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  • How to Monitor Your Credit Report Year Round for Free

    A while back, the credit bureaus started providing free credit reports to consumers (as required by law). At AnnualCreditReport.com, you can get a free report from each credit bureau every 12 months. That’s three free reports each year.

    Experts recommend checking your credit report on a regular basis to catch evidence of identity theft in the early stages (the more damage that’s been done, the more work it will take to fix). So instead of getting three reports once each year, it makes sense to spread out your three free reports over the course of a year and get one from each credit bureau every four months. While the information contained on each report differs slightly, monitoring reports more frequently should help you catch any illegal activity sooner than if you only checked once per year.

    You should also check your insurance policies as some may include free or inexpensive riders for identity theft assistance. You can take advantage of these programs if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, or even if there is suspicious activity on your credit report. In fact, a few months ago, my husband and I spotted a suspicious inquiry on one of our credit reports, and took advantage of the rider on our homeowner’s insurance policy to help us figure out what it was. It turned out to be innocuous, but since repairing your credit history after identity theft can be difficult, it’s nice to know that there are experts in our corner if we ever need them!

    Retirement vs. Education Savings

    The question of whether to fund my own and my husband’s retirement or our children’s education is a very significant one for me. We really want the option of sending the boys to private school in a few years, so our current financial priority is saving as much as possible before our oldest heads off to middle school.

    We still save for retirement, but not nearly as much as we could be saving because of our other priorities. So I read this Daily Worth article on retirement vs. educations savings with great interest. It didn’t say anything new, but it did remind me of the justifications for putting retirement ahead of education:

    • There’s no other provision for retirement – You might have a pension or even Social Security, but your retirement planning and saving is all on you. If you don’t provide for your future, you might well end up becoming a financial burden on your child in retirement – and that would be worse than not being able pay for all of their educational expenses.
    • There are other means of funding an education – A student can get scholarships, grants, and loans, and maybe even work while in school to help pay for tuition and living expenses. You won’t have options like these to fund your retirement.
    • Discussing how to fund college will instill a sense of responsibility in your child – As much as I would love to present my children with fully paid-for college educations, I think a lot of good can come from this. In retrospect, I think my parents spoiled me too much by paying for my college education and not discussing how I could contribute more. Not that I don’t appreciate all that they did for me, but I’m sure I would have been more responsible with money if I had been raised a little differently.
    • There are more “upfront” tax breaks for retirement savings – I wish the article went into more detail on this, but I’m thinking that it means you get to deduct most retirement contributions from your taxable income when the contributions are made (as with 401(k)s and traditional IRAs). With college savings plans like 529s and Coverdells, you’re putting in taxed income, but the earnings are not taxed upon withdrawal.

    Ideally, of course, I would love to be able to fully fund everything – our retirement, the kids’ education, and maybe a nicer house and a timeshare in Hawaii. 🙂

    But that’s not our reality, which is made more complicated by the fact that alternatives like scholarships, grants and loans aren’t really options for middle and high school, which is what my husband and I are saving for. So for us, saving is a difficult balance that’s all too common for our generation.

    Personally, I think a doable, balanced approach is to figure out a minimum for retirement savings. And then the remainder can go toward education. (This approach assumes that other savings needs, like your emergency fund, are already met.)

    For example, if your employer matches 401(k) contributions, the minimum retirement savings could be the maximum that will be matched. Or maybe it’s 5% of your gross salary. If you feel you have very little to save, then maybe with each paycheck, half of what can be saved goes toward retirement and the other half goes into a Coverdell or 529 account.

    I do think that making the money difficult to touch is important, especially if you would have a tendency to touch it if it were accessible. To that end, retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, and education accounts like 529s and Coverdells, can be very useful.

    How do you balance retirement and education savings? Or do you not even try?

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    Why Saving is Less Rewarding than Paying Off Debt & How to Motivate Yourself to Save

    It took us nearly ten years to pay off our non-mortgage debt and become otherwise debt-free, but towards the end, our debt snowball had become so big that we were able to pay off a lot very quickly.

    Since then, our financial goals have changed as our lives have changed. At first, I wanted to pay off the mortgage. But then I wanted to build up a cash cushion so I could quit my full-time job as a lawyer. I did that two years ago, and the first year was really about learning to live on one income plus the substantially smaller amount I bring in blogging.

    The wonderful thing is that even now, we are able to build up our savings. In fact, I have a savings goal that is so outlandish, I’ve given us until mid-2016 to reach it. Each month, I add up our account totals and calculate how much more we have to save to reach our goal. We’ve made progress toward our goal every month except one (when we used savings to pay cash for our bathroom remodel). But I’ve noticed the last few months especially that I’m feeling dissatisfied with the relatively slow progress we’re making – just a few percentage points at best. At this rate, we may reach our goal by 2016, but we’re unlikely to get there early.

