How To Dispute An Error On Your Credit Report

Woman on phone with credit bureauQuick-what’s your credit score?
As a financially responsible individual, you should be checking your credit on a regular basis. You can do this by signing up for free credit monitoring on a reputable website like CreditKarma.com, requesting your annual complimentary credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com and reviewing your monthly credit card statements.

If all goes well, your report will hold no surprises and your score will be in excellent shape, or steadily increasing. Sometimes, though, you may find an error in your report. It might be a sharp decline in your score when you know you haven’t changed your spending or bill-paying habits, a large transaction you’re sure you’ve never made or an unfamiliar line of credit. While it can be disconcerting to find a mistake in your credit report, the good news is you can contest errors like these and fix your score.

Mistakes you may find on your credit report
Credit report errors are quite common. In fact, 26% of participants in a study by the Federal Trade Commission found at least one error on their credit reports that brought down their score. A lower score can mean getting hit with higher interest rates on loans, and can prove to be an obstacle when applying for a new line of credit or a large loan.

Most of these errors can be traced back to clerical mistakes, though some are caused by a lack of action on your part, or by criminal activity.

Credit report errors include the following:

  • You’re mistakenly identified as someone with a name similar to yours.
  • A credit account was never included in your report, weakening your perceived credit worthiness.
  • Your loan or credit card payments were applied to the wrong account.
  • A legitimate credit account or debt has been reported and recorded multiple times.
  • Your name is still linked to your ex-partner’s accounts and debts.
  • Identity thieves have used your name and credit file to open accounts and take out loans you knew nothing about – and it’s unlikely they have been making payments on those loans.

To avoid credit report errors, make sure to use your legal name on every line of credit you open, to remove your name from any accounts you are no longer associated with and to have all of your creditors report your open accounts to the major credit bureaus. As mentioned above, it is also crucial that you monitor your score to find mistakes as quickly as possible.

3 steps to disputing an error

If you’ve spotted an error on your credit report, don’t panic. Follow these three steps to dispute the error and fix your credit:

Step 1: File a dispute with each of the major credit bureaus.
You’ll need to inform all three major credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, about the error. All three bureaus allow you to file disputes online.

In your written dispute, you’ll need to clearly identify each disputed item in your report, explain why you are disputing these items and ask that the errors be deleted or corrected. Include your full contact information, as well as copies of any documents that support your claim. You can also include a copy of your credit report, highlighting the items you are disputing.

To file your dispute online, follow these links for each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, Experian.

You can also file your disputes by mail to Equifax and TransUnion; Experian currently accepts online disputes only. If filing by mail, it’s best to send your letter via certified mail with a requested return receipt. It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of your correspondence for your own records.

    • Mail your Equifax dispute to the following address:
      Equifax Information Services LLC
      P.O. Box 740256
      Atlanta, GA 30348
    • Mail your TransUnion dispute to the following address:
      TransUnion LLC
      Consumer Dispute Center
      P.O. Box 2000
      Chester, PA 19016

Step 2: Contact the creditor
After you’ve contacted each bureau, you can also reach out to the creditor that’s linked to the error in your report. This step isn’t necessary, but it may speed up the correction process.

Most creditors will provide a link or an address for disputes. When filing your dispute, follow the guidelines above and include all relevant information and documentation. Be sure to let the creditor know you’ve also contacted the credit bureaus, as they’ll want to include this information and a copy of your dispute if they report their findings to the bureaus. You can also ask to be copied on all correspondences between the creditor and the bureaus.

Step 3: Follow up in 30 days
Expect to be contacted by the bureaus and the creditor within 30 days after filing your disputes. If all goes well, your dispute will be accepted and your credit will be restored. In many states, you are eligible to receive a complimentary credit report following a registered dispute.

If one of the credit bureaus or a creditor refuses to accept your dispute or does not resolve the error in your favor, you can ask the bureau or creditor to include a copy of your dispute in your file and in all future credit reports. This way, a lender or creditor will be made aware of the alleged error when reviewing your credit. You may be charged a small fee for this service, but it is generally worth the price. If you feel the error is too significant to ignore, consider hiring a lawyer to help you contest the report and fix your credit.

Disputing an error on your credit report is fairly simple. Always monitor your score and be vigilant about correcting errors. The payoff can affect your financial wellness for years to come.

Your Turn:
Have you ever filed a dispute for an error found on your credit report? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn more:
creditkarma.com
myfico.com
consumerfinance.gov

How to Make Your Career Choice Fit Your Budget

Young woman sadly regards a document on her desk.As you prepare for graduation and begin scouting different employment opportunities, be sure to look at the larger picture before you accept a position.

