What to Buy and What to Skip in May

The month of May kicks off summer and hosts one the biggest shopping holiday weekends of the year. Because of this, you can pick up fantastic deals this month, but some purchases are best pushed off a bit longer or for another season.  

Here’s what to buy and what to skip in May. 

Buy: Furniture 

Memorial Day sales feature great prices on major home-related purchases. Look for new furniture like dinette sets, sofas and more at your favorite stores and through online sites. Sales often start a full week before Memorial Day, so shop early for the best selection.

Skip: Swimwear and lingerie

Beach season may be starting soon, but you’re best off waiting another month to pick up your new swimwear and lingerie. The sale cycle for these is set by lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret. The company usually hosts a semi-annual sale each June, and competing retailers are quick to join. Hold out just a little longer before perfecting your beach look for the season to save yourself a bundle!

Buy: Athletic apparel and loungewear

It’s time for cooler workout clothing, and that means retailers will be slashing prices on their leftover workout gear from the winter to make room for the new lines. You’ll also see bargain-priced loungewear as people get outside and spend less time indoors. If you need new footwear, check out major shoe retailers and department stores for steep discounts on sneakers as old styles must move to make room for the new. 

Skip: Home electronics

May is not the time to pick up new electronics. Laptops, gaming consoles and more always see their lowest prices in November during Black Friday sales events. If you can’t wait that long, you can also find deals on electronics during the back-to-school shopping season in August. 

Buy: Spring apparel

The weather may have only turning turned reliably milder,now, but in the world of retail, May is well into the warm-weather season. Spring clothing will see steep discounts this month, so you can fill out your spring wardrobe without busting your budget. Check for sales on your favorite retailers’ social media pages, websites or by signing up for email and/or text alerts so you never miss a sale. 

Skip: Summer apparel

While spring clothing may be discounted in May, it’s still too early to start stocking up on summer wear. Leave the flip-flop and tank-top shopping for the July Fourth weekend, or even August, for truly bargain prices. 

Skip: Outdoor furniture and grills

There’s lots of grilling holidays coming up, including Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, but hold off on purchasing a new grill for now. Grills will be steeply discounted at the end of the summer during Labor Day sale events. If you must buy a new grill for this season, though, you can find them at slightly lowered prices during Memorial Day sales. 

Buy: Major home appliances

Is your fridge on its last legs? Is your oven about to give out? Pick up major home appliances for less during Memorial Day sale events. You can also replace or buy new small home appliances like coffee makers, blenders and more during these sales. Be sure to check out competing retailers before making a purchase to ensure you’re getting the best price on your appliance. 

Skip: Outdoor furniture

With all the time spent outside in these warm-weather months, you’re likely itching to upgrade your patio furniture. However, it’s best to hold off on these purchases until Labor Day weekend sale events, when prices can be slashed by as much as 50%. 

Buy: Mattresses and bedding

If you’re itching to upgrade the quality of your sleep, you can pick up new mattresses at bargain prices during Memorial Day sales. Check out major retailers, like Macy’s and Sleepy’s, as well as online sources, like Overstock.com, for the best prices. You can deck out your new mattresses in stylish and comfy bedding for less this month as well. 

Your Turn: Have you picked up any great bargain buys in May? Tell us about them in the comments. 

What to Buy and What to Skip in April

The days are getting longer and warmer, and that means summer is just around the corner! Though April is a mid-season month without any major shopping holidays, you can still score some great deals. There are also many items you’ll want to put on your waitlist until prices drop in another month or so. We’ve got all the info for you so you can shop smart! Here’s what to buy and what to skip in April. 

Buy: Cruise tickets

If you’re looking to get away from it all, April is a great time to book that springtime or summer cruise. You can find deals on cruise tickets to Bermuda, Europe and other exotic locations this month. Take action and score the vacation of a lifetime at a discounted price.

Skip: Mattresses

Unless your mattress is giving you unbearable back pain, you’re best off waiting until Memorial Day when deep discounts make purchasing a new mattress easier on your wallet.

Buy: Car parts and accessories

If you need new wipers, tires, brakes or another car part or accessory, this is the month to pick them up! April is National Car Care Month, so auto parts stores and service centers will be running promotions. If your car needs servicing, or even just a tune-up, you can get this done for less this month, too. 