    I don’t remember feeling that way very often when we were paying off debt, but I realized it’s because there were smaller, tangible goals when we were paying off loans. We started with multiple loans and gradually paid off one after the other. So it was easy to see the balance of the targeted loan go down toward zero. We knocked off one loan, then another, so that felt like progress too. And even when the last, biggest loan was left, I approached it eagerly because of the momentum from paying off the other loans.

    So the current savings goal feels different because it’s this one big number waaay down the line that we’re not close to yet.

    The obvious solution is to break the big goal down to smaller goals and create mental milestones that will be rewarding. Since we keep our savings in different accounts, one way of doing this would be to establish a savings goal for each account, giving me a very reachable number to aim for. Another way would be to set a target for the end of the year and then have fun getting there. Just thinking about these strategies makes me feel more positive and optimistic about how far we’ve come and where we’re going – it’s going to be fun!

    Home Improvement Projects: Balancing Finances & Wants

    My husband and I own a townhouse that’s over 30 years old, and we’ve lived here for about 10 years. Very little work had been done on the place when we moved in. We’ve made some changes, as it’s impossible to live in a place this old for this long without having to make repairs – and if you’re repairing, you might as well improve too. 🙂 Our bathroom remodel is a good example.

    But there are improvements I dream of – a remodeled kitchen and new flooring top my list. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars worth of changes.

    So … these improvements will just have to wait. It helps to have clear priorities, and to accept that I can’t have everything I want all at once. More specifically, we can’t save money and spend it on the house at the same time. And saving money is our priority right now, so that we can pay off the mortgage and/or pay for private school in a few years.

    Focusing on priorities helps. And so does perspective – I do expect that eventually, I will have a kitchen I absolutely love. What also helps is avoiding HGTV and home improvement shows, which tend to make me focus on what I could have and consequently make me dissatisfied with what I do have.

    And honestly, what I have is plenty: a solid, reliable home, with a serviceable kitchen, carpet that the kids can spill on without upsetting me (too much), air conditioning (and boy, have we needed it these last few weeks!), and of course, my wonderful family.

    We continue to save, and we’ll spend that money on repairing and improving the house if the need arises. But for now, the priority is simply on saving.

    Living in a Cash Society

    I’m on my way home today (yay!), and looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, and hugging my husband and children. But I enjoyed my time in Japan, and on a personal finance front, I couldn’t help thinking about the cash society that Japan still is (my last trip here was nearly 10 years ago). At a time when I rarely use any cash and completely failed at an all-cash experiment a few years ago, I was fascinated that cash is still the most common method of payment.

    Japan is known for having one of the highest personal savings rates, and given the prominence of the use of cash, I can’t help but think that the two go hand in hand. After all, personal finance bloggers and experts emphasize how switching to cash from credit cards decreases spending by forcing you to be aware of exactly how much you’re spending. Money Saving Mom is my favorite example, since she is not only a shining example of cash-only success, but also regularly publishes success stories from others.

    However, I also can’t help noticing that personal safety is still less of an issue in Japan than it is in the U.S. Many women carry bags without zippers, because they don’t have to worry about someone reaching in to take the contents. I’d guess that most people carry a fair amount of cash with them, without worrying about being mugged. (Although, I have noticed that some areas are a bit more sketchy than they used to be – maybe a side effect of the recession?)

    Paying with cash in Japan has brought back reminders of what I dislike about using cash – the accumulation of loose change, how much longer it takes to pay because you’re hunting for bills and the correct change, and the time it takes to put away any change while the store clerk politely holds the bag out. (And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the last time I was here – the unfailing politeness of store clerks especially always stands out to me as there’s such an extreme contrast to the U.S.)

    All in all, I will be very happy to be home and to go back to using my credit card to pay for purchases. However, I’ll continue to try to be as aware of my spending as I would be if I were paying with cash.

    Where do you stand on the all-cash system of personal spending?

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    Marriage & Money: Be a Team

    A friend of mine is going through a difficult time right now – her marriage is on the rocks, and while there are many reasons why, the big one that comes out every time we talk is money and the fact that she and her husband have lived well beyond their means for years at this point.

    One thing that strikes me is that it’s impossible for them to tackle their financial problems right now because they’re not doing anything together. And I realized that all of the “we did it” stories I’ve read about couples who’ve achieved financial success have one thing in common: They did it together.

    That’s certainly true in my own life. When I wrote about becoming debt-free except for the mortgage, I used the word “we” to describe the steps we took. And while I mostly handle the day-to-day money management for our household, we make decisions together. For example:

    We agree to live beneath our means so we can save money.

    We discuss decisions that involve spending larger amounts of money, like the kids’ summer camp.

    We set priorities together, and work toward a mutual goal, such as paying for private school.

    In the last few years, my husband and I have paid off all of our non-mortgage debt, established a comfortable emergency fund, and positioned ourselves so that I could take a huge pay cut to work from home. None of these goals could have been achieved if we weren’t on the same page, working as a team toward the same goal.

    So the lesson of the day is: Your family’s financial success requires everyone to work together as a team.

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