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#1 Key To Preventing Tax Identity Theft


Are you worried about tax identity crooks taking away your return? Here's the best way to outsmart them...

How to beat the tax return ID thieves at their own game

During the last few years, crooks have been stealing people's Social Security numbers and then filing false returns as though they were those people. The crooks typically claim low income and high deductions and file electronically. Then when you go to legitimately file your return, it's rejected by the IRS because somebody else already filed as you!

The whole mess typically takes about 10-14 months to straighten out if you're on the receiving end of the scam.

For that reason, I've advised callers to make sure they owe the IRS rather than the other way around. In other words, reduce your withholding at work. That way you're not waiting around for money you can't get your hands on. (It's too late to do it for this current tax season, but it will help you come next year at tax time.)

Fortunately, the IRS has now trained almost half of their employees to spot identity theft and maybe prevent some of it. They have had to dedicate thousands of employees specifically to the task of help victims of identity theft.

The number of false returns filed last year was 15 million, and those are just the ones they stopped. The best guesstimate is that more than $6 billion has been stolen from the IRS and that impacts all of us federal taxpayers. Florida and Georgia in particular have been very hard hit.

All taxpayers in Georgia, Florida and the District of Columbia are eligible for an Identity Protection PIN that will protect them from tax related ID theft, according the IRS. To opt into the program visit www.irs.gov/getanippin.

For further reading:

How To Get a Passport

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My name was spelled wrong!

I was shocked.  My first US Passport arrived in the mail and my last name was misspelled. It appeared to be a simple clerical error. But would it still work?

I wasn’t sure.

With a pre-paid honeymoon to the Caribbean less than two weeks away, I couldn’t take any chances. I contacted the Passport office and explained the mistake. Luckily, they did fix it in time.

Mistakes do happen. That’s why applying for a Passport well in advance can really prevent a big headache for travelers.  

MORE: Clark Howard’s Travel Planning Guide

Even for those without travel plans in the near future, a current Passport can still come in handy. For example, I’ve used it as my primary photo ID after misplacing my driver’s license once or twice.

 

Where to begin

For new applications, be prepared to make a trip to a nearby Passport Acceptance Facility (search for one in your area) and be sure to take the following things with you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auSEMUepqts

 

6 things you need to get a Passport

1. Primary identification

Most use a valid driver’s license as proof.

2. Photocopy of primary identification

In order to process the application, present a copy of the primary identification being used (both sides).

3. Evidence of US Citizenship

Most use a certified birth certificate as proof. Make sure it has that raised seal. The office will not accept photocopies or just notarized copies as proof.  To find these records, contact the local government in the area where you were born. 

4. One Passport photo

A photo is required to get a Passport. Your local photo print lab likely will take it for a few bucks. Some passport acceptance facilities also will provide photo service on-site.

Yes, you can take your own photo --- but  you must follow some key instructions in order for it to be accepted.

Passport photo requirements:

  • In color
  • Printed on matte or glossy photo quality paper
  • 2 x 2 inches in size
  • Sized such that the head is between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches (between 25 and 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. View the Photo Composition Template for more size requirement details.
  • Taken within the last 6 months to reflect your current appearance
  • Taken in front of a plain white or off-white background
  • Taken in full-face view directly facing the camera
  • Taken with a neutral facial expression (preferred) or a natural smile, and with both eyes open (source: travel.state.gov)

5. Payment

For first-time adult applicants, expect to pay $135 for a Passport Book. Personal checks, money orders and bank drafts are accepted. Exact cash is okay at some locations. (Also, the execution fee is paid separately. So, two checks are required.)

6. DS-11 Passport application

This application can be filled out ahead of time online. When finished, print it and bring it with you to the acceptance facility. Be sure NOT to sign this document until a processing agent asks you to.

ARTICLE: 18 things You Forget on Your Packing List for Vacation

 

When it will arrive:

Most first-time applicants will receive a Passport by mail within 6-8 weeks after submitting all the paperwork. (If you are in a rush, request expedited service.)

You can check the status online by visiting the Secretary of State website at travel.state.gov.



About the author Julie Ruditzky Loffredi is an award-winning journalist and one of the most sought after travel reporters, appearing on NBC TODAY show, Fox News Channel and other news outlets as a guest. Her travel tips and writing are also featured in top travel publications. Found online at Travel + LeisureThe Travel Channel, USAToday, ABCNews, Huffington Post and others.

3 Ways Super-Busy People Can Eat Healthy for Less!

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It can be challenging to eat healthy on a regular basis, especially when you're on the go, in a rush, or traveling for work.