Skip: Grills and patio furniture

Spring is just getting underway, and all things outdoors are still retailing at full price. If you can wait until Memorial Day sale events happen, you can upgrade your grill and deck out your patio in the finest gear for a lot less money. If you wait even longer, until July or August, you’ll potentially find even steeper discounts. 

Buy: Secondhand treasures

Spring-cleaning season means crowds of people are clearing out the clutter in their closets and around their homes. Many of these treasures may end up in secondhand stores or get sold at garage sales around the neighborhood. If you’re looking for already-loved clothing to spruce up your wardrobe, or gently-used furniture to replace your outdated pieces, April can be a great time to pick up priceless pre-owned treasures. Hit the secondhand stores early in the week for the best pickings, as they tend to get the most donations over the weekend when people do their cleaning.

Skip: Vacuums 

April might be time for deep-cleaning, but that doesn’t mean cleaning gear is discounted this month. Unless you’re desperate for a new machine, you’re better off waiting until vacuums go on sale during Black Friday sale events. 

Buy: Tax day giveaways

Filing taxes can be a headache at best, and downright painful at worst. Retailers want to make April 15th a little easier on the wallet for consumers, so many of them will run special promotions and events on this day. Look for giveaways, freebies, deep discounts on goods and more when tax day rolls around.

Skip: Refrigerators

If your fridge seems to be on its way out and you’re in the market for a new one, it’s best to hold off a bit on this purchase if you can. Retailers will soon be rolling out new models, and if you can wait until Memorial Day, you can find a new fridge in last year’s model at a fantastic price. 

Buy: Mother’s Day gifts

It’s never too early to think about making mom happy! And if you buy your Mother’s Day gifts in April, including jewelry and chocolate, you can save a bundle, too. 

Skip: Baby gear

Like all products that are upgraded annually, baby gear sees its biggest discounts when new models are rolled out, in January and February. This includes cribs, strollers, car seats, highchairs and more. 

Buy: Cookware

April is the unofficial kickoff of wedding season, when cookware becomes a popular gift. In a bid to attract customers, retailers offer steep discounts on pots and other cookware this month. Round out your own collection of cookware, or start stocking up on wedding gifts for less.

Tax day notwithstanding, April can be a time of fantastic finds and springtime memory making. Have a wonderful, bargain-filled month!  

Your Turn: Have you picked up any great deals this month? Tell us about it in the comments. 

How Can I Save on Entertainment Costs?

Q: With inflation driving up costs on everything imaginable, my monthly budget has really taken a hit. I’m trying to trim it wherever possible and I’d love to cut back on the money I spend on recreation. How can I save on my entertainment costs?

A: Being proactive about a budget that doesn’t work any longer due to current prices is commendable. Fortunately, there are ways you can trim your recreation budget without feeling the pinch. Below, we’ve listed eight ways you can save on entertainment costs. 

  1. Attend amateur sporting events

Instead of spending big bucks on professional sporting events, get your fix at local high school or college games. You’ll get the same excitement and a game that features high talent without the high price tag. 

  1. Volunteer

Volunteering your time and services at local organizations won’t cost you a dime, but it will provide you with an outlet and the opportunity to meet new people. Reach out to local soup kitchens, animal shelters, food banks and hospitals to find out how you can help. You’ll make the world a better place while enjoying free social events hosted by the organization. 

  1. Turn a hobby into income

If you’re crafty, you can make money through your hobby by selling your creations. Set up a seller’s account on sites like eBay and Etsy to market your products. You can use some of the money you earn to purchase new supplies and improve your skills. 

  1. Get your workout at home

There’s no need to drop a ton of money on gym memberships or fitness equipment. Get your workout at home by designating a small corner of your home for exercise and checking out online workout videos on YouTube. Stock up on a few pieces of inexpensive fitness gear like jump ropes, a fitness ball and weights to take your at-home workout up a notch. Shop secondhand sites like Craigslist for great deals on your workout equipment. You can also get your heart pumping by going for a run in your neighborhood and choosing to take the stairs when possible. 

