Rebel against rogue investing and the dark side of market forces with these 7 tips

(BPT) – There is great unrest in the financial universe. The next disturbance in The Force is anyone’s guess. Like the rebels in the forthcoming Star Wars film Rogue One, you seek a new hope. Fear not and reach for a promising investment future.

I. Look to the setting suns.

In Episode IV: A New Hope, a moisture farmer named Luke Skywalker contemplates his future as two suns set. Great challenges loom ahead. Preparations are critical. The same is true of your financial future. Do you have an emergency fund? Are you on track for retirement?

TIP: You must be looking now to see what can happen later.

II. The Force will be with you, always.

The keys to investing success lie inside you—though you shouldn’t go it alone. Envision what you’ll encounter. Create a strategy to meet those demands. Ask yourself:

* How much can I contribute
* In which areas?
* What does victory look like?
* When will objectives be met?

When fear for the future emerges, seek advice. In Star Wars, Jedi knights guide apprentices. All lean on master Yoda.
TIP: Navigate challenging times with an advisor or representative at your financial institution.

III. Rendezvous.

Before dangerous missions in Star Wars, the rebels convene. Strategy is detailed. Difficult questions are asked. Consensus is reached. Regarding your investment plan, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your budget and increase monthly contributions to your portfolio.

“Schedule time on a quarterly basis to review your portfolio’s performance,” says Kevin Driscoll, vice president of advisory services at Navy Federal Financial Group. “It’s a great idea to involve your financial advisor in this process. A second opinion can provide perspective and help you identify areas for improvement.”TIP: Plans tend to impact others, so be sure to communicate and collaborate.

IV. Diversify your attack.

An effective strategy in battle employs multiple fronts. In Star Wars, missions combine air and ground tactics. Investing also incorporates “divide and conquer.” Experts recommend investing in diverse assets: stocks, bonds, certificates, real estate and more.

TIP: To diversify your portfolio, invest in stocks and bonds across a variety of business sectors.

V. Stay in formation.

Your portfolio will be tested. Be mindful. In Star Wars, Jedi are trained to draw close to each other when threatened. Remember no matter how poorly an investment is performing, history shows the market corrects with time.

“When the market dips, purchase more shares with the same dollar amount. When the market spikes, your owned shares increase in value,” Driscoll explains. This investing method is called dollar-cost averaging. It lowers the average cost of shares over time.

TIP: Avoid watching the market too closely. Resist the urge to bail on an asset. Invest consistently, with the long view in mind.

VI. Don’t go rogue.

In Star Wars, The Empire has built a vast portfolio of assets on Darth Vader’s watch. He offers enticing rewards to bounty hunters who support his regime. Your mission in financial planning is to resist the ever-present temptation to go rogue. Don’t be seduced by others’ success. Don’t jump when a friend asks you to invest in his can’t-miss venture (unless his goals align with yours).

TIP: Record your investment plan in writing, which firms up the details. When tested, fall back on the document.

VII. The saga will have many episodes.

Despite your best intentions, some investments will succumb to the dark side of market forces. Remember investing takes patience and fortitude. Like most journeys, the story of your portfolio won’t be told in a single chapter.

TIP: Avoid making an investment decision when your emotions run hot or cold.

Get started.

If there’s an example in Star Wars of what not to do in investing, it’s Han Solo. He didn’t believe in market forces (at first). At times, he struggled to manage obstacles. As we saw in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (and as early as Episode IV: A New Hope), Han didn’t take debt seriously. Collectors were after him at every turn. In Episode VI: The Empire Strikes Back, his assets were frozen. Your destiny can be simpler. You don’t have to be a swash-buckling smuggler. A moisture farmer from a remote desert outpost can make sound financial decisions toward prosperity.

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4 tax changes that could impact your 2016 return

(BPT) – With tax filing season upon us, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on what’s changed since last year. While it’s been a relatively quiet year in terms of new tax laws, there are a handful of items for which you’ll want to prepare.

1. The Tax Deadline is April 18.

This year, the deadline to file returns is Tuesday, April 18, 2017, rather than the traditional April 15 date. That’s because the April 15 falls on a Saturday and Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, is recognized on Monday, April 17, 2017 and is a holiday in the District of Columbia. For tax-filing purposes, the IRS treats this day as a federal holiday.

