8 Fridge Organizing Tricks That Save Food and Money

interior view of a messy refrigerator ice box
How you arrange your refrigerator can affect how food tastes and how long it keeps.

So investing a little time into organizing the fridge can spare you from losing money to prematurely spoiled food — and extra trips to the grocery store.

Fortunately, implementing the following tips will cost you only a few minutes.

1. Keep things at eye level. The average American spends $522 a year on food that goes to waste, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Check out “13 Simple Ways to Stop Wasting Food — and Money” for more.)

“Out of sight, out of mind” can be costly when it comes to the refrigerator. So, store produce near eye level if you’re prone to forgetting what’s in the crisper drawers until it’s already spoiled.

It also helps to store healthier foods at eye level if you’re on a diet or have a habit of reaching for the least healthy option when searching for a snack.

2. Don’t store perishable foods in doors. The doors are the warmest part of the fridge, according to the Ohio State University Extension. So store items like condiments and juice there and keep foods like eggs and meats inside the fridge.

3. Avoid cross-contamination. Poor fridge organization risks the spread of infection-causing bacteria from one food to another.

The Kitchn blog reports that professional kitchens and restaurants store foods based on how much cooking they require to be eaten safely. Foods that require cooking at the highest temperatures are stored in the lowest parts of the fridge.

So raw eggs or raw chicken, for example, should be stored on shelves that are lower than shelves where leftovers and ready-to-eat snacks are kept.

4. Keep fish in the back. This is the coldest part of the fridge, according to the Ohio State University Extension, and fish stored at 2 degrees Fahrenheit will keep for twice as long as fish stored at 41 degrees. The extension recommends storing fish in zipper-lock bags on ice in the back of the fridge.

5. Avoid overcrowding the fridge. Foods can’t chill properly without cold air circulating around them, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you can’t create enough room in a jam-packed fridge, the freezer can store foods like breads and many fruits and vegetables.

6. Get creative with unusual tools. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when organizing your refrigerator. For example, a shower organizer can help you keep things where they need to be. Smaller caddies designed to be stuck to shower walls can also be stuck to fridge walls to add vertical storage or to corral small items.

A lazy Susan is especially helpful on shelves that have a low clearance, making it harder to reach items in the back.

You can also corral items into plastic bins. This makes it easier to access foods in the back, especially if you use deep storage containers that can easily be pulled out. Use bins made of dishwasher-safe plastic so you can easily clean them.

7. Know what not to refrigerate. Bananas, lemons, limes, melons, potatoes and tomatoes are among the foods that should be kept out of the fridge, according to the Food Network. Their taste and texture undergo “strange changes” when they’re stored at too cold of a temperature.

8. Beware of ethylene

Some types of produce emit this odorless and invisible naturally occurring gas as they ripen, according to Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center. Ethylene can also cause other produce to ripen, so keep ethylene-producing foods away from ethylene-sensitive foods to avoid premature spoiling.

Real Simple magazine and The Kitchn report that ethylene producers include:

  • Apricots
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupes
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Nectarines
  • Papayas
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes

Ethylene-sensitive foods include:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplants
  • Green beans
  • Lettuce and other leafy greens
  • Potatoes
  • Squash
  • Watermelon

Monthly Payments Are No Way to Gauge Car, House Purchases

car loan application with car...
Consumers who view the monthly payments as a guide to determine how much to spend on a new house or car are making a mistake, because many people tend to overspend when using this logic.

While the lower payments mentioned by a real estate agent or salesperson may sound like a good idea, both purchases have many hidden costs that can put most shoppers over their ideal debt-to-income ratio of 40-to-60 — meaning home and car payments in total do not equal more than 40 percent of household income. “There are two people who should never define your capacity to afford a loan: the salesperson and the lender,” said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. “It is up to you to determine if the loan you have been approved for is going to be affordable.”

How Much to Spend on a Car

Too many consumers have high monthly car payments, because they purchased vehicles out of their price range. Don’t be lured by the gimmicks of advertisers of low interest rates. Some experts recommend following the “20/4/10” rule which calls for a 20 percent down payment, financing lasting no longer than four years and no more than 10 percent of a person’s gross income to be devoted toward the principal, interest and insurance.

The dangerous habit consumers have is they shop on the basis of the monthly payment without adequate consideration for the total costs they are going to incur over the term of the loan.

“The dangerous habit consumers have is they shop on the basis of the monthly payment without adequate consideration for the total costs they are going to incur over the term of the loan,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for by Bankrate, the North Palm Beach, Florida-based financial content company.

One rule of thumb to follow is to avoid taking out a car loan for more than five years. If you chose a longer term, then it is a “sign that you are biting off more than you can chew,” McBride said. Think about how long you want to keep the car, because if the loan term is longer, then you are headed for trouble. Avoid stretching out the term of the loan so you can lower your monthly payments.

Although many people do not have a lot of spare cash for a down payment, putting down 10 percent for a new car and 20 percent for a used car will give you a “cushion considering the rapid depreciation after you buy the vehicle,” McBride said. Just because you canpurchase a car with a minimal or no down payment, it is still a good idea to make one because you will pay less in interest. Used cars require a larger down payment, because they are more prone to breaking down.

Factor in your costs for a warranty, sales tax, gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs that you will incur. A shorter loan means that the balance of the loan will decrease faster than the rate of depreciation of the car or truck, McClary said. Although some reports have found that the average consumer spends 11 percent of his household budget on a car payment, the recommended allowance is 8 percent or less, he said.

