5 Tips to Keep Your Payment Info Safe Online

Confession: I am terrible at online security. A few months ago our IT person sent out an e-mail with a suspicious link to test our staff and I was the only person who clicked on it. Unless I’m forced to change it, I use the same password for everything. I can’t remember passwords with numbers so the ones I think up are usually based on my fangirling habits. A few years ago my supervisor needed my password to my computer at work and I replied, “It will be easier if I spell it out for you. T-A-Y-L-O-R-L-A-U-T-N-E-R.” She paused for a moment, then laughed and asked, “Is your password ‘Taylor Lautner?’ Like the kid from Twilight?” Yes. Yes, it was.

TayLat

I definitely had a poster of this photo in college. So classic.

BUT, I recently attended a training on fraud prevention and I am proud to say that I am stepping up my online security game. No longer will you be able to access my online information just because you know my favorite member of 5 Seconds of Summer! Online security is becoming more and more important because, as physical debit card fraud prevention improves, online payment fraud is increasing. EMV chip cards are making it harder for fraudsters to make a physical replica of your debit card. So instead they are finding ways to access your card or account number online. I learned some really great tips to help keep your payment information safe from internet fraud. Here they are:

  1. Don’t save payment information online. It can be super convenient to save your debit card or account number on websites you use frequently. But unfortunately doing so also makes it super convenient for anyone who hacks your account to go on an Amazon.com shopping spree with your money. It only takes a few extra minutes to enter your debit card number each time you pay online, but it significantly decreases the chances that a fraudster can get your info.
  1. Always use a strong password. Note: “taylorlautner” does not qualify as a strong password, no matter how muscular he was in that movie. A password is considered strong if it includes the following: at least 6 letters (1 uppercase), at least 1 number, and at least 1 special character (@, $, %, etc.). Your password should never include your DOB, phone #, SSN, name or the same info for anyone close to you (significant other, children, etc.). It’s too easy for hackers to figure out.
  1. Do NOT use the same password for multiple websites. Because if I’m a hacker who has one of your passwords, now I have them all. I can log into your online banking account, your Amazon.com account, your student loan account . . . this list goes on and on. Think of how many online accounts you have. Worried that you won’t be able to remember passwords because they’re too complicated and you have too many? Try a password management tool like lastpass.com. You just have to remember one master password and it will remember the other ones for you.
  1. Do NOT log in to websites with payment information while on free public Wi-Fi. You never know who might be lurking in wait on the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. And if you log into a site with payment information while on that public Wi-Fi, you’re opening the door for hackers to steal it. Free Wi-Fi is great for YouTube videos or games, just don’t use it to log into your Sallie Mae payment center. If you’re in a public space and have to access a site with payment info, use data instead of Wi-Fi. Yes, it’s more expensive. But it’s also secure.
  1. Always use a passcode, fingerprint ID, or swipe pattern for smart phones and/or tablets. Change your passcode or swipe pattern every 3 months. Let’s be honest, my whole life is on my smart phone. And yours probably is, too. From my phone I can access all of my money, I can pay for gas, or I can get an Uber. There’s a ton of ways I can pay for things right from my mobile device, not to mention an endless amount of personal information stored on it. If I don’t have a passcode I am giving anyone who can get their hands on my phone an invitation to use that information. Just take the swimmer-selfies on my phone as evidence (because you can still use the camera on an iPhone even if it’s locked) that people will pick up any phone they find lying around and use it. So keep it safe.
Swimmers

See what I mean?

Is online fraud 100% preventable? No way. But taking the 5 steps makes you way less vulnerable to potential attacks. Stay safe internet friends!

Free Tax Prep at CA$H Maine

Taxes . . . dun dun dun . . .

If just hearing the word made you cringe, fear not! I’m here to help. Income tax preparation is an intimidating thing for most people. Unless you’re an account or some sort of math wizard, you probably have to make the choice between trying to do your own taxes (and possibly drowning in paperwork in the attempt) or paying a professional to do them for you. Neither option really seems that appealing to me.