  1. Spend less on dining out

You don’t need to stop eating out and buying takeout food, but there are ways to cut back on these costs. First, don’t walk into a restaurant without checking for coupon codes and discounted gift certificates on sites like Groupon and Restaurants.com. Next, when choosing what to order from the menu, look left. Most people automatically look right, and restaurant owners knowingly place the most expensive items on this side of the menu. Finally, take a break between courses before ordering more to give your body a chance to feel satiated from what you’ve already eaten. 

  1. Buy season passes

If you find yourself visiting the same museum, amusement park, zoo or another entertainment center often, consider purchasing a season pass where available. These often run for as little as just two one-time entrance tickets. You’ll need to splurge at the start of the season, but once you’ve paid it off, you’ll have your fun outing for the rest of the season without it affecting your monthly budget. 

  1. Attend local art shows

There’s no need to pay big-ticket prices to enjoy a beautiful work of art. Check out local galleries for free events and shows for a night of fine art. Some towns also host monthly art walks featuring several galleries on display at no cost to the viewer. 

  1. Catch a performance at a local college

If you live near a college town, be sure to find out about performances and concerts they may be hosting. Many artists and performers include colleges as part of their tours. Score an inexpensive ticket to a big-name concert by attending these venues. 

Inflation doesn’t have to fully deflate the fun in your life. Use the tips outlined above to save on your recreation costs. 

Your Turn: How do you save on entertainment costs? Tell us about it in the comments. 

All You Need to Know About the Metaverse and NFTs

If a time-traveler from the 19th century landed in your living room, you’d likely have a hard time explaining the way our world works – especially the way we deal with finances. Your visitor can watch as you hold an oblong object in your hands and proceed to order a full summer wardrobe, new bedroom furniture or maybe even airline tickets. Who would have imagined we’d be able to do all that and more or without ever touching a dollar bill, coin or even a credit card?

But the changes to the way we handle our money continue, and the world of finance evolves along with technology in the most incredible ways. Let’s take a look at two major innovations in the world of technology and finance, as well as how they may affect us in the very near future: the metaverse and NFTs. 

The Metaverse

What is the metaverse?

The term “metaverse” has generated many curious Google searches since Facebook rebranded itself as Meta in October of 2021. In short, the metaverse is a scaled, interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced simultaneously by an infinite number of users. In addition, the metaverse has continuity of data, which includes identity, objects, communications and payments. In simple English, the metaverse is an all-immersive digital universe where users can live, connect and even make financial transactions through virtual reality and augmented reality. If you played “Second Life,” you’ve already had a taste of this.

Does the metaverse exist?

While some forms of the metaverse already exist, the full experience that tech giants envision likely won’t be ready for consumer use for another five to 10 years. However small aspects of the metaverse, including ultra-fast broadband speeds, online worlds that are always “on” and virtual reality headsets to bring the user into another world are already quite common across the internet and gaming world. 

What are some examples of the metaverse?

Here’s where you can get a feel for what the metaverse is actually about: 

  • Meta. Formerly known as Facebook, the platform’s CEO speaks openly and often about the metaverse and the role Facebook will play in its rollout. 

“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive and embodied than the internet, where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse,” Zuckerberg said after the company’s rebranding. 

  • Microsoft. Similarly, the software giant has made no secret about where it believes the future of technology lies. Microsoft is already developing mixed and extended reality applications through its Microsoft Mesh platform, which blends the real world with augmented reality and virtual reality. Of course, Xbox Live already connects millions of gamers across the globe in a small-scale metaverse. 

 How will the metaverse affect the world of finance?

Experts envision a world where a consumer can enter a massive virtual shopping mall, purchase a unique digital item and sell that item in a different virtual world, such as on Twitter or eBay. In addition, the expected meteoric rise in popularity of the metaverse creates a unique investment opportunity for the savvy investor. 

NFTs

What are NFTs?

NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are a kind of crypto asset in which each token has a unique value. This is as opposed to “fungible” assets like Bitcoin and dollar bills, which all have exactly the same value. Because every NFT is unique, they can be used to authenticate ownership of digital assets including artworks, recordings and virtual real estate or pets.

How do NFTs work?

NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, but its blockchain can support NFTs as well. It’s important to note that other blockchains can easily implement their own versions of NFTs. 