2. Delayed refunds for some early filers.

If you claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) this year, you’ll have to wait until after mid-February to get your refund. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, passed in late 2015, says the IRS cannot issue credits or refunds for an overpayment before Feb. 15, 2017 to any filer who claims the EITC or ACTC.

The delay gives the IRS more time to review income tax returns — and prevent the agency from inadvertently processing fraudulent returns. Fraudsters file bogus returns before the actual filer can complete their taxes and often claim credits like the EITC and ACTC.

Both the EITC and ACTC are refundable tax credits. That means they are beneficial even after reducing your tax liability to zero. If the amount of these credits is more than the amount of taxes due, you’ll get the difference back as a refund. Savvy criminals know this — and input numbers to make it look like they should get more money back.

If you don’t file either of these credits, the IRS says your refund will likely get processed in the typical time frame of 21 days.

3. Don’t be surprised if your state asks for your driver’s license number or state ID.

Depending on the state in which you live, you may be asked to provide your driver’s license number (DLN) or state ID number when you file your 2016 state return. This is part of a broad effort by the IRS, states and the entire tax industry to lessen the risk of tax-related identity theft. Identity thieves may have personal information such as your name and Social Security number, but not your DLN. The additional information helps states verify you are who you say you are.

“Some states, such as Alabama, will ask taxpayers who e-file to provide both the DLN as well as date of issue, expiration number and issuing state,” says Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct. “If you use a DIY tax solution like TaxAct, you’ll be prompted to enter the information required by your state as you prepare your return.”

Implementing additional identity verification measures, such as requesting a filer’s DLN and related information, can help curtail the number of fraudulent returns states process this year. The IRS now requests this information, but it is not required to electronically file a federal return.

4. Affordable Care Act (ACA) forms may be late this year — but don’t wait to file your return.

By now, you’re probably accustomed to receiving ACA-related forms reporting whether you and members of your household met health insurance coverage requirements established by the ACA for the prior year. What’s new this year is when you’ll receive some of those forms.

The deadline for companies and insurers to issue Forms 1095-B and 1095-C to individuals has been delayed this year. Employers and insurance providers must mail your forms by March 2, 2017 — considerably later than the original Jan. 31 deadline.

“Remember, you don’t need to file these forms with your return,” Jaeger says. “However, the forms can be helpful in identifying coverage months if the entire tax household did not have full-year health insurance coverage. Once you receive the applicable form, keep it with your other tax documents. The IRS gets their own copy so you don’t need to attach it to your return.”

Keep up to date with a little help from your friends.

Staying abreast of tax changes before you file your return can be tough. Fortunately, taxpayers can turn to a number of resources, including TaxAct, for help.

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Shopping for small business solutions? Tech talk translations for SBOs

(BPT) – As a small business owner, you do it all: the books, marketing, customer service, product, inventory and — oh yes — tech support. In fact, small and microbusiness owners are more likely to shoulder all tech tasks for their firms, according to a study by the National Small Business Association. Yet unless your business is IT, chances are you struggle to speak the language of business technology solutions.

“Small business owners need to be masters of virtually every aspect of their business, but they shouldn’t have to be translators, too,” says Nate Spilker, vice president of cloud services for Citrix. “Technology can help small businesses grow and stay ahead of the competition. Organizations of all sizes need the technology they use to be easy to adopt, improve efficiency, reduce costs and boost productivity, no matter what their industry.”

Microbusiness tech challenges

The 3.7 million microbusinesses (which the Small Business Administration defines as having fewer than nine employees) make up more than 75 percent of all private-sector employers, and provide nearly 11 percent of private sector jobs, according to the SBA. Their tech needs are significant, yet 40 percent of microbusiness owners handle all their company’s IT support, according to the National Small Business Association.

Additionally, 60 percent allow employees to telecommute, which can make sharing files and data problematic. Telecommuting employees may save documents and files on local hard drives, rather than centralized locations where others can securely access and collaborate on the documents. What’s more, 57 percent don’t use cloud computing, a technology designed to enhance collaboration, the NSBA reports.