CA$H Maine

That’s where CA$H Maine comes in to save the day! CA$H is a non-profit organization that works to improve financial stability in our state. One of the many services they provide is free federal and state income tax preparation. There are 42 CA$H Maine tax sites statewide. If you, or your household, made $54,000 or less in 2015, you should consider getting your taxes done at CA$H this season. Here’s 5 reason why:

  1. It’s FREE! Paid preparers give you peace of mind that your taxes will be done correctly. But they can also be expensive. The average American spends around $261 each year on tax prep. CA$H Maine is providing the same service 100% free of charge. No fees. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but thanks to CA$H Maine there is free tax preparation.
  2. You get professional help from an IRS-certified volunteer. All CA$H Maine volunteer tax preparers are IRS-certified. They go through extensive in person and online training prior to working at a tax site. By the time they meet with you, they know all the ins and outs of this year’s tax forms. It’s professional grade assistance without the price tag.
  3. It’s safe and secure. Tax filing involves a lot of personal information, including social security numbers, salaries, and insurance data. You don’t want to share that info with just anybody. But CA$H Maine tax sites have procedures in place to make sure that your info stays safe. No security concerns here!
  4. There’s friendly faces with great asset-building advice. The volunteers at CA$H Maine are the best. They’re helpful and friendly. Plus they’re trained not only in tax preparation, but in how to connect you with other financial resources in your community. So if have you have a question about how to improve your credit score or how you can get help heating your home this winter, CA$H volunteers can help.
  5. Did I mention it’s FREE?! That’s amazing. When was the last time you got something for free? Since 2004 CA$H Greater Portland has helped 6,552 individuals and families file their taxes for free. That’s saved our community roughly $1.2 million in preparation fees. And that’s just in Greater Portland! Why wouldn’t you take advantage of a service that saves you that much money?

One final tip – check out CA$H Maine’s “Do-It-Yourself” option. If your individual or combined household income for 2015 is $62,000 or less you can file your federal and state income taxes for free online! Visit myfreetaxes.com to learn how. I used myfreetaxes.com last year to file my taxes and it was great. If I can figure it out, anyone can.

Happy Tax Season!

 

8 Halloween Costumes for $5 or Less

I LOVE HALLOWEEN. LOVE IT. I love to dress up. One thing I don’t love, however, is spending a lot of money on a costume. Here’s a scary fact – according to International Business Times the average American spends $80 a year on their Halloween costume. AHH! Why spend that much on a store-bought costume when you could make your own for a lot less?

Here are 10 Halloween costume ideas that all cost less than $5. I even tested them out to be sure I could make them myself and that they would stay on budget.

  1. 3-Hole Punch – “Cause you can have me either way. Plain White Jim, or Three-Hole Punch.” All fans of the Office have considered this costume at least once, I think. And it was super easy. I just cut out three circles from black construction paper, got a little scotch tape, and viola. 3hole Punch Costume
  2. Muggle – FYI for you non-wizards, a muggle is a non-magical person in Harry Potter terms. This is the easiest costume of all time. You just wear you normal clothes. It’s also 100% free, which makes it even better. The only downside is that you have to be “that person” at the party who makes Harry Potter jokes the whole time. I’m always that person though so . . .Muggle Costume
  3. Identity Thief- The only difficult part of this costume was coming up with all the names. Other than that it was super easy. I already had the “Hello, my name is” stickers, but if you didn’t you could pick up a package at Staples or anywhere that sells office supplies for $4.99. You could even print them on regular paper and attach them with tape if you didn’t want to spring for the labels. Then stick ’em all over yourself and you’re ready to go! Identity Thief
  4. Sunny-side Up Egg – I actually hate eggs in real life, but I love this costume. All I did was cut out a big yellow circle of construction paper, tape it to my shirt, and carry around the knife and fork. I’m realizing now that quite a few of these costumes involved construction paper which I already have a lot of because I’m super into arts and crafts. But if you didn’t you could pick some up at the grocery store for about $4.Sunnyside Up Costume
  5. Damien from Mean Girls – Bonus points for shouting out as many quotes from the movie as possible while wearing the costume. Anyone with a sweatshirt and sunglasses can do this one. And everyone loves Means Girls so you’ll probably be super popular. So fetch.Damien Costume
  6. Error 404 – Costume Not Found. Not to get all mathematical on you, but one piece of paper = $0.017 and the ink for one page = $0.035. So total this costume cost me $0.052. Talk about a bargain.Error Costume
  7. Smartie Pants – Something I learned during this whole process is that usually the worst puns make the best costumes. You can buy a bag of Smarties for just $1.99. Plus you get to eat them when you’re done. If other people don’t steal them off your pants and eat them first, that is. Smartie Pants Costume
  8. God’s Gift to Men/Women – I think you need to bring a little more confidence to this costume than I did to really pull it off, but you get the idea. If you don’t have a few ribbons or bows laying around for wrapping gifts you can buy them for $2.99 and then reuse them at Christmas! Gods Gift Costume

Hope your Halloween is both fun and thrifty. Happy Haunting!

