Want to Improve Your Finances? Ask for Help

You’re not the only one who checks bank statements the same way you’d sniff questionable leftovers. What starts with apprehension often ends in disappointment. How did I spend $50 on Uber this month? How did I let that expensive salmon sit for a week?

Chances are you have friends, family and co-workers who ask themselves similar questions. You may not talk about this stress because, well, it’s not a flattering look. But discussing overspending and undersaving with people you trust can be cathartic and helpful.

“The more open you can be with people the better,” says Hilary Hendershott, certified financial planner and owner of Hilary Hendershott Wealth Management in San Jose, California. “What could be accomplished by human beings without open lines of communication? Not much.”

So talk it out. We’ll help.

Get by with a little help from your (financially savvy) friends. Maybe you know just the friend to approach. You’ve seen Jen, for example, make smart spending decisions, share personal finance articles on Facebook and even talk about saving for retirement. Start with Jen. Give her context on your struggles and ask what she does to keep her spending in check. Does she follow a budget? Does she use personal-finance apps? Does she set up automatic transfers to savings?

Jen might not have all the answers, and what works for her may not work for you. But at least you’re discussing your problems and troubleshooting. You’re pitching the week-old leftover salmon.

Look beyond your tribe. Maybe there’s no Jen in your group of close friends. “We tend to cluster around people who are within our general financial comfort zone,” says Brad Klontz, certified financial planner, psychologist and author of “Financial Therapy: Theory, Research & Practice.”

“Another way to look at your friends is that they’re the people who share your delusions,” he says. For example, maybe you spend most of your earnings, which seems acceptable because your friends do the same. Don’t ask those friends for financial advice.

Instead, Klontz suggests approaching someone outside your tribe who is financially ahead of you — a trusted aunt or boss, for example. Klontz suggests asking what financial advice this person would give herself if he or she were your age. Also find out how this person thinks about money and what resources he or she has, like a financial planner.

Leave complex topics to the professionals. Tips regarding saving more and spending less can be helpful and rarely harmful. But with any financial advice, employ a sniff test, like you did for the leftover salmon. Ask yourself if the recommendation makes sense, and research online to see what money experts say. Start with our guide to saving.

If you need guidance on complicated financial topics, such as investments, taxes or estate planning, talk to a professional. Otherwise, a friend’s well-meaning but bad advice could land you in serious trouble. Here are tips for choosing a financial advisor.

Whether you talk to a friend about simple money matters or with a professional about a more nuanced topic, enjoy the freedom that comes with solving a lingering problem. Now imagine the euphoria of a clean fridge.

The article Want to Improve Your Finances? Ask for Help originally appeared on NerdWallet.

3 Steps to Strong Passwords You Can Remember

Passwords are the house keys to your online accounts, and when they’re hacked, intruders can break in and wreak havoc.

To create strong passwords, you have to strike a balance between making them difficult for others to guess and making them easy enough for you to remember. Many people favor simple ones at their own risk: “123456” and “password” have remained the two most common passwords for six years, according to password security company SplashData.

Unlike many other security measures on websites, a password is one you have full control over. And given that over 1,000 data breaches happened in 2017 alone, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, it might be time to strengthen your passwords. Here’s how.

How to make a foolproof password

1. Start with a sentence

Despite the “word” in “password,” it’s better to think of starting with multiple words. Some websites require only six or eight characters for passwords, but that doesn’t mean it’s a recommended length.

When it comes to passwords, “longer is better,” says Richard Crone, a payments expert and CEO of Crone Consulting LLC. “And the way to do that is to use a sentence structure.”

Pick a sentence that’s memorable but doesn’t have details that relate too closely to you. Avoid using birthdays or the names of pets or family members, and feel free to be creative. Here’s an example: “cats do not like cucumbers.” Then, take out the spaces, “catsdonotlikecucumbers.”

“It’s really the length and the unrelatedness that gives you the best protection,” Crone says.

2. Avoid using real words

Change how your sentence looks by removing all the vowels, or only use the first one or two letters of each word. Don’t use dictionary words, which makes your password easier to guess.

The previous example becomes “cadonolicu” if you’re using the first two letters of every word in that sentence.

3. Mix in numbers, symbols and uppercase letters

Bring in a variety of characters to your password. Some websites have minimum requirements so you need to use at least one capital letter, one lowercase letter and a number. You might have to add a symbol like a period or exclamation point, too. As you mix it up, don’t repeat letters, numbers or symbols right next to each other.

By capitalizing some letters, replacing the “l” with an exclamation point and turning an “o” into a zero, the sample password becomes “CaD0No!icU.”

Use a password manager

The steps above help when you’re creating one really strong password, but remembering a dozen or more such passwords might make your head spin. That’s why you might want to consider using a password manager such as LastPass or Dashlane. There are free options, but some features are available only for purchase.

