5 tips to help teens master their money

(BPT) – For most teens, high school is an exciting time, one that offers the opportunity to set their own path and make some of their own decisions. However, with this added independence comes additional responsibility, especially regarding money.

Today teens are spending $260 billion a year in the U.S., yet only 17 states require completion of at least one financial literary course for high school graduation.

“So many teens don’t realize how important saving is,” says Angel Carter, an Atlanta teen who was selected by Boys & Girls Clubs of America to serve as national ambassador for its financial education program called Money Matters: Make it Count, created in collaboration with Charles Schwab Foundation. “They don’t understand the importance of saving for their future needs and tracking or prioritizing their purchases.”

Taking part in this program had a profound impact on Carter, along with more than 725,000 other Club teens who have completed Money Matters. And because April is Financial Literacy Month, now is the perfect time for Carter to offer a few tips she learned to help others manage their money.

* There’s no such thing as “too young” or “too much.” Because of the way compound interest works, the earlier you begin to save, the less of a burden it is. For example, regularly saving 10 percent of your income is a good savings goal if you’re in your 20s or younger; however, if you wait until your 30s to start saving, that number increases to 20 percent in order to reach the same long-term goal. And if you wait till your 40s, it goes up to 30 percent. So it’s better to start putting money away as early as possible. Talk to your parents or another adult you trust about setting up a savings account, and how much you should regularly set aside.

* Recognize needs vs. wants. Being smart about money doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life, or do fun things with your hard-earned cash; but it does mean you need to plan for them. An easy rule of thumb is to figure out how much you need to set aside in order to meet your expenses, including savings, every month. Anything left over is for having fun. It might seem contradictory, but knowing ahead of time how much spending money you have available helps you know when you can comfortably say “yes,” and when you’re better off passing on an event or an impulse purchase.

* Know where your money goes. It may not be particularly fun, but tracking where and how you spend money is just one of those healthy habits that’s good for you, like eating spinach and exercising. You can record this information with a notebook or an app, but just remember to log your purchases, including all those “small” ones. Being aware of every dollar you spend will help you understand yourself and your spending habits — and can help you find ways to reduce your spending and save even more.

* Credit is like social media. You know how parents and teachers are always telling you to watch what you post on social media channels, because someday you’re going to have to apply for a job? Good credit is to your future purchasing what a clean social media history is to job applications: it takes time and commitment to build, and only moments to lose. A good credit score and a history of responsible spending give you options, which is priceless when you want to buy or lease a car, or apply for an apartment or even buy a house later on. How do you build good credit? Manage your checking account carefully, always pay your bills on time, and if you do choose to get a credit card, never charge more than you can afford to pay off in full every month.

* Keep it real. In today’s economy, managing money responsibly is a tall order, but it is possible, especially if you take control! Think about the kind of lifestyle you want to live, and figure out how much it takes to support yourself in those circumstances. Once you’ve done that, it’s simply a matter of solving for “x.” One good way to be astute about finances is to look for a financial education program geared for teens, one that covers budgeting, goal setting, and planning for the future. Some programs, like Money Matters, even offer virtual reality games to practice for the real world without real-life risk.

These tips are just a few Carter learned through the Money Matters program at her local Boys & Girls Club. A new component of the program, the digital game $ky, is now available to all teens. The game challenges teens to navigate financial decisions in a fresh, fun way that will keep them thinking prudently about their finances not only in April but in the months and years ahead.

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Spring cleaning to make money: Don’t toss these 5 hidden sources of extra cash

(BPT) – Before we soak up the summer sun, we need to think about spring cleaning. As you clear out your closets and drawers, be on the lookout for these five often overlooked sources of money:

1) Gift Cards: About $1 billion in gift cards goes unused each year, so instead of digging change out of your couch cushions or car seats, try looking through your junk drawer, email inbox or even your wallet for gift cards and egifts that you may have forgotten about. Instead of letting the funds go to waste, sell the gift card to a gift card exchange like Cardpool.com at close to the face value or to receive an Amazon gift card.

You also can look to a gift card exchange site to buy your preferred brand of gift card. After the holidays, gift card exchange sites are often stocked with gift cards ready to be sold at hefty discounts—up to 35 percent off. So, if you’re planning a trip and want to use airline or hotel gift cards to save money, or if a discounted gift card to a lawn and garden store would help to spruce up your yard, now is the time to buy.

2) Clothes: Cleaning out the closet can also mean money in your wallet. Sites like ThredUp buy and sell quality, name-brand clothes. ThredUp will even ship you a “clean out” bag, so you can fill it up at home, ship it back and receive payment for the clothes the company purchases. With this particular site, you can choose for the company to donate what they don’t purchase or send it back to you. If you prefer to sell your apparel in-person, take your gently used brand name clothes to a nearby consignment store where they’ll often pay cash on-the-spot.