No More Renting! A Q&A with a First-Time Home-Owner

I might be 26, but I’m pretty sure I’m not a real adult. I think to achieve adulthood status you might need to know how to cook something other than grilled cheese for dinner. And you probably can’t do your laundry at your parents house. Or watch Pretty Little Liars . . .

My friend Meg is also 26, but I’m fairly confident that she is a real adult. I have evidence to prove it. In the last couple of months she has done these three majorly impressive things:

1. She graduated from med school. So she’s a doctor. A real, medical doctor.

2. She got married. In a beautiful ceremony on the water. No eloping to Vegas here.

3. She bought her first home.

To say I am proud of her is an understatement. You go, girl! Doing any one of these things on their own would be an achievement but Meg is a rock star of the adult world and did all three in like six weeks. Almost two years ago, Meg and her then fiance were just starting to think about getting their own place. So to help her out, I wrote three posts about first-time home buying (you can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Flash forward to today – Meg and her now husband are now the proud owners of their very own home and I have decided to swoop in to take all the credit. Just kidding. But I did bribe Meg with free brunch so that I could ask her some questions about her experience buying her first place. She had some super smart advice to share with other twenty-somethings considering purchasing a home of their own.

She owns this home. Can you feel the excitement?!

She owns this home. Can you feel the excitement?!

Q. Did any tips from my blog posts help you during the home-buying process?

A. The answer to this, surprisingly, is yes! Maybe I have this adult thing down after all. There were two key things Meg learned from my blog that were really helpful to her: what earnest money is and that she should get a home inspection. Earnest Money is basically money you pledge to put down on a home to show the seller that you’re interested. Meg said it can be the difference between getting a place or not because the larger your earnest deposit, the more serious they know you are about the purchase. Meg also used my tip of getting a home inspection before they bought. It only cost them $325, but they found out about $1,500 of upgrades that need to be done to the fireplace. The home inspector was a neutral third-party who advised Meg on potential issues with the home that they could use when negotiating the purchase.

Q. What were you looking for in your first home? What were your must-haves? Did you and your husband agree on what you were looking for in a new place?

A. It is important to note early on in this blog that Meg is an incredibly organized individual. So it did not surprise me to hear that Meg and her husband started their home-buying process by making three lists: a “Must Have” list, a “Would Like to Have” list, and a “Couldn’t Care Less” list. Their Must-Haves included: location, 2 bedrooms, off-street parking, a tucked-away space for a litterbox, and a good kitchen (they cook a lot, because they are adults). They agreed that these were the 5 most important things to them and that they wouldn’t seriously consider anywhere that didn’t check all of those items off their list. Their Would-Like-to-Haves were things that they might consider paying extra for or things that they would be excited to have in addition to their Must-Haves. If a potential home had outdoor space, a second bathroom, or a dining room, those things might make them pick that place over another viable option. Then the “Couldn’t Care Less” list was stuff they agreed wouldn’t influence their decision at all, like crown-molding or stainless steel appliances. Getting on the same page before they even started looking at listings made the search process a lot smoother. Even if you’re a single-purchaser, give yourself some solid guidelines for what you want to help you differentiate a potential home from just another listing.

Q. Did you use a realtor?

A. Yes! And you should too! Meg and her husband specifically looked for a realtor who was their age, which they would recommend to any other first-timers. She said it helped to have someone who they could easily relate to, who had a similar work/ living situation, and who was at the same phase in his life. And even though Meg did a lot of research on her own looking for potential places online, she said it was super helpful to have a professional also helping with the search.

Q. How was financing with a small, local FI different from working with a mega-bank?

A. Because of the convenience factor, Meg has had her checking account at a mega-bank that shall remain nameless since college. She’s moved around a lot from undergrad to med school to residency, so it seemed like her best option. But when it came time to finance her first home, she went with a small, local financial institution. The biggest reason for the switch? The personal service. She was able to build a relationship with her mortgage officer that she wouldn’t get at a bigger bank. She had one person working on her mortgage from start to finish, she had his office and cell number, and she knew any time she had a question he was just a phone call away. If she had financed her home at the big bank she had been using, she would have called a mortgage hotline with her questions, would have talked to a different rep every time she called, and probably would have waited on hold a lot. Meg had such a good experience banking small that she switched all of her accounts over from the mega-bank. Yay for local banking!