Think of a password manager as a bank vault that creates and stores long and complex passwords so you don’t have to. The only password to know is the one that unlocks the vault. Once you type that one, you can log into whatever online accounts you decide to keep on the password manager.

If you don’t use an online password manager, consider writing down complex passwords and storing them in a safe place such as a locked cabinet at home or in an encrypted file on your computer. These passwords should be difficult to access as well as to guess.

A password is “like scrambled eggs,” Crone says. “The more you fluff it up and spice it up, the better.”

The article 3 Steps to Strong Passwords You Can Remember originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Affordable Tips for Doing ALL Your Holiday Shopping Online

As soon as the Halloween decorations come down — BAM! — it’s Christmas shopping time. Radio stations are playing Christmas music, stores add to the displays they’ve had up since September and next thing you know, the holiday season is in full swing. Thanksgiving gets squeezed tighter and tighter every year. It’s hard to see the turkeys through the Christmas decorations. But the truth is, Christmas is next month, so it’s not a bad idea to get started on your shopping.

If you like the hustle and bustle of the mall or the crowds and long lines of Black Friday, then by all means, go out and enjoy it. For those of you who want to avoid the crowds and the hassle, you might want to walk to your computer in your pajamas and quietly select your gifts. There are still ways to get the savings of Black Friday and the big mall sales. You just have to plan ahead and shop efficiently.

Make a List

Be like Santa: Make a list of the people you want to buy presents for and any ideas of what they might like. Don’t start buying until you have spent some time planning. Lack of planning can cause over-expenditure and forgetfulness. One kid or parent gets shorted, you spend a bunch more money equalizing them with another — and so on. Last-minute purchases end up being more expensive. You end up paying for guaranteed arrival times or buying the last item at a noncompetitive price.

Check Prices

Use your list to research prices online. You may find big discrepancies in cost from one site to another. You can download price-checking apps to do the same thing, but it all comes down to how thorough you want to be. In some cases, you’ll find a difference of a couple of dollars, and then the deciding factor becomes how convenient it is to order from each site. You might spend a few dollars more on one item to be able to purchase all your items at once.

Connect With Stores

Connect online with your favorite stores by “liking” them on Facebook or joining company email lists and newsletters. You may be notified of sales in advance or be treated to “members-only” sales and special offers. You have nothing to lose, especially if it’s a store you like. Yes, you’ll start getting a lot more email from them, but one of those could end up saving you money.

Opt for Food

Rather than buying someone a scarf or a boring tie they don’t want, get them something you know they will like. Everyone likes snacks. Why not get your special someone a delicious candied nuts gift tray? Who doesn’t like toffee mixed nuts, honey-roasted cashews, cinnamon almonds and sugar-toasted peanuts? For the person on your list who already has everything, food could be the solution every year. You’ll save money by buying something everyone likes — and maybe, if you’re really lucky, your recipient will share the treat with you.

Double Dip

Use coupons on top of sales. Purchase with a specific credit card if you get airline miles, cash back or other rewards at the end of the year. Redeem any reward points you have on your store credit card. If you still subscribe to a newspaper, look through all the ads. Many stores offer what look like cardboard credit cards, which typically offer a large percentage off your total bill. Most are redeemable online, as well.

Gather Gift Cards

Gather up all your gift cards from over the past year and find a way to make them work for you. Many gift cards expire, so be sure to use them before they turn into worthless bits of plastic. There are services that let you redeem your gift cards at a discounted rate, but it’s better to get their full value, even if you are re-gifting it. If you’re stumped and just can’t figure out a gift for someone, cash in your gift cards to produce a different one as a gift.

Get Free Shipping

Be careful of shipping charges. When you see them pop up at the end of your transaction, it can ruin the good feeling you had when you thought you were saving money. Try to get free shipping whenever you shop online. Some sites offer free shipping as long as you spend a minimum amount of money.

Other online shops offer free shipping on specific days, so pay attention to the details. Many large retailers also offer the option to shop online, but pick up your products at the store. You still have to leave your house, but you won’t be putting yourself through the full-day mall experience. Shipping charges can make a big difference in how much you spend and how likely you are to shop online.

The holidays are supposed to be fun, but they can also be extremely stressful. There are some situations where you just have to grin and bear it, like family obligations, kids’ school plays and events and the increased traffic and crowds. Forgetting to decorate your home before the snow comes can also be a major source of stress. But you do have options to help you control the shopping and financial burden of the holiday season. Planning ahead and being a smart shopper can keep more money in your wallet and make certain your season is bright.

Anum Yoon started and maintains Current on Currency, where she shares her hard-earned insights on money management.

