All You Need to Know About Going Cashless

Woman in cafe paying for coffee with her mobile phoneAs our world grows increasingly digitized, more and more consumers are banishing the cash and coins from their wallets and choosing other ways to pay for their purchases. There’s no lack of alternative payment methods today, from credit and debit cards; to electronic payment apps like Zelle, PayPal and Venmo; to mobile payment wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay; to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. You may be thinking about following the masses and getting rid of your cash. Or maybe you’re wondering if every transaction in the country will soon be digitized.

We have answered all of your questions about going cashless on a societal and personal level.

What if the entire country went cashless?
Futuristic as it sounds, many people believe our country will soon be completely cashless. They point to the growing number of consumers who rarely touch cash, and claim it won’t be long before the government discontinues the printing of paper money. If that happens, cash would have no value and every vendor, from plumber to dry cleaner to pizza deliverer, would need to have a way to process electronic payments.
In truth, there’s no indication of the government considering this move anytime soon, but, if it ever comes to pass, society would be deeply affected on many levels.

Here are just a few ways society stands to gain by eliminating cash:

  • No anonymous transactions for funding black markets. Most illegal transactions, like the purchase of recreational drugs and unlicensed weapons, happen with cash. Digital transactions always leave a trail, and getting rid of all paper money can significantly curtail the viability of these black markets.
  • Fewer white-collar crimes. Similarly, money laundering and other white-collar crimes will be more difficult to pull off without the availability of cash.
  • No cash management. Printing money, storing it and transferring large amounts of cash all costs money. These expenses will be eliminated along with cash.
  • Easier international payments. If every developed country accepted cashless payments, there’d be no need to exchange your money for local currency when you visit a foreign country.

On the flip side, there are serious concerns associated with the possibility of a completely cashless society. Here are just a few of them:

  • Increased risk of fraud. With everyone paying for every purchase through digital means, hackers have a much wider pool of victims to choose from. Plus, if your accounts are hacked in a cashless world, you’d have no way to pay for anything.
  • Lack of privacy. When every transaction happens online, your personal choices are no longer personal.
  • Inequality. A cashless society is unfair to the poor and unbanked. Without mobile devices for digital payments, or even a credit card, they’d have no way to make purchases.
  • Extra fees. While eliminating cash management might save some money for businesses and financial institutions, there’s no guarantee that payment processors and peer-to-peer payment apps won’t cash in on their sudden rise to significance and start charging higher fees for every transaction.
  • On a personal level
    Regardless of whether the country goes cashless anytime soon, you can decide to lighten up your wallet and pay for every one of your purchases with a mobile wallet or debit or credit card. You may choose to do so for the incredible convenience of cashless payments, or maybe you like the way you can effortlessly track your expenses with cashless payments.

However, before you get all hung up on the idea of going completely cashless, consider these important personal benefits of holding onto some of your cash:

  • Multiple studies show that most people spend less when paying with cash. One such study, performed by MIT and published by Carnegie Mellon Magazine, proved that card-swiping diners spent 42 percent more in a fast-food place compared to cash spenders.
  • Cash is free. Card transactions and digital payments often come with fees to help the retailer offset their cost of the transaction. Cash, however, is always free to use. Some retailers, like gas stations, even offer a discount for consumers paying with cash.
  • Some vendors only accept cash payments. You may not be able to shop everywhere or use the services of every vendor if you go completely cashless.
  • Cash always works. Cards and digital payment processing rely on electrical power and/or internet service. Cash always works, and it can really come in handy in case of a power outage. If you went completely cashless, something as simple as a dead phone battery could render you penniless.
  • There’s no risk of fraud. The worst thing that can happen to you when you’re carrying cash is getting pickpocketed and never seeing that money again. Contrast this to the very real risk of identity theft that every card transaction inherently carries and it’s a no-brainer: Cash is generally the safer way to pay. (Of course, care should be taken to conceal your cash and keep it in a safe place away from nimble fingers.)

Right now, the future of cash is anyone’s guess, but as our society grows more digitized, cash is becoming increasingly obsolete. Whatever personal choice you make about carrying cash, consider the various safety factors involved before making your decision.

Your Turn:
How do you feel about a cashless society? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
moneyunder30.com
thebalance.com
usatoday.com

Financial Resources Available for Veterans

Army soldier holding and kissing his laughing son on the cheek.We owe the strength and security of our country to our heroic veterans. These brave men and women sacrifice the comforts of home, time with family and often their physical well-being to protect us. Unfortunately, though, many veterans are struggling to make ends meet and to support their families.

