Now’s a good time to get a handle on taxes as those W-2s and 1099s start arriving in the mailbox. Once you’re ready to wade in, I’d recommend TurboTax Online. Filing your federal taxes is free for those with simple returns, though they do charge for state returns. And for the rest of us with more complex taxes there are discounted TurboTax deals from many financial organizations. One of the better offers is via Fidelity — and you don’t even have to be their customer. Just follow the link from their site and you’ll get the discounted rate.
I’ve told you about how to get your free credit reports, so now let’s move on to the next scam-laden field of personal finance: credit scores. The U.S. government requres the credit reporting agencies to give you your credit reports for free at least once a year, but they’re under no obligation to do the same with your all-important credit score.
There’s good news, though. Free site CreditKarma offers an updated credit score provided by Trans Union — one of the big-three credit agencies — to all comers. They don’t just give you the raw number, either. They actually break down the individual factors making up your score and explain why it fluctuates from day to day. There’s even an iPhone app if you want to check your score on the go. Not bad for free.
That $100 or more you pay each month for the privilege of owning an iPhone sure can sting when it’s time to pay the bills. There are lots of ways to get that number a little lower, though:
1. FAN Discounts: Check if your employer gets a discount. In many cases all you have to do is tell the wireless company the name of your employer to receive a discount of 10 to 30 percent off your bill every month. This also holds true for many other products and services beyond cell phones, so take the time to hit your employer’s HR web site to see if you could be raking in even more discounts.
2. Get the Right Plan: If you’re not coming close to using all your minutes — especially if you’re on AT&T where you have the buffer of rollover minutes — then it’s time to downgrade. You may also be grandfathered on a plan that’s more expensive than current offerings. Check out what’s currently available and switch if it’s a better deal. Also, if you have two or more phones in your family it’s almost always a better deal to combine them onto a single family plan.
3. Ditch the Add-Ons: Check your bill for add-ons you don’t need. If you’re not a texter or only use iMessage, ditch the unlimited text plan. That phone insurance may have big holes in its coverage and probably has a hefty deductible, so is it worth it? How about roadside assistance? If you have a car still under warranty you probably already have that, so why pay twice?
4. Check For Junk Charges: The wireless companies are complicit in a lot of shady services that quietly tack themselves onto your cell phone bill with the hope that you won’t notice. If you find any unexplained charges like text information services, call the wireless company to get them removed.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask: This applies to many services where there’s lots of competition, but don’t be afraid to ask if they can do better. Often phone/chat agents are empowered to offer you discounts and freebies just to keep you happy, so why not take advantage of it? A good rule of thumb is to call each of your providers (cell, cable, Internet, etc) once a year and ask if you’re getting the best deal. You may be surprised what they can do for you.
Watching late-night TV, you’d think that credit reports are something you can expect to pay for — often as part of a monthly charge for generally useless “credit monitoring” — but it’s all a lie.
Don’t ever pay for credit reports.
You’re legally entitled to a free report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies at least once per year and again anytime you’re denied credit, but that doesn’t stop the sleazeballs from running lots of ads hoping to convince you otherwise.
The real place to request your free reports from the big three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian) is AnnualCreditReport.com. The site is clumsy and they’ll ask for a lot of personal information, but in this case it’s a legitimate service run by the credit agencies and mandated by the government.
Also, if you discover anything incorrect in any of your reports don’t hesitate to follow the company’s instructions for disputing it — a process you can usually complete entirely via their web sites. The burden is then on the creditor to prove that the item is correct, and if they can’t do so the error will eventually disappear from your credit report.
You already know you can get your credit reports from the three big credit reporting agencies once a year for free, right? But those reports don’t include your credit score, which is the magic number that rates your credit-worthiness and has a huge effect on your ability to get a loan — or sometimes even a job.
Congress made the credit companies cough up the credit reports, but thus far the credit agencies are still allowed to charge you to find out your credit score. Think that’s a raw deal? Join the Defend Your Dollars campaign and help get it fixed.
For years Target offered a run-of-the-mill store credit card that gave you a discount on your first purchase after signup. Yawn. I’d stopped paying attention since store credit cards are almost always a bad deal for consumers, so it took me a while to notice when they made the deal a lot sweeter. They still offer the high-interest Target credit card (not recommended), but you can also opt for a debit version that just pulls money from your checking account.
Why bother? Because both versions of the card give you 5% off on nearly everything at Target from then on. I’m a big Target shopper and this has saved me a bundle since I signed up. All you have to do is sign up for the Target REDcard, choose the debit option, and give them your bank account details. You’ll be issued a debit version of the REDcard with its own PIN to use at the store like any other bank card, but unlike credit cards there are no fees and no bills — just that sweet 5% discount. I’d recommend it to even casual Target shoppers.
One more thing: Once you’ve signed up for a REDcard be sure to register your card number at Target’s Take Charge of Education site. You’ll be prompted to choose a favorite K-12 school, and from then on Target will give an additional 1% of all your purchases to that school. Our family’s mid-size elementary school brings in more than $1,000 a year via this program, so it’s definitely worth the time to sign up.
If your car insurance provider is like mine, there are lots of hidden discounts available just for working in certain industries, being a member of certain groups, or even subscribing to the right publications. In some cases it’s their way to reward you for being a member of a statistically safer demographic (e.g. AAA has a significant policy discount for teachers), but other times it’s just a marketing arrangement. In my case, I noticed that members of the National Geographic Society (i.e. anyone who subscribes to the excellent magazine) get a $26 per year discount on Geico policies. Since National Geographic subscriptions are only $15 per year at Amazon, that’s an effective $11 profit for receiving a magazine that you’ll actually like. And yes, it’s okay if you only look at the pictures.
LivingSocial is a local-targeted deals site in the same vein as Groupon. Both offer localized deals — get a $50 gift certificate at a restaurant or spa in your town for $25, for instance — but LivingSocial generally has higher-end deals and also offers side deals on vacation packages and other items.