How to Ace Your Transfer to a 4-Year College

Transferring from community college to a university should be as simple as basic math: Two years at the first school plus two years at the second equals a bachelor’s degree. But the equation is often more complicated.

Many students’ classes don’t transfer correctly, and they have to spend extra time and tuition dollars finishing their degree, if they complete it at all, according to a May 2017 report from the Community College Research Center.

The vast majority of community college students — 80 percent — intend to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2011 National Center for Education Statistics data. But only 13 percent of students who start at a community college successfully transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a 2017 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Here are five tips for acing the transfer process, so you can beat the odds and earn your bachelor’s degree on time and on budget.

Find out how your credits transfer

Like piecing together a puzzle, transfer students must figure out how their credits fit into the degree requirements for their new school. Many community colleges have transfer agreements with local colleges and universities — also known as articulation agreements — that map out how specific classes translate at the four-year institution.

It’s possible to transfer to a school that doesn’t have an articulation agreement with your community college, but you’ll have to do extra research and work closely with advisors at both schools.

Befriend an academic advisor

Students should meet with an advisor at their community college at least twice a semester, says Laura Riley, coordinator of the advising and transfer center at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

A community college advisor can help you choose a major, pinpoint potential four-year schools and enroll in courses that will transfer to those schools. If you have questions about the school where you hope to transfer, reach out directly — many colleges and universities have a dedicated transfer office.

Consider a range of schools

What was a “reach” college for a high school senior might be a realistic option for a transfer student, says Kevin Meza, the transfer center coordinator at Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.

Admissions requirements for transfer students are different than those for high school seniors. They vary by school, but many institutions require transfer students from community colleges to have earned a certain number of transferable credits, maintained a certain grade point average and completed prerequisites such as English and math.

To give yourself choices, apply to some safeties, a handful of middle-of-the-road options and a few dream schools.

Apply for financial aid

It’s crucial to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is the application for all federal student loans, grants and work-study programs, and you need to submit it every year you’re in school to be considered for this aid. If you submitted the application before, you can file a renewal FAFSA, which is easier and faster.

Next, search for potential scholarships, including awards that are designated for transfer students. For instance, all members of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, a national group for high-achieving community college students, are eligible for scholarships from the group. The average member receives $2,500 disbursed over two years, according to the organization.

Earn a credential first

Community college students who earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2015 study published in Research in Higher Education.

The type of associate degree matters. Students intending to transfer should pursue an associate degree designed for that purpose, such as an associate degree in arts or an associate degree in science. An associate degree in applied science is typically designed for students who want to enter the workforce immediately after community college.

The article How to Ace Your Transfer to a 4-Year College originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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7 Tips for Paying Off Debt — From People Who Did It

Debt doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Take it from those who’ve been there. Whether it was dealing with credit cards, student loans, car loans or other debt, the people profiled in NerdWallet’s How I Ditched Debt series tackled thousands of dollars of debt and resolutely paid it all off.

To inspire you, here are seven tips from some of their stories and the steps you can take on your own debt payoff journey.

1. Make the most of every dollar

Get inspired: Stephanie Stiavetti wanted to trade her tech job for a career in food and cooking, but $64,000 in student loan and credit card debt were holding her back.

Stiavetti’s plan involved putting almost every extra penny toward paying off debt. “I still went out with friends and enjoyed the occasional vacation, but I did so with an eye toward budget spending and found ways to make the most of every dollar instead of indulging in expensive luxuries,” she says.

Do it yourself: Building a budget is key to any financial plan, but especially when you’re paying off debt. Choose one that allows some fun, so you don’t feel deprived and overindulge.

2. Work some side hustles

Get inspired: By age 23, Michelle Schroeder-Gardner had three college degrees, a new husband, a house in Missouri and $38,000 in student debt. She was determined to pay it off as quickly as possible.

Her strategy? Earn more. “Cutting your budget is great, but there’s only so much you can cut. You can always try to make more money,” she says.

In addition to her day job, Schroeder-Gardner ramped up several side hustles, including writing a blog, selling items from around her house, taking surveys and being a mystery shopper.

The long hours — up to 100 per week — were tough. But “just watching my debt go down kept me motivated, because I could see the end goal,” she says.

Do it yourself: If taking a second job sounds exhausting, make it a short-term stint to earn enough for a few extra payments toward debt.

3. Align your spending and values

Get inspired: Like many people trying to keep up an “appearance of having it all,” Lauren Greutman and her husband, Mark, bought an expensive home, drove luxury cars and spent freely. When Lauren found herself hiding $600 worth of new clothing from her spouse, she admitted the spending was out of control.

“I racked up $40,000 worth of debt behind my husband’s back and had so much shame,” she says.

