5 Easy Tips for Smoother Tax Prep.

If you haven’t done your taxes yet, you’re not alone. According to the Internal Revenue Service, they receive a majority of Americans’ returns the week taxes are due. But with this year’s due date of Tuesday, April 18, coming up quickly, you don’t want to wait too much longer. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the thought of doing your taxes, or simply have no idea hot to start getting organized, these tips will help.

Set Goals and Break Down Tasks- Large projects are always easier to handle when you break them down into manageable chunks. Rather than looking at ‘doing taxes’ as one overwhelming job, break it down into small tasks that are easier to complete. Give yourself a day or two between tasks to regroup and get ready for the next thing.

Focus and Avoid Distractions- We have been conditioned to believe that multi-tasking is the key to being productive. But more and more, studies show that it can actually make us less efficient and produce higher levels of stress than focusing on and completing a single task at a time. Preparing for and doing your taxes takes focus. Set aside time specifically devoted to those tasks and eliminated distractions. You’ll accomplish your goals quicker and be less likely to overlook details and make mistakes when you’re focused.

Gather All Information- The key to getting your taxes done accurately is having all the necessary information and paperwork together and organized. While each person’s paperwork will vary depending on their unique situation, every filer will need the following basic information to get started:

Social Security numbers and dates of birth for yourself, as well as your spouse and dependents (if applicable)
Copy of last year’s tax return
Your electronic filing PIN
All statements relating to earned income, such as W2 and 1099 forms and records related to investment, rental and retirement income.
Receipts for charity donations, medical expenses, HAS contributions, ect.
Interest paid on mortgages
Interest earned on savings accounts

Talk with your tax preparer or review a complete list of necessary documents included with your tax prep software for a comprehensive list. Once you know what you need, keep the list handy so you can refer to it frequently and collect the paperwork you need throughout the year to get a head start on next year’s re tune.

Allow Enough Time- Once you have all your information together, it’s time to actually do your taxes and file your re tune. Be sure to allow enough time to have them prepared and filed before the deadline. With most people waiting until the last minute, you could find yourself unable to get an appointment, or may find an online-based tax preparation software an overload if you wait until the day before. Plus, you never know if you’ll run into a glitch that could set you back. Better to give yourself some wiggle room so you’re sure to file on time.

Don’t Spend Your Refund Before You Have It!- You’ve heard the expression that says there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes. But what is not guaranteed is that you’ll be getting a tax refund. Even if you regularly received a refund, changes in your income and circumstances, along with differences in the tax code, could mean you’re not getting one this year. As tempting as it might be to overspend thinking you’ll make up for it with a refund, resist that temptation.

The March Money Diet

I set strict budgets in my home using spreadsheets, shopping sales, using coupons. There are still times that I manage to blow past my limit without even realizing what is happening, despite my best intentions. Like many people, I find myself spending more then I intend to.

Then I found the January Money Diet- this is to help with saving money after overspending through the holidays and thought why do I have to wait until January to do this? I want to start in March.

I am determined to get back on track with my spending as soon as possible – that’s why I’m deeming March a no-spend month.

Monthly Money challenge: Start a Spending Detox
Spending money on clutter and stuff you just don t need is effecting many. I want to start the month strong by taking a break from spending money on unnecessary things and focusing on my financial goals.

As it turns out, I am not alone in my mindset. Thousands of people each year participate in the Money Diet, a 30 day money-saving challenge. During the month (mine is March), you only spend money on essentials like food, and you focus on living well without unnecessary spending.
The Rules of the Month
There are some expenses I simply cannot get rid of (no matter how much I may like to), including rent, utilities, and home internet. Those expenses are non-negotiable, but I plan on cutting in other areas.

Gas for the car is a must, and groceries, too. But the grocery budget will be reduced by about 50 percent. I will eliminate the sweets and snacks we love, and the convenient ready-made meals. I plan on doing a lot more from-scratch cooking during the month, stretching my grocery budget further.