If you are a veteran, you likely already know about VA loans, which are no-money-down home loans just for veterans. But did you know there are many other ways the government and charitable organizations can help you get back on your feet?

Here’s a list of financial resources created especially for veterans. Having served our country, you deserve all this and more.

USA Cares Emergency Assistance Program
If you’re a retired service person who is struggling to cover your basic monthly bills, including rent and utilities, you may be eligible for a grant from this organization. The exact amount awarded varies with each case, but the average grant size is $650. You can apply for a grant from the USA Cares Emergency Assistance Program here.

The American Legion Temporary Financial Assistance
This organization helps veterans who are also parents of young children to create a stable home life for their families. It offers cash grants to help qualifying veterans pay for expenses like housing, utilities, food and medical costs. You can read up on the eligibility requirements and apply for a grant here.

Operation Family Fund
Veterans who were severely disabled while serving in Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom may be eligible for grants to help cover their medical bills, emergency transportation, vehicle repair and housing. Review the eligibility requirements and apply for an Operation Family Fund grant here.

Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes
This organization provides financial assistance to veterans who were severely wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Click here to apply for assistance.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Aid & Attendance and Housebound Assistance
If you are a veteran receiving a VA pension, you may be eligible to increase your monthly amount through Aid & Attendance and Housebound Assistance. If you are bedridden or you need the services of an aide to help you with everyday activities, you can apply for assistance here.

Operation First Response
This organization offers financial assistance for wounded veterans and their families while they are in the midst of the VA claim process, which can stretch on for a year or more. Qualifying veterans can use the funds to cover immediate needs like housing, transportation, utilities, groceries, clothing and more. You can review the eligibility requirements and apply for assistance here.

The Armed Forces Foundation
The Armed Forces Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing comfort and financial relief to members of the military community through career counseling, housing assistance, recreational therapy programs and financial support. These programs are available for service members who are on active duty as well as those who are retired. You can read up on the assistance offered by The Armed Forces Foundation and apply for aid here.

Hope for the Warriors
The mission of this noble organization is to enhance the quality of life for members of the military and their families who have been affected by physical injuries or death in the line of duty. Its programs include financial assistance for immediate needs, as well as a special “Warrior’s Wish” program for families. Click here to apply.

Operation Homefront
This wonderful organization provides financial assistance for the immediate family members of the wounded, ill, injured or deployed. Exact criteria for assistance varies by location. Visit OperationHomeFront.net, click on “Get Assistance,” input your ZIP code and an application for assistance through your local chapter will be available for download.

Semper Fi Fund
The Semper Fi Fund (SFF) provides financial relief for any needs that may arise during the hospitalization and recovery of a service member due to an injury sustained while serving in the line of duty. Programs under the SFF include Service Member and Family Support, Specialized & Adaptive Equipment, Adaptive Housing, Adaptive Transportation, Education and Career Transition Assistance, Therapeutic Arts and Team Semper Fi. Assistance is available for all post 9-11 Marines and sailors, as well as members of the Army, Air Force or Coast Guard who serve in support of Marine forces. Apply here.

If you or anyone you know is an active or retired service member who is struggling to make ends meet, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Use the resources listed above, and stop by Advantage One Credit Union if you could use further assistance in basic money management. We’d love to help!

Your Turn:
Have we missed any major financial resources for veterans? Let us know in the comments.

Learn More:
takechargeamerica.org
veteransfamiliesunited.org
military.com

Beware the 2020 Census Scam!

2020 census sheet being filled outEvery 10 years, the Census Bureau makes an effort to count every person living in the U.S. Though the process won’t start until mid-March 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is already warning of scammers exploiting the process to con you out of your sensitive information. That’s why it’s important to familiarize yourself with the census procedure; so you know what to expect and so you can easily spot a scam.

We have answered all your questions about the 2020 census.

What’s the purpose of the census?
The U.S. Census is conducted every 10 years to provide the federal government with an accurate count of every living person in the country. This number will affect the amount of federal funding each area receives. This, in turn, pays for Medicaid, affordable housing, mass transit, schools, parks and more. It also affects the degree of congressional representation each area receives.