Technology can help microbusiness owners improve efficiency, reduce and control costs, provide superior customer service and satisfaction, and focus more time on activities that help the business prosper. Stephen L. Nelson, CPA, used Citrix ShareFile to securely, quickly and easily share documents and files with his clients.

Replacing the inefficient method of physically mailing documents with file sharing technology allowed his small team to get more done in less time, reduced the need for physical storage space for paper files, and increased productivity for his firm and his clients. Lowering overhead, paper and office space costs allowed Nelson to grow his business 10 percent.

Talking about solutions

The terminology that describes common tech tools can be mystifying to small business owners. Spilker and the small business technology professionals at Citrix offer explanations of some common terms and tools:

* Digital transformation — Technology is profoundly affecting how companies of all sizes do business. They are moving away from traditional, more labor-intensive processes in favor of digital tools, activities and processes.

* Cloud computing — Instead of storing, managing and processing data on an office computer or local server, cloud computing executes the same functions by using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet.

* File-sharing — Transferring files or documents via email or ftp servers has drawbacks, including potential security issues, version control challenges and slow speeds. File-sharing technology allows people using different devices to access, edit, change and otherwise use files, documents and other types of data stored in the cloud. Citrix ShareFile, for example, makes it easy for small business teams to securely share files and client data, collaborate on documents and obtain electronic signatures.

* Integrated document workflow — In order to keep work moving, small businesses require the ability to work with documents and move data between multiple kinds of software. For example, an accounting firm needs to be able to take data from W-2s (which might be stored in one format) and move that information to a tax form stored in a different format or “living” in a different system.

* Real time — When hardware or software does its job so quickly — in a matter of miliseconds — the user can immediately take entered data and put it to work.

* File sync — Storing files in multiple locations or having multiple users work with them on different devices can lead to discrepancies between versions. File synchronization technology basically compares these multiple versions to each other and allows users to update all versions with the most current changes, regardless of which user made the changes.

* Cyber security — Criminals who attempt to steal, manipulate, hack or otherwise illegally access a business’ proprietary computer systems and data are cyber criminals. All the steps a business takes to thwart these criminals — including anti-virus software and firewalls — are aspects of cyber security.

“ShareFile has really allowed my firm to digitally transform,” says Nelson. “The addition of automated workflows and secure file-sharing has improved efficiencies, which allows my team to focus our attention on delivering the best client service possible, while ensuring vital company and client data remains safe. Adopting a safe and secure online portal for customer engagement has been essential for delivering on the bottom line.”

To learn more about small business technology solutions, visit www.sharefile.com.

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3 ways to plan ahead for the 2017 tax season

(BPT) – With the tax season approaching, now is the time to start thinking about creating a strategy to help maximize tax refunds in the year ahead. From the passage of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act to the increase in health insurance penalties, here are a few items to keep in mind before the IRS begins accepting tax returns.

1. Donating to charity, making an extra student loan payment or contributing to an IRA can lower your adjusted gross and taxable income.

If you are a taxpayer that itemizes your deductions, donating to a qualified charity by Dec. 31 and saving the necessary documentation can lower your taxable income. Taxpayers can also deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on their student loans each year, even if the payment is voluntary. For those contributing to their IRA, taxpayers can deduct up to $5,000, and have until April 16, 2016 to make contributions.

2. Your health insurance penalty will increase if you are uninsured and do not sign up by Jan. 31.

The per-person flat fee penalty for not having health insurance has increased more than 630 percent since it was first implemented in 2014.

Taxpayers will now have to pay a penalty of $695 per uncovered adult, plus $347.50 per uncovered child up to a maximum of $2,085 or 2.5 percent of their household income over the filing threshold, whichever is greater. That means a family of four earning $60,000 would pay a penalty of more than $2,000.

According to H&R Block’s estimates, taxpayers without insurance in 2015 paid an average penalty of $401. This was a 125 percent increase from 2014, when the average penalty was $178.

There are some cases where an uninsured taxpayer may qualify for an exemption from the penalty, but the only way to completely avoid it in 2017 is to enroll and stay covered under a qualified insurance plan.