3) Books: When clearing out the bookshelf, consider selling some of your old favorites on Amazon. When you create a seller account on Amazon, you can name your price and choose to fulfill orders yourself or via Amazon fulfillment.

4) Furniture: While Craigslist remains a popular avenue for unloading furniture you no longer need, if you have chic vintage furniture or décor that you’re ready to sell, check out Chairish.com. Chairish will list your furniture and décor for sale and will even coordinate all shipping needs for the seller to the buyer.

5) Electronics: From old iPhones or laptops to tablets and video games, sites like NextWorth or Gazelle will buy the electronics you no longer use for cash. Check each site to get a quote for what your electronics are worth and send them in to earn extra cash.

While de-cluttering can be cathartic on its own, leveraging the right tools to earn extra cash on items you may have otherwise tossed can make spring cleaning a rewarding experience, too.

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Get extra money all year: Tips to adjust your tax withholdings

(BPT) – Every year, nearly eight out of 10 taxpayers receive a federal tax refund. Many of them are more than happy to see that “extra” money drop into their bank accounts. In fact, according to a recent TaxAct survey, 61 percent of tax filers said they’d rather receive a big refund than a larger paycheck throughout the year.

Unfortunately, many of those taxpayers don’t realize they could have that “extra” money throughout the year. That’s right — receiving a refund means overpaying the government in the form of a 12-month, interest-free loan.

“Receiving a refund check simply means you’re getting the money you already earned in the past year,” says Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct. “It’s money you could have used to pay for things like car payments, student loans, groceries and medical bills — or even that island getaway you wanted to take last summer.”

Fortunately, there is something you can do about it. By making the necessary withholding adjustments to your Form W-4, you can have that money a lot sooner than tax season. Follow these three steps to take control of your finances and help give yourself a raise this year — not a refund next year.

1. Review your current withholdings.

To control your tax withholding and paycheck, you need to adjust the number of allowances (withholding exemptions) you claim on Form W-4. If you’re unfamiliar with Form W-4, it’s the tax document you complete each time you start a job to let your employer know how much money to withhold from your paycheck for federal taxes. To better understand how allowances work, think about it this way:

* To increase your paycheck, claim more allowances to withhold fewer taxes.

* To increase your refund, claim fewer allowances to withhold more taxes.

With one simple form you can make the necessary adjustments to give yourself a raise and put more money in your paycheck instead of waiting to receive it in the form of a tax refund. Take a moment to review your withholdings along with your current financial situation. Is it better for you to receive a larger refund or would additional money in each paycheck benefit you more?

2. Use tools to help calculate the appropriate withholding.

If you are unsure of what number of allowances is appropriate for your tax situation, a variety of tax tools can make calculating your withholdings easier. The Paycheck Plus calculator, for example, will use information like your income and tax deductions to help you determine how to make changes to your W-4 to receive a boost in your refund or more money in your paycheck.

By answering a few quick questions, you can easily adjust your withholdings to see how they impact your paycheck and your tax liability. The tool will also auto-populate your new Form W-4 if you choose to adjust your withholdings.

Using a tool like the Paycheck Plus calculator not only takes the stress out of estimating your withholdings on your own, it also lets you quickly see the potential impact on your finances before you make any official changes.

3. Assess recent life events.

As life changes, so do your taxes. Generally, you should consider adjusting your W-4 any time a major life event occurs, to ensure the right amount of tax is withheld from your paycheck. For example, did you start a new job this year or get a pay raise in your current position? A change in household income can impact your tax situation and require you to modify your allowances.

Did you recently tie the knot? Saying “I do” can affect your tax rate, especially if you and your spouse are both employed. Filing a joint return can lower your tax rate and qualify you for deductions you didn’t have as a single person. The same is true if the opposite occurs — divorce. Untying the knot will place you back in single status and take away many of the tax benefits available to those who are married.

A new baby is also a major life event that greatly influences your tax situation. This is true even if you adopt. Not only can you claim an additional allowance for your new dependent, you may also qualify for various credits, like the Child Care Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Both of those decrease your tax liability. If your withholdings remain the same, you may receive a larger refund, but you will miss out on extra dollars in your paycheck to cover the costs of added expenses, like diapers and formula.

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How PMI can make your dream of home sweet home a reality

(BPT) – In the 2017 housing market, those who choose to pursue the dream of owning a home face several important decisions, such as how much to put toward a down payment. Twenty percent down is typically recommended by most lenders.

While 20 percent is not a requirement, paying less can have a big impact on the amount you pay monthly. It is important for home buyers to know that when seeking a conventional loan with less than 20 percent down of the sales price or appraised value of the home, lenders will often require Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).

This article takes a deeper look at PMI by answering the most common questions on the topic.

What is PMI?