How will the 2020 census invite people to respond?
To obtain accurate information, the US Census Bureau will reach out to every household, giving residents the option to respond online, via mail or by phone.
Here’s how those invitations will be distributed throughout the country:

  • 95 percent of households will receive their census invitation in the mail.
  • Close to 5 percent of households will receive their census invitation through personal delivery by a census taker.
  • Less than 1 percent of households will be personally counted by a census taker instead of being invited to respond on their own.
  • There are special procedures in place to account for individuals who do not live in households, such as university students and the homeless.

Households that do not respond to the invitation delivered via mail will receive reminder letters, postcards, and questionnaires until they do respond. If they still have not participated in the census by May 2020, the household will be visited by a census taker, who will count them in person. If no one answers the door when they come by, the census taker will leave a door hanger with a phone number for the household residents to call for scheduling another visit. The census taker will continue trying to reach the household personally, or by phone, up to six times.

What kind of questions will I find on the census form?
True to purpose, the census questionnaire will primarily focus on the number of people living in the household at the time the form is completed. You will also need to note each household member’s sex, age, race, ethnicity, relationships to the other residents, phone number and whether you own or rent the home. There will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

How can I determine if a census taker is really a scammer?
One of the most widely anticipated census scams involves a fraudster posing as a census taker, obtaining sensitive information from unsuspecting residents and then using that information to commit identity theft.

You can easily verify a census taker’s legitimacy by asking to see their required photo ID.
Authentic ID will include a U.S. Department of Commerce seal and an expiration date. If you’re still feeling doubtful, ask for their supervisor’s contact information. You can also call the census regional office phone number to verify your census taker’s authenticity.
The most suspicious behavior a census scammer will exhibit is asking intrusive and inappropriate questions. Be wary of answering anything that sounds suspicious and read through the checklist below to learn how to spot a scammer.

A census taker will never ask you:

  • If you are a U.S. citizen
  • For your full Social Security number
  • For credit card numbers or checking account information
  • For a donation
  • To pledge your support for a political party
  • For personal information, such as your mother’s maiden name or the name of the elementary school you attended

A scammer might sometimes try to reach you by phone. By using caller ID-spoofing technology, it may appear as if they are actually calling from the Census Bureau. Remember, though, that a census taker will not reach out to you by phone unless you have failed to respond to several mailed invitations and reminders, and you have not answered the door when a census taker visited you personally. Be wary of any suspicious questions being asked over the phone. If you have reason to believe you are speaking with a scammer, hang up immediately.

If you suspect fraud, call 800-923-8282 to report the incident to a local Census Bureau representative. You also can file a report with the FTC . Your reports will help law enforcement agencies stop the scammers from committing additional crimes.

Your Turn:
Have you ever been targeted by a census scam? Tell us about it in the comments

Learn More:
abc7chicago.com
abclocal.go.com
consumer.ftc.gov

Think And Grow Rich

Think and Grow Rich book coverThink and Grow Rich is a legendary read. Way before the bookstores were cluttered with personal finance books, Napoleon Hill offered his manifesto to the world. And the world devoured it.

Think and Grow Rich was first published in 1937, and it has since proven to be a timeless classic.

In his work, Hill explores the mindsets, attitudes and motivations driving the most successful men of all times. Basing his ideas on Andrew Carnegie’s formula for money-making and drawing on 25 years of research into the lives of high-achievers, Hill brings readers a guide toward unlocking their own wealth. The book has been described as the ultimate manual for living a life of richness.

Think and Grow Rich is structured around 13 steps that have been touted as the most dependable philosophy of individual achievement that has ever been published. These steps include organized planning, faith, specialized knowledge, precision and more. All the techniques shared in these steps are simple and basic. And yet, when applied correctly, they can prove to be life-altering.

Hill also explores the 6 Ghosts of Fear: the primary fears that prevent most people from reaching their goals. These include poverty, criticism, ill health, lost love, old age and death. Hill shows readers how these fears can control choices and prove to be the biggest obstacles in life.

The author sprinkles illuminating vignettes about the lives of Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other millionaires of his generation throughout the book. These anecdotes illustrate the book’s principles and prove they are true to life.

When you employ the tools found within this classic work, you will have mastered the secret roadmap toward a life of riches.

Interwoven throughout the book is the theory that everyone needs self confidence, focus and a strong drive to succeed. If you already possess these tools and know how to leverage them, though, you might not find this legendary book overly helpful. But, if you’re struggling with motivation and confidence, you’ll find all the answers you need inside Think and Grow Rich.