3. If you claim the earned income tax credit (EITC) or additional child tax credit (ACTC), your refund will be delayed until at least Feb. 15.

The passage of the PATH Act now requires the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to hold the entire refund for returns claiming the EITC and ACTC until at least Feb. 15, depending on when the return is filed.

The IRS estimates approximately one in five EITC payments are made through fraudulent filings or confusion due to the complexity in claiming the benefit. Employers are now required to send employee W-2s to the IRS by Jan. 31 to allow the IRS additional time to help prevent identity theft and fraud.

The IRS will begin releasing funds on Feb. 15, but taxpayers may not see the funds deposited into their banking accounts immediately. This law could affect approximately up to 30 million taxpayers who claim these tax credits.

If you are one of the 30 million taxpayers who claim these credits and are worried about a delayed refund, visit a local H&R Block professional to see how they might be able to help. For more information, visit hrblock.com/PATH.

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New wrinkles in tax strategies could help smooth your year-end planning

(BPT) – As 2016 enters its final weeks, it’s a good time for year-end tax planning strategies — including some new wrinkles:

Plan for 2016-2017 together: Consider reducing your overall tax liability by shifting income and deductions across 2016 and 2017. Assuming similar income for both, you can accelerate various deduction items into 2016. For example, mail your state estimated tax payment, due in January, before year-end to make it tax deductible in 2016. Or pay your January mortgage payment now to make the interest deductible this year. You can also accelerate charitable deductions or medical expenses into 2016. The latter may be especially attractive for those 65 or older because the threshold for deductibility is scheduled to increase from 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income to 10 percent in 2017. For those under 65, the threshold is 10 percent.

Note that taxpayers subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax may not benefit from the above strategies because some deductions are eliminated under the calculation.

Minimize tax on capital assets: If you have unused capital losses from prior years, sell investments at a gain to make those losses work. You won’t be taxed on those gains, up to the amount of the losses.

If your income level is below $75,301 for married couples filing jointly, or $37,651 for singles, consider selling stock at a gain to benefit from the 0 percent tax rate. But be careful: the gain can reduce your itemized deductions or cause more of your Social Security benefit to be taxed.

You can also sell poorly performing equity investments to use the annual $3,000 ordinary income offset for capital losses and reduce your taxable income. However, remember the “wash sale rules.” If you want to harvest a loss but continue the same investment, you need to wait 31 days to reinvest or lose your loss deduction until you sell the repurchased investment.

Finally, be careful when buying a mutual fund. Make sure it will not pay a dividend after you buy it and before year-end. That would increase your taxable income and reduce the value of your investment by the same amount.

Going forward, consider steps to minimize or eliminate the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on investment gain for married couples filing jointly with income more than $250,000, and single filers with income more than $200,000. For example, try municipal bond investments. Tax-exempt interest doesn’t increase your income level for purposes of the above test.

You can also convert some or all of a traditional IRA to Roth IRA form. Although the conversion will create a tax liability on the underlying IRA asset in the conversion year, all future gains should be income-tax-free and future withdrawals from the Roth IRA should not count toward the income threshold that triggers the Medicare surcharge.

Required minimum distributions: If you are 70 1/2-years-old, you generally must take your RMD from each retirement asset, including 401(k)s, each year. Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD rules; Roth 401(k)s are. The amount you must withdraw is determined by an IRS table. The idea is to force out an increasing percentage each year so the retirement asset is used over your lifetime.

In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have an option to defer your first RMD to the following calendar year. Beware: this could increase your overall tax liability for the two years combined.

Charitable gift giving: For those over age 70 1/2, if you are charitably inclined, consider making your charitable gifts using RMD funds. By using some or all of your RMD amount, up to $100,000 a year, you can avoid inclusion of such otherwise taxable income. This is usually better than an outright gift to the charity, since the charitable deduction would probably not fully offset the income from the RMD due to limitations on deductions. Note that to qualify for this special rule the charitable gift must be made directly from your IRA to the charity. You cannot take the RMD amount and then write a check to the charity.