Hopefully, you’ve chosen a career path that will bring you joy and gratification. Equally important, though, is a job that can support your lifestyle choices. While the positions you consider for your first post-college job will likely offer the opportunity for growth, you’ll still need to pay your bills—and make your student loan payments—as soon as you graduate. A job that brings you satisfaction and a pleasant working environment will not last long if the salary it offers causes you to sink into debt.

How do you determine what kind of salary will be large enough to support your desired lifestyle?

To get this information, you’ll need to create a mock monthly budget for your post-college self.

Using a spreadsheet or paper and pen, create two columns, one for expenses and one for actual dollar amounts. In the expense column, list your typical monthly expenses, including housing costs, transportation costs, health insurance, groceries, entertainment costs, clothing costs, dining out, savings, etc. In the dollar column, list the amount of money you expect to pay every month for each expense.

Your budget should look something like this:

ExpenseMonthly Cost
Housing$1,200
Transportation$300
Health Insurance$250
Groceries$350
Student Loan Payments$350

It will take some research and some hard, honest thinking to come up with these numbers. For housing costs, take a moment to think about where you see yourself settling down after college. You don’t have to know the exact neighborhood you’ll live in, but it’s good to know the city that will work best for you in terms of lifestyle, career path, and family plans. You can narrow this down to a few choices so long as you keep it reasonable. Once you’ve chosen your desired location, research the median rental prices in the area on real estate sites like Zillow and Redfin.

Next, work on transportation costs. If you already own a car, you’ll have an idea of what it costs you each month. Otherwise, spend some time thinking about what kind of car you want to drive. You can find listings on Carfax.com. Include costs like auto insurance, gas, and upkeep, in this category.

Or, if you plan on living somewhere with reliable public transportation, you might choose this route instead. Make a calculation of how much you’ll spend on bus and/or train rides, along with the occasional cab or ride-share ride.

Complete your budget using your best estimates for each category. Once you’ve filled out each expense amount, add up your total and multiply it by 12 to give you the amount of money you’ll need each year for supporting the lifestyle of your choice. (This number will increase with inflation, but since current salaries will likely increase along with the inflation rate, this exercise can still give you an idea of the annual salary you’ll need.)

Now that you have these numbers, you’re ready to go ahead with your job search. When considering possible positions, you don’t have to choose the one that pays the highest salary if there are other things about the job you don’t love. However, it’s best to pursue positions that can actually support you.

Your Turn:
Are you choosing your first job for the salary or for other factors? Share your take with us in the comments.

Learn More:
knsfinancial.com
money.usnews.com
money.usnews.com
brazen.com

The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways To Stop Doing Dumb Things With Money

The Behavior Gap - Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with MoneyEveryone loves to pin their financial troubles on a tanking economy or an unstable market. But let’s face it: We have no one to blame but ourselves for the decisions we make about money. And we often have no idea why our noble intentions fall flat when we make financial choices.

In The Behavior Gap, Carl Richards aims to help us understand this puzzle and to change our lifelong financial habits. As he puts it, “Financial success is more about behavior than it is about skill.”

Richards is a financial planner who has watched his clients make the same inane mistakes with their money again and again. He saw the way they’d let circumstance and emotion dictate financial decisions and obliterate all sensibility. Richards termed this discrepancy between people’s good intentions and what they actually do, “the behavior gap.” He discovered that, once people understood this gap and what drives it, they are empowered to make the right choices and follow through on their goals.
In the pages of The Behavior Gap, you’ll learn how to:

  • Avoid the inclination to buy high and sell low
  • Simplify and automate your financial life
  • Ignore generic financial advice
  • Invest your assets more wisely
  • Stop wasting money and time on senseless pursuits
  • Identify your true financial goals
  • Have meaningful conversations about money

No matter where you stand financially, it’s never too late to start over. As Richards writes: “We’ve all made mistakes, but now it’s time to give yourself permission to review those mistakes, identify your personal behavior gaps, and make a plan to avoid them in the future. The goal isn’t to make the ‘perfect’ decision about money every time, but to do the best we can and move forward.”

In The Behavior Gap, you’ll find the tools you need to rein in the emotional monster within and train it to abide by the financial rules you’ve always wanted to follow. Richards has an engaging writing style that will keep you captivated until the last word.
Some critics complain the book does not dig as deeply into behavioral economics as it seems to promise and that it is only a beginner-level personal finance book.

Most readers, though, have nothing but praise for The Behavior Gap and its enlightening message.