Grabbing a quick slice of pizza, a fatty patty between two buns, or gorging on a candy bar to stave off hunger might be appealing when you're pressed for time; however, if you're looking to bring healthier options into your day without completely depleting your wallet, here are three tips to do so.

Embrace simple bulk cooking and preparation

Whether it's a one-dish wonder or something you eat just once a month, think like a baker when preparing meals. Cookies and other desserts are made in batches. Why not take this high-volume approach to making a few quick and easy meals?

It's a numbers game when it comes to eating healthy for less. Making a bunch of items in bulk maximizes savings and allows you to be time-efficient when making simple meals. Block out an hour or so on a weekend to cook a bunch of items all at once. Cook a chicken, pop an easy-to-make meal in the crock pot, or prepare a bunch of sandwiches together. If you can enlist the help of  family to divide and conquer making meals for the week, it will save you that much more time.

Busy mom and winner of Food Network's Rewrapped Show, Laura Fuentes runs a company called Momables.com, where she makes healthy eating a lifestyle for her family. While sharing recipes and teaching others how to make her scrumptious creations, she practices what she preaches by still managing to feed her whole family healthy meals.

If you’re pressed for time, she explains, “Skillet meals, pasta salads, and just about anything in a crockpot are quick and easy to prepare.” Fuentes also points out that hard boiled eggs are a great make-ahead item. “It's a high protein snack, a meal builder, and very portable."

If you are able to make quinoa at home, you can easily add it to your own salad. Fuentes even sends her kids to school with her very own lunch box quinoa salad.

Make eating healthy food convenient

Many of us may not be salivating to eat a salad.  But stores like Trader Joe's might change how you view what's tasty by including some of their ready-made products into your diet.

Two of their delicious choices contain the protein-packed grain quinoa. The USDA recommends at least half of the grains we consume should be whole grains. Two of my favorite salads both contain this super food for just under $4.

For 430 calories, the Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheat Berry Salad is a tasty mix of those three ingredients plus cranberries, arugula, goat cheese and more that make a great combination of nutritious flavors.

For 370 calories, the Super Spinach Salad contains quinoa, carrots, cranberries, chick peas, edamame, pumpkin seeds and surprise, spinach, in a carrot ginger miso dressing that comes together for affordable lunch time goodness.

I purchase 3 different salads on a Sunday. This way I know I'm set for lunch for the next few days. It puts decision making on auto pilot and I don't have to prep or chop anything and then hope that I can find the perfect lunch container and matching lid. The store-bought salad fits nicely in my lunch bag while still leaving room for an ice pack and snacks. I can get ready quickly in the morning without scrambling to come up with new ideas for what to eat.

A little planning and organization goes a long way for your wallet

Sometimes the secret to setting yourself up for healthy eating success is inside of your fridge. Organization is key when it comes to most things and the same is true for how you store items in your refrigerator. Keeping contents fresher longer can save you money. Americans throw out a large amount of expired food at roughly over $2,000 a year.

If you’re looking to waste less food, I practice the Receipt Reference Technique. I keep my receipt on the fridge or close by and use it as an informal inventory list to quickly reference what’s inside. It helps me to remember when I purchased items by referencing the date on the receipt so I can plot out what I will eat. For example, I make it a priority to eat all of my fresh produce before it expires. It helps me plan what to eat earlier in the week to avoid throwing food in the trash and losing money.

In an effort to maximize freshness, professional organizer Alejandra Costello advises putting milk, eggs and yogurt towards the back of the fridge where it is colder. Space can be at a premium when storing large quantities of food cooked in bulk such as hardboiled eggs. In her video, Fridge Organization: How to Organize the Refrigerator, Costello stores hardboiled eggs right back in the carton and is sure to label them for easy access.

When traveling in airports, if you have a few minutes to spare, Beverly Harzog, consumer credit expert and author of The Debt Escape Plan, believes “it's a good idea to get online before you travel and look at food options in the airports where you'll be. That way, if you end up with a 5-hour delay, you'll know where the best deals are for a quick bite to eat. And once you've eaten, it's best to leave the restaurant so you aren't tempted to have several glasses of chardonnay while you wait for your flight.”

She also suggests packing protein bars and bags of nuts in your carry-on bag. Harzog does this regularly and it holds her back from buying expensive candy bars, which are her weakness when she lets herself get too hungry.