PMI is a type of mortgage insurance. Like most other types of mortgage insurance, it protects the lender in the event the borrower is unable to repay the remainder of the loan. In many cases, PMI is required on conventional loans when the buyer has a down payment of less than 20 percent.

Some lenders may offer conventional loans that require a smaller down payment without PMI, but the tradeoff can typically be a higher interest rate.

How does PMI affect your loan?

PMI can affect your loan in several different ways depending on the loan type and the lender. In some cases, the PMI will be required in a lump sum at the time of closing. This PMI payment type is called an upfront premium.

Other PMI plans call for monthly payments where the total value of the PMI is divided and factored into your monthly mortgage payments. The PMI can generally be cancelled under certain conditions once 20 percent of the amount borrowed has been reduced from the principal balance, or amount borrowed.

Finally, the lender may also opt for a plan that requires both upfront and monthly PMI payments. In this case a portion of the PMI is paid at the time of closing, and then the remaining PMI is paid as part of the monthly mortgage payment.

Alternatives to PMI

Some government-backed loans offer alternative options to buyers paying less than 20 percent down on a home loan. There are several of these loans and each has a different approach to handling down payments and mortgage insurance. By being educated on the different types of loans you will have an easier time finding which best suits your needs.

Learning more about PMI

While PMI is an additional fee, it helps those with less than a 20 percent down payment realize their dreams of home ownership.

To learn more about financing options that can make your dreams of homeownership a reality, visit VMFhomeloan.com.

NMLS Disclosure

Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, Inc., 500 Alcoa Trail, Maryville, TN 37804, 865-380-3000, NMLS #1561, (http://www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org/), AZ Lic. #BK-0902616, Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license, GA Residential Mortgage (Lic. #6911), Illinois Residential Mortgage Licensee, Licensed by the NH Banking Department, MT Lic. #1561, Licensed by PA Dept. of Banking.

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6 tips for decoding college financial aid award letters


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(BPT) – Whether you’re a high school senior or an adult looking to change careers, a college degree can be the key to a bright future. As acceptance letters arrive in the mail, another important document is not far behind: financial aid letters.

“College is a major investment, and many people require financial assistance to pay for it,” says Harlan Cohen, New York Times best-selling author and creator of the Naked Financial Minute. “It’s vital to understand financial aid so you can make informed choices and avoid surprises in the future.”

The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year is $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

In order to find out what aid you qualify for, you should start by filing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After your information is processed, and you’ve applied to the colleges of your choice, you’ll receive financial aid award letters in the mail with the results from each school where you were accepted.

Not all financial aid letters are the same, so deciphering and comparing them can be confusing. To help get you started, the experts at College Ave Student Loans share tips and tricks for how to easily understand your financial aid letter.

Look carefully at symbols and terms: College award letters may use different wording and abbreviations. For instance, rather than spelling out the word “loan” you could see “L” or “LN”. You might also see “net price” and “net cost.” Look carefully at how each school calculates these amounts. Some schools will subtract loan amounts from these figures. Just remember that loans need to be paid back, usually with interest; loans can help you spread the cost of college over time, but they don’t eliminate the expense.

Know the difference between gift aid and loans: Gift aid is money that is awarded to qualifying students that isn’t expected to be paid back. Gift aid includes things like scholarships, grants, and housing or tuition waivers. Not all applicants will qualify for gift aid, but most will be eligible for federal loans. As a general rule, you should expect that you’ll need to pay loans back, usually with interest.

Be aware of the impact of outside scholarships: If a student is awarded a private scholarship, the financial aid letter may list its effect on the amount of money offered by the school or in federal aid because the student’s financial need has already been partially covered. This could impact gift aid, loan amounts, or both.

Keep an eye out for work-study offers: If you indicated an interest during the FAFSA application, your financial aid letter may list approval for a work-study job that provides money toward your studies and fits with your class schedule. The money you earn is typically applied directly to your school expenses.

Understand your expected family contribution (EFC): Depending on your personal circumstances, there may be a line item for expected family contribution. This is the amount of money your family is expected to contribute toward your college education based on their tax and savings information. This will impact your overall award package.

Think about additional costs: Your financial aid letter may not include all of the costs associated with going to school. Think beyond tuition and make sure you have an idea of what you’ll be spending on housing, food, transportation, books, supplies, additional fees, and other living expenses.

If you find the amount of financial aid provided isn’t enough (including the amount offered in federal loans), families may want to research and explore private student loans as an option to cover the additional expenses. Look for competitive interest rates and flexible repayment options that match your budget. College Ave Student Loans also offers a calculator that showcases how much families can save with various loan options at www.collegeavestudentloans.com.

Finally, if you’re still unclear about the terms and conditions of any college award letter, it’s important to reach out to the school to ask for clarification or discuss your options. You don’t want to leave any money on the table.

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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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