Your Turn:
Do you often regret your money choices? Do you think there is really a large gap between intentions and behavior? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
bakadesuyo.com
amazon.com
goodreads.com

Beware The Fake Check Scam Targeting College Students

Young man standing in line at a credit union with a 2' x 4' checkMaking the transition from high school to college isn’t easy. You need to deal with a whole new set of rules, adapt to dorm life and get to know your new classmates, teachers and roommates. Then there’s the financial aspect: applying for financial aid, grants and scholarships; paying for school supplies, electronic devices and textbooks. And don’t forget about budgeting for food costs, clothing and more.

Unfortunately, scammers are making this transition even more challenging than it already is. There’s recently been an uptick in fake check scams targeting new college students. Young adults make excellent targets. In fact, according to the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, consumers ages 18 to 24 are three times more likely than seniors to fall prey to a scam. In addition, the BBB’s ScamTracker Risk Report of 2018 found that 41.6% of students reported a loss when exposed to a scam as compared to 28.3% of non-students.

Don’t be the next victim! Here’s how you can recognize a fake check scam and take steps to keep yourself safe.

How does the scam play out?
There are several variations of the fake check scam, but all of them ultimately lead to the victim cashing an extra-large fake check and returning the difference to the scammer.
In one scenario, the scammer will send a bad check to a potential new roommate. The check allegedly secures the renter’s spot in the room, and will be made out for an amount that is greater than the requested holding deposit. The victim will be asked to deposit the check and send the extra funds back to the “renter.” Unfortunately, the check won’t clear and the victim will never see that money again.

In another variation, a young college student will be offered a remote position working for an alleged business. The student will receive a check to use for purchasing supplies or to cash as their paycheck. Here, too, the check will be made out for more money than necessary, and the victim will be instructed to send back the difference to the scammer.

Again, the check will ultimately not clear and the student will be out the money they sent.

In yet a third variation of this scam, students will receive phone calls or messages from companies promising to lower their student loan payments. After applying for this “service,” the student will be sent an extra-large check. The rest of the scam will follow the same script described above.

How can I spot a fake check scam?
Watch out for these red flags which likely indicate a scam:

  • You’re asked to cash a check that is made out for more money than necessary and to return the difference to the sender.
  • The alleged roommate, employer or loan company insists on paying you via check only.
  • You cannot find any information online about your potential new roommate, employer or loan company.
  • The alleged roommate, employer or contact from the loan company refuses to answer any of your questions about their location and refuses to meet face to face.

If you suspect a scam, cut off all contact with the scammer and report it to the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov and to the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org. It’s also a good idea to warn your friends and classmates that this scam is circulating so they don’t fall prey to it.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your credit. As a young student, you are a primary target for scammers. If your financial information has been compromised and a scammer is helping themselves to your credit file to open loans or lines of credit in your name, you may not learn about this fraudulent activity until extensive damage has been done. You can monitor your credit via a free service like CreditKarma.com, and by requesting your annual complimentary credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com. Review your monthly credit card statements as well and check for suspicious activity on your accounts.

Adjusting to college life is hard enough without dealing with scams. Proceed with caution and be wary of anyone offering you more money than you’re expecting for whatever reason. Stay safe!

Your Turn:
Have you been targeted by a fake check scam? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

Learn More:
abc7chicago.com
whnt.com
affordablecollegesonline.org

All You Need to Know About Data Breaches

hands on a computer keyboard with security lock icons superimposedIf you follow the news, you’ll note that there seems to be another major data breach monopolizing headlines every week. The details vary, but in each breach, thousands, millions or even billions of victims’ sensitive information is compromised, and they’re now vulnerable to identity theft unless they take immediate action.

Here at Advantage One Credit Union, your financial success and safety is our primary goal. To help keep your information and your finances secure, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on data breaches.

What is a data breach?
Data breaches occur when sensitive information is accessed or used without authorization. Factors like a wealth of online data and sophisticated hacking tools have spurred a steep increase in data breaches in recent years, causing tremendous damage to individual consumers and businesses across every industry.

Data breaches occur by exploiting vulnerabilities in a company’s security system. Alternatively, an employee can be tricked into giving a cyber-criminal access to the company’s network.

The goal of most data breaches is to obtain personal information, like names, email addresses and passwords, as well as financial information, like credit card numbers and account details. This information is used by criminals to steal identities and empty accounts, or sold to other criminals who will then do so.

While major data breaches make headlines, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there is an average of three data breaches each day, most of which will never even make the news.

After a data breach
Whenever you hear about a major data breach that can possibly affect you, it’s best to monitor your accounts for suspicious activity. In most cases, you will be notified by the victimized company if your data has been compromised; however, it helps to keep an eye on your accounts even if you haven’t been contacted so you can minimize your loss by acting quickly if your are among the unfortunate victims.