Your Turn:
Do you think contemporary society struggles with the same challenges as Hill’s generation? Why, or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Learn More:
goodreads.com
amazon.com
thesimpledollar.com

How will my Insurance Premiums be Affected by a Car Crash?

two men involved in a minor car accident exchange insurance informationQ: I’ve recently been involved in a car crash and I’m wondering what to expect as far as my insurance rates. How big of an increase can I expect to see in my monthly premiums?

A: In most cases, car insurance providers will add a surcharge to your monthly premiums following a car accident involving one of the drivers on the plan; however, the exact increase you’ll see, and whether you will see one at all, varies by the driver, insurance carrier and state.

Here are the answers to all your questions regarding vehicle accidents and insurance rates.

What should I do after an accident?
If you’ve been in a car accident, you may be wondering whether you should involve your insurance provider and the authorities at all. If only minor vehicle damage was sustained in the accident at costs that are below or just above your deductible, it may be smarter to pay for the repairs on your own and not to involve your insurance provider. Before you decide to take this route, though, check your policy to see if there is a caveat requiring you to report all accidents.

When you need to file an insurance claim, you’ll also have to file a police report. Be sure to do so as soon as possible after a vehicle accident. You can find the information needed for filing an insurance claim on the insurance documents that you should have in your vehicle at all times. Exchange the following information with the other driver while still at the scene of the accident:

  • Name of driver
  • Name of car owner
  • Names of any passengers in the car at the time of the accident
  • The vehicle make, model and license plate number
  • The driver’s insurance company name, policy number and contact number for claims filing
  • If the police are at the scene of the accident, ask for an official police report right then as well. If you are incapacitated because of the accident, you may need to do some follow-up work when you are back on your feet to get this information. You should be able to access it through your local police department.

How much of an increase in my monthly premiums can I expect to see after an accident?
The exact increase (if any) you will see in your monthly premiums depends largely on what kind of accident you were involved in and whether you were at fault. Other factors that come into play when determining this number include your particular policy and the state where you live. Another crucial point that insurance providers consider is whether this is your first at-fault accident while on the plan. Some providers will allow one minor accident to slide without any lasting impact, while a second crash can raise your rates up to a whopping 80 percent.

A joint study between Insurance Quotes and Quadrant Information Services, which looked at data in all 50 states, found that drivers who made a single insurance claim worth $2,000 or more saw their premiums increase on average by 44.1%, or $371 a month.

Is there any way I can guarantee that my insurance provider will look away from the accident?

If you’ve been with the same insurance provider for a while, you may qualify for accident forgiveness, or a program many insurance providers offer in which they waive the usual post-accident surcharge for qualified drivers. In general, only drivers who’ve been insured by the carrier for a lengthy period of time and who have excellent driving records will be eligible for this free program. Some carriers allow other drivers to join the program for an additional monthly fee. If you are not enrolled in accident forgiveness and you think you may be eligible, speak to a representative of your insurance company to see if you can enter the program.

What if the accident isn’t my fault?
If you’ve been involved in an accident that was clearly not your fault, your rates may or may not increase, depending on your carrier, state and whether this is your first no-fault accident. If you’ve been involved in several no-fault accidents, you may see a significant increase in your premiums. Your insurance provider can also refuse to renew your policy at the end of its life.

Will the car accident affect my credit score?
Your accident and the consequent higher insurance premiums will not affect your credit rating; however, a lower credit score can result in higher monthly premiums, and the reverse is true as well.

Is there any way I can lower my rates after a surcharge?
Implement some or all of these tips to lower your rates:

  • Improve your credit score. Increasing your credit score by paying your bills on time, keeping your credit utilization low and working on paying down your debts can help you earn a lower insurance rate.
  • Increase your deductible. If your insurance premiums have become unaffordable, you may want to increase your deductible. It will mean paying more out of pocket if you are involved in another accident, but you’ll be able to lower your monthly premiums to a more affordable rate.
  • See if you qualify for any discounts. Lots of car insurance companies offer rate discounts for customers who qualify for a specific criteria, such as a multi-policy discount for bundling different kinds of insurance policies, or a good student discount for students who maintain a high academic average in school.
  • Shop around for another policy. If you can’t find a way to lower your premiums, you can look into rates being offered by other carriers. With a bit of research, you might find a provider offering a much better rate for the same amount of coverage.