NFTs can be anything digital, like music, videos or drawings, but digital art has been monopolizing NFT trading since its inception. NFT art collecting is not unlike fine art collecting in the real world: Millions of people can buy a Monet print, but only one person can own the original – and pay for it. Similarly, while anyone can own a copy of a digital piece of art, the original can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or in some cases, even millions. The irony here is that while the owner of an authentic Monet has a genuine piece of art, there is no real difference between owning a copy of a digital artwork and owning the original.

As bizarre as it may sound, NFTs are gaining popularity at record speed. A 50-second video by Grimes sold for $390,000, a tweet by the founder of Twitter sold for just under $3 million, and a video by Beeple sold for $6.6 million.

What’s the purpose of NFTs?

NFTs present a world of financial possibilities for artists and collectors alike. 

Digital artists with real talent can earn a pretty penny through NFTs. Instead of posting a creative meme they designed on their Facebook page, digital artists can now try selling their work as an NFT. The good news is the artist will continue enjoying dividends of their work far beyond its sale. Every time the NFT changes hands, the artist gets paid a percentage of the profits. This way, if the work only becomes popular a while after it’s created, the artist can still pocket their share of its ultimate value. 

Collectors can use NFTs to purchase unique digital artwork as a financial asset. A work of art always carries with it the possibility of becoming wildly popular and spiking in value. Digital artwork is no exception. In addition, owning an NFT comes with some basic rights, which include being able to post the image online or use it as a profile picture.

The world of finance is constantly evolving as technology races to stay ahead of current trends and futuristic visions. The metaverse and NFTs are just two mediums that can change the way we handle our finances in the near future. Use the primer here to learn all about these technological wonders so you are better prepared to participate in and invest in the future. 

Your Turn: Do you think the metaverse and NFTs will play a major role in our finances? Why, or why not? Share in the comments. 

Beware Tax Filing Scams

It’s tax season, so it’s time to get your paperwork in order and hire a tax preparer. Unfortunately, though, there are thousands of scammers looking to steal your information and your tax refund by posing as authentic tax preparers. It’s important to learn how to recognize the signs of a fraudulent tax preparer so you don’t fall victim to a tax filing scam. Here’s all you need to know about these scams and how to keep your money and your information safe.

How the scam plays out 

In a tax filing scam, a victim hires an alleged tax preparer to do their taxes. They may be pulled in by the nominal fee the “preparer” is charging, or lured by the scammer’s extensive advertising which makes a frequent appearance on their social media platforms and on websites they often visit. Or, they may be tempted by the large return the “preparer” promises to secure for them.

The victim then shares their information with the supposed tax preparer without suspecting anything is unusual. Unfortunately, though, when the scammer has the taxpayer’s information, they’ll use it to file a tax return in the victim’s name while changing important details, such as a checking account number or mailing address. They’ll swap in their own information and collect the victim’s refund. By the time the victim realizes what’s happened, they’ve lost the money owed to them by the IRS and are at risk of falling prey to identity theft. 

Protect yourself

The best way to stay safe from a tax filing scam is to do your research carefully before hiring a tax preparer. 

First, avoid pop-up ads when choosing a tax preparer, especially those riddled with typos and spelling errors and those that market their services aggressively. Research any preparers you consider hiring by asking for references of previous clients, Googling the name of the preparer and/or their agency and looking for a physical address and phone number on their website. Be suspicious, as well, if they promise a large return without knowing the first detail about your finances.

Second, before hiring an individual or an agency to do your taxes, ask to see their Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Every legitimate tax preparer must have one of these federally issued identification numbers. If the “preparer” refuses to share their PTIN, you’re being scammed. 

Finally, if you’ve already hired a preparer but you are harboring some doubt about their authenticity, look for these red flags that can prove your suspicions are likely on-target:

  • The preparer inflates numbers that directly affect your tax liability, such as charity donations and business-related expenses. 
  • The preparer claims ineligible individuals as your dependents. 
  • The preparer asks you to sign a blank or partially completed form while promising to fill out the remainder after you sign. 
  • The preparer refuses to sign your form.

 If your tax preparer follows any or all of the above practices, terminate your relationship with them immediately.

If you’ve been targeted

If you’ve been targeted by a tax filing scam and you’ve only recognized that you were being scammed after your form has already been filed, report it to the authorities as quickly as possible. Let the FTC know about the scam, alert the IRS and tell your friends and family about the circulating scam, too.