If you’ve been victimized by a breach
If you’ve been informed your information is compromised by a data breach, take the following steps immediately:

  1. Freeze your credit
    Placing a freeze on your credit is the most crucial step you can take to stop scammers from getting at your information. A credit freeze will not bring down your credit score, but it will serve as a red flag for lenders and credit companies by alerting them to the fact that you may have been a victim of fraud. This added layer of protection will make it difficult, or impossible, for hackers to open a new credit line or loan in your name.

    You can freeze your credit at no cost at all three of the major credit bureaus, Equifax, Transunion and Experian. You’ll need to provide some basic information and you’ll receive a PIN for the freeze. Use this number to lift the freeze when you believe it is safe to do so.

  2. Change your passwords
    Most people are on the alert following a major data breach, but they tend to let their guard down once the heat is off and things calm down. Hackers know this, and they’ll often hold onto victims’ information immediately following a data breach and then sell it months down the line to other identity thieves. To protect your accounts from a delayed-reaction hack, change all of your passwords after a breach that possibly has affected you.
  3. File an identity theft report
    Unfortunately, these protective measures can sometimes be too little, too late. If your accounts have been compromised, and you believe your identity has been stolen, file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as soon as possible. This will assist the feds in tracking down your hacker(s) and returning your finances to their usual state as quickly as possible.

Protecting your information
There’s no fool-proof way to protect yourself from a data breach, but following these simple steps can help keep your information as safe as possible:

Monitor your credit.
Check your credit accounts for suspicious activity on a regular basis. You can request a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. You may also want to consider signing up for credit monitoring, a service that will cost you $10-30 a month for the promise of notifying you immediately about any suspicious activity on your accounts.

Use strong, unique passwords.
Use a different password for each account, and choose codes that are at least eight characters long. Also, use a variety of numbers, letters and symbols. Vary your capitalization use as well, and don’t utilize any portion of your name, phone number or a common phrase as your password. Using a password manager like Dashlane or iPassword can also help keep your information safe. It’s also a good idea to choose two-factor authentication when possible, and non-password authentication, such as face recognition or fingerprint sign-in, for stronger protection.

Browse safely.
Never share sensitive information online and always keep your security and spam settings at their strongest levels. Make sure your devices are fully updated at all times. It’s also a good idea to keep your social media accounts as private as possible.

Hackers never stop trying to get at your data, but with the right protective measures in place, you can keep them from seeing success.

Your Turn:
How do you protect yourself from data breaches? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
forbes.com
malwarebytes.com
searchsecurity
experian.com

Is the OnMyWay App Legit?

OnMyWay app logo, green highway shield with road motif starting in lower left and receeding into the distance at the upper rightAt first glance, it seems like a brilliant idea. But is it legit?
The OnMyWay app, established in 2017, has recently taken social media by storm. It was created to incentivize drivers to practice safety on the road by offering monetary rewards for safe driving. But, while the concept is great, the execution of the app falls abysmally short.

Let’s take a closer look at the OnMyWay app so we can determine whether it is safe, secure and legit.

The way it works
The sole function of the OnMyWay app is to promote safer driving through financial incentives. Once you’ve installed the app, it will automatically activate whenever you start driving. Keep your phone locked, with all texting options disabled, and you’ll earn cash for each mile you drive. OnMyWay promises users $0.05 for every safely driven mile, $2 for each referral and an additional $0.02 for each mile driven that’s safely by friends they’ve referred.

According to the app’s co-founder, Chloe Palmer, car accidents caused by texting are currently the #1 cause of death for young adults aged 16-25. “OnMyWay believes that by giving our users positive rewards, we can end this horrific epidemic,” she says.
It truly sounds like a noble idea, and thousands of drivers have rushed to download the app. Motivate yourself to drive safely and earn cash at the same time—it’s a win-win!

How it really plays out
Unfortunately, as many OnMyWay users are discovering, the app’s reward system is not as straightforward as they might believe.

First, the app does not reward safe driving with money in users’ checking accounts. Instead, the money “earned” is set up as a reimbursement. Users need to link a credit card or checking account to the app, pay the full amount for a purchase up front and then wait to be reimbursed.

Second, OnMyWay money can’t be spent everywhere. Earnings must be spent at specific retailers that are recommended by the app—and sometimes, for specific products as well. These may or may not be retailers users usually patronize or items they’ve planned on purchasing. Many users complain that the products “recommended” by the app are all overpriced luxury items they would never have considered buying otherwise. The app claims it is working on updating its system to include nationally recognized retailers, like Amazon. For now, though, redeemable purchases are extremely limited.