Your Turn:
Have you recently been involved in a car accident? Tell us how your insurance premiums were affected in the comments.

Learn More:
bankrate.com
carinsurance.com
thesimpledollar.com
moneyunder30.com

Beware of Coronavirus Scams

Man staring menacingly at camera while wearing a medical maskScammers are notorious for capitalizing on fear, and the coronavirus outbreak is no exception. Showing an appalling lack of the most basic morals, scammers have set up fake websites, bogus funding collections and more in an effort to trick the fearful and unsuspecting out of their money.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published on its website a warning against email scams connected to the coronavirus. The agency claims it has received reports from around the world about phishing attempts mentioning coronavirus on an almost daily basis.

Closer to home, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning against a surge in coronavirus scams, which are being executed with surprising sophistication, so they may be difficult for even the keenest of eyes to spot.

The best weapons against these scams are awareness and education. When people know about circulating scams and how to identify them, they’re already several steps ahead of the scammers. Here’s all you need to know about coronavirus-related scams.

How the scams play out
There are several scams exploiting the fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus. Here are some of the most prevalent:

The fake funding scam
In this scam, victims receive bogus emails, text messages or social media posts asking them to donate money to a research team that is supposedly on the verge of developing a drug to treat COVID-19. Others claim they are nearing a vaccine for immunizing the population against the virus. There have also been ads circulating on the internet with similar requests. Unfortunately, nearly all of these are fakes, and any money donated to these “funds” will help line the scammers’ pockets.

The bogus health agency
There is so much conflicting information on the coronavirus that it’s really a no-brainer that scammers are exploiting the confusion. Scammers are sending out alerts appearing to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the WHO; however, they’re actually created by the scammers. These emails sport the logo of the agencies that allegedly sent them, and the URL is similar to those of the agencies as well. Some scammers will even invent their own “health agency,” such as “The Health Department,” taking care to evoke authenticity with bogus contact information and logos.

Victims who don’t know better will believe these missives are sent by legitimate agencies. While some of these emails and posts may actually provide useful information, they often also spread misinformation to promote fear-mongering, such as nonexistent local diagnoses of the virus. Even worse, they infect the victims’ computers with malware which is then used to scrape personal information off the infected devices.

The phony purchase order
Scammers are hacking the computer systems at medical treatment centers and obtaining information about outstanding orders for face masks and other supplies. The scammers then send the buyer a phony purchase order listing the requested supplies and asking for payment. The employee at the treatment center wires payment directly into the scammer’s account. Unfortunately, they’ll have to pay the bill again when contacted by the legitimate supplier.

Preventing scams
Basic preventative measures can keep scammers from making you their next target.

As always, it’s important to keep the anti-malware and antivirus software on your computer up to date, and to strengthen the security settings on all of your devices.
Practice responsible browsing when online. Never download an attachment from an unknown source or click on links embedded in an email or social media post from an unknown individual. Don’t share sensitive information online, either. If you’re unsure about a website’s authenticity, check the URL and look for the lock icon and the “s” after the “http” indicating the site is secure.

Finally, it’s a good idea to stay updated on the latest news about the coronavirus to avoid falling prey to misinformation. Check the actual CDC and WHO websites for the latest updates. You can donate funds toward research on these sites as well.

Spotting the scams
Scammers give themselves away when they ask for payment via specific means, including a wire transfer or prepaid gift card. Scams are also easily spotted by claims of urgency, such as “Act now!” Another giveaway is poor writing skills, including grammatical errors, awkward syntax and misspelled words. In the coronavirus scams, “Breaking information” alerts appearing to be from health agencies are another sign of a scam.

You can keep yourself safe from the coronavirus by practicing good hygiene habits and avoid coronavirus scams by practicing healthy internet usage. Keep yourself in the know about the latest developments.

Your Turn:
Have you been targeted by a coronavirus scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
consumer.ftc.gov
wsj.com
blog.malwarebytes.com

Why You Should Never Abbreviate 2020

Business person handing pen over for viewer to signIt may be a new year and a new decade, but scammers are still looking to con you out of your money. In fact, experts are warning of a new scam that is as simple as changing the date on a personal check, financial document, or another important paper.
Here’s what you can do to protect yourself:

The 2020 scam
The newest scam of the decade involves the dates on important documents. Most of us are accustomed to abbreviating the date by using the last two digits anytime we need to write it. For example, if we were dating a document for March 2, 2019, we might write it out as 3/2/19.