Other drivers aren’t even remotely close to achieving these rules and are compounding the problem by rolling over negative equity from their trade-in. If you still owe money on your previous car, meaning that you are underwater on the loan, the result is that the negative equity gets rolled into the new loan. If you still owe $2,000 from your previous loan, then the $25,000 car becomes a $27,000 auto loan.

“The moment you drive off the lot, it’s no longer worth $ 25,000 and depreciates dramatically to a market value of $20,000,” McClary said.

The best advice for consumers trying to tackle other debt such as student loans or credit cards is to keep a car for a longer period.

“Life without car payments is good,” McBride said. “You want to get to that point where you are no longer on the treadmill of monthly payments. Keep your car and drive your way out of debt.”

Many lenders are less merciful when it comes to missing a car payment and repossession is more likely to be on the table. Some lenders will repossess the vehicle “as soon as a payment is missed in some cases,” said McClary.

What to Spend on a Home

Although a mortgage lender will approve you for a loan that is much higher than you can afford, it does not mean you should go for it. Homeownership can be costly, with added fees such as mortgage insurance, property taxes, house insurance, maintenance and a homeowner’s association fee.

Some real estate agents will tell you thatobtaining a mortgage for two or three times your salary is an adequate guideline, but in some cases that is far too generous.

The problem is that people want the “biggest, nicest house they can get,” said McBride. “There is that tendency to borrow as much as you are able to, and it’s not always a good financial decision.”

During the previous housing boom, many consumers found themselves in trouble, because they only focused on the monthly payment and compared it to their rental payment cost. What was lacking was a consideration for what occurred down the road such as when the interest rate of a homeowner’s adjustable rate mortgage rose without a commensurate salary boost.

The best method to measure if the price of a house is affordable is to base it on a traditional 30-year fixed rate mortgage, McBride said.

“If you can’t afford a payment on a 30-year mortgage, you’re not looking at the wrong loan, you are looking at the wrong house,” he said said.

Consumers shouldn’t devote more than 30 percent of their income to a mortgage payment, which includes property tax and insurance. To boot, the amount of the mortgage shouldn’t be more than three times your gross salary, McBride added.

Bringing It All Together

The best approach is for consumers to allocate no more than 10 percent of their income to an auto loan and 30 percent to a home. Many mortgage lenders won’t approve potential homeowners if their total debt exceeds 43 percent of their income. This means that student loans and credit cards should be factored into the equation as well, McBride said.

“That’s why it pays to keep these ratios low because it’s not the payment you don’t have today, but the ones you might have in a few years,” he said.

Mortgage lenders tend to be more tolerant if you miss one or two payments. While a foreclosure typically can’t start until your mortgage is at least 120 days past due, it is a serious problem, said McClary.

10 Ways You’re Blowing Your Paycheck Before You’re Even Paid

Visualize Saving!
It’s not easy to keep track of where your money is going each month (though a budget is a great place to start). Still, if you want to regain any sort of financial freedom and start saving for future goals — remember retirement? — you’ll need to stop blowing through your paycheck.

We’ve rounded up 10 sneaky ways your money is leaving you before you even have a chance to use it. Read on to see how you can keep more of your paycheck for yourself next month.

1. Bank Fees. Many banks charge a monthly or yearly “maintenance fee” that can cost you upwards of $25 a month, or $300 a year. Read the fine print associated with your bank account and find out if there are ways you can avoid a maintenance fee. If you can’t, switch to an account without one.

Other bank fees can also add up fast. The average overdraft fee will run you about $30, according to a Moebs Services report — if you overdraw at least once a month, you’re paying $360 a year just in penalty charges. Other sneaky bank fees to watch out for include ATM fees, withdrawal penalties and minimum balance fees.

2. Recurring Payments for Services You’re Not Using. Netflix ($7.99 a month), Hulu Plus ($7.99 a month), Spotify ($9.99 a month) and other recurring monthly services allow you to watch movies and shows, listen to music, and indulge in other media for a lower rate than cable (which can run you over $100 a month) — even combined. Still, if you aren’t taking advantage of these services, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

Services like Pandora, YouTube and the basic version of Hulu allow you to watch and listen for free. Cut these monthly recurring payments in favor of cheap or free alternatives and reroute the money to your savings account.

3. Outstanding Credit Card Balances. If you maintain a balance on your credit card, you’re signing away a portion of your paycheck before you even get paid. The average interest for credit cards is hovering around a whopping 15 percent, which means you’re paying $15 for every $100 that isn’t paid off at the end of each billing cycle. These fees can drain your paycheck extremely fast, especially if you’re maintaining a high balance.

You’ll owe a mandatory minimum payment every month your credit card has a balance. The minimum allows you to pay interest and a portion of the principal so you can eventually get out of debt — but the fastest way to stop paying any interest each month is to pay off your balance in full.

4. Car Payments. Last year, new cars averaged a price of $31,831, according to TrueCar. That means, depending on your interest rate and loan term, you could end up shelling out $500 or more a month in car payments — a huge chunk of your paycheck.

Used cars, on the other hand, only averaged $16,335, cutting your monthly payment almost in half. If you have a high-interest rate auto loan, you can also try to refinance for a lower interest rate or trade your car in for a cheaper model.