In addition to downscaling their lifestyle, the Greutmans’ breakthrough came when they assessed their spending against their values. Lauren’s advice: Make a list of everything you value in life and then list all your spending from last month. If the lists don’t match, get your spending in line with your values.

Do it yourself: Seeing bills for things that don’t really matter to you? Catch yourself from falling into big-spender territory by heeding signs of overspending.

4. Use the power of extra payments

Get inspired: No amount of debt is comfortable for Jackie Beck. When the amount she owed hit $147,000, including a mortgage, student and car loans, and credit cards, she became obsessed with paying it off — all of it.

She did so largely by making extra payments toward her bills. “I became consumed with paying off my student loan. I earned extra money — through online surveys, freelance writing and odd jobs from Craigslist — so I could make small additional payments,” she says. “I figured out how much faster I’d be done each time I sent in even a tiny payment.”

5. Rely on yourself

Get inspired: After a divorce, Carrie Smith Nicholson faced $14,000 in car loan and credit card debt, an amount that triggered her resolve to alter her financial situation.

“I was on my own for the first time in my life and … could barely afford a decent apartment. There was no one around to help me out of this financial hole, so I knew I had to help myself,” she says.

Nicholson took a second job at a tax office, working nights and weekends, and lived on two-thirds of her income. “During tax season I worked seven days a week without any vacations or time off. It was tough, but I had a goal to be debt-free within a year,” she says.

Now debt-free, Nicholson continues to lean on herself, managing a blog that provides her main source of income.

6. Consider consolidation

Get inspired: When David Weliver had to decide whether to pay his rent or his credit card bill in his 20s, he felt immense guilt. “After years of carrying obscene amounts of debt, it was the first time I couldn’t meet a payment obligation,” he says.

To tackle his $80,000 in student loan, car loan and credit card debt, Weliver set up a plan that included debt consolidation. His credit union gave him a low-rate loan for around $5,000. He was able to get another loan for $12,000, at a favorable interest rate, to pay off his highest-interest credit cards.

“I made the fixed personal loan payments, and whatever was left over I put toward the higher-rate APR cards, which I paid off before the lower-rate cards,” he says.

Eventually, the strategy paid off. “I was able to pay off all of my debt in a little over three years,” Weliver says, “and I’m very glad I got out of debt at the stage of life that I did.”

7. Know your ‘why’

Get inspired: Brian Brandow’s debt epiphany struck in 2010 when he told his family there would be no vacation that year. Instead, it was time to face $109,000 in debt, including five maxed-out credit cards.

The Brandows created a budget, cut expenses and used a debt management plan, eventually becoming debt-free after 50 months of repayment. Brandow’s three children provided the motivation he needed to stay focused on debt repayment.

“I didn’t want to disappoint my family,” he says. “I wanted to provide better for them.

“You’ll need to have a clear reason to want to get out of debt, because it’s going to be hard. It will take sacrifice. You must be mentally prepared. Having a ‘why’ will help keep you motivated.”

The article 7 Tips for Paying Off Debt — From People Who Did It originally appeared on NerdWallet.

5 Tips for Cooking an Inexpensive Thanksgiving Dinner

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a thankless job if you’ve destroyed your budget to do so. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By setting realistic expectations, shopping strategically and delegating tasks, this can be an affordable meal to prepare. Here’s how to pull it off:

1. Stick to the basics

First, drop the “Pinterest fantasy,” says Hali Bey Ramdene, food editor for The Kitchn. Your sanity and wallet will take a hit if you attempt the pear sangria and the sweet potato and Brussels sprout okonomiyaki and the apple-pecan pumpkin Bundt cake. Oh, and the turkey.

Use Pinterest and other social media sites as inspiration, not as a barometer of success. If you want to attempt a challenging dish, go for it. Otherwise, take advantage of the affordability of the Thanksgiving basics: turkey, potatoes and other vegetables.

Ramdene also points out that you probably don’t need a dozen appetizers and side dishes. “Think of the plate,” she says. A dish with just the essentials is a feast, when you consider a couple of slices of turkey, along with stuffing, potatoes and cranberry sauce. Would your guests even have room for the fancy Bundt cake?

2. Downplay social media

Just as Pinterest can set unrealistic expectations while you’re planning the meal, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat can up the ante come dinnertime. “Before, you just had dinner with your people. You fed them, and it was wonderful,” Ramdene says. “Now those people are taking photos of every single thing and narrating the dinner.”

Ramdene suggests gently asking guests to not use their phones at the dinner table. That way, they’re more present to exchange real-life experiences rather than Instagram stories. “The goal of Thanksgiving is to feed your family and be thankful together,” Ramdene says, “even if your potatoes don’t really look good with the Lark filter on them.”

3. Rethink the turkey

Look at your guest list and ask yourself if you really need to roast and serve a whole turkey. That’s a lot of food and a lot of work.