Roth IRA conversions: Is it the right time to convert some or all of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA? Although that would trigger the gain on the traditional IRA amount being converted, there are numerous benefits from holding Roth IRA assets over the longer term. They serve as a hedge against increased tax rates, have no RMD requirement and can continue to grow without forced distributions. And, when needed, distributions from a Roth IRA don’t increase your taxable income for purposes of the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge, calculating the taxable amount of your Social Security benefits or determining the Medicare Part B premium surcharge applicable to higher-income taxpayers.

Prudential Financial Inc. and its affiliates do not render tax or legal advice. Please consult your tax and legal advisors for advice concerning your particular circumstances.

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Hispanics at the forefront of digital banking trends

(BPT) – With a population of more than 55 million and estimated buying power of over $1.5 trillion, Hispanics in the United States are continuing to shape economic trends; however, as new research finds, they’re shaping digital trends as well.

This year’s Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report shows Hispanic consumers are increasingly reliant on mobile devices to navigate daily life. In fact, 35 percent of Hispanics say they are more likely to interact with their smartphone in an average day than anything or anyone else, including their significant other.

The survey, which explored mobile trends and banking behaviors among adults across the country, found this digital lifestyle also extends to how they manage their finances. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of Hispanic consumers use a mobile banking app and 69 percent cite digital as their primary method of banking. These numbers mark a stark contrast from non-Hispanic users, whose percentages were 51 and 61 percent, respectively.

“This survey reinforces what our Hispanic customers show us every day — the Hispanic community leads the way in mobile adoption, usage and engagement,” said Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America, adding that it was the actions of the Hispanic community that spurred Bank of America to release its mobile app in Spanish. “We’re committed to delivering solutions that meet the needs and behaviors of these consumers.”

The report revealed further insights into Hispanic consumers’ mobile-first mindset.

* Texting becomes the new small talk. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Hispanics cite texting as their preferred communications method. The vast majority (80 percent) feel that the appropriate response time to a text is under an hour, and 54 percent text someone when they’re in the same room.

* Documenting life moments. Hispanics are more inclined to share events with others, as nearly all (95 percent) say they want to have their smartphone on hand to capture important life milestones. They’re also more likely than non-Hispanics to post these life moments on social media (78 percent, compared to 69 percent).

* Growing comfort with emerging payments. More than half (56 percent) of Hispanics would use or already use their phone to make purchases at checkout, compared to just 36 percent of their non-Hispanic counterparts. Seventy-seven percent of Hispanics say they’re likely to use emerging payment methods such as mobile wallets and social media apps, and 72 percent cite they would use or already use their bank’s peer-to-peer payments service.

For more information, visit bankofamerica.com/convenience.

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5 tips to protect your devices from cybercrime

(BPT) – Your smartphone, your tablet, your computer – they are some of your most important and most used possessions. They are the daily tools you use for research, to connect with others and make purchases. You take them everywhere and fill them with your important, personal information.

And all of that makes them the perfect targets for a cyberattack.

The number of cybercrime incidents in the United States grows each year, and as Americans move into an increasingly digital society — thanks to smart phones, smart cars and smart in-home technologies — cybercrime is expected to grow in frequency again in 2017. Protecting yourself, your family and the vital information on your devices means increasing your focus on your own cybersecurity. That starts with these five tips.

* Recognize you’re not immune. Cyberattacks increase in frequency and severity every year, so don’t make the mistake of believing it can’t happen to you. “It’s important to protect yourself by taking personal responsibility for your data; we can’t expect banks or other institutions to do it for us,” said Jim Karagiannes, Ph.D., professor in DeVry University’s College of Engineering & Information Services. “We lock our doors and take other security measures to protect our home and car. We need to also take precautions with our personal security and information.”

* Don’t store your username, password or credit card information with a website. The convenience makes it tempting, but websites are a popular target for cybercriminals because a successful hack gives them access to hundreds or thousands of files, including yours. Even storing this information on your own computer can expose it in a cyberattack, and if your credit card information is captured, criminals can use it to gather your social security number. That exposes you to identify theft. Keep this information off your devices and, instead, create complex passwords and write down all of your usernames and passwords on a piece of paper that you keep in a safe place, such as a deposit box.