But is it safe?
Aside from the obvious inconveniences of the app, many users are concerned about its security. OnMyWay requires all new users to scan their ID before installing the app. Users must also link a checking account or credit card to the app to be reimbursed for purchases. In a world where another scam makes headlines every week, users are wary about sharing this information with a relatively new app.

OnMyWay promises that users’ information is completely safe.
“Our system is 100 percent encrypted,” Palmer says.

The app’s founders claim to use third-party software to link users’ financial information. The software is highly secure and is used by recognized online payment platforms, like Venmo.

To date, there have not been any incidents of scams employed through OnMyWay. It may not deliver exactly what it promises, but at the very least, you can be sure your information is safe with OnMyWay.

What users are saying
Drivers who have downloaded OnMyWay are quick to praise the concept of an app providing an incentive for safer driving. However, nearly every user is disappointed with the way the app operates. Many complain that the app is purposely vague about the process of cashing in rewards until they’ve already downloaded it and started using it.
Many users also claim that, once they’ve made a purchase recommended by the app, it takes far too long for OnMyWay to reimburse them with their earned cash, with wait times often stretching longer than a week. Finally, drivers are disillusioned with the app’s customer service and many claim it is simply nonexistent.

Some users, though, are thrilled with the chance to earn money while driving, regardless of the many strings attached to the deal.

The takeaway
The OnMyWay app is a wonderful concept with poor implementation; however, there is no scam here: The app is a legitimate service that is not doing anything that may be considered outright criminal.

Unfortunately, though, the app does engage in misleading advertising and ambiguous claims. After reading the app’s own reviews and descriptions, it’s easy for users to falsely assume they can rake in the big bucks just by signing up for OnMyWay and driving safely. Users are keenly disappointed when the app does not deliver as promised.
While the app is safe and legit, most users agree that it is hardly worth the effort.
If you think otherwise and you’re eager to earn rewards for driving safely, be sure to read all the fine print before signing up and installing the app.

Whichever choice you make, it’s always a good idea to disable all texting options on your phone before hitting the road. A safe arrival to your destination is an incentive in and of itself!

Your Turn:
Do you think the OnMyWay app is worth using? Why, or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
3newsnow.com
onmyway.com
reddit.com

All You Need To Know About Applying For FAFSA

Young black mother helps her daughter fill out the online FAFSA documentsFree Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) season is in full swing! Whether you’re a college student, a high school senior or you’re seeking financial aid for your college-age child, it’s time to fill out those forms. The rules and deadlines can be confusing, but we’re here to help. We have answered all your questions on applying for FAFSA.

When is my application due?
There are three FAFSA deadlines you need to know: federal, college and state. The federal FAFSA submission has one set date, while each college and state sets its own separate deadlines.

The 2020-21 FAFSA form became available on Oct. 1, 2019. This form is for the 2020-21 award year, which runs from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021.Online applications for this form must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2021. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 11, 2021. You can look up the 2020-21 deadlines for your college and state using these links: College deadlines 2020-21, State deadlines 2020-21.

You can still submit an application for the 2019-20 FAFSA form, which became available on Oct. 1, 2018. This form is for the 2019-20 award year, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Online applications for this form must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on June 30, 2020. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 12, 2020. You can look up the 2019-20 deadlines for your college and state using these links: College deadlines 2019-20, State deadlines 2019-20.
Who is eligible for FAFSA?
To qualify for FAFSA, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Demonstrate financial need.
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen.
  • Have a valid Social Security number (unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of Palau).
  • Men must be registered with Selective Service.
  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school.
  • Have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent.

There are more eligibility requirements for FAFSA. You can view the full list of FAFSA criteria.

How do I apply for FAFSA?
You can now apply for FAFSA using the free myStudentAid app. If you use the app with an Apple device, be sure to disable the “smart punctuation” feature before filling out the form to avoid errors.

If you’d rather not download an app, you can also apply for FAFSA online at FAFSA.ed.gov.

You can still send in your application via snail mail, but this is not recommended for several reasons: The online applications are simpler to complete and generally have fewer errors because they only ask you relevant questions and are designed to detect common errors. Your application is also likely to be processed quicker when submitted online. Finally, when applying for FAFSA online, you will be given the option to have your IRS data automatically retrieved and then populate the relevant fields, significantly lowering your chances of errors in your tax reporting.

What are some common mistakes people make on the FAFSA form?
A careless mistake on your form can delay your application and limit your eligibility for aid. To avoid errors, be sure to read every question carefully and to review your application before submitting.