Clothes, dinners out, and trips to the movies are all eliminated. Indeed, I’ll be taking trips to the park with the kids, watching movies I already own, and attending community events.

This is a significant change for me, but it will be effective. When I sat down and did the math, I estimated that I will save about $500 in extraneous spending. That money can go a long way in helping build my savings back up.
Results to Expect
A no-spend month is more than just a way to save some money; it’s a detox that helps reset your mindset. After overindulging and overspending on a regular basis, it can help to readjust your approach to money.

You can significantly change your financial outlook in just 30 days. While we think we can save $500, the results over time are more significant. That money bolsters our emergency fund, which means we’ll rely less on credit cards if a crisis pops up. By saving money, we’re less likely to end up in debt.

After we get used to spending less and living without so many extras, we can make do on a smaller income. That means we can save even more after the 30-day challenge is over. One simple month of not spending can compound to have long-lasting effects.
Make it a game
There’s no doubt about it: Going a whole month without spending money is tough. The best way to make it doable is to make it fun.

My family and I have a competition of who can come up with the best free event ideas, the tastiest cheap dinners, and the most innovative do-it-yourself solutions. The only prize is bragging rights, but we’re all innately competitive people.

Turning a no-spend challenge into a game makes it more fun and less of a strain. If your family is struggling to get through, try different ways to make it fun for you.

How to Avoid a FORECLOSURE: Three Steps that Can Save Your Home

The recession has challenged homeowners from all backgrounds and all parts of the nation. Many are struggling to meet their mortgage payments and the threat of foreclosure is looming. This situation can be scary and confusing, so it’s important to fully understand all of your options.

Many lenders are willing to negotiate loan modifications, but these opportunities become much more limited as the months pass. The sooner you take action, the better. Fortunately, you don’t have to go through this process alone. Free assistance is available, and it all starts with an open dialogue.
Call Your Lender to Explain the Situation
If you have fallen behind on your mortgage payments, call your lender as soon as possible to explain your current financial situation. Many homeowners have been hindered by unexpected bills and higher living expenses. Your lender may be able to accommodate. An honest discussion is the first step. That’s when you’ll be presented with potential options based on your individual circumstances.
Meet with a HUD-Approved Housing Counselor
Homeowners who want one-on-one guidance and support can meet with a housing counselor from a non-profit agency for free.

In order to protect yourself against potential scams, only seek out housing counseling agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). All HUD-approved agencies have specially trained counselors who can help you understand your rights and aid the negotiation process.*
Educate Yourself About the Foreclosure Process
Your lender or housing counselor can provide educational resources to help you understand the short and long-term impact of foreclosures. You can also find trustworthy information from the following online resources:


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Gift Cards: How to Make the Most of Them

Since 2007, gift cards have been the most requested gift – you probably have received gift cards also. And what is not to love about gift cards? They give us the chance to shop, dine out, or enjoy activities guilt free, whenever we wish. But surprisingly, more than $2 billion dollars’ worth of gift cards went unused in 2012. Don’t let your gift cards fall into that statistic. Here are some times to make the most of your gift cards throughout the year.
Keep it Close-A gift card will not do any good sitting in a drawer or filing cabinet. Place it in your wallet immediately when you received it so you have it with you when you need it. But remember, gift cards should be treated like cash and aren’t replaceable if lost or stolen, so keep them secure.Know the Terms-Fees and terms of use vary widely among gift cards. Some cards are assessed a fee for non-use after a period of 12 months. A few months of these fees can quickly diminish or eliminate a gift card’s balance. If you’re not sure of the card’s terms, it is best to use it right away.
Sell or Trade-So you got a gift card for the best steakhouse in town but you are a vegan – what do you do? Sell or trade it for a card you’ll actually use. You can do it informally by trading with a friend, co-worker or family member. Or sell fit cards you won’t use to a site (like Gift Card Granny) for up to 93% of the face value. Granted, you’ll lose a few dollars, but it’s better to have the cash than let the card go to waste.
Keep Track of the Balance-If you don’t use the gift card’s full amount in on go, keep track of the balance. You can always check the balance over the phone or online. But the easiest way is to simply wrap the receipt listing the remaining balance around the card and keep them together in your wallet.
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Save Your Money – Plan a Spending Freeze