If you’ve shared your personal information with the scammer, take some additional steps toward protecting yourself from further implications of the scam. For example, if you’ve shared your financial information with the scammer, such as your checking account details, you’re best off closing your account and opening a new one. Also, if the scammer knows your Social Security number, you are now vulnerable to identity theft. Check out the federal government’s page on identity theft recovery to learn what steps to take next. 

Stay alert during tax season and keep your money and your information safe!

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

Leaving Your Job? Make Sure Your Wallet is Ready

One of the many pandemic’s lasting effects on the U.S. economy is the so-called Great Resignation of 2021. Employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs in droves. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a whopping 20.2 million workers left their jobs from May 2021 through September 2021. Reasons for the high turnover range from availability of federal economic aid to general burnout, which reached a turning point during the pandemic. 

If you are considering becoming a part of the Great Resignation, it’s important to make sure your finances are in order before you give official notice at your job to cover any gaps in employment. Below, we’ve outlined some important steps to take before you leave your job.  

Review your savings

Before giving up a steady paycheck, make sure you have enough savings to tide you over until you find new employment. Ideally, you should have an emergency fund with 3-6 months’ worth of living expenses to help you survive periods of unemployment, such as when you’re between jobs.  If you don’t have this kind of money saved up, consider pushing off your resignation until you can put together a nest egg to help you get by without a paycheck. 

Check your benefits 

If your job includes employee benefits, like retirement funding, be sure to review them carefully before giving notice. Here are different options to consider for the most common employee benefits: 

  • Health insurance. Work-sponsored health coverage generally ends on an employee’s last day at work, though coverage will sometimes continue until the end of the month. Similarly, some companies start covering new employees on their first day of work, while others have a waiting period that can last from 30 to 90 days. If you’ll have a gap in coverage, try to negotiate for early coverage when securing your new job. If this is not possible, thanks to COBRA, you can continue your current health coverage at your own expense for 18 months after you leave your job. It’s important to note, though, that this can be a pricey option. You can also purchase a short-term policy through the marketplace. 
  • Pension. If your previous place of employment came with a pension, you may be able to keep it or take out the money when you leave. This depends on whether or not your contributions are vested and the other rules of the pension plan. In general, if you were only at this job for a short while, you likely will not be able to hold onto your pension. If you have a choice, it can be better not to take out a pension in a lump sum because you will likely get a better return with a pension than on other investments. If you do take out your pension, you may want to roll it over into an IRA or a 401(k), which is tax-deferred. 
  • 401(k). If your old job came with a 401(k), you’ll need to decide what to do with the funds. You can keep the account as it is without making any additional contributions, roll over the funds to a new 401(k) program, roll the money over into an IRA or cash it out. Consider the investment options in your current 401(k) when making your decision. 
  • Life insurance. Don’t forget to consider a possible gap in your life insurance coverage when leaving a job. You may be able to continue paying for coverage until you have a new plan through your next place of employment. 

Assess your risk tolerance

Before accepting a new job, make sure you can handle a possible blow to your income. Many jobs will present new employees with the possibility of better pay in the future, while initially only offering a starting salary. How comfortable are you taking a risk with a new job that doesn’t guarantee as much financial security? 

Adjust your budget for your new salary

If your new job comes with better pay, or you’ll be bringing home a smaller paycheck for now, you’ll need to adjust your budget accordingly. You may want to increase the contributions you make toward your investments or find a new place to park your cash, such as a Advantage One Credit Union Savings Account, for the extra income while you decide on a more permanent strategy. On the flip side, if you’ll be earning less money now, look for ways to trim your budget so your paycheck can stretch to cover all your expenses. 

Leaving an old job and looking for a new one can be an exciting opportunity, but it’s important to make sure your finances are in order before taking that leap. Follow the tips outlined here before giving notice at your place of employment to ensure ongoing financial security.  

Your Turn: Have you recently changed jobs? Share your best tips and strategies in the comments. 

What are the Tax Benefits of Owning a Home

Q: I’m in the market for my first home, and I’m trying to get a complete picture of how owning a home will affect my finances. What are the tax benefits of owning a home?  

A: Owning a home can provide you with significant tax benefits. It’s important to learn how home ownership can impact your taxes so you know which home-related expenses to claim on your returns for maximizing your savings potential. 