Using these tips consistently can allow you to eat healthier for less. You may find the whole process unexpectedly enjoyable while redefining your food options. A little bit of time spent purchasing or preparing healthy food choices can stretch your budget and keep you satiated during the week.


About the author: Karen Cordaway is a former shopaholic who spent years wasting money until she learned how to stop by reading personal finance books and teaching herself how to budget and save. Karen’s writing is found on U.S. News Money and MoneySavingEnthusiast.com. Her work has also been featured on Yahoo Finance, The Consumerist, Huffington Post, Fox News, Daily Finance and many others.

4 Ways To Save Big Bucks on Toys

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Let’s face it – toys are expensive, but they help to stimulate, educate, and occupy our busy kids when we need to get things done. Not to mention, kids get bored with the same toys or grow out of them over time, things break or wear out, and pieces get lost!

If you are a parent on a budget, or simply a mom or dad that prefers to save money whenever possible, consider the following 4 ways to save big bucks on toys. Keep your kids and your bank account happy when you take advantage of these cost effective shopping habits.

Buy second hand

Younger kids hardly ever understand the concept of ‘brand new’ so if you have the opportunity, take advantage of the astronomical savings that often come with buying gently used toys. Check out local consignment stores (Once Upon A Child has locations nationwide), annual consignment sales (like Little Feet Repeats, Duck, Duck, Goose, WeeRuns, or whichever option is nearest you), social media resale pages, and even yard sales.

Another option to consider is to host a monthly or seasonal toy swap with your area mom friends. Keep in mind, if kids are attached to their stuff, this type of exchange might be a little tricky, but ultimately, swapping and sharing among your closest friends is a great way for your kids to experience a wide variety of toys on a regular basis.

When collecting used toys, be sure you pick items that are easy to clean and sanitize. Used toys might save you a lot of money, but they do come with a risk for germs and dirt.

Rent your toys

Technology has afforded us a plethora of conveniences, but one of the most innovative platforms for families these days is the ability to rent toys for a designated amount of time, and then send them back to a distributing company in exchange for something different. For a monthly rate, kids get the chance to try out new items often, and parents don’t have to worry about accumulating too many things. Monthly boxes of toys are delivered right to your door, so perhaps the most attractive aspect of renting toys is avoiding the inevitable breakdown at the toy store checkout line. Toy rental companies thoroughly clean and sanitize all items upon their return.

For babies and young toddlers, consider toy rental companies like Spark Box or Baby Plays. Both of these companies offer age appropriate toys for little ones up to the age of 4 and functional gear that can later be purchased at a discount price if your child has become attached.

If you are the parent or loved one of older toddlers and/or kids up to the age of 12, Pley offers an unbeatable monthly rental of Lego sets for only $9.99 per month. With a pre-paid shipping label included, parents never have to fork out additional money to ship the kits back. Best of all, they don’t charge for a broken or lost piece! Pley’s website offers a user-friendly interface so parents and kids can browse and pick their next set according to age and/or theme.

With over 250 different sets to choose from, your kids can enjoy this membership for years! Be sure to check them out if you would like to save big bucks on Legos!

VIDEO: Are your kid's toys really safe?

Choose your toys wisely

If you want to make the most of your investments, be sure to make wise decisions about which toys you purchase. That fragile, poorly crafted dollhouse is unlikely to withstand the test of time when it comes to an unintentionally destructive toddler. That race car with the flimsy side mirrors and thin plastic is not going to last very long, so unless you have intentions of replacing your toys soon after you buy them, it’s usually best to spend just a little extra for a toy that will last longer.

Shop at the right time

Lastly, if you would like to buy new toys, but hate paying full price, be strategic about the timing of your purchases. According to consumer statistics, most retailers offer incredible savings a month to two months before and directly following the holidays. Late December and the month of January may not be an ideal time to spend more money, nor is it ever a time when kids truly need more stuff, but it never hurts to buy a few extra things, store them in a closet, and pull them out on a rainy day.

Trends suggest that retail stores have a tendency to mark hot toys up a bit in the early weeks of December. If you plan on buying for the holidays and want to get the best price, be sure to get your toys checked off the list no later than Black Friday.

When shopping for toys throughout the rest of the year, be sure to avoid the 2-3 weeks directly before a holiday. Even if it’s not a typical toy-giving celebration, true savings are usually hard to come by when consumers are willing to spend more money. Wait until the holiday is over for your best bet at a good deal.

We understand that raising kids is an expensive endeavor, but supplying them with toys should not break the bank – especially with so many alternative options available that will certainly save you time and money!