Here are some of the most common errors on FAFSA forms:

  • Leaving blank fields
    If a question does not apply to you, enter a “0” or write “Not applicable.”
  • Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields
    There is no need for either of these symbols; simply round to the nearest dollar.
  • Listing an incorrect Social Security number or driver’s license number
    Triple-check these numbers to ensure accuracy.
  • Using the wrong name
    Be sure to use your full legal name as it appears on your Social Security card.
  • Entering the wrong address
    Use your permanent address only to avoid confusion.
  • Forgetting to list your college
    Be sure to obtain the Federal School Code for the college you plan on attending and list it along with any other schools where you’ve applied for admission.
  • Forgetting to sign and date
    Don’t forget this crucial step!

Can I apply for FAFSA as an independent?
If for whatever reasons your parents are not paying any part of your college tuition, you may be able to apply for FAFSA as an independent. If you can apply as an independent, your parents’ income will not be considered when your eligibility is determined.

You may be able to apply for FAFSA as an independent if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • You will be 24 years of age or older by Dec. 31 of the award year.
  • You are an orphan (both parents deceased), ward of the court, in foster care or you were a ward of the court at age 13 or older.
  • You are a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States or serving on active duty.
  • You are a graduate or professional student.
  • You are legally married.
  • You have legal dependents (excluding a spouse).
  • You are an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship.
  • You are homeless.

If you do not meet any of these requirements, consider contacting a financial aid administrator to discuss your options. The administrator may be able to provide a dependency override if you can prove you’re living or fleeing from an abusive or hostile home environment. They may also be able to deem you eligible for unsubsidized Stafford loans if you can prove your parents no longer support you financially. Finally, you may qualify for some education tax benefits, such as the Hope Scholarship tax credit and the student loan interest deduction.

The sooner you apply for FAFSA, the greater your chance at obtaining the limited financial aid offered by your college and state. Don’t delay; apply today!

Your Turn:
Have you filled out your FAFSA forms? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
nasfaa.org
studentaid.ed.gov
fastweb.com
collegebound.net
studentaid.ed.gov/sa/eligibility/basic-criteria

9 Germy Places To Avoid (Or Disinfect) This Winter

Young couple cleans their kitchenAs Old Man Winter settles in for his yearly stay, it’s time to brush up on your disinfecting smarts.

Cold and flu viruses can fly up to six feet through the air, says Joseph Rubino, former director of microbiology at RB, the creators of Lysol. Harmful bacteria and viruses can lurk in places you’d never suspect, and knowing those places inside and outside the home, can help you avoid getting sick this winter.

Here’s a list of the germiest places you might encounter this winter and how to keep yourself safe.

At home
There are microbes all over our homes, but most are perfectly benign. Unfortunately, though, there are also many harmful ones, including cold and flu viruses, salmonella, listeria, mold, staph, fecal matter and E. coli. And no-these microbes are not found primarily in the bathroom. We tend to be the most germophobic about our toilets and clean them regularly, but it’s actually the kitchen that is home to most of these germs.
Here are the places in your home that are hotspots for germs and how to disinfect them properly.

Kitchen sink
You might want to sit down for this: According to microbiologist Charles Gerba, or “Dr. Germ,” there is more fecal bacteria in your kitchen sink than there is in your toilet after flushing it. In fact, your toilet-slurping dog has the right idea; that water can be cleaner than the water coming out of your kitchen faucet!

Gerba recommends regularly scrubbing your sinks with bleach, or with a kitchen cleaning product that contains bleach. You can make your own solution with 1 tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of water, or try finding a more environmentally safe option through the EPA website. For best results, allow the cleaning solution to sit for a bit before wiping, or use kitchen wipes for a more targeted cleanup. Be sure to clean the entire sink, including the drain, faucet and handles, because those bacteria love to spread their joy. It’s also smart to wipe down all nearby surfaces, like your counters or anything you have on display.

Kitchen sponge
Your dishwashing sponge can hold many more germs than you’ll ever want to think about. Most people know to wash their hands after handling raw poultry and meat, but these same people will wipe down germy surfaces with their kitchen sponge-and then use that same sponge to wash the dinner dishes.

A 2017 study found 362 different species of bacteria living in used kitchen sponges. And, a total of 82 billion bacteria were living in just one cubic inch of space! And here’s the kicker: Microwaving those sponges had no effect on the bacteria.
To keep the germ party out of your sponge, wash it down after each use with hot water and dishwashing soap and replace your sponges every week.

Refrigerator
There’s another bacterial meet-up happening both inside and outside your refrigerator. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) found that 36% of tested refrigerator meat compartments contained salmonella and E. coli, while 36% of vegetable compartments tested positive for salmonella and 14% contained listeria. Gerba adds that refrigerator door handles can also be germ-infested, as home cooks regularly touch them after handling raw meat and poultry.

