Credit Bureaus

There are a few things I make sure to do at the beginning of each year. Not any of those pesky resolutions we never seem to be able to commit to for more than a few weeks. I’m referring to some personal finance tasks. The two most important things I think you can do for yourself when it comes to personal finance are rebalancing your investments and checking your credit report. I’ll talk about rebalancing later. For now, lets talk about credit reports.

Thanks to an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act back in 2003, consumers are able to receive one free credit report per year. That includes one report from each of the three major reporting agencies. And getting your report couldn’t be easier. AnnualCreditReport.com was established to make requesting reports easy. A word of caution: there are several “look alike” sites where you can pull your report, and some may even want credit card information to set up monitoring. These aren’t the official site. Be sure you’re at the Federal approved website where you don’t need a credit card to get your information. If you’re at a site where they’re asking for one, you’re in the wrong place. Sure, you could get monitoring if you’re that worried, but if you’re careful in your personal business and monitor your reports regularly, I don’t think it’s necessary.

When you go to the site and request your report, you will need to provide some personal information. After all, they do need to verify you are who you say you are! The thing I like most about the site is you can request all three reports at once or one now and the rest later. I like to do one at a time then a few months down the road another. This spreads them out throughout the year. It’s a matter of preference; do whichever way makes you most comfortable. Also, you won’t see your credit score, just the report. You will need to subscribe to a service such as Credit Karma to obtain your score. Here’s a bonus for Discover card carriers, they have a new feature where they provide your credit score on your monthly account summary which is a nice perk.

After reviewing your credit report, the agencies offer ways to correct any information that is not accurate. If there are any errors, be sure to follow-through on getting the information corrected. You’ll need something more than an email from you saying “I paid this” so be prepared to provide proof. They will get the information corrected if it’s inaccurate; just be patient with the process.

Don’t underestimate your credit report. Whether you’re looking at purchasing a house, a new car, or opening a bank account or credit card, or even car insurance, they all check your credit report. And they all base your rates on how good (or bad) your credit is. Do yourself a favor and check yours.

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Pocket

I recently wrote about the benefit of using an RSS feed reader to keep on top of content you’re interested in, and a perfect compliment to that is a great free program called Pocket. Available on the web and mobile devices, Pocket’s primary purpose is to house content you’re interested in reading. You can save your content from several sources directly into Pocket with just a few keystrokes.

For instance, let’s say you’re browsing your Twitter feed and you come across a tweet that contains a URL to an article that sounds interesting but you just don’t have the time or patience to read it right then and there. You could just hunt through your feed later and try to locate the link, or you could send that link over to Pocket and know it will be there when you have the time to read it.

I utilize Pocket as a way to keep on top of my Twitter feed and articles in Feedly that I’m interested in but don’t feel like dealing with at the exact moment they appear. When I’m at work with limited break time I’ll scroll through my feeds and just save articles to Pocket so that when I’m home later that evening I can log into Pocket and read all the articles at once. This works great for the deal sites I follow as well when I’m not near my computer and am able to print coupons immediately.

Once you mark an article as read in Pocket it still lives in your archive which is searchable (as is your inbox). It’s useful for saving stuff that you think you might want to reference later but don’t want to bookmark in a browser never to be accessed again.

If you decide to check out Pocket please feel free to come back here and comment on what you think about it. I love it and have been using it for a long time as it’s a perfect companion to Feedly. Sure, you can save articles in Feedly to be read later but I like Pocket as it’s the one stop place for all my articles regardless of their source (Feedly, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, the web, etc).

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Feedly

Have you ever heard of RSS feeds? RSS stands for real simple syndication. RSS uses a family of standard web feed formats to publish frequently updated information: blog entries, news headlines, audio, and/or video. Many websites, even personal blogs, have RSS feeds which you can subscribe to via a feed reader. Why would you want to do this? Why wouldn’t you? Instead of visiting your favorite websites manually to check for new content, the content is delivered to you via your feed reader.

Each reader has it’s own pros and cons. Prior to its demise, I was using Google Reader, and now I use Feedly. I’m subscribed to a ton of feeds – everything from personal blogs to self improvement & finance sites, to daily deal sites. Feedly is compatible with mobile devices and the data is synchronized across platforms so I can read feeds on the web, my tablet, or my phone and once that feed is marked as read it won’t appear in the application if I pick up my reading on another device.

In addition to having content delivered to you regularly, Feedly makes it easy to share content via social networks and email. If I come across an article I want my husband to read, I can email him the link straight from Feedly. Or I can post it to Facebook to share with with my friends (Twitter and Google+ are available options as well).