About the author: Melissa King, a Savings.com DealPro, lives in Savannah, GA and writes the Savannah Savvy Shopper weekly column for the Savannah Morning News. She enjoys "Paying It Forward" in her community. Check her out on her blog at ThisMommySavesMoney.com.

6 Ways You Can Reduce Costs for College

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It’s no secret: college costs are on the rise and making it more and more difficult for many students to receive their higher education. In 2014, college costs once again outstripped inflation. They increased by 3.7%, bringing the average price of a university education to $31,231.

And the average student debt load is now about $30,000 per student. That’s an incredible amount of money to owe before you even have a full-time job -- or the degree itself that’s costing you so much.

Don’t let earning your degree turn into a cost-prohibitive venture. You can take measures to reduce costs for college.

Consider and Choose Your School Carefully

When it comes to actually going to a university, making the right decision (or at least, getting close) can help you manage college costs.

If you think you want to pick up a trade after higher education, it doesn’t make sense for you to go to a four-year university. Go to a two-year technical or trade school -- and pay less while graduating with more of the workable skills you need to succeed in your career.

And if you want to go into a four-year program, choose a school known for producing successful graduates in that industry or field. For example, a public university may be better known for graduating excellent business majors than a private school that costs two to three times as much.

Know What Kind of Return on Investment To Expect

It’s hard to know what you want a decades-long career to look like when you’re 17 or 18. But you must dedicate some time and thought to what field of study interests you.

Then, do a little research. A blog post from XY Planning Network highlights the interactive Comparison of College Degrees tool from Discover Bank. This allows you to take a look at degree programs that you want to consider for yourself, and evaluate the potential ROI of that type of education.

Or work backwards: check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and look up potential professionals that you want to study.

The point of these exercises? To determine if the cost of your education will set you up with an opportunity to earn enough in your career to repay those expenses.

If you want to be a librarian, you can look this career up on the BLS site and see that people in this career make about $55,000 per year on average. A Master’s degree is usually required -- which means six years of higher education.

If going to graduate school means graduating with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of student loan debt, this might not be a wise financial move for you.

On the other hand, if you see that elevator installers can make over $75,000 per year and require a high school diploma or equivalent accompanied with an on-the-job apprenticeship, you can see that most of your “investment” is your time. You don’t need to spend the money to go to a four-year university.

Show a Little Hustle

One way that anyone can reduce their college costs: get through school as quickly as possible. This won’t be the ideal situation for everyone. It may leave you little time for internships, extracurricular activities, or to enjoy the typical college experience.

But if you’re concerned about costs, you can benefit by taking more than a full load of coursework each semester, attending summer classes, and not taking semesters off.

While you’ll have to pay for each class you take, fewer semesters at school means fewer fees and costs outside of just tuition -- and it means you’ll graduate and start earning a full-time income in your career sooner.

And Then Side Hustle!

Or just get a part-time job. Working part- or full-time may not help you reduce costs, but it will help you cover them yourself instead of taking out additional student loans.

You can also work towards earning scholarships to help you reduce your out-of-pocket costs. There are a variety of scholarships and grants available, so take some time and research those you quality for -- then apply for them.

If you don’t qualify for some scholarships based on your GPA, don’t give up on them. Dedicate yourself to raising your grades, then check your eligibility each semester or at the start of each school year.

Research All Your Options and Question Your Expenses

Reduce costs for college by remaining open to all your options. Ask questions and do research to find what your alternatives are. And question the costs you expect to have or currently carry. This includes things like:

  • Housing: Is it cheaper to live on campus, off campus with roommates, or at home?
  • Transportation: Do you need a car or is there adequate public transportation to get you through your college years?
  • Food: Are you making conscious choices about how you get your meals? Don’t depend on the dining hall on campus to provide the best value. Is it cheaper to purchase your own groceries and prepare your own meals?
  • Textbooks: Which one provides the best deal -- the college bookstore or large retailers like Amazon?

 

Take Advantage of That Student ID

Don’t be afraid to flash your student ID at events, local businesses, and even when shopping online. You can use your ID to sign up for special deals, too -- try Amazon Student for reduced rates to save on what you need to purchase for school.

Many companies offer discounts on products and prices to students, so take advantage both on and off campus.

The cost of college is rising, but your personal costs don’t need to rise with it. Take action to tame expenses, fees, and what you need to pay out of pocket. Or try to generate some of your own income to handle costs instead of taking out more loans and starting off life on your own in the red.

Every little step you can take to reduce costs will help you graduate and enter the real world in better financial shape.