Instead, consider serving just a turkey breast. That’s what Katie Moseman, owner of the blog Recipe for Perfection, has done for the past three years. Moseman says a turkey breast is cheaper than a whole turkey and much easier to cook. Plus, it’s still tasty and attractive, with a “beautiful caramel brown exterior,” she says.

Worried about bucking tradition? “You’d have to have pretty fussy guests to complain,” Moseman says. “The carving the turkey on the table thing really only happens on TV.” As Ramdene puts it: “This is not a Norman Rockwell painting.”

If you’re feeding many guests and want to roast the whole bird, you’ll encounter a range of price tags and types. The Kitchn’s guide to buying a turkey may help you find one that fits your budget.

4. Shop wisely

That means starting now. Moseman scouts online and paper flyers of local stores and compares prices for the ingredients she’ll need. “A lot of times, the best deals won’t be found all at one store,” she says. So if you’re truly looking for the best bargain on each item, you’ll likely have to make a few stops.

As you create your “plan of attack,” as Moseman calls it, consider the value of your time, too. The grocery across town may sell pumpkin pies that are 80 cents cheaper than those at your neighborhood store, for example, but is that worth a 30-minute drive?

5. Enlist help

“Cooking Thanksgiving dinner by yourself is a falsehood,” Ramdene says. Save yourself stress and money by having guests bring dishes or beverages to share.

Ask guests with food intolerances or allergies to bring a side dish that’s safe for them to eat. That way, you’re not shelling out for specialized ingredients or sweating over a tailored dish, Moseman says.

Specify requests for other guests, too. “Don’t just tell guests to ‘bring whatever,’” Ramdene says. “If you decide to host, you’re like a taskmaster.” Ask for a dessert to share, for example, or a hot appetizer.

Chances are your guests will appreciate a chance to contribute during the giving season. “People like to show up and bring their best dish,” Moseman says. “It takes pressure off the host, it costs less, and they’re happy to say, ‘Here’s something amazing I cooked. Please compliment me.”

The article 5 Tips for Cooking an Inexpensive Thanksgiving Dinner originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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8 Steps to Filling Out the FAFSA® Form

Need to fill out the 2018–19 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form but don’t know where to start? I’m here to help. Let’s walk through the process step by step.

If you are the parent read, The Parent’s Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA Form. Ready to fill out the FAFSA form? Make sure you avoid these 12 common FAFSA mistakes.

1. Create an account (FSA ID).

  • Student: An FSA ID is a username and password you need to sign the FAFSA form online. If you don’t have an FSA ID, get an FSA ID here ASAP. It takes about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID. If this will be your first time filling out the FAFSA form, you’ll be able to use your FSA ID right away to sign and submit your FAFSA form online. If this is not your first time filling out the FAFSA form, you may need to wait one to three days for the account verification process before you can use your new FSA ID to renew your FAFSA form and sign it online.

IMPORTANT: Some of the most common FAFSA errors occur when the student and parent mix up their FSA IDs. If you don’t want your financial aid to be delayed, it’s extremely important that each parent and each student create his or her own FSA ID and that they do not share it with ANYONE, even each other.

2. Start the FAFSA® form at fafsa.gov.

The 2018–19 FAFSA form is now available! Even if your state and school deadlines aren’t for a while, you should complete the FAFSA form as soon as possible because some states and schools run out of financial aid early and have limited funds for financial aid. Don’t wait until the last minute to apply!

Go to fafsa.gov or click on the button below to get started.

TIP: We recommend that the student start the FAFSA form using the instructions below. It makes the application process much easier. If you are the parent read, The Parent’s Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA Form.

  • If you are the student: Click “Enter your (the student’s) FSA ID.” Then enter your FSA ID username and password, and click “Next.”
  • If you are the parent: Click “Enter the student’s information.” Then provide the student’s name, Social Security number, and date of birth, and click “Next.”


Choose which FAFSA form you’d like to complete:

  • 2018–19 FAFSA form if you will be attending college between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019.
  • 2017–18 FAFSA form if you will be attending college between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018.
  • Both: If you will be attending college during both time periods and haven’t completed your 2017–18 FAFSA form yet, complete that first, wait one to three days until it processes , then go back in and complete the 2018–19 FAFSA form.

TIP: If you are given the option to complete a “renewal” FAFSA form, choose that option. When you choose to renew your FAFSA form, your demographic information from the previous year will roll over into your new application, saving you some time.

Remember, the FAFSA form is not a onetime thing. You must complete a FAFSA form for each school year.

Create a save key.

  • Unlike the FSA ID, the save key is meant to be shared. A save key is a temporary password that allows you and your parent(s) to “pass” the FAFSA form back and forth. It also allows you to save the FAFSA form and return to it later. This is especially helpful if you and your parent are not in the same place.