Feedly makes it easy to stay on top of my interests without spending a lot of time hunting down the content, and since it’s free, I highly recommend you give it a try. I’m willing to bet once you do you’ll never want to go back to using your bookmarks to visit your favorite sites again.

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Speedy Rewards

Speedway (a gas station) has a great reward program called Speedy Rewards (go here for details). For all you users, here’s a way to build your points even faster. Speedway is offering 500 reward points for every $25 in gift cards purchased. Instead of putting the gas on your credit card at the pump, pick up a gift card to get the extra points. And there’s a plus – when you’re at the pump using the gift card, you can also use your Speedy rewards card to get your regular points too!

If you use Speedway and their rewards card, you may as well take advantage of this “double dipping” and rack up points faster! And if you’re not, what are you waiting for? Sign up now so you too can earn points that can be used toward gas, food/drinks, gift cards, and merchandise.

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camelcamelcamel

Have you heard of a website called camelcamelcamel? Perhaps not. This site gives you some fantastic insights into whether the price of something at Amazon.com is a good deal or not. All you have to do is the following:

1. Locate the item on Amazon.com
2. Copy the Amazon.com URL from the address bar of your browser.
3. Go to camelcamelcamel.com
4. Paste the Amazon URL into the search box.
5. Click the Find Products button.

Ta-da! Now you’re given a pricing history of that item you’re coveting and you can see whether the price Amazon is currently asking is really a good deal or not like in the below example (click to make larger). You can also gauge by the pricing history whether that item is likely to decrease in price anytime soon.

amazonpricehistoryexample

On top of that, you can have the site keep track of the price for you and email and/or send you a tweet via Twitter when the price reaches your desired amount. It’s as easy as filling out the Desired Price, Email, and/or Twitter boxes and clicking the Start Tracking button (click the image to make it larger).

trackpriceexample

You’ll get an email confirmation as well that leads back to your private tracking page so you can make adjustments or cancel the tracking once you’ve purchased the item.

I use this service all the time for big-ticket items to ensure that I’m not overspending on the things I want. You do have to have some patience, however, as sometimes it could be months before the item you want reaches your desired price. But it’s definitely worth it to save a few bucks on those items you don’t really need right away.

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Flex-Spending-Account

Tis the season. Not that season! I’m talking about open enrollment time. The time of year where workers across the country go through the process of signing up for the next year’s benefits by reviewing health plan options (especially with the Affordable Care Act), life insurance, dental and vision plans. I mean, who doesn’t like talking about accidental death and dismemberment?

There are also the flexible spending accounts. Where I work I’m always surprised of the number of employees who do not take advantage of the flexible spending accounts my company offers. Nicole and I have taken advantage of medical flex spending for years. No, it won’t make you rich, but it will certainly save you money. You like money, don’t you? I’m going to speak to the medical/health flexible spending account since this is the one we take advantage of. There are other accounts such as dependent care FSA (yearly contribution max, $5k) and a commuter FSA (contribution max varies).

First, to give you an idea of what it can save you let’s use a yearly contribution of $1k to your flex spending account. The money is deducted from your paycheck over the course of the year. And the $1k comes out of your paycheck pre-tax. So if you’re in the 25% tax bracket you’re saving $250!

There’s a couple catches, but they’re easy to deal with so don’t let this stop you! First catch, you’re limited on what you can use that money to pay for. They need to be qualified medical expenses. This link covers the other types of flexible accounts depending on what your employer offers. The biggest use for a medical flex spending account is to use it for expenses such as co-pays, medical bills left after the insurance portion, contacts/glasses, and prescriptions. For those with kids, this can add up quickly.

The second catch is that it’s a “use it or lose it” account. Expenses need to be incurred during the plan year. You can submit receipts (as long as they’re in the plan year) up until March 15th of the following plan year. Using 2013 as an example, if you have an expense from November 2013, you have until March 15th of 2014 to submit that expense against your 2013 account.

There have been some recent changes allowing up to $500 to “roll over” into the following plan year. Employers also have that as an option along with extending a grace period. They can opt for either but not both. Check your plan for your details.

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If you’re anything like me, you spend quite a bit of time on the internet each day. And if you’re also like me, you have multiple devices and are hit left and right each day by the number of apps out there all wanting space on your device. I’m either fortunate or cursed in that I have both Android and iOS devices for apps. And I actually live by both; my Galaxy S4 is my personal phone, but when I’m at home I primarily use my iPad. I also have an iPhone for work as well as another Android tablet.