About the author: Kali Hawlk is a freelance writer and content manager currently working on building her business and becoming a full-time solopreneur. She's passionate about personal finance, careers and business, and all things Gen Y--and she writes about it all on her blog, Common Sense Millennial. An avid runner, she enjoys getting outside as often as possible when she's not immersed in blogging and helping other small businesses build and manage their online presence. Connect with her on Twitter @KaliHawlk.

5 Ways To Ruin a Marriage With Money -- and How To Stop!

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You get married, and it’s amazing at first. Hopefully it stays amazing, but after a few months, those inevitable differences with money will come into play. She wants to buy a new car, but you insist that it should be used. She wants to pay off a credit card, but you think that money should be invested instead.

Being different people can both make a marriage great and tear it apart. It’s often cited that money is the number one cause of divorce -- and it’s true. Unresolved differences with money can lead to a marriage disaster. Are you worried that your marriage could be at risk down the road?

Here are 5 ways to ruin your marriage with money (and how to stop):

1.    Don’t talk about money. If you’re not talking about money, then you're not talking about your life together. Money is a representation of what you value in life, and where you want to end up as a couple. Just about everything in life has financial implications, and you have to talk about those implications! Money should not be a taboo topic of discussion, especially with the person you are sharing your life with.

Solution: Talking about money can be a great source of bonding between partners. Even setting a budget together can be a good thing as long as you don’t simply view it as paying bills. Have the perspective that you are planning life together. Use it as an opportunity to plan date nights and to dream about the future as you set aside money for retirement. Talking about money doesn’t have to be drudgery.

2.    Hide money from your spouse. We call this “financial infidelity.” You are married and you share a life together, so you should be sharing just about everything. Hiding money is very dangerous and leads to mistrust. Small amounts here and there might be harmless, but ask yourself this question - ‘if my spouse knew about this money, would he/she be upset?’ If the answer is "yes," then you are likely committing financial infidelity.

Solution: Perhaps you think that you should have some play money for yourself; that is completely understandable. But this should be decided by both of you and you should allot money for this purpose in your budget. Also, share your bank accounts. Keeping separate bank accounts might work for some, but it encourages hiding money and spending.

3.    Hide your financial past from your spouse. If you were previously married, would you withhold this information from your spouse or soon-to-be-spouse? Probably not - that is obviously important info. The same holds true of your financial past. Are you holding debt of 6 figures? Do you have a bankruptcy in your past that your spouse or soon-to-be-spouse doesn’t know about? Well, you’re about to unload a heap of problems on an unsuspecting person that you love. Not cool. Your spouse deserves to know, and they shouldn’t have to run a credit report on you to find out.

Solution: Full disclosure of financial pasts is an essential part of any pre-marriage counseling. And if you are already married and need to deal with a financial past, counseling is recommended to work through the issues that will inevitably come up.

4.    Live a lifestyle that you can’t afford. You bought an awesome house, drive nice cars and enjoy high-end restaurants. Or perhaps you have a modest home and vehicles. In either lifestyle, if you’re not bringing in enough cash to pay your life’s bills, then you’re living beyond your means. Most often, both partners in a marriage will decide on this lifestyle together - you both picked out the house and went car shopping as a couple. But if you can’t afford it, then it will all come crashing down at some point. And when that happens, blame and resentment will creep into your marriage lightning fast - and everything in your relationship will be at risk.

Solution: Budget. Treat your household as it needs to be treated - more like a business. Don’t spend more than you take in. Period. If you need help, consider financial counseling through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

5.    Think that your breadwinner status makes you the authority in the household. If you’re the man of the house and bring in more than your wife, that doesn’t make you the ultimate decider of every financial decision. Keeping your spouse in the dark on financial matters because of a breadwinner status is a BAD idea that can often lead to a controlling and emotionally abusive situation.

Solution: Recognize that all contributions in a marriage are equal. Sit down every month and set a budget together by listening to each other. Each of you has unique gifts and abilities and should have equal input on how to use your household’s resources no matter who brings in the larger paycheck.

While it is technically true that money is the number one cause of divorce, realize that money and finances are merely the symptom of deeper issues. The above 5 ways that money can ruin your marriage are both financial and personal. If you avoid them, your relationship will have a much better chance at withstanding the stresses of life.



About the author: Lauren and her husband Mark Greutman were once in over $40,000 in debt and running a $1,000 deficit per month. They changed their life around, got out of debt, and now teach others how to budget and be debt free on their website MarkandLaurenG.com.

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