3. Fill out the Student Demographics section.

This is information such as your name, date of birth, etc. If you have completed the FAFSA form in the past or if you log into the FAFSA form with your FSA ID, a lot of your personal information will be prepopulated to save you time. Make sure you enter your personal information exactly as it appears on your Social Security card. (That’s right, no nicknames.)

Parents: Remember that the FAFSA form is the student’s application, not yours. When the FAFSA form says “you” or “your,” it’s referring to the student. Pay attention to whether you’re being asked for student or parent information. When in doubt, the banner on the left side will indicate whether you’re on a student or parent page.


4. List the schools to which you want your FAFSA® information sent.

In the School Selection section, add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. It doesn’t hurt your application to add more schools; colleges can’t see the other schools you’ve added. In fact, you don’t even have to remove schools if you later decide not to apply or attend. If you don’t end up applying or getting accepted to a school, the school can just disregard your FAFSA form. But, you can remove schools at any time to make room for new schools. You can add up to 10 schools at a time. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, here’s what you should do.

5. Answer the dependency status questions.

In the dependency status section, you’ll be asked a series of specific questions to determine whether you are required to provide parent information on the FAFSA form.

The dependency guidelines are set by Congress and are different from those used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Even if you live on your own, support yourself, and file taxes on your own, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. If you are determined to be a dependent student, you’ll be required to report information about your parent(s). If you’re determined to be an independent student, you won’t have to provide parent information and you can skip the next step.

6. Fill out the Parent Demographics section.

This is where your parent(s) will provide basic demographic information. Remember that it doesn’t matter if you don’t live with your parent(s); you still must report information about them if you were determined to be a dependent student in the step above.

Start by figuring out who counts as your parent on the FAFSA form.

Read specific guidance about reporting your parents’ information as a dependent studentLearn what to do if you are not able to provide parent info due to special circumstances.

7. Supply your financial information.

Here is where you and your parent(s) (if applicable) will provide your financial information. This step is incredibly simple if you use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which returned with the 2018–19 FAFSA form on Oct. 1, 2017, with additional security and privacy protections added. The IRS DRT allows you to import your IRS tax information into the FAFSA form with just a few clicks. Using this tool also may reduce the amount of paperwork you need to provide to your school. So if you’re eligible, use it!

To access the tool, indicate that you’ve “already completed” taxes on the student or parent finances page. If you’re eligible, you’ll see a “LINK TO IRS” button. Choose that option and follow the prompts.


Note: Beginning with the 2018–19 FAFSA form, the information transferred from the IRS will no longer be displayed, but you will get a confirmation message letting you know that the transfer was successful. You’ll also know which items have been transferred from the IRS because you’ll see “Transferred from the IRS” in place of the answer fields. Please make sure to answer all other questions.

8. Sign and submit your FAFSA form.

You’re not finished with the FAFSA form until you (and your parent, if you’re a dependent student) sign it. The quickest and easiest way to sign your FAFSA form is online with your FSA ID.

Note: If you (the student) logged in to the FAFSA form with your FSA ID, you won’t need to provide it again on this page, but if you’re a dependent student, your parent will still need to sign before you can completely submit.

Sign and Submit Tips:

  • If you or your parent forgot your FSA ID, you can retrieve the FSA ID.
  • Make sure you and your parent don’t mix up your FSA IDs. This is one of the most common errors we see, and why it’s extremely important for each person to create his or her own FSA ID and not share it with anyone.
  • Make sure the parent who is using his or her FSA ID to sign the FAFSA form chooses the right parent number from the drop-down menu. If your parent doesn’t remember whether he or she was listed as Parent 1 or Parent 2, he or she can go back to the parent demographics section to check.
  • Here’s what you should do if you get an error saying that your FSA ID information doesn’t match the information provided on the FAFSA form.
  • If you have siblings, your parent can use the same FSA ID to sign FAFSA forms for all of his or her children. Your parent can also transfer his or her information into your sibling’s application by choosing the option provided on the FAFSA confirmation page.
  • We recommend signing the FAFSA form with an FSA ID because it’s the fastest way to get your FAFSA form processed. However, if you and/or your parent are unable to sign the FAFSA form electronically with an FSA ID, you can mail in a signature page. From the sign and submit page, select “Other options to sign and submit” and then choose “Print A Signature Page.” Just keep in mind that your FAFSA form will take longer to process if you go this route.

I’m finished. What’s next?

Congrats on finishing! You’re one step closer to getting money for college. With the hard part over, check out this page to learn what you should do next.

The article 8 Steps to Filling Out the FAFSA® Form originally appeared on blog.ed.gov.