5. Student Loans. Student loans can vary widely depending on where you went to school, how many loans you took out and what kind of interest rates you got — but they can easily be a huge drain on your income. The average student graduates college today with more than $30,000 in student loans, according to a report by Edvisors.

One way to reduce the amount of interest you pay is to consolidate your loans into one single payment with a lower interest rate. You can also negotiate a payment plan with your lender if you’re unable to meet the minimum monthly payments — but be careful that you don’t harm your credit score in the process.

6. Gym Memberships. Gyms, spas, shopping clubs and other monthly memberships are great for health, socializing and buying in bulk — but they can be awful for your budget, adding up to hundreds a month. If you aren’t using your memberships as often as you’d like, it might be time to cancel that monthly payment and find a cheaper (or free) alternative.

Gyms and spas are highly competitive, which means you can almost always find something cheaper. Certain gyms, community centers and nonprofits (like the YMCA) offer low-cost options ranging from $10-$50. Additionally, newly opened gyms and spas will often run promotions to encourage new business.

Otherwise, skip the group workout altogether and do it from home: Try one of these 10 cheap fitness apps.

7. Unused Coupons. Coupon sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are great resources for finding deals and discounts on products, services and experiences. But these deals are only worth it if you would have bought the service anyway. A 2013 North American Technographics survey found that the average Groupon user spends about $675 online within three months — compared to just $467 spent by the average consumer.

Since you pay for the coupon upfront, it’s up to you to follow through and use it. Unused coupons eventually expire and become difficult to redeem, which means you forked over a big portion of your earnings and didn’t actually save any money.

8. Phone Payments. That fancy new iPhone 6 you just bought set you back by hundreds of dollars — and upfront costs aside, you’ll also be making monthly payments that could range anywhere between $40 or $50 and hundreds of dollars. Unless you realistically and regularly use 128 GB of space and 10 GB of data, you’re overpaying for your phone and phone plan.

Alternative carriers like Republic Wireless will sell you phones and service plans for a lot less. And if you’re willing to part from the latest Apple product, you’ll save even more by choosing a cheaper (if slightly less flashy) phone.

9. Taxes. Unfortunately, taxes are a paycheck deduction that you can’t avoid. Still, by adjusting your W-4 form, you could maximize the amount of cash you get to keep each month. If you tend to get a large refund each year, you’re a prime candidate for keeping more of your money each paycheck (and forgoing the big payout April 15).

Additionally, when you do your taxes, make sure you’re taking advantage of the full range of deductions and credits available; don’t leave money on the table that should be going straight to your savings account.

10. 401(k) Contributions. It’s incredibly important to start saving for retirement now — and you should try to set aside as much savings as possible. Still, it doesn’t make sense to put aside so much that you’re going into debt or overdrawing your checking account in order to make ends meet at the end of the month.

Sit down, write out your budget and find the perfect number to contribute to your retirement accounts each month. If your employer matches a certain amount (say 3 or 4 percent), you should aim to contribute at least that much — you don’t want to be leaving money on the table. Keep in mind that your retirement savings should always be a priority; if you’re having trouble padding your 401(k) while still buying groceries, it might be a sign you need to cut down in other areas of your budget — specifically, “wants,” like dining out or going shopping.

The Most Popular Ages to Sign Up for Social Security

social security cards

You can sign up for Social Security at any time after age 62. However, your monthly payments will be larger for each month you delay claiming them up until age 70. Here is when most people start receiving Social Security payments, and how signing up at each age impacts your payout.

Age 62. The most popular age to claim Social Security payments is age 62, the earliest possible age you can sign up. However, the proportion of people signing up for Social Security at age 62 has been declining since the mid-1990s, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College analysis of Social Security Administration data. Some 48 percent of women and 42 percent of men signed up for Social Security at age 62 in 2013, down from around 60 percent of women and 55 percent of men in 2005, CRR found.

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Social Security payments are reduced if you claim them before your full retirement age, which is typically age 66 or 67, depending on your birth year. If you sign up at age 62, you will get 25 percent smaller monthly payments if your full retirement age is 66 and 30 percent smaller payments if your full retirement age is 67. For example, a worker who would be eligible for a $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit at his full retirement age of 66 would get just $750 a month if he signs up for Social Security at age 62. “A lot of people just take it as soon as they can, and if you take it too early, you’re really leaving a lot of money on the table,” says Joel Shaps, a certified financial planner for Bedrock Capital Management in Los Altos, California.

Age 63. It’s relatively unusual to claim Social Security payments at age 63. Only 8 percent of women and 7 percent of men sign up for Social Security at this age, according to CRR. Monthly Social Security payments are reduced if you sign up at age 63, but by less than if you claim payments at age 62. A worker eligible for $1,000 monthly at age 66 would get $800 a month at age 63, a 20 percent pay cut. If your full retirement age is 67 you will get 25 percent less by signing up at age 63.

Age 64. Another rare age for people to claim Social Security benefits is age 64. CRR found that 8 percent of women and 7 percent of men claim benefits at this age. Social Security payments are reduced by 13.4 percent for those with a full retirement age of 66 and 20 percent for people with a full retirement age of 67. A $1,000 retirement benefit would be reduced to $866 for most baby boomers who sign up at this age.

Age 65. The full retirement age used to be 65 for people born in 1937 and earlier, but was then gradually increased in two-month increments to 66 for everyone born between 1943 and 1954. The full retirement age increases to 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later. Baby boomers who claim benefits at this age will see their payments reduced by about 7 percent, so a person eligible for $1,000 at age 66 would get $933 monthly starting at age 65. Members of Generation Y will see their payments reduced by 13.3 percent if they claim payments at age 65.