Q. What was the best advice you got?

A. This advice came from me! And probably everyone else she talked to because it’s super important. Once you get pre-approved for a mortgage, leave your credit alone. Don’t apply for any other loans, credit cards, etc. Your pre-approval is an estimate of what your mortgage rate be and how much you can spend that’s based on your credit when it was created. If you do anything to change your credit, your pre-approval can change too. You don’t want to find your dream place only to find out that you are no longer able to finance it.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you about the home-buying process?

A. Meg definitely knew what she was getting into before she bought a home. She spent over a year researching and prepping before she even started looking. But even for someone as well researched as her, she was surprised at how different the cost of things in Maine were from what generic articles online suggested they might be. This is because the cost of everything, from housing to materials to labor, all varies depending on where you live. You might read online that it will cost about $1,000 to fix that leaky shower head, but your shower has unique parts or faulty plumbing so it ends up costing you $3,000. On the flip side, she was prepared to pay as much as $1,500 for a home inspection that only ended up costing her $325. Be aware that even the best planned budget can get thrown off a little during this process, so give yourself a little leeway if you can.

Q. What advice do you have for other twenty-somethings looking to buy their first home?

A. Do your homework. You can’t be too prepared (believe Meg, because she tried). The first step to this whole process should be doing research. Look into everything, from what you’ll need to do to finance the home to what the housing market is like in your area. There’s a ton of online resources out there, as well as professionals like mortgage officers and realtors who can help you along the way. Doing research beforehand helps you set realistic expectations for what kind of home you can afford, how long the process will take, and what you will need to do.

It took them a year or so of prep and several months of searching, but Meg and her husband just recently purchased a condo in the West End of Portland. It meets all of their Must-Have requirements and it even has a fireplace. #fancy. Looks like all of their hard work has finally paid off. Congrats!

5 Enemies of Saving Money

Monday marked the start of America Saves Week, an annual event organized by the American Savings Council to spread financial knowledge and encourage us all to save a little more. So in the spirit of saving more and spending less, here are 5 things that might be causing you to go over budget:

1. Food – There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but that doesn’t mean eating 3 square meals a day needs to cost you an arm and a leg. Making small changes like only eating out once a week, making coffee at home, or not buying the store brand instead of the name brand can make a big difference to your wallet.

A girl's gotta eat.

2. Friends – Yea, that’s right. You would save more money if you didn’t have any friends. Get rid of ’em. But in all seriousness, we all have one or two friends who influence us to spend more than we should. They could be the old-fashioned bully who’s always pressuring you to splurge with them on a night out or they might be the enabler who justifies your bad money habits with statements like, “But you deserve it!” Shut these frenemies down by remembering that it’s okay to say, “No.” Maybe you don’t have the money for dinner out and a movie, so offer to do a movie night in at your place instead. Be firm about sticking to your budget and offer less expensive alternatives.

3. Subscriptions – I’m not just talking magazines, although you should cancel those if you don’t read them, too. But more than likely you’re paying monthly for a service you don’t really use. Like cable. Or a gym membership. Or talking minutes on your cell phone (who uses minutes any more?). Look through your budget for recurring costs that could be cut down or eliminated.

4. Overdraft Fees – Americans spent 32 billion dollars on overdraft fees in 2013. That’s a little over $100 per person. The ability to overdraft your checking account can be a lifesaver if you use it infrequently and only in the event of an emergency. If you’re overdrafting your account every week, it might be time to rethink your budget. Use tools like mobile banking and balance alerts to prevent mistakes that take you below the $0 mark.

5. Apathy – Nothing is worse for your savings account than when you stop caring about it. It doesn’t ask for much, just a small deposit here and there. And you’ll find the better you treat it, the more your savings will love you and give back to you in return. Don’t treat savings as optional. Whether you save $1 a week or $100, saving is always significant. Don’t ignore it, just do it!

piggy bank

Happy Saving!

20 Things to Do When You’re Snowed In

Blizzards are boring. I know this because I live in the tundra of Maine where it has snowed non-stop for the last 3 weeks. Being snowed is fun for the first few hours when you get to sleep in and don’t have to go to work. But when the novelty wears off the reality of being trapped in your house with nothing to do can start to make you a little stir crazy. I’m an indoor person (possibly a vampire) and even I can get a little cabin fever during a snow day. So here are some easy, free, fun activities to try out the next time the snow keeps you stuck indoors.