* Use only a credit card, not a debit card, when making online purchases. Using your credit card instead of your debit card allows you to keep better track of the purchases you have made. It also limits the effects of any possible theft to just the one card instead of several. If you have no choice but to use a debit card for an online purchase, do not use your pin number online.

* If it feels like a trick, it probably is. Cybercriminals often engage in “social engineering” or other non-electronic methods to try and trick you into surrendering your data. If you get a phone call about a banking or credit card issue or if your computer tells you to call a number because it just caught a virus, be cautious. Do not divulge any personal history or credit card details. Hang up or ignore the computer-generated notices and call the customer service number of the institution’s website with any questions.

* Replace your existing credit cards with chip cards as soon as possible. Chip cards are becoming the new normal these days, and if your current credit card does not have a silver square chip on its front, consider replacing it quickly. Popularized in Europe, chip cards possess the necessary encrypted information to eliminate delays in the transaction process. Doing so closes the window criminals need to steal your personal information, thus protecting you from identity theft.

You have no intention of abandoning your devices, of course, so protect them. Following the tips above will help better secure your technology and personal information from the threats of cybercrime so you can enjoy your devices with greater peace of mind.

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Creating desirable jobs by getting back to the basics

(BPT) – When it comes to hiring and retaining employees, companies are always looking at new alternatives to build their staffs. However, new research shows that when it comes to attracting top talent, many professionals prefer a return to the basics, meaning stable employment with competitive base pay with traditional medical and retirement benefits are key.

The findings come from a recent survey conducted by the Career Advisory Board, which was established by DeVry University in 2010. The survey asked employees to offer their insight into what is most important for them when looking for the right workplace. Below are some of the most interesting findings.

Predictability over perks

Employees responded resoundingly that they wanted their work life to be more in line with those of the generations before. Eighty-one percent of survey respondents said they would like to work a single, full-time job as opposed to contract work or several smaller positions. This desire rang especially true with millennials as 91 percent of those surveyed agreed.

Respondents also preferred going to the office every day (22 percent) compared to working from remotely full-time (18 percent). Millennials, in particular, were more likely to seek a job where they had to be in the office each day (27 percent).

Stable jobs were valued by 84 percent of survey respondents, while only 16 percent said they preferred a job that may come with riskier employment opportunities.

Employers looking to stay the course

For employers looking to attract and retain top talent, they should focus on solidifying their existing benefits package. A competitive salary remained the most important benefit employees consider in an employer, but traditional offerings such as medical/dental coverage, paid time off and retirement plans were heavily favored over newer perks, including onsite food, wellness offerings and day care.

Employers also don’t need to look at making dramatic changes to their existing organizational structure to attract employees. Thirty-six percent said they prefer working for a single manager, while 18 percent said they appreciated the opportunity to report to multiple managers. However, no matter how employers establish their hierarchy, they should always be looking for ways to give employees a chance to impact company decisions. Fifty-six percent said they prefer a job with “authority to make decisions that impact the entire organization,” a sign employees care deeply about where they work and want to have a vital role in its growth.

Employees seizing what they want

For employees looking for new positions, the job market is healthier and those with the right skills and attributes will have their pick of positions. As we move further away from the recession years and the economy improves, those who can afford to take their time in their job search are most likely to find a position offering the things most important to them.

“The survey results show us that businesses today need to be good employers, offering stable employment with competitive base pay and traditional medical and retirement benefits,” says Alexandra Levit, business and workplace consultant and Career Advisory Board member. “The average American worker isn’t necessarily looking for all the bells and whistles.”

To learn more about the study, visit www.careeradvisoryboard.org.

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5 steps for happy holiday spending

(BPT) – For many families, holiday shopping may lead to a home full of toys, closets stuffed with today’s trends, and tech-savvy games and devices, some of which will be loved for months, while others will be tossed aside before they’ve even been paid for. Worse yet, if you use a credit card for the gifts you purchase and you cannot pay it off when the bill comes in, you’ll actually be spending a lot more than you may realize.

This year, instead of setting yourself up for potential frustration and financial stress, take a step back and plan your approach for gifts that have the endurance for a longer and more valued shelf life.