I thought I would give a quick rundown of a few of the apps I use the most. These are available on both iOS and Android, and best of all they’re free. These apps can also be accessed from any good old fashioned web browser (that’ll be another article later, my favorite web browser).

So off we go!
Pinterest
Pinterest is hands down my favorite app today. I don’t really understand why more guys haven’t jumped on Pinterest. It’s perfect for our short attention span. It’s all pictures with only a little reading – what’s not to like about that?! Pinterest has everything categorized really well and with tag searches there’s something to find that interests you. I stick to many of the same categories; DIY, GEEK, HEALTH & FITNESS, FOOD AND DRINK and HUMOR. There is so much food pinned you can go for days looking through it all. The Mrs. and I have tried quite a few recipes with great success. There’s a social aspect to Pinterest as well. You can connect with your friends and see things they’ve pinned as well as find new people to follow who you’ve come across. There’s a tie-in with Facebook for easy sign-in as well as seeing who in your friends list are already on Pinterest. Check it out. Right now. Seriously, if you don’t already have it, GO!

Linkedin
If you’re a business professional I think a LinkedIn profile is a must-have. For those of you not familiar with LinkedIn, it’s like Facebook for your career. But you have to remember, this is all about you professionally, your career, and livelihood. There’s no discussion about how much fun you had drinking with your buddies last weekend. People (read: future employers) really do look at your profile. This is where you need to have your act together; time for your professional game face. LinkedIn is a great place to make connections, get your resume/profile out there, and keep in touch with industry news. Often, moving up in your career is about connections and networking; LinkedIn is a great place to keep you moving in the right direction.

Flipboard
Flipboard is a basically a news reader. Flipboard gets its name from the way you “flip” through the abbreviated article pages. It puts together news by category, i.e. Business, in a nice Readers Digest like format. As you go into a category, Flipboard gives you article after article, along with the beginning of the article. When one looks interesting, you just touch the article and head into the full read. Flipboard is the main way I receive news. I only have to read the articles of which I have interest. Flipboard is also customizable with what categories are shown and even has a nice tie-in with Facebook. It’s a really good way to organize your news.

Zedge
Looking for a new notification sound or maybe a new ringtone? Zedge has it, including my current text message notification, a Minion saying “Bow Chicka Wow Wow”. It’s all user submitted and there’s a huge library of media for your devices. As I look at the app on my S4, there’s 11k wallpapers, nearly 2k live wallpapers, over 600k ringtones, and 124k notifications. Zedge is searchable, so if there’s something specific you’re looking for it’s easy to find. Everything is good quality and the wallpapers look great on my retina display iPad. If you’re savvy enough to make your own wallpapers or ringtones, upload and share them!

What about you? What are your favorite apps? Share some in the comments!

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If you’re anything like me, you might find it difficult to sleep after a busy day. Or heck, any day. You lie down and toss and turn thinking about everything you need to get done the following day. The next thing you know it’s so late you’re trying to calculate how many hours of sleep you’ll get if you fell asleep right now. But now you’re anxious, so you end up tossing and turning some more. Such nights are inevitable, but to reduce their frequency, here are some tips which have worked for me to help get to sleep:

  • Avoid caffeine, including chocolate if you’re sensitive, after 3 pm.
  • Eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime to allow your stomach time to digest your food.
  • Put away all electronic devices an hour before bedtime (the glow from TVs and electronic devices fools your brain into thinking it’s daytime and will make it difficult to fall asleep) and make sure your phone, if you keep it on the nightstand, is on silent (or in do not disturb mode) with the screen face down; if you don’t use a screen protector you can lay the phone on some black non-adhesive shelf liner cut to size (slightly wider and longer than the phone).
  • Establish an evening ritual – floss, brush your teeth, put on lotion, prepare your clothing for the next day, etc.
  • Try not to drink too much an hour or two before going to bed.
  • Keep a pad of paper and a pen on your nightstand so that you can write down anything that pops into your head while you’re trying to relax. This will prevent you from stressing about remembering it in the morning (or from grabbing your phone to record it there).
  • Read in bed but make sure it’s either a physical book/magazine or a device with e-ink like the basic Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook.
  • If after about a half hour of reading you’re still not sleepy, try taking 3mg of melatonin which can be found in the vitamin section of your favorite store. The great thing about melatonin is that it doesn’t knock you out like a sleeping pill and it’s safer because melatonin is a natural occurring hormone in the brain that triggers sleep. Disclaimer: always check the ingredients against any other medications or supplements you’re taking to ensure there won’t be any adverse interactions.

I hope these suggestions help. A good night’s rest is imperative to cognitive function and also helps your body maintain a healthy weight.

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