While it was fine to do so in the past, continuing this practice in 2020 can be problematic. With the two sets of digits that make up the new year being identical, abbreviating the date on important documents opens us up to all sorts of scams. It only takes a few seconds for a scammer to change the “20” on a document to “2021” or to “2019.” This can lead to multiple problems for the document signer.

What kind of damage can be caused by this scam?
There are endless ways that date modification can be employed in a scam.
First, let’s take a look at what happens if the date is changed to an earlier year. If a scammer gets their hands on a check that was made out to you and decides to backdate it, the check may no longer be valid. Similarly, if you signed a legal document or a contract this year and a scammer adds “19” to the end of the “20” that you wrote to indicate the year, it now looks like you signed this document in 2019. As a result, your contract may no longer be valid. If this scam is pulled off on paperwork for an outstanding debt, your debt will now appear to be overdue. Thanks to this ruse, you might be charged late fees for a loan that is not yet due, or you may be charged a monthly fee for a time when you did not yet owe any payments.

The other way this scam can be executed is for the date to be changed to a future year. To pull this off, criminals will use the “20” you scrawled for the year, and change it to “2021” or later. If someone signed a document agreeing to start paying you for services you rendered in 2020, they can make it appear as if they don’t owe you any money until next year. Also, if you’ve neglected to pay a debt that is already past the statute of limitations, a scammer can modify the year on the relevant documents to make it appear as if you are still accountable for the debt.

While this scam is as new as the new year, and it’s still too early to know what kind of damage it can cause, financial experts agree that the threat is very real and precautions should be taken.

Avoiding this scam
As scams go, the 2020 scam is fairly easy to prevent. As you work on breaking free of bad habits and making improvements, add this to your list of New Year’s resolutions: Don’t abbreviate the year. Train yourself to write out “2020” in its entirety anytime you need to date a check, financial document or important paperwork of any kind. This simple precaution will keep you from falling victim to a date manipulation scam. It’s also a good idea to write out the full month when dating an important document, especially in January and February, since “1” and “2” can easily be changed to look like you wrote 10, 11, or 12 as the month. The stroke of a pen can push off the date on your document by nine full months or more.

Remember, the habit that was harmless in 2019 could make you vulnerable to fraud in 2020.

Your Turn:
Can you think of any other ways scammers can manipulate a date to their benefit? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
usatoday.com
mentalfloss.com
clark.com

5 Ways to Trim Your Fixed Expenses

Monthly expense sheet with glasses and claculator on deskWhen trying to trim a monthly budget, most people don’t consider their fixed expenses. These recurring costs, which include mortgage payments, insurance premiums and subscription payments, are easy to budget and plan for since they generally remain constant throughout the year. While people tend to think there’s no way to lower fixed expenses, with a bit of effort and research, most of these costs can be reduced.

Here are five ways to trim your fixed expenses.

1. Consider a refinance
Mortgage payments take the biggest bite out of most monthly budgets. Fortunately, you can lower those payments by refinancing your mortgage to a lower interest rate. The refinance will cost you, but you can roll the closing costs and other fees into your refinance loan. Plus, the money you save each month should more than offset these costs. A refinance is an especially smart move to make in a falling-rates environment or if your credit has improved a lot since you originally opened your mortgage.

2. Lower your property taxes
Taxes may be inevitable, but they aren’t set in stone. You may be able to lower your property taxes by challenging your town’s assessment of your home. Each town will have its own guidelines to follow for this process, but ultimately you will agree to have your home reappraised in hopes of proving its value is less than the town’s assessment. This move can drastically lower your property tax bill; however, if you have made improvements to your home, it may be appraised at a higher value, which could raise your taxes.

3. Change your auto insurance policy
The Geico gecko and Progressive’s Flo, who love disrupting your favorite TV shows, actually have a point: You may be overpaying for your auto insurance policy.

If you’ve had the same policy for several years, speak to a company representative about lowering your monthly premiums. By highlighting your loyalty and having an excellent driving record, you may be able to get a lower quote. You can also consider increasing your deductible to net a lower monthly premium.

If your insurance company is not willing to work with you, it might be time to shop around for a provider that will. A few minutes on the phone can provide you with a significant monthly savings for a similar level of coverage. Once you have a lower quote in hand, you can choose to go back to your original provider and tell them you’re seriously considering a switch; they may change their mind about their previous lowest offer.