A spending freeze is just that – not spending any disposable income for a day, a week, two weeks or longer. A spending freeze can help you learn how you have been spending (or wasting) money in the past, and add extra money to your savings account once you’re done. If the thought of not spending any money for a week or longer seems like too much, consider this: it is easier to work through a spending freeze voluntarily, rather than living through one forced by lack of emergency funds.
Before you start a spending freeze, there are a few things you should do first.
Spot Check Your Finances- Make sure the payments you do make, utilities, ect., are the best deal possible. Devote some time to shopping auto insurance discounts, trim your cable TV costs, and ask about any savings or budget plans offered by your utility companies. Review statements for unnecessary fees, and reconsider all ot the monthly auto-pays you have in place. Eliminate services you don’t use any more, or that are just not worth the money.Update Your Monthly Budget and Savings Goal- Set a goal to save a specific amount and have a definite plan for the money once it is saved. Update your monthly budget to determine how much you expect to save during your freeze. Then, write down your plan for the money you’ll save during your freeze. Temptation to spend will be easier to face if you can picture paying off the credit card balance, making a healthy deposit to your savings, or paying for that small home improvement project with cash.
Stock Up and Prepare­- Make sure you have basics on hand to last through your freeze – running out to the store for toothpaste or laundry soap will be hard to avoid if you run out, defeating the purpose of your freeze. Take a complete inventory of your pantry, freezer and fridge and plan meals around what you already have. Grocery shop ahead of time – and plan some flexibility for days that don’t go according to plan, to prevent last minute pizza orders because your planned dinner that day just did not work out.
Have you ever used a spending freeze to save money? What did you learn from your freeze?  What is the longest time you have gone on a spending freeze?
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How to Save on Last-Minute Holiday Travel

Whether you’re being pressured by family to make it home for the holidays or you’re just burned out and need a change of scene, it’s not too late to save on holiday travel. The key is to be flexible regarding the days, times, modes or transportation and lodging you choose. Here are five ways to help get where you’re going during the holidays without going broke:
Planes, Trains and Automobiles- It’s not just the title of a classic holiday travel film. It’s actually a way to save money when you travel. If you’re willing to be flexible about how you reach your destination, you could save a lot by traveling via bus, train or even by sharing the costs of a road trip. If you live near a university, there are always students looking to defray expenses by either hitching a ride with someone or letting an extra passenger ride along. Shop Across Platforms- When you’re searching for the lowest possible rates, it pays to sign up for both text and email alerts from the major travel discount sites, since they often have different deals available through different channels. Additionally, you’ll want o conduct your search on more than one browser, since different browsers can yield different prices for the same sites. 
Get on the Phone- And by that, we mean, actually make a call and talk to another human being. this is especially effective when searching for a last-minute hotel room. You’ll have the best luck if you start calling your chosen hotel in the late afternoon after they’ve tallied up their cancellations for the day. Empty rooms means lost revenue, and they’d rather have them filled – even at a deep discount 0 so there are often rooms available at a fraction of their usual rate. 
Travel on the Holiday-It might not be your first choice, but when saving money is the goal, traveling on the holiday itself can net you savings of 25-50 percent on airfare. In addition to saving on the cost of your ticket, you’ll breeze through security quickly and likely have a lot of room to stretch out on the plane. 
Be Flexible About Airports- If your destination has more than one major airport, be sure to check the airfares coming into and flying out of both. Though they might be only a few miles apart, the price differences between the two can be significant. 