Age 66. This is the age when people born between 1943 and 1954 are eligible to claim unreduced Social Security benefits. CRR found just over a third of men (34 percent) and a quarter of women (27 percent) sign up for Social Security benefits at their full retirement age, which is the second most popular age to claim payments. “When you take it at your full retirement age, which for a lot of people retiring today is 66, there are no reductions in benefits,” says Christopher Rhim, a certified financial planner for Green View Advisors in Norwich, Vermont. For those who have a full retirement age of 67, you will get a 6.7 percent pay cut if you sign up for payments at age 66.

Age 67. People born after 1959 will be able to claim unreduced Social Security payments starting at age 67. And boomers who delay claiming their Social Security benefit until age 67 will get an 8 percent increase in their payments, which would boost a $1,000 monthly payment to $1,080.

Age 68. Baby boomers get 16 percent more if they claim Social Security payments at age 68, increasing a $1,000 Social Security payment to $1,160 a month. Members of Generation Y will get 8 percent more if they sign up for Social Security at 68.

Age 69. Those born in 1960 or later get 16 percent more by claiming their Social Security benefit at age 69, and baby boomers can boost their benefit by 24 percent. A worker could increase a $1,000 Social Security benefit to $1,240 by signing up at age 69.

Age 70. Baby boomers can increase their Social Security benefit by 32 percent by waiting until age 70 to sign up, boosting that $1,000 Social Security payment to $1,320 a month. People born after 1959 will get 24 percent more by claiming payments beginning at age 70. However, only 4 percent of women and 2 percent of men hold out until age 70, according to CRR.

“If the goal is to get as much Social Security income as possible, the way you get that is by claiming as late as possible,” says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “If you want a higher Social Security benefit, wait until 70.” After age 70 there is no additional increase for further delaying your Social Security payments.

Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at ebrandon@usnews.com.

Places to Never Use a Debit or Credit Card to Make a Payment

men hand businessman puts...

 

NEW YORK — While carrying around your debit and credit cards to make your daily purchases from coffee to lunch to parking is efficient, the convenience could spell trouble.

Using your credit or debit card to pay for your purchases puts consumers at greater risk of identity theft and losing key personal information.

Here are seven places you should think twice before swiping your debit or credit card to prevent a hacker from intruding into your finances and potentially affecting your credit score.

Online Shopping

With the proliferation of discount shopping websites, make sure the online retailer you are purchasing from has a safe website, because many aren’t secure. Before you enter your credit or bank card information, look for the green lock icon without any overlays, said Shaun Murphy, CEO of Private Giant, an Orlando, Florida-based company that plans to launch a security app for smartphones. “Some sites, including Amazon, will not show you a lock icon until you log-in into your account or begin the check-out process,” he said. “This means anyone can see what you are shopping for while you are browsing.”

Hidden/Out of View Terminals

Be wary of the hidden terminals when you are shopping. It could be the gas pump that is furthest away or an unattended station for automatic checkouts at the grocery store, Murphy said.

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“These are sweet targets for credit card skimming devices that can sit there for months without anyone noticing,” he said.

Nowadays, skimmers are small enough to fit inside pockets or even hidden within the credit card slots in payment terminals. This means you may unwittingly hand over data when swiping your card at a gas pump, so go inside to pay, said Geoff Sanders, CEO of LaunchKey, a Las Vegas-based decentralized mobile authentication and authorization platform.

“Criminals merely need to pull a car up in front of a pump to surreptitiously install or retrieve a skimmer within a matter of minutes,” he said.

Temporary Stores

It’s tempting to use your credit card to pay for a T-shirt at a concert or a vendor at a temporary open air markets, swap meets or craft fairs, “thanks to the ubiquity of mobile Internet connections,” Parker said.

“These scenarios provide an excellent venue for the grifting of card information,” he said. “The consumer is left trusting a vendor that doesn’t have an actual retail location.”

Outdoor Pay Terminals

Another place that consumers should be wary of using their cards is at outdoor pay terminals including drive through locations at fast food restaurants. Being outdoors means it’s another prime location for a skimmer device to be hidden. Skimmers have even been found on the door readers that require users to scan their card before entering the ATM lobby, Parker said.

Cellphone Charging Stations

As consumers spend more time on their smartphones, charging your phone becomes more of a necessity than a preference. Even though it seems like a no-brainer to swipe your card to charge your phone for free when the battery is nearly dead, the convenience could cost you.

“These devices can also dump the information from your cellphone while charging,” Murphy said. “This attack method even has a cool name: juice jacking!”

Apps

All apps aren’t the same and designed with the same goal in mind. If any of the apps on your laptop, tablet or mobile device ask you for your credit card information outside of the normal app store, check to be sure the program is legit. There is a good possibility that it is a fake, especially the ones the need your immediate attention and claim that your computer has a virus or all of your files are encrypted and need to be unlocked for a price.

Free Services or Trial Period There are a multitude of free services or a trial period that allows you to watch a movie or try some software for a period of time. The catch is that you still need to enter your credit card information before you can start using it. It sounds too good to be true, because it is “almost guaranteed that the service is either going to scam you or sign you up for some paid service that will be impossible to cancel,” Murphy said.