4. Consolidate your debts
If you’re carrying a number of outstanding debts, your minimum monthly payments can be a serious drain on your budget. Plus, thanks to the high interest rates you’re likely saddled with, you might be feeling like that debt is going nowhere.

Lucky for you, there is a way out. If you have multiple credit cards open, each with an outstanding balance, you might want to consider a balance transfer. This entails opening a new, no-interest credit card, and transferring all of your debts to this account. The no-interest period generally lasts up to 18 months. Going forward, you will only have one debt payment to make each month. Plus, the no-interest feature means you can make a serious dent in paying down that debt without half of your payment going toward interest.

Another way to consolidate debt is to take out a personal loan at Advantage One Credit Union. Our personal loans will allow you to pay off all of your credit card debt at once. You’ll only need to make a single, affordable monthly payment until your loan is paid off.

5. Cut out subscriptions you don’t need
Another fixed expense most people mindlessly pay each month are subscriptions. Take some time to review your monthly subscriptions and weed out those you don’t really need. Below, we’ve listed some of the most commonly underused monthly payments:

  • Gym membership
    Are you really getting your money’s worth out of your gym membership? It may be cheaper to just pay for the classes you attend instead of a full membership. Or, if you have a favorite workout machine at the gym, consider purchasing it to use at home for a one-time cost that lets you to drop your gym membership.
  • Cable
    Why are you still paying for cable when you can stream your shows for less through services like Netflix and Hulu? If you don’t want to cut out cable entirely, consider downgrading to a cheaper plan that drops some of the premium channels you don’t watch much.
  • Apps
    How many apps are you signed up for? You may not even remember signing up for an upgraded version of an app you rarely use. A quick perusal of your monthly checking account statement or credit card bill can help you determine how much these subscriptions are costing you. Drop the apps you’re not using for more wiggle room in your monthly budget.

Your fixed monthly expenses are actually not as “fixed” as you may have thought. By taking a careful look at some of these costs, you can free up more of your monthly income for the things that really matter.

Your Turn:
How have you lowered your fixed monthly expenses? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
debtroundup.com
experian.com
thesimpledollar.com

Mobile Wallet Apps

Apple PayApplePay logo
Apple Pay allows you to pay for purchases online and in retail locations using credit and debit cards already stored in your iPhone’s Wallet app. If you have an iOS 11, you can also use the service for peer-to-peer (P2P) payments through iMessage.

Accessibility: Apple Pay is available on all Apple Watches and Apple mobile devices that are as recent as the iPhone 6, iPad Air 2, iPad Pro or iPad mini 3. Apple also works with select Macs as long as there is an Apple product nearby. MacBooks with Touch ID can use Apple Pay directly without the assistance of any Apple products.

If you have an Apple device with iOS 11 and you’d like to use Apple Pay for P2P payments, any money you receive will be deposited into your Apple Pay Cash card, which works like a prepaid credit card. You can then use this money for spending through Apple Pay or deposit it into your checking account.

Where it works: More than 4 million locations in the U.S. accept Apple Pay, including GAP, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. There are also hundreds of financial institutions and payment providers that accept Apple Pay.

Security: In addition to the security provided by using NFC and tokenization, Apple protects your money by requiring you to authenticate your device with Touch ID, Face ID or a PIN whenever you attempt to make a payment through the app.

Samsung PaySamsung Pay logo
If you have a Samsung Galaxy device, you’ll want to use Samsung Pay. This wireless payment app is the most widely accepted mobile wallet on the market.

Accessibility: You can use Samsung Pay with all Galaxy devices, including the Gear S2 Sport, Gear S2 Classic, Gear S3 Classic, Gear Sport and Galaxy Watch.

Where it works: Samsung Pay is unique among mobile wallets thanks to its ability to work with both NFC-enabled terminals and the more common magnetic-strip terminals, or MSTs. As Samsung promises, wherever you can swipe a card, you can use Samsung Pay.

Security: Before you use Samsung Pay, you’ll need to do an iris scan, fingerprint or PIN.

Fitbit Payfitbit pay
Fitbit Pay was created by the popular fitness company to enable exercisers to make small purchases while on the go, using just their Fitbit devices.