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What to Buy (and Skip) on Black Friday 2017

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for shoppers. With huge sales and steep savings at nearly every retailer, Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — has long been touted as one of the best times of the year for buying just about anything.

But it won’t be all discounts and deals during the 2017 post-Turkey Day shopping bonanza. Use this guide to steer clear of the duds and get only the best bargains this Nov. 24.

Buy: Apple products

Traditionally, major retail stores such as Best Buy, Target and Walmart discount Apple products each year on Black Friday, and previous-generation models usually see the most dramatic deals. These offers may include price cuts, free gift cards with purchase or a combination of both. This year, look for deals on MacBooks, iMacs, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches and Apple TVs.

Target devoted an entire page of its 2016 Black Friday ad to Apple. All iPod models were 20% off, and the Apple Watch Series 1 started at $198.

Skip: Toys

Toys are one of the seasonal purchase staples, but you might want to think twice before checking them off your list on Black Friday. Historically, it’s best to wait until closer to Christmas to purchase dolls, action figures and play sets. You run the risk that certain items will sell out, but you may also be able to find bigger savings on what’s left.

Last year, in the final days before Christmas, select toys were on sale for as much as 50% off.

Buy: Gaming system bundles

Black Friday is for gamers just as much as it is for shoppers. This year, look for savings on video games and video game systems from retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and GameStop. You’ll find particularly great offers on gaming bundles. Traditionally, these include the game console plus a combination of games and accessories.

Last year, video game retailer GameStop took $50 off both the Gears of War Xbox One S Blue 500GB Bundle and the Uncharted 4 500GB PlayStation 4 Bundle (regularly $299.99 each). We expect gaming bundles to be on sale for $249.99 again this year.

Skip: Christmas decorations

You’ve likely seen the blowout post-Christmas clearance sales every year on Dec. 26 as you made your way to the store to return that gift that missed the mark. That’s when Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, tinsel and other seasonal trimmings reach super low prices (for obvious reasons).

If you can’t wait until after Christmas, hold off for a little while. Sure, you’ll see plenty of deals on artificial trees and rolls of wrapping paper on Black Friday — especially at home and craft stores — but retailers are particularly eager to slash prices closer to Dec. 25. In the days leading up to Christmas 2016, Big Lots took 50% off a selection of ornaments and decorations.

Buy: Electronics (TVs, tablets and smartphones)

Electronics deals are a Black Friday staple. In 2016, Walmart offered an impressive $125 deal on a 40-inch Element or Hisense HDTV. Best Buy discounted select Amazon Fire tablets by up to $30.

No matter where you choose to spend your Black Friday (or Thanksgiving), you’re almost guaranteed to find TV and tablet doorbusters. Another electronics deal to keep an eye out for is smartphones. Last year, some retailers offered free gift cards (in amounts as substantial as $250) with a qualifying phone purchase on an installment plan.

Skip: Bedding

You’ve got the entertainment center covered, but you should hesitate before stocking up on supplies to refresh the look of your bedroom this Black Friday.

The lowest prices on bedding and linens have been known to appear in January during what are called “white sales,” so hold off until then if you can. Discounts at this time can range from 50% to 75%. January 2017 white sales took place at retailers such as Macy’s, Kmart, Kohl’s and Overstock.

Buy: Video games, CDs, DVDs

If you’re in need of some affordable stocking stuffers, look no further than the video game, CD, DVD and Blu-ray department at most major retailers this Black Friday. You’ll find films and gaming titles deeply discounted from their original prices.

In 2016, Best Buy offered select Blu-ray+DVD+digital titles for $7.99 each. Walmart had certain video games for $27 each and a selection of over 200 DVD titles for $1.96 apiece.

Skip: Outdoor essentials

You won’t see too many grills or patio furniture sets plastered on the front pages of Black Friday ads this year. That’s because, not surprisingly, outdoor products and patio furniture are deeply discounted immediately after summer ends.

If you didn’t pick up these products at the close of this summer, wait until Labor Day sales roll around next year. Can’t wait until then? Another viable option is the Spring Black Friday Sale that home improvement store Lowe’s usually holds each year.

Buy: Home appliances

No secret here. Black Friday is well-known for its offers of huge savings on washers, dryers, refrigerators and major kitchen appliances. Look for similar deep discounts again this year.

Last year at Sears, a Kenmore washer and dryer were on sale for $274.99 each when shoppers purchased the pair. That was a 49% discount on the pair. Best Buy took up to 40% off major appliance top deals, and shoppers got a free Keurig K525 coffee brewer with purchase of two or more major appliances totaling $2,000 and up.

If you’re in the market for smaller appliances such as coffee makers, mixers, blenders or vacuum cleaners, expect deals this year from department stores such as Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and Macy’s.