What to Use Instead of Your Bank or Credit Card

Re-loadable pre-paid cards and cash are two good options since they are not linked to any personal financial information. Using cash is the best way to avoid overspending, because it makes you more aware of the financial impact that the purchase has on your budget, said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization.

If an attacker successfully drained your checking account through your debit card, you could be without cash for quite some time.

You shouldn’t use your debit cardanywhere other than in an ATM machine, said Steve Weisman, a Boston lawyer and a lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. You are exposed to more liability when you are using a debit card. Although laws limit your debit card liability to $50 if you report the fraudulent use to the bank within two days,that changes as you wait longer. If you don’t notice the fraud and report it to your bank after three days, your liability jumps to $500, he said.

“Your bank account will be frozen while the bank investigates the matter, thereby limiting your own access to the account,” Weisman said.

If you don’t have cash or a pre-paid card handy, a credit card is still a good choice because it may take banks many days to refund fraudulent charges or withdrawals, said Sanders.

“If an attacker successfully drained your checking account through your debit card, you could be without cash for quite some time,” he said.

Since nearly all debit cards can be used as a credit card, consumers should always use the credit card feature, Parker said. When the card is used as a debit card with the PIN being entered, you are risk for having both the card and PIN compromised.

“This could allow cybercriminals to directly withdraw cash,” he said.

With major retailers and banks such as Target, Sony, eBay, JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, Anthem, T.J. Maxx and Apple being attacked by cybercriminals and having millions of data records leaked and exposed, consumers should be more concerned about large companies, said Dave Bennett, CTO of IONU, a data security company based in Longmont, Colorado.

“Hackers are going to go after the big targets, not the small fry,” he said.

-Written by Ellen Chang for TheStreet.com.

How to Choose the Right Financial Adviser

For most of us, feeling confident in our financial decisions calls for the help of a skilled and reliable adviser. A professional can help us create the path to our investment goals, whether that means generating immediate returns, providing college education for a pack of kids, securing a comfortable retirement, or all of the above.
Here’s the challenge: There are at least 250,000 financial advisers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and not all are created equal. So how do you choose one? Read on.

1. Trawl for referrals. Start by getting recommendations from friends, family and reliable Internet sources. If you’re getting referrals from friends, it makes sense to rely on those who are in a similar stage of life, with similar financial needs, Forbes suggests. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson notes that your accountant or lawyer may be another good source for referrals, depending on their familiarity with your circumstances.

Check out registries with professional associations like the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors or Garrett Planning Network to locate advisers in your area who have received training and agreed to the organizations’ ethical standards, says Marketwatch.com.

Also, knowing some financial advisers may be distracted by sales quotas and time prospecting for new clients, you want to make sure that your financial adviser won’t sign you up and then file you away, warns personalcapital.com.

Once you think you have some potential candidates, ask them these questions:

2. What are you going to do for me? Beware the salesman, Ameriprise Vice President Pierce Hardman tells MTN.

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“I think one of the most important things is for the financial adviser to listen to the potential client,” Hardman says. “All too frequently they talk themselves up a bit and blather on about what they can sell you, when in reality it is all about what you need — not what they can sell you.”

Shomari Hearn, a vice president at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, describes his philosophy with clients.

“I’m going to approach it from a holistic approach. I’m going to look at your overall situation,” Hearn says. “Not only looking at your investment portfolio, but taxes, estate planning, retirement planning.”

3. How are you paid? ‘Fee-only’ vs ‘fee-based.’ Your potential adviser should outline products that meet your needs. You should avoid advisers who have a financial incentive to focus on the offerings of particular firms or on specific investments. These are known as fee-based or commission-based advisers.

Stacy recommends a fee-only adviser to eliminate conflicts of interest. Fee-only advisers charge you a rate, usually based on the assets you put under management.

Here’s a cautionary tale that illustrates what can go wrong with an adviser motivated by commissions: How to Find an Awful Financial Adviser.

In any case, make sure you are clear about what you are getting.

“No matter how they get paid, ask them, so you know,” says Stacy.

4. Credentials, disciplinary history. If you want someone to manage your money, then look for a registered and educated investment adviser, according to Forbes.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority allows you to check out the advisers through Brokercheck, Ameriprise’s Hardman says. FINRA oversees the people and firms that sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other securities.

You type in your current or prospective broker’s name to see employment history, certifications and licenses — as well as regulatory actions, violations or complaints. You also can get information about your broker’s firm, according to Brokercheck.

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which investigates suspected fraud, can clue you in on advisers who have had disciplinary actions. Disciplinary History is a searchable repository of the agency’s active investigations and past violations. Look for CFTC SmartCheck.

Run this search to find out if your financial professional has a disciplinary history with the CFTC. The AARP also offers a questionnaire to help you weed out the bad players.

5. How will I know how I am doing? It’s important to be clear about communication with your financial adviser.

You need to set a schedule, laying out how often you will meet to evaluate and review your portfolio and whether this will be done in person or remotely. The adviser should be ready to help you measure your progress over time with regular meetings and check-ins as well as access to your account online.

Proper communication is the key to a successful relationship that can last through many market cycles: It is important to work with an adviser who talks to you, not through you, according to Right Financial Advisor.

Bottom line: Always remember that your adviser should be working for you, not the other way around.

Do you have hints or tips for getting the most value from a financial adviser? Share them with other Money Talks News readers.