Throw a New Year’s Eve Party on a Budget

Ringing in the New Year surrounded by family and friends is always a fun way to wrap up the holiday season. But by the time December 31 rolls around, most people’w holiday budgets are all but maxed out. Does that mean you have to sit home alone and hit the hay before midnight? No! It is possible to host a memorable New Year’s Eve party without spending a lot. Here’s how:
Repurpose Holiday Decorations- If your home is already decorated for the holidays, you’ve got a head start. New Year’s Eve decor is all about sparkle and shine, so anything silver, gold or shinny can stay. Minimize the red and green and put away anything with an obvious Christmas theme. If you’re not convinced the environment is festive enough, add some groupings of inexpensive white pillar candles and sprinkle metallic confetti on surfaces. They’re simple, affordable ways to add elegant ambiance. Hit the Dollar Store- Shop the dollar store for cups, napkins, paper plates and plastic cutely. (You’ll probably find party favors like poppers and noisemakers, too.) It’s cheaper than the party store and since they’re going to be used once and thrown away, no one is going to judge the quality. Skip anything with the year stamped on it and go with solid colors instead. If you have any leftover you can use them during the year or save them for next New Year’s Eve. 
Start the Party Later- Starting the party later in the evening, perhaps 8 or 9 pm, means your guests will have eaten dinner before they arrive. This allows you to serve light snacks and dessert, rather than a full meal, which will help you save big. Cheese and crackers, chips and dip, a fresh veggie tray and something sweet are all most people need to feel satisfied. 
Bring Your Own… Bubbly- The big moment of any New Year’s Eve party is the champagne toast at midnight. If you’re concerned about buying bubbly for a crowd, ask everyone to bring a bottle of sparkling wine. You’ll end up with more than enough and everyone will have a chance to try a few different varieties. 
Take Advantage of Good TV- This is one party where it won’t be considered rude to have the TV on. Tune into any of a number of specials for coverage of celebrations from around the world and build up the excitement for when the ball drops at midnight. 

Is Financial Stress Affecting Your Health?

It is no secret that excessive stress of any kind can take a toll on your health. But financial stress can be especially damaging as it can have a number of secondary effects across all facets of life.
Take a look at the potential health risks of financial stress and start taking steps to manage them.
Cutting Corners on Food- Trying to make ends meet often means healthy eating takes a back seat to buying food that is cheap and filling. Unfortunately, this can lead to long-term health issues caused by too much processed food and not enough frest fruits and vegetables.A Better Way- You can stretch your food budget to include healthy, fresh foods by:

Shopping with coupons and money saving apps
Establishing and sticking to a food budget
Cooking meals at home
Getting involved in a local co-op or CSA share

Using Negative Coping Behaviors- Drinking alcohol, smoking, or overeating as responses to financial stress are not uncommon, but they are unhealthy. All of these so-called stress relievers are only short term fixes that make the real issue. Plus, they can be expensive and cost you more in the long run in the form of higher insurance premiums and health care costs.
A Better Way- Try Healthier outlets for stress management, such as:

Exercise- Even a quick walk around the block can calm your nerves and clear your head.
Conversation- Talking things out with a supportive friend or family member can help you determine your options.
Get Creative- Try writing in a journal, sketching, painting or other creative pursuits to channel excess stress

Losing Sleep- There are a few things that can keep you up at night, like wondering how you are going to pay all of your bills this month. Not getting enough sleep can have a number of negative side effects, including weight gain, inability to concentrate and weakened immunity.
A Better Way-  Get free help to get back on track. NBP credit counseling will help you:

Determine the total amount of debt you owe
Develop a budget and stick to it
Make a plan to pay off debt
Avoid incurring additional debt