Accessibility: You can use Fitbit’s mobile wallet on compatible Fitbit devices, including the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch, Fitbit Versa 2 smartwatch, Fitbit Versa Special Edition smartwatch and the Fitbit Charge 3 Special Edition.

Where it works: Fitbit is currently only accepted by a limited number of financial institutions. You can check out the full list of participating U.S. credit unions and banks here. If your financial institution is connected to the app, you can use it at any NFC-enabled payment terminal.

Security: You’ll have to enter your unique security code each time you want to make a payment with Fitbit Pay.

Garmin PayGarmin Pay logo
Another favorite among fitness enthusiasts, Garmin Pay makes buying a bottle of water while on a run as simple as holding up your watch.

Accessibility: Garmin Pay works with the following devices: Garmin Vivoactive 3, Garmin Vivoactive 4 & 4s, Garmin Forerunner 645, Garmin Forerunner 945, Garmin Fenix 5 Plus – X & S, Garmin Fenix 6 – Pro, X, S, Garmin Venu, Garmin D2 Delta, Garmin Legacy series and Garmin Vivomove Luxe & Style.

Where it works: Garmin Pay is currently only connected to a limited number of financial institutions. You can check out the list of participating U.S. banks and credit unions here.

Security: You’ll need to input a PIN before making a purchase through Garmin Pay.

Your Turn:
What’s your favorite mobile wallet app, and what do you like best about it? Tell us in the comments.

Learn More:
pocket-lint.com
pocket-lint.com
apple.com
techrepublic.com
taluspay.com
samsung.com
techradar.com

Take Precautions with Connected Security Cameras

Adult viewing a child on a connected security deviceWhen parents hear, “Mommy!” yelled from their child’s room, it’s usually the result of a minor ouchie, or perhaps a stomach ache.

But, for recent users of a doorbell security camera, hearing, “Mommy!” come from their daughters’ bedroom turned their dreams of peace of mind into a nightmare.

Hackers have recently been gaining access to users’ homes via their systems’ two-way talk features. Two-way talk allows users to see what’s going on in their homes and talk to the occupants from a remote location via smartphone or tablet.

One recent attack involved an 8-year-old girl who was told by a male voice over the Amazon Ring security camera in her bedroom that he was Santa Claus and wanted to be her friend—all after calling her racial slurs and telling her it was OK to mess up her room and break her television.

The frightened girl could be seen and heard calling for her mother in the video provided to the media.

In another instance, a woman was awakened while sleeping in her bedroom by a strange voice coming from her Ring security camera. The voice was yelling for her to wake up and calling her dog.

Google’s Nest Cam security cameras are not immune to hackers, either.

One couple experienced hearing a man’s voice over the camera system. It was talking to their baby and then yelling obscenities at them before asking why the homeowners were looking at him (the crook). They also reported that the hackers had made adjustments to their thermostat.

In yet another Nest Cam incident, hackers warned a family about a supposed North Korean missile strike.

A spokesperson for Ring told The Washington Post in a recent statement that the Santa incident “is in no way related to a breach or compromise of Ring’s security. Customer trust is important to us and we take the security of our devices seriously.”

They added that the hackers “often re-use credentials stolen or leaked from one service on other services.”

Nest’s parent company, Google, told CBS News that Nest’s system was not breached, adding that reported incidents stem from customers “using compromised passwords … exposed through breaches on other websites.”

The Ring spokesperson told the Post, “Consumers should always practice good password hygiene and we encourage Ring customers to change their passwords and enable two-factor authentication.”

To prevent these incidents from occurring, CNET.com urges companies to require two-factor authentication (2FA), not just suggest using it.

“2FA would need a second form of identity, often a one-time code sent to a phone after a username and password are entered, or a physical token that’s plugged in,” according to CNET.

The report adds that hackers are using a technique called credential stuffing, a practice of acquiring lists of stolen usernames and passwords and then trying to use them on different accounts. Software tools have been created to specifically hack Ring cameras.

Ring’s representatives told Vice, “As a precaution, we highly and openly encourage all Ring users to enable two-factor authentication on their Ring account, add Shared Users (instead of sharing login credentials), use strong passwords, and regularly change their passwords.”

Take precautions before hackers take your peace of mind via your home security system.

Your Turn:
How do you protect yourself from home security camera hackers? Tell us in the comments.

Learn More:
wsbtv.com
washingtonpost.com
cbsnews.com
cnet.com
vice.com