 

5 Easy Ways to Save Money Without Wasting Time

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We want to save more money, but let’s be honest: The hectic pace of life can make it hard to cut corners. If you’re too busy to clip coupons, hunt for deals and make your own laundry detergent to save a few cents, how can you manage to save?

Here are five tips that can help you maximize your savings while also being frugal with your time.

1. Review your budget. A budget can be a great way to keep your spending in check, but it’s only effective if it’s aligned with your current needs and priorities.

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Once a month, set aside a little time (just 15 minutes can help) to make sure your budget categories and real-life spending are where they should be. Look for areas you can trim and ask yourself if any new expenses have cropped up that need to be factored in.

If you notice you regularly overspend in a certain category, ask yourself if you can change your habits or if you can trim another budget category to free up some extra money. Re-evaluating and readjusting your budget on a regular basis helps you make sure your money is working for you.

Programs like Mint.com can help track your spending for you and alert you when you’re getting close to exceeding your monthly spending goals.

Want to make things super easy? Try the “anti-budget” — yank your savings from the top first, and force yourself to live on the rest.

2. Grocery shop smarter. A little preparation ahead of time can save you plenty at the grocery store – and help make cooking easier throughout the week. (And who doesn’t want that?)

Sit down over the weekend and come up with a meal plan for the week ahead. Create a list with only the items you’ll need for those meals (plus any staples you’re running low on, like milk or bread). Keep your shopping trips quick and to the point; make a beeline for the items on your list and don’t get distracted by flashy displays or sale signs. Get in, get what you need and then get out.

Want to make things even easier? Cook a large batch of something in a slow cooker on the weekends and then divide it up into meals for the week to come.

3. Cancel unused memberships and services. If it’s been several months and you still haven’t used that gym membership you keep swearing you’re going to use, it’s time to face reality. All it’s doing is sucking money out of your bank account each month. There are plenty of other ways you can work out, like running, biking or finding free exercise videos on YouTube.

Look for other recurring expenses you’re not utilizing, such as magazines you rarely read, pricey cable packages when you only watch a handful of shows and that land line you still have even though the only calls you ever receive on it are from solicitors.

These things are all drains on your budget. Cancel them, and voila! Extra money appears each month.

4. Think ahead. Establish several savings goals for short- and long-term expenses you can expect to face down the road. An emergency savings fund will give you a cushion to help you deal with things like home and car repairs, illness and accidents without blowing your regular budget.

Review your calendar for other expenses coming up in the year ahead: birthdays, weddings, vacations, holidays. Create a budget for these costs and start putting aside a little each month so you won’t have to find the cash for them in one fell swoop. When it comes to travel, booking things like flights and hotels far in advance can help you net some great deals you won’t find if you wait till the last minute.

5. Sign up for daily deals sites. Sites like Groupon, Amazon Local and Seize the Deal offer great daily bargains on everything from restaurants to entertainment to travel. Sign up for their mailing lists and set up a rule in your inbox so that any messages you receive from them go straight into a separate “deals” subfolder. This way, you can skim all your daily deals at once and they won’t clog your regular inbox.

Paula Pant is the founder of Afford Anything, a website that helps you build wealth and maximize life. Afford Anything is an online movement against tired old financial advice that says you should skip lattes and chain yourself to a desk for 40 years. Paula Pant launched the site after she quit her 9-to-5 job, traveled to 32 countries and became a successful entrepreneur and real estate investor.

Survey: Slow 2nd Quarter to Drag on 2015 Economic Growth

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U.S. economic growth in the second quarter will be far weaker than previously expected and it will prevent the pace of growth from exceeding last year’s 2.4 percent, according to a forecast by a group of U.S. business economists.

Growth is expected to accelerate significantly in the third quarter, but “sluggish” conditions in the first three months of the year will persist into the second quarter and drag down average growth for the year, a survey by the National Association for Business Economists said Monday.

The survey of 47 economists from companies, trade associations and academia was conducted from May 8 to May 20.

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A growing number of economists in the survey believe that the Federal Reserve will beginraising interest rates in the third quarter. Many had expected a second-quarter increase until the year started off so slowly.

The labor market will improve at a slower rate also, according to the survey, but job growth will remain “robust.” Economists now believe payrolls will grow by 217,000 a month in 2015, down from an earlier forecast of 251,000. Last year the economy added 260,000 jobs a month on average.

A stronger U.S. dollar is hampering growth by making U.S. goods more expensive overseas, and slower growth in China is also taking a toll on the U.S. economy, according to the survey.

The group’s forecast for U.S. economic growth in 2015 fell to 2.4 percent, from 3.1 percent in March.

The Federal Reserve also has revised its expectations for growth after a difficult winter. It expects economic growth for the year to average between 2.3 percent and 2.7 percent, down from a range of 2.6 percent to 3 percent it projected in December.

Still, the survey pointed to a number of positive economic indicators despite what it described as a “disappointing” start to 2015. The NABE panel expects consumer spending, residential investment and government expenditures to increase at a faster pace in both 2015 and 2016 compared with last year.

6 Telltale Signs You’re in Great Financial Health

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You have six months of take-home pay socked away in an emergency fund, you pride yourself on your 720 credit score, and you contribute enough to your company 401(k) to get a match.

If this sounds like you, then you deserve a big pat on the back — you’re well on the road to optimal financial health.

But what are the signs that you’re really rocking your finances — that you’re not just an “A” student, but picking up extra-credit points along the way?