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How to Save When Dining Out

One of the most effective ways to save money and stick to your budget is cooking meals at home. But there will be times when you want to dine out to celebrate a special occasion, meet up with friends for a bite, or just take a break from cooking. Not to worry. You can still enjoy a meal out now and then and stick to your budget by keeping these tips in mind.
Plan Ahead- Arriving at the restaurant ravenous and unprepared is a sure recipe for overspending. Do a little restaurant reconnaissance before you get there so you can have a game plan in mind. Spend a few minutes reviewing the menu online and get an idea of what you’d like to order. As with all spending decisions, decide on a budget for the meal and stick to it.Stick to Water- No, it’s not the most exciting drink on the menu, but it is the only one you will get for free. Drinking water with your meal won’t only save you money, it will help keep you hydrated and counteract the effects of the added salt often used in restaurant meals. If you need another reason to skip that bottle of wine, a Food Network survey of professional chefs revealed that wine at a restaurant can cost more than double what you will pay retail.
Choose Appetizer Over Entrée- Restaurant portions have gotten so large that appetizers are now the perfect size to have for your main meal. Choose one or two plus a side salad and you’ll have a perfectly satisfying meal that rings in less than the cost of an entrée.
Make it Worth Your While- If you do decide to order an entrée, make sure it is something special that you can’t or won’t make for yourself at home. Things like pasta with red sauce, roasted chicken, steamed vegetables and hamburgers all have a huge markup when ordered in restaurant. Choose something unique that you can easily replicate on your own to make it worth the expense.
Go Halvsies- If the restaurant you are going to is known for its large portions; make a plan to split the entrée with your dining companion. You can also ask your server to box up half the entrée before it is plated. You’ll enjoy  a just-right portion for your meal and have leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day.
Ditch Dessert- Unless the restaurant is home to an award-winning pastry chef or know for one special dessert, just say no when the inevitable question arise. Just like beverages, desserts are some of the highest-margin menu items. You’ll be better off waiting until you get home to have a little something sweet for a whole lot less.
Use Coupons and Apps- If you are having a casual meal with friends or family, don’t forget to check for coupons or use an app like Out to Eat with Kids to find the best deals- even freebies.
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Get a Side Job and Make Extra Money

Finding extra money in your budget to pay down debt, contribute to an emergency savings account or even take a well-deserved vacation can be difficult. But if you think a surprise inheritance from a long-lost wealthy relative or winning the lottery are the only ways you will ever see extra cash, think again. There are plenty of side jobs that offer decent pay in exchange for just a few hours of your time and effort. They key to  making a side job really payoff is putting the extra money you make towards a specific purpose, rather than just rolling it into your regular bank account.
Here are a few money-making side jobs to consider:
Mystery Shopper- Retail stores, restaurants, car dealerships and other businesses want honest, constructive feedback on their products and services, and they hire mystery shoppers to provide it. The most successful mystery shoppers provide thorough, detailed feedback to help business improve. Unfortunately, scammers have capitalized on the popularity of mystery shopping, so you have to investigate mystery shopping opportunities to ensure they are legit. The best way to do that is by starting with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which requires businesses to adhere to mystery shopping code of ethics.Focus Group Member- If you want to get paid to give your opinion (and who doesn’t?) focus groups are a great way to make some extra cash. Register with a local market research company, and when they have a client who is looking for opinions from those in your demographic group, you will receive a call to come in. Focus groups generally last 1-3 hours and most pay in cash or check the same day.
Tutor- If you are a math whiz or a grammar guru (or just a general smarty-pants) use your brain to make some extra money by tutoring. Register with a local learning center and you will be called on when a student needs some help learning your area of expertise.
Pet-sitter- Everyone with pets has the same dilemma: who is going to care for them when they are out of town? That is where you come in. If you love animals and don’t mind being away from home for a few nights, offer your services as a pet sitter. Do some research into the going rates for kennels and other pet sitters in your area, and price your services accordingly. (Not into pets? Offer house sitting services to those who want their place to look lived-in while they are away).
Artist- Whether it is making jewelry, knitting, sewing, painting or any other creatively crafty endeavor, you can make it pay by becoming a seller on Etsy. This online marketplace for hand-made and vintage goods can be a great source of extra income. And you will get paid to do something you love.
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