Before we explore the specifics, let’s review how an income tax deduction works. A deduction reduces your taxable income by a percentage, which depends on your tax bracket. You can choose to take the standard deduction ($12,550 for individuals filing as single taxpayers, or $25,100 for married couples filing jointly) or to itemize your deductions, which involves listing each eligible deduction separately. After adding up the total of your itemized deductions, you’ll multiply that amount by your tax bracket for your total deduction. 

With this understanding, let’s take a deeper look at the tax benefits of owning a home. 

Tax benefits of buying a home

Purchasing a home offers the buyer several tax benefits. 

First, with the exception of very large loans, you can generally deduct the cost of the points you paid when securing your mortgage. If you’ve refinanced your original mortgage and paid points when taking out your new loan, the cost of these points can be deducted as well. 

Second, if you are an active-duty member of the armed services, you may be able to deduct your moving expenses from your taxable income. However, this tax perk is limited to active servicepeople who need to move because of a permanent change of station due to a military order. 

Tax benefits of owning a home  

There are multiple ongoing tax benefits to owning a home:

  • Mortgage interest deduction. Most homeowners can deduct the interest payments they make on their mortgage from their taxable income. There may be limits on how much you can deduct, which is dependent on how large your loan is. 
  • Real estate taxes. The money you pay in property taxes is deductible from your taxable income. If you pay through a lender escrow account, you’ll find the tax amount on your 1098 form. If you pay your taxes directly to your municipality, use your personal records, such as a copy of a check or automatic transfer, as proof. 
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI). If you took out a loan that was equal to less than 20% of the home’s value, you may be able to deduct your PMI payments from your taxable income. This deduction depends on your adjusted gross income (AGI): If you’re single and your AGI is less than $50,000, you’re eligible for the PMI deduction. For married couples filing jointly, the threshold is $100,000. Once you’ve reached the max income allowed for the PMI deduction, the amount you can deduct begins to phase out.  
  • Home equity debt. If you’ve taken out a home equity loan or home equity line of credit against your home, the interest payments on these loans can be deducted from your taxable income, as long as the loan is used, in the words of the IRS, “to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan.”
  • Home office expenses. If you use a part of your home exclusively for work purposes, you may be able to deduct related expenses.

Are there any tax credits available for homeowners? 

Unlike a tax deduction, a tax credit directly lowers your tax bill, dollar for dollar. You may be eligible for a mortgage credit if you were issued a qualified Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) by a state or local governmental unit or agency under a qualified MCC program. In addition, depending on your home state, you may be able to claim a credit for a percentage of the costs of buying and installing items that help your home harness renewable energy, such as solar panels or geothermal heat pumps. 

Home ownership comes with many advantages, some of which include tax benefits. Keep that in mind as you explore your options, and as with all tax advice, please remember to consult a tax professional for the most current and accurate laws.

Your Turn: How has home ownership benefitted your taxes? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Last Minute Shopping Hacks

Retailers and suppliers have been urging consumers to shop early this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean everyone has been paying attention. If you’ve pushed off their shopping until the last minute, we’ve got you covered! Here are six ways to keep your last-minute shopping stress-free and inexpensive. 

  1. Order online and pick up in-store

Don’t sweat over delayed shipping or the impossibly long lines in stores before the holidays. Instead, order what you need online and arrange to pick it up in the store. Most retailers offer this option now, and choosing it will give you the best of both worlds. You can browse from the comfort of your home, and pick up what you need (provided they still have it in stock) in no time at all, usually on the same day or within 24 hours. As an added bonus, many stores have designated parking spaces for shoppers who are picking up these types of orders.

  1. Get stocking stuffers at the dollar store

The dollar store is your best friend when it comes to last-minute stocking stuffers for your family. Browse carefully for fun finds, from activity books and sticker packs for the little ones, to scented candles and funky-colored nail polish for your tweens and teens, to fuzzy slippers and socks for your better half. Best of all, no one has to know they came from the dollar store!