To help you see if you’ve entered overachiever territory, we’ve rounded up six benchmarks that show you’re kicking your finances into high gear.

And even if you can’t tick off everything on this list, consider them aspirational new goals to work toward, so you can take your money game to the next level.

Telltale Sign No. 1: You’re a two-income household — but you can live off just one.

For couples who bring in two salaries, it can be tough to resist the temptation oflifestyle inflation — which makes it all the more impressive when you can comfortably live off one income and devote the other to long-term goals, like retirement or a college fund.

“It’s a good objective, although it’s fairly rare that people can do it,” says Kevin O’Reilly, a certified financial planner and principal at Foothills Financial Planning. “It’s not unusual to see people with two incomes who can’t save anything.”

So if you’re part of a duo who’s resisted trading up your lives with every raise or bonus, consider yourself masters of living well within your means.

“[Living on one income] is a great discipline — and it provides a lot of financial help if one spouse loses a job down the road,” says Jean Keener, a certified financial planner and principal of Keener Financial Planning.

If you’re not quite there, comb through your expenses to see which category of costs is eating into your budget the most, and use that as a starting point for paring back.

“If a significant portion of [your budget] is discretionary, it may be easy to cut back travel, make fewer trips to a restaurant, or buy clothes less frequently,” Keener says. “However, if [your budget] is going mostly to fixed spending, looking at larger items will lead to longer-term success. Making one big decision, like downsizing your house, [will be] generally easier than making small decisions about cups of coffee and Girl Scout cookies.”

Telltale Sign No. 2: Your net worth exceeds your annual income — and keeps growing.

Net worth is one of the most important barometers of financial health because it looks at your whole money life: your total assets (like the cash in your checking account, the current value of your home and your investments) minus your liabilities (such as student loans, credit card debt and what’s left on your mortgage).

While having a positive net worth is great, having a net worth that exceeds what you earn is excellent because it shows you’ve been diligent about building wealth, living within your means and paying down debt simultaneously — goals you don’t have to be in the wealthiest 1 percent to achieve.

There’s no hard and fast rule for how much your net worth should be. But for something aspirational, O’Reilly likes this equation from Thomas J. Stanley, author of “The Millionaire Next Door”: 10 percent times your age times your income. So if, say, you’re 40 and make $100,000, your target net worth would be $400,000.

“I have people who come in and say they’re good savers, but they haven’t touched their 401(k) allocation in 10 years. That’s a bad sign.”

But don’t let that number intimidate you — what’s really important is that you show an upward trend.

“Is your net worth growing? That’s a good sign that debt is going down and savings are going up,” Keener says. “Maybe you don’t think you have enough yet, but you’re headed in the right direction.”

Just make sure that you’re not relying on just one asset to get into the black. Otherwise, you may not be addressing all of your long-term savings goals.

For example, “[Your] half-million-dollar house is not necessarily something you’re going to use to fund your retirement,” says Cheryl Krueger, a certified financial planner and founder of Growing Fortunes Financial Partners. A healthy retirement plan covers a comprehensive mix of assets.

Telltale Sign No. 3: You can name what’s in your investment portfolio.

If you’ve been steadily stowing away 10 percent of your income into your 401(k), congratulations! Now, quick: What’s your asset allocation?

If you can answer that without reaching for old brokerage statements, you’re ahead of the game. “I have people who come in and say they’re good savers, but they haven’t touched their 401(k) allocation in 10 years,” O’Reilly says. “That’s a bad sign.”

Unfortunately, investing with blinders on isn’t altogether uncommon: One 2014MoneyRates.com survey found that one in five people don’t know what goals they’re investing for — and about 12 percent don’t know which primary asset class their money is in.

So how can you go from clueless to someone who can answer the asset allocation question in five seconds flat?

For starters, keep tabs on where your accounts are housed, and don’t look at them as separate entities. Your portfolio as a whole should be reviewed to see if it’s meeting your investment objectives, whether that’s growth (taking on more risk) or preservation (taking on less risk to protect your principal).

“In a couple, typically one spouse knows more about the finances than the other, so they defer to the other person [on knowing where the money is],” Krueger says. “Or with single people, you see a lot who’ve changed jobs and don’t [even] know where their 401(k) is. It helps to be able to look at things all together.”

Once you’ve nailed down your total investment picture, figure out the frequency with which you’ll check on those investments — keeping in mind that you may have to tune out market noise. “You don’t have to look at the Dow every day, but you should be checking your portfolio every quarter or so,” suggests Keener.

Telltale Sign No. 4: You neither owe nor get a refund at tax time.

If you got to the bottom of form 1040 this year and netted close to zero, then you (or your accountant) did an excellent job of managing your tax liability.

“Penalties are a waste of money, and an unexpected tax bill can cause someone to invade their emergency fund or [resort to] high-interest credit cards to help pay the bill,” Keener says. “It’s also beneficial not to get a huge refund because you could be earning interest on that money over the course of the year, rather than giving an interest-free loan to the IRS.”

If you consistently owe or get a refund of more than $1,000, consider adjusting your withholding, so more or fewer taxes are taken out of your paycheck during the year.

Using your most recent W2, fill out the IRS’ withholding calculator to estimate what your number should be — and remember to take note of any life changes that could affect your tax situation, such as getting married, having a child or changing jobs midway through the year.

Telltale Sign No. 5: Less than a third of your income goes toward debt.