Use the same bleach cleansers for wiping down the inside and outside of your refrigerator on a regular basis.

Cooking equipment
According to the NSF, 36% of tested rubber spatulas and pizza cutters contained E. coli. And cutting boards fared no better.

“Recent surveys of homes found more fecal bacteria on a cutting board in the average home than a toilet seat,” said Gerba. “It’s actually safer to make your sandwich on a toilet seat than a cutting board.”

If you’ve just lost your appetite, the solution is simple: Wipe down all cooking equipment after each use with the same diluted bleach solution you’re using for your sink. Rinse off the kitchen gadget with a mild dishwashing solution when you’re done disinfecting it to make sure you’re not eating bleach.

In restaurants
Dining out can be great fun, especially when the weather rules out barbecues and picnics in the park. Unfortunately, though, restaurants can be fertile breeding grounds for germs. Here are the surfaces to be wary of when dining out this winter.

Tables
It’s a good idea to look at how tables are being cleaned. If they’re not being sanitized with a bleach solution, ask for extra napkins to keep from putting silverware directly on the tabletop.

Restaurant menus
They’re handled by hundreds of diners, and rarely cleaned; so it’s no wonder they’re full of germs! It’s fine to flip through the menu as you choose your entrée, but be sure to wash your hands after placing your order.

Lemon wedges
That iconic slice of citrus fruit on your water glass? It may just be your gateway to illness.

According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, nearly 70% of lemon wedges on the rims of restaurant glasses contain disease-causing microbes like E. coli and other fecal bacteria.

When dining out this winter, tell your server you’ll skip the fruit on your glass. It’s just not worth the risk.

Condiment containers
You might be careful about washing your hands, but can you say the same for the diner who ate at your table before you? Condiment containers in restaurants can spread germs from one diner to another, so you may be walking out of a restaurant with a whole bunch of souvenirs you can really do without.

Holding that ketchup bottle with a napkin won’t help; napkins are too porous to act as a barrier for microorganisms. Instead, wipe down the condiment container with a disinfectant wipe or hand sanitizer before using.

In public places

Shopping carts
Shopping cart handles can be the worst germ offenders in the winter. To keep yourself from bringing home the germs from the dozens of shoppers who used your cart before you, wipe down the handles with a disinfectant wipe (offered in many grocery stores) and wash all produce well before eating.

The waiting room at the doctor’s office
If there ever was a place germs love hanging out, it’s the doctor’s office. While the exam room will hopefully be as sterile as possible, you can’t say the same for the waiting room. If you need to visit the doctor this winter, try to keep at least two chairs between you and other patients and to pack your own tissues. If you’re bringing children along, it’s best to bring your own books and toys to keep them occupied.

Here’s wishing you a healthy, happy winter from all of us here at Advantage One Credit Union!

Your Turn:
Which germ-infested place did we miss? Tell us about another bacterial hotspot in the comments.

Learn More:
pinnaclehealth.org
cnn.com
prevention.com

How To Retire Happy, Wild, And Free by Ernie J. Zelinski

Cover, How to Retire Happy, Wild and FreeSome of us plan for retirement throughout our working lives. We pinch pennies, cut corners and dream big of the day we’ll finally throw off the shackles of a 9-5 life and be free to live, exploring and creating as we please. Others simply slide into retirement with very little planning and figure they’ll take it day by day. Whatever your style, you’ll need to find a way to enjoy life beyond retirement in the most fulfilling ways possible.

Ernie J. Zelinski’s classic book, How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free, shows readers the key to a truly happy retirement. Zelinski claims that planning for retirement goes beyond counting dollars-you need to plan for your creative outlets, leisure activities, physical well-being, mental health and social support system. In his book, he guides readers through this process, helping them create a feasible plan for retirement which encompasses every area in their lives.

In How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free, you’ll learn how to do the following:

  • Take an early retirement
  • Put money into proper perspective
  • Generate purpose in your post-retirement life through meaningful, creative pursuits
  • Follow your dreams instead of chasing someone else’s goals
  • Take charge of your mental, physical and spiritual health
  • Envision your retirement goals clearly
  • Make your retirement years the best stage of your life

One of the most powerful tools you’ll find inside is the Get-a-Life Tree, a seven-page list of activities to keep you happy and active for years to come.

At times, Zelinski’s book is provocative and often entertaining. It always practical, though, and it is an enjoyable read with a unique message. Its reader-friendly format, fun cartoons, captivating quotations and inspiring content have made it a favorite among retirement books throughout the world.