  1. Send a gift card through Giftly

Gift cards are the best cheat for the overwhelmed shopper, but they can also be a tad impersonal when you want to show you really care. Take the easy way out and keep the personal touch in your gift-giving by purchasing a gift card through Giftly. Here’s how it works: You suggest a gift item for your recipient, like “spa day” or “new electronic gadget” and then select a place where they can choose the gift. Or, you can leave it open for your friend to decide. You can send your “gift” via email, text message or even deliver it in person. Add a customized message, and the recipient can use the electronic gift card at your chosen place, or, if you’ve left it open, wherever Visa gift cards are accepted. Gift-giving, done!

  1. Shop on Dec. 14 for free shipping

What’s not to love about Free Shipping Day? Save your last-minute online shopping for this day in mid-December to save on shipping costs. Unless you’re purchasing items from overseas, most retailers will still be able to get your items delivered in time for the holidays.

  1. Shop small businesses

Avoid the heavy crowds and empty shelves by shopping at smaller, independently owned stores. They’re likely to be better stocked, even this late in the season, and you can enjoy more personalized service, too. In addition, small businesses are still hurting from the coronavirus lockdown and more recently, from the spike in inflation. Shopping at local mom-and-pop stores will be helping a struggling business stay afloat during a time of year when kindness counts most. 

  1. Shop during non-peak hours

Another way to avoid the big crowds and bare shelves is to shop during slower business hours. In retail-speak, this means hitting the shops as soon as they open in the morning. The shelves in most stores are restocked overnight, and if you get there before the crowds, you’ll get first picks at the best gifts. Aside from a bigger selection, shopping in an emptier store will make it easier to make responsible, budget-conscious decisions. 

Leaving some or all of your holiday gift-shopping for the last minute doesn’t mean you need to blow your budget, fight big crowds, or try to make your list work when you’re facing empty shelves. Use the tips outlined above for last-minute shopping that’s easy on the wallet, light on the stress, and makes it possible to find the perfect gifts. 

Your Turn: How do you make last-minute shopping a stress-free and inexpensive experience? Share your hacks with us in the comments. 

Don’t Answer Calls from These Area Codes

Robocalls have got to be one the most annoying inventions of the 21st century. Unfortunately, those phone calls can do a lot more than disrupt your dinner to send you running to the phone just to hear about an offer for an extended warranty on your car. Using sophisticated spoofing methods and dogged persistence, they can swindle unsuspecting targets out of hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, using nothing but a phone. In fact, according to data from Trucaller, Americans lost close to $30 billion to phone scams in 2020.

Technology has made it far too easy and cheap for scammers to place a huge number of robocalls in seconds. New robocall platforms can make up to 5,000 simultaneous calls a second for as little as a dollar. Even if only 10 of these phone calls have their desired effect on the targets, the scammers have pulled in a solid profit. 

Here’s what you need to know about phone scams and how to avoid them. 

Traffic pumping

According to federal law, rural carriers are allowed to charge wireless and long-distance carriers higher fees for calls to local subscribers. To earn a quick buck – or a few hundred – rural carriers partner up with chat lines, adult entertainment numbers and “free” conference call service providers, as well as other numbers that are based overseas. Their goal is to artificially inflate the call volume in the home area codes of the rural carriers so they, in turn, can bill the wireless and long distance companies an exorbitant amount of money and give the chat lines a kickback,too. This is known as “traffic pumping.”

The bad news for private consumers is that their wireless or landline provider will pass the higher cost structure onto them. Sometimes, the caller will be warned of a higher charge, but other times, the consumer will believe these calls are completely free – until the bill arrives.

Area code alert: The 712 area code and the 218 area code are infamous for traffic pumping. 

The one-ring scam

In this ruse, scammers use robocalling technology to call wireless numbers and hang up after only one ring. The scammers are hoping the target will be curious and careless enough to return the call. If they do, they will likely be calling a number in the Caribbean, which can cost them up to $30 a minute. A prevalent one-ring scam that originates in Japan brings that cost up to $50 a minute!

Whenever you receive a call from an unfamiliar number, it’s best to let it go to voicemail instead of picking up. Curious enough to return a one-ring call? First Google the number to see who the caller is. If it’s a scammer, you’ll likely find some warnings posted online when you look up the number. 