Your debt-to-income ratio — minimum monthly debt and mortgage payments divided by your gross monthly income — helps tell lenders how well you’re managing debt.

Although every lender varies, the oft-quoted benchmark for an acceptable debt ratio is 36 percent. Krueger, however, believes that percentage is still fairly high.

“I would say 10 percent or less of your gross income going to debt is a good indicator [of strong financial health] — and, of course, you want it eventually to go down to zero,” she says.

“Before you trade up for the latest car model, consider whether you really need that rich Corinthian leather — or whether the money could be better served for retirement.”

Krueger believes that aiming for less than the lending benchmark is prudent, because “between taxes and saving for retirement, having debt [take up] 36 percent of your income doesn’t leave much money for [other] savings.”

If you need to chip away at debt to improve your debt-to-income ratio, consider the “avalanche method,” which involves prioritizing paying down your highest-interest debts first, while still meeting the minimum payments on others.

Then, once you’re done paying off that first debt, you can apply that payment to your next highest-interest loan or credit card.

Telltale Sign No. 6: You’re done with car payments.

Being free and clear of auto financing is a double-whammy positive indicator. Not only have you eliminated debt — and likely improved your debt-to-income ratio — but “it means you’re driving your cars longer, and getting more value out of them,” O’Reilly says.

But living car-debt-free is something few Americans seem to be able to accomplish: At the end of 2014, the country’s automotive loan balances reached a record $886 billion, according to Experian Automotive.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should sink a hefty lump sum into your car loan just to be rid of it.

“[Not having a car payment] is a positive indicator [of financial health], but with interest rates so low right now, having a car loan isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Keener says. You could, for instance, consider using that money instead to beef up an emergency fund, pay off higher-interest debt or invest in something with better returns.

In other words, what having no car payment really signals is that you’re getting as much bang for your auto buck by driving your car until it dies — which can yield a significant savings, considering the average auto loan now surpasses $28,000.

So before you trade up for the latest model, consider whether you really need that rich Corinthian leather, or whether the money could be better served for retirement — or a new-car savings account, so you can pay cash for your next ride.

“Financially, you’re much better off if you continue driving the car as long as possible and view it as a depreciating asset that’s just transportation from point A to point B,” Keener says. “As long as it’s reliable and safe, it doesn’t need to be replaced.”

4 Surprising Retirement Saving Secrets to Success

Couple with Coffee and Prezels in City Park, New York City, New York, USA
NEW YORK — Dreams of early retirement are often reserved for Silicon Valley startup nerds, athletic superstars and lottery winners. But run-of-the-mill working stiffs like us? No chance, right? Well, don’t count us out yet. More than a quarter (26 percent) of 3,449 currently employed workers who took part in a recent study said they plan to retire before they turn 65. The Allianz LoveFamilyMoney report surveyed 35- to 65-year-old Americans with household incomes of at least $50,000.

So, maybe there is still a chance. The study also revealed four interesting traits shared by the optimistic early retirement hopefuls among us. It’s a good chance you haven’t heard these tips before: they go well beyond the typical retirement saving advice of “start early,” “live below your means” and “earn your 401(k) match.”

For example, Tip One: Stay Married.

The survey found workers on-target for an early retirement are more likely to be married — 76 percent of people on track for an early retirement are married versus 68 percent who never plan to retire. And they’re making it stick. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of the respondents are still in their first marriage, compared with 70 percent of those who never plan to retire.

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Secondly, they share similar financial habits. The study discovered most of the couples were just naturally “savers” instead of “spenders” and shared a “practical” approach to financial matters compared with those who plan to work forever.

And they talk things out. You’ve probably heard the stories of couples who hide money from each other, engage in “secret spending” and don’t have a full debt disclosure policy. However, these couples — well on their way to an early retirement — find it “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to talk with their spouse or significant other about matters of money (90 percent compared with 77 percent of those who plan to be work bound).

And rather than benchmarking their financial success to their neighbors or the S&P 500, the early retirees-to-be compare themselves to their parents’ financial status (21 percent compared with 14 percent of those who never plan to retire).

While we’re at it, let’s bust a retirement myth: Having children isn’t a factor in delaying retirement. The study didn’t find any difference in expected retirement age based on whether or not respondents have children.

But deciding when to retire also requires a bit of consideration regarding the timing of federal retirement and medical benefits.

“From a Social Security standpoint, you can start getting lower benefits as early as age 62, or you can delay retirement up to age 70 for your maximum monthly benefit amount,” says Doug Walker, deputy commissioner of communications at the Social Security Administration, in a blog post. “This is one of the most important and challenging decisions you’ll make in your life. When you decide to retire affects not only you, but it could have serious, long-lasting consequences for your family members, too.”

For example, retiring at age 62 will trigger Social Security benefits about 25 percent lower than a full benefit payout at age 66. If you delay Social Security until age 70, the monthly amount is 32 percent more than at full retirement age. That kicks your monthly benefits up by $570 — or $6,840 a year.

And if you retire early without health insurance, you won’t qualify for Medicare until you reach age 65 unless you’ve been on Social Security disability benefits for at least 24 months. That means you’ll have to cover insurance premiums with a portion of your retirement income. However, you may qualify for Medicaid or a Special Enrollment Period for coverage through the HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace. And you may also be able to earn a tax credit and lower your out-of-pocket costs.

Retiring early requires a bit of timing, full disclosure, clear communication — and apparently a strong marriage. All goals worth aspiring to.