Holiday shopping is an opportunity to stay or get on track for smart spending habits while also enjoying the pleasure that you and your gift recipients have when opening the treasure that you’ve selected.

To help, here are five steps from MassMutual to consider:

1. Look at that holiday gift list that you, your children or grandchild have carefully crafted, and think about what they need and what they indicated they want. Remember, a need is something you have to have, while a want is something optional. For example, if your child has outgrown his or her clothes since school started, items may be appropriate as holiday gifts. The question is whether to splurge on expensive versions of designer brand items or not. While the holidays may be a time to splurge on a special item or two, every item does not need to fall prey to unnecessary overspending.

2. Develop a budget and stick to it. If you think about your resources, such as your money and time, they are likely limited and there may be a little of both. To help with this year’s holiday shopping, start by deciding how much money is available for gift purchases. Next, allocate a certain amount per person on your list. Lastly, add it all up to ensure it is within your budget. This step is often overlooked, which can lead to post-purchase regrets and large credit card bills after the holidays — and sometimes after the glamour of your gift has worn off.

3. Do your research. Scout when you’re out. Browse online. Check out holiday sale advertisements and store and restaurant signage. Watch your email for discounts, deals and specials. Comparison shop. Unless you have unlimited time and money, holiday shopping is not the time for impulse purchases.

4. Cross reference what you’ve found and learned through your research with your holiday gift list. Did you discover any options that would be valuable and long-lasting for the recipient? Update your list and next to each item, jot down the best price found and where it was found. Total up the dollar amounts and compare the total with what you allocated per person and your total budget.

5. If you’re lucky, the total will be under or at the budget limit you set for your holiday shopping. More than likely, however, you’ve overspent on paper so now you can determine what to adjust and how to trim costs. Be resourceful and creative, and think through trade-offs. Again, splurging may make sense for certain items, but not all, and do not spend more than you have.

Available at no cost to schools across the United States, similar tips on developing smart spending habits are part of a new FutureSmart digital financial education curriculum developed specifically for middle school students in English and Spanish by the MassMutual Foundation in partnership with education technology leader EverFi.

For additional useful information, visit www.massmutual.com. To learn more about FutureSmart and to request the program for a local school, visit http://futuresmart.massmutual.com/.

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5 affordable ways to connect with family without breaking the bank

(BPT) – Ready or not, the holidays are fast approaching. While it’s a season known for celebrating family and friends, the stress of gift-giving and holiday planning can make people lose sight of what’s really important.

Here are five ways you can easily connect with your family without breaking the bank.

Take a family “staycation”

Making time for your family during the holidays doesn’t have to mean splurging on a trip across the world. Instead, opt for a cheaper alternative and spend time in your area. Take time to explore neighborhoods or attractions nearby. You never know — you might find a new favorite place right in your own hometown.

Simplify communication

Not everyone can celebrate with family in-person over the holidays. Not to worry: a simple and affordable way to stay in touch with loved ones is just what you need. TracFone has you covered with amazing smartphone and feature phone deals, to help you connect for moments that matter this season. TracFone now offers a 30-day smartphone-only plan with talk, text and data for just $15 on America’s largest and most dependable networks with 4G LTE nationwide coverage — so you can easily share photos, videos and more. For more great deals and information on affordable, no-contract plans, visit www.TracFoneSwitch.com.

Repurpose a recipe

The holiday season means lots of meals and entertaining — and one of the best parts of this time of year is also leftovers! Rather than simply re-heating, look up some recipes you and your family can make to spice up extras from your holiday meal. This way, you can not only spend time in the kitchen together, but enjoy the meal you made around the table.

DIY decorate

This year, instead of buying generic (and expensive) decorations, get creative by making your own! Get the entire family involved and create decorations that will forever have a special meaning in your home. You can also get help thinking outside the box by turning to Pinterest, craft bloggers or YouTube tutorials for inspiration.

Give back

It can be easy to forget that the holidays are a time to remember to give to those in need. Take some time with your family to volunteer for an organization you feel strongly about. Volunteering is a great way to not only remind your family of what the holidays are all about, but a way for you to bond over an unforgettable experience.

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