Some readers complain the advice in the book is fairly obvious and doesn’t break new ground. Others criticize the way Zelinski makes light of the dollars and sense of retirement, claiming he wouldn’t talk so blithely about money if he weren’t financially comfortable himself.

This book might not give you a solid plan for saving up for retirement, but if you’re wondering how to spend your golden years living a happy, fun and fulfilling life, this might be the book you’ve been seeking.

Your Turn:
Do you believe the post-retirement years can be the best years of our lives? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
amazon.com
erniezelinski.com
goodreads.com

What Does The Retail Apocalypse Mean For America?

Retail store with a "Going Out of Business" banner in front of it's nameIt’s become a familiar and depressing sight: the shuttered doors, the “Going Out of Business” signs and the empty storefronts. And it’s not just happening to the mom-and-pop shops of our neighborhoods. In fact, dozens of major, national brands we’ve grown up with are disappearing from the country’s retail landscape.

What’s happening to the retail world in America?
Is there any way to stop the mass wave of corporate bankruptcy, or will we soon be stuck buying every item we want or need, from groceries to mattresses, on the internet? And most importantly, what does it all mean for the future of the economy?

The retail apocalypse: What’s really happening
The steady vanishing of major retailers across the country has been dubbed the “retail apocalypse” by mainstream media, with the finger of blame pointed squarely at the explosion of online shopping. But a deeper look reveals another story.

Yes, dozens of retailers have filed for bankruptcy since 2010 and more than 12,000 physical stores have closed their doors. But there’s a crucial detail the media has missed. A recent report by the IHL Group finds that, for every retailer that is closing some or all of its stores, 5.20 are opening new locations. In other words, there are more companies opening stores than closing them in every sector of retail, from department stores to mom-and-pop shops. Data from the Census Bureau further supports these findings: In 2018, the overall number of retail stores in the U.S. increased by 3,100.

The report stresses that the retailers declaring bankruptcy only account for a surprisingly small number of brands. To illustrate, at the halfway point of 2019, 16 retailers had filed for bankruptcy, but those 16 were responsible for 73% of the year’s retail store closings across the country.

Among the new stores establishing themselves in place of those who have gone out of business, the trend seems to be moving toward smaller stores that already have a strong online presence. This reflects the evolving needs of today’s consumers: Customers are more likely to visit a brick-and-mortar store for getting a feel for the company’s product, or to try out an expensive item, and then go home and make their actual purchase online.

While the media might have you believing that shopping malls are an endangered species, in truth there are thousands more brick-and-mortar stores in the country today than there were a decade ago.

What kinds of stores are still thriving?
Despite the wave of bankruptcy among chain retailers, there are some segments of retail that are thriving.

One such sector is the bargain department store, including Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and Home Goods, where shoppers enjoy the thrill of finding a steal of a deal they can walk home with that same day. Budget-priced fast-fashion brands, like Old Navy, H&M and Zara’s, are doing surprisingly well, too. Another thriving sector is the warehouse club, like Costco and BJ’s, for similar reasons.

The world of retail may be undergoing a massive shift toward digitization, but finding a bargain never goes out of style.

What do all these closings mean for the economy?
While it may be true that there are more stores opening than closing, this reality does not necessarily reflect well on the country’s level of employment. Retail is one of the largest sources of U.S. employment, accounting for close to 16 million jobs nationwide. As mentioned, most of the stores replacing those going bankrupt are smaller stores, many of which hire fewer than five employees. Consequently, when a major retailer, like Forever 21, announces that it plans to close 178 of its stores by the end of the year, this means thousands of workers will soon be jobless. In fact, the retail sector has lost a whopping 200,000 jobs since January 2017.

The good news, though, is that most of those laid-off workers seem to be finding new jobs before their joblessness can adversely affect the economy. The national unemployment level continues to linger at a half-century low, and consumer spending remains strong. Unfortunately, though, many economists anticipate a recession within the coming year. If their predictions are accurate, consumer spending will likely plunge and accelerate retail bankruptcies and layoffs. In a recession, credit availability tightens and interest rates increase, which can negatively impact the retail sector as well.

“Brick-and-mortar retailers are already in recession,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “They’ve been laying off workers coming up on three years. And this is a time when consumers are out spending aggressively. If the broader economy is in recession, there is going to be blood in the streets.”

While there’s not much you can do to change the tide of the national economy, you can help support your own community by shopping at local retailers and choosing to frequent brick-and-mortar shops, instead of making the internet your first stop for all your shopping needs.

Let’s do what we can to keep our local economy strong.

Your Turn:
Do you think the economists are right, and we’re headed toward a recession? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
businessinsider.com
fool.com
cnn.com
ihlservices.com
cnn.com