the leader in protecting valuable assets in secure boxes, has developed a secure storage quiz on secure storage options.

So, despite there being some high-profile break-ins, a safe deposit box is still the best place to store your documents, family heirlooms and other valuables. But because nothing is 100 percent foolproof, it’s important to do your research, select the right bank and insure the contents of your box through SDBIC.

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What you should know about rising interest rates

(BPT) – Homeowners planning to refinance and buyers searching for a home may have an idea of what’s in store for them with regards to interest rates, but they never really know until they lock in a rate. This is in part because rates can change direction fast, and when they rise—as they have been recently—it can cost borrowers a great deal of money and time.

The effect of rising interest rates on your home purchase

Today, the median existing home price in the United States is around $235,000, and the average mortgage interest rate is near 4 percent. If you were to buy a home at that price, an interest rate increase of half a percent would cost you an additional $70 per month on your loan payment. And that assumes you’ll put the standard 20 percent down in advance. A more dramatic rate increase—say from 4 percent to 6 percent, even over time, would increase your monthly payment by almost $300.

Home price gains

For homebuyers, it’s not just rising interest rates that can increase your payment, but so can home price appreciation. In fact, in most markets, housing prices have increased past highs previously set before the financial crisis in 2007/2008. For example, in citing this recovery, the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently increased the maximum loan amount for mortgages that meet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines for the first time in more than a decade.

The new conforming loan limits increased only slightly, to $424,100 in most parts of the country. This will enable home buyers in higher-cost areas to access larger home loan amounts and more affordable loan products, in line with local housing prices.

The home buying season may start early this year

Spring/summer is traditionally the busiest home buying time of the year as many sellers wait to list their homes after the cold winter weather is over and to coincide with the summer school break. However, with both home prices and interest rates on the rise, more buyers are expected to enter the home buying market earlier this year, making for a more competitive home buying season. Potential buyers will need to be aggressive to find the home they want at a rate they can afford.

Starting your loan search today

If you’re in the market but haven’t found the home of your dreams yet, there are tools available to guard against increasing mortgage rates. Lenders like loanDepot help customers save by giving them the opportunity to lock a quoted rate and hold (lock in) that rate for 45 to 60 days, protecting them from potential fluctuations in the market. And with rates rising, now is a great time to lock your loan at a more favorable interest rate.

If you do choose to lock your loan, you’ll need to provide an appraisal deposit which can range from $450 to $750. This is not a fee, and is returned when working with loanDepot if there is no appraisal performed on a home.

Navigating your options can seem confusing at first, but a loanDepot licensed lending officer can help. You can learn more by visiting loandepot.com or by calling (888) 983-3240 today for more information.

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