Skip: Winter clothing

Fall and winter clothing generally isn’t the best value on Black Friday. Jeans, for instance, see big sales in October, and retailers frequently offer big clearance sales on jackets when winter gives way to spring.

Of course, if you need something to keep you warm before then, you’ll be able to find some bargains this Black Friday. Year after year, Macy’s and J.C. Penney have offered doorbuster deals on women’s boots. In the past, select pairs have been just $19.99 each.

Buy: Travel deals

Whether it’s hotel rooms, ski lift tickets or airfare, you can expect bargains on travel this Black Friday and Cyber Monday (Nov. 27). Check for deals from online travel sites and major airlines alike. In the past, most of these promotions were available for a very limited time. You’ll likely have to book during that window and travel during an allotted period.

Skip: Mail-in rebates

If you want to avoid some of the hassle related to Black Friday shopping, resist deals that require a mail-in rebate. Unless you’re disciplined enough to fill out the form and wait to receive the rebate, you could end up paying more than you intended. And even if you do follow through with a rebate, you’ll have to shell out a higher price at the register before getting some money back.

Always read the fine print; some kitchen appliances, electronics and other popular items may require you to fill out a mail-in rebate to achieve the advertised price. At Kohl’s, for example, some small kitchen appliances were available for $9.99 last year — but that was after a $12 mail-in rebate.

Buy: Online doorbusters

Finally, for the ultimate combination of convenience and savings, spring for online doorbusters this year. Plenty of big box retailers will be bringing their doorbusters online this Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

That’s good news for shoppers. But you have to take precautions when shopping on your phone or laptop, such as making sure you’re not on public Wi-Fi. Read more about how to ensure the safety of your online credit card purchases.

The article What to Buy (and Skip) on Black Friday 2017 originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Saving Money Makes You Happier — Here’s Proof

The argument over whether you should invest or pay off debt usually focuses on financial numbers, such as rates of return and interest charges. Maybe happiness should be part of the equation as well.

Studies in several countries, including the U.S., Norway, Ireland and Spain, have found high levels of financial satisfaction among elderly people. Happiness with our money situation tends to rise with age, even though our income peaks in midlife and then generally declines.

Why is that? Further studies show that what we own and what we owe make a difference. One study of 3,751 U.S. adults ages 30 to 80 found that increases in assets and decreases in debt over time “contribute substantially to the life course pattern of financial satisfaction.”

Fair enough. But then two Texas researchers looked into which of those two actions — paying down debt or building up investments — was the bigger contributor. Increasing assets was the hands-down winner.

Which came first, debt or unhappiness?

People with more debt were less satisfied, but lowering their debt loads didn’t seem to make them much happier, says Russell James, a certified financial planner and director of graduate studies in charitable planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. James conducted the study with Scott Garrett, then a doctoral candidate and now a certified financial planner at Ronald Blue Trust in Houston. The pair tracked 839 adults age 50 and older for four years to measure the changes.

The researchers don’t know why the investment effect was bigger but say personality may play a role. In other words, unhappy people may be more likely to get into debt.

“If a person is dissatisfied with where they are in life, maybe that makes them spend more on credit cards,” James says.

We don’t know if the same patterns would be true for younger people, but the researchers were confident enough in their results to advise financial planners to focus on building assets as “the best way to improve client financial satisfaction.”

The thing is, financial planners already take a pretty balanced approach to the “invest or pay off debt” question. They encourage both. They want people to save for retirement and emergencies while educating them about the difference between “good” debt, which helps people get ahead financially, and “bad” debt, which doesn’t. Planners typically prioritize paying off high interest rate debt such as credit cards while taking a slower approach to mortgages and student loans, which tend to have lower, tax-deductible rates.

You’re chasing the wrong goal if …

The people who really need to hear this message are the do-it-yourselfers going all-in on debt repayment, not realizing what they may be costing themselves in the long run. These include people who are:

How much debt is too much depends on an individual’s situation, but if you’re struggling to make minimum payments or your credit cards, medical bills and personal loans exceed half of your income, you’re probably already there.

The reality is that most U.S. families have manageable debt loads, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances. Only 7% spend more than 40% of their income on debt payments, the lowest level since 2001.

Where many fall short is with emergency and long-term savings. The Fed tells us 44% of adults can’t come up with $400 for an unexpected expense, while more than half of working-age adults risk not being able to sustain their standard of living in retirement, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

It’s particularly important not to stifle retirement savings, since the longer you wait to get started, the harder it is to catch up. You also can’t get back the company matches, tax breaks and compounded returns you pass up.

Being debt-free is a great goal to achieve — eventually. But your haste to get there shouldn’t leave you poorer, and less happy, in the long run.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

The article Saving Money Makes You Happier — Here’s Proof originally appeared on NerdWallet.