Area code alert: The FTC warns consumers about returning one-ring calls from these area codes: 

  • 268–Antigua and Barbuda
  • 284–British Virgin Islands
  • 473–Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique
  • 664–Montserrat
  • 649–Turks and Caicos Islands
  • 767–Commonwealth of Dominica
  • 809, 829, 849–Dominican Republic
  • 876–Jamaica

When an unfamiliar number comes up on your phone screen, you’re better off waiting for a voicemail to determine if you have a legitimate caller before calling it back. You can also Google the phone number itself. If the number is a scam, chances are good that others will have posted warnings about it online. 

Protect your phone

If the robocalls are driving you crazy, there are steps you can take to limit the amount that reach your phone. First, place your number on the Do Not Call list. You can also reach out to your phone service provider to ask about robocall blocking functionality they may offer, though you may need to pay for this extra service. Finally, consider using a robocall-blocking app, like Hiya, YouMail or RoboKiller

Think twice before picking up the phone on an unknown caller, or returning a call from an unfamiliar number. Stay safe!

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

4 Scams to Watch Out for this Black Friday

Black Friday has traditionally been the day that kicks off the holiday shopping season, sending hordes of crowds surging through malls and big-box stores all over the nation. Unfortunately, it’s also been a day that kicks off the season of shopping scams. 

Here are four scams to watch out for this Black Friday and throughout the holiday shopping season:

  1. The Amazon Prime service fraud scam

In this ruse, a scammer posing as an Amazon representative will call a target to notify them about an alleged problem with their Prime account. The victim will be prompted to download a tool on their computer or mobile device. That “tool” will give the scammer remote access to “help them resolve the problem” that is at hand. If they comply, the victim will then be instructed to log onto their banking account, supposedly so the caller can be compensated for their time. Unfortunately, doing this will give the scammer direct access to the victim’s accounts. 

  1. Phishing emails

Phishing emails are nothing new, but they can be difficult to spot among the barrage of promotional emails flooding inboxes during this time of year. 

Here are two common variations of phishing scams: 

  • Account verification. The victim receives an email appearing to be from a retailer they frequently shop. It informs them that someone has tried to hack into their account. They’re asked to verify their account, or update their account details, through an embedded link. Doing so, however, will give a scammer access to their account. The scammer can now rack up a huge bill and leave the victim to pick up the tab. 
  • Order confirmation. The victim receives an email asking them to confirm an order made through Amazon or another large e-tailer. They’ll be asked to verify the order details through an embedded link. Unfortunately, doing so will give their personal information directly to the scammers. 
  1. Delivery issues

The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the way Americans shop. It’s resulted in the volume of U.S. online purchases increasing steadily, according to the Census Bureau’s quarterly e-commerce reports. Scammers are well aware of this, and they’ve been quick to capitalize on the opportunities to pull off delivery scams, especially this time of year. 

Delivery scams generally take the form of a message appearing to be from UPS, FedEx or another delivery service, informing the victim of a “delivery issue” with an order. They’ll be asked to confirm or update their information with the provided link. Doing so will give the scammer access to their financial information and open the door to identity theft and more. 

In another variation of the delivery scam, a victim will be asked to pay a fee for covering a customs charge or tax. Of course, these fees are invented by the scammer, who will gladly pocket the money. 

  1. Non-delivery scam

Another scam whose prevalence has spiked with the increase in online shopping is the non-delivery scam, which involves a purchased gift that never arrives. The victim, likely lured in by an ad promising a super-low price on a desired item, rushed to complete the purchase without researching the seller. Unfortunately, the seller then disappears and the victim has no way of notifying them about the no-show or requesting a refund. 

How to avoid Black Friday scams

Follow these tips to keep your shopping free of scams:

  • Don’t open links in emails sent from unverified contacts. 
  • Never allow a stranger access to your device and/or accounts. 
  • Don’t share sensitive information on the phone or online with an unknown contact.
  • If contacted by an alleged representative of Amazon or another large company about an issue with your account, hang up and check your account to see if an issue is actually present.  
  • Always keep the privacy and spam settings on your computer and mobile devices at their strongest settings. 
  • If you have an issue with an ordered item, contact the retailer directly through their site and not through a pop-up ad appearing to represent them. Likewise, it’s a good idea to not click through to “support links” that are posted on troubleshooting forums, as they may not be to legitimate service sites. 
  • Only purchase items from reputable sellers. When shopping on a new site, look for a physical address, a customer service number and copy that’s free of spelling errors and typos. 

Stay safe!

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