1. DIY Spa Day – Paint your nails, do your make-up, wash and style your hair real fancy. You could even Google DIY facials to make your skin glow.

2. Old Movie Marathon – Everyone has Netflix marathons, but may I recommend busting out the DVDs or heck even VHS tapes if you still have a player. Go old school and binge on Disney movies. I watched the Lizzie McGuire Movie the other day with friends and it was spectacular.

This movie is what dreams are made of.

This movie is what dreams are made of.

3. Bake-Off – Use whatever ingredients you already have in your kitchen and see who can make the tastiest treat from scratch.

4. Rearrange Your Furniture – It will give you a new perspective plus a little exercise.

5. Board Game Tournament – When was the last time you played a board game? Dig out the Monopoly Board!

6. Clean Out Your Closet – Keep the stuff you wear, make a donation pile of the stuff you don’t.

7. Karaoke Contest – YouTube your favorite songs and sing along. This is particularly fun if you add in some throwbacks like N*SYNC and Spice Girls. 90’s dance moves required.

8. Fancy Dinner Party – Get dressed up, decorate the table with candles, play some classical music, talk in British accents . . . whatever makes it seem more special than the average meal.

9. Dramatic Reenactments – You could act out scenes from your favorite movie, read aloud from your favorite book with different voices for each character, or lip sync to your favorite song. Anything that gets you up and keeps you entertained.

10. Rubber Band War – My sister and I did this once when we were little and for some unknown reason our parents left us alone together in the house. It was amazingly awesome until I got hit directly in the eye, cried, and quote “ruined the game for everyone.”

11. Build a Fort – Forts are the best. Make a really elaborate one with all the blankets and pillows you have in your house and then cozy up inside of it.

12. Tell Scary Stories – “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary . . .” AAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

13. Paint or Draw – I’m terrible at both of these, but I was surprisingly talented at copying the instructor when I went to one of those Paint Bars where they walk you through how each step. The wine might have helped . . . but you could YouTube Bob Ross and make your own masterpiece.

Remember this guy?

Remember this guy?

14. Practice Yoga – Ooooom. Maybe you’ll find inner peace despite being trapped inside.

15. Write a Postcard to a Faraway Friend – With social media it’s easy to feel like you’re still in touch with long distance friends without actually talking to them. Reconnect by sending them some snail mail love.

16. Make a Collage – Use old photos, cut outs from magazines, ticket stubs, etc. to decorate a bulletin board or other space.

17. Write a Bucketlist – Make a list of things you want to do if the snow storm ever ends. Dream big.

18. Have a Picnic in Your Living Room – You can pretend like you’re outside in a nice sunny park instead of snowed into your living room. And it’s weirdly always fun to eat on the floor.

19. Have a Fashion Show – You’re never too old to play dress up. Practice your catwalk strut and your smize.

20. Read a Book – See if you can read the whole thing in one day! Just pick something in the 200-300 page range. Don’t go too crazy.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

30 Days of Yoga – For FREE!

There are a few great things about doing yoga at home:

1. It’s okay if you’re not that flexible and can’t do the moves just right. Or if you fall over in a balance pose. Or if your yoga clothes also double as your pajamas. There are no judgmental Lululemon-wearing yoga-bots in your living room.

In our apartment no one judges Lucy for wearing baggy shorts instead of yoga pants (except me).

In our apartment no one judges Lucy for wearing baggy shorts instead of yoga pants (except me).

2. It’s not crowded. Which means you don’t have to worry about getting to the studio 20 minutes early just to avoid getting stuck at front of the class or next to the really sweaty shirtless guy.

3. It’s FREE!!! Yoga classes are awesome, but they can be super expensive. One drop in class at my local studio is $15. There are tons of free yoga videos on YouTube that can guide you through just as good of a workout as you would get from a traditional yoga class. Nothing makes me more zen than a $0.00 price tag.

I put an embarrassing photo of Lucy in the post so it was only fair to include one of myself.

I put an embarrassing photo of Lucy in the post so it was only fair to include one of myself.

My roommate and I just started a 30 Day Yoga challenge on YouTube on February 1st. It’s on an awesome FREE yoga channel called “Yoga with Adriene.” There’s a different 15 – 30 minute video everyday. And we get a daily reminder e-mail with tips and tricks to keep you motivated. And did I mention it was free? Check out the program we’re following here.

What are your favorite ways to stay fit on a budget? Let me know in the comments below.