Top Personal Finance Blogs
Wednesday November 13th 2019

How To Choose A Health Plan That Is Right For You

Choosing the right health plan can be confusing and overwhelming. There are multiple options available, all with different levels of coverage, copayments and deductibles. Finding the best plan depends on individual needs, how much one can afford and participating providers.

What Type of Plan Should You Select?

Before reviewing any details, choosing which type of plan you want can narrow down the field of options. A health maintenance organization (HMO) usually requires a primary care physician to be the first point of contact for all issues and they will refer patients out for tests and specialists. Providers need to be part of the network for benefits to be paid. A preferred provider organization (PPO) does not require referrals and any doctor can be seen as long as they are in the network. Doctors and specialists out of the network can still be seen but may be billed differently.

What Benefits are Included?

After deciding on an HMO or PPO, carefully consider the benefits associated with the plan. All plans generally cover hospital and doctor visits in some capacity, but benefits like prescriptions, mental health and vision are not standard benefits. The first step to determining if a plan suits your needs is to make a list of the services and providers that you and your family use most often. This list will help you compare the different plans available so you can find one that has all the services you and your family need.

Know the Costs

Cost is a major deciding factor for many families choosing a plan. In addition to monthly or annual premiums, many plans have deductibles and copayments that can vary extensively. When budgeting for a health plan, remember to account for all out of pocket expenses, not just the premium. A less expensive insurance premium may cost you thousands of dollars a year in deductible and pharmacy costs.

In Network or Out?

The providers that are part of a plans network can also influence the cost and suitability of the benefits. If you currently use specific doctors and hospitals, make sure they are part of the network you are joining. If they are not, be willing to change providers.

Buy with Confidence

Before purchasing any insurance, be sure to check out the company you are purchasing from. Read reviews and surveys to get positive and negative feedback. You can also check with the state insurance departments for any relevant information. Talk with representatives from the company and review all of the plan documents before signing up. Make sure you have all of your questions answered before making a commitment. Also review cancellation policies as well as any additional fees.

Choosing a health insurance for yourself and your family is an extremely important decision. Review all of the facts, costs and benefits carefully before making a decision. Look for advice and information from a variety of sources including doctors, family and friends, unions, websites and employers. Making an informed and confident decision will ensure the best benefits to suit your needs.

Strategies for Saving Money on Health Insurance

With overall health care costs on the rise, finding affordable medical insurance is a priority for most people. Even those who are young and healthy have a difficult time when it comes to buying insurance. The good news is that there are many ways to receive a discount and save money on health coverage. Here are some strategies that will help you get lower rates:

Use the Web

Using the free resources available on the Internet is an excellent way to get health insurance quotes and compare offers from industry-leading companies. The best is that you only need to complete a brief form in order to receive quotes from different insurers. The whole process takes a few minutes, so you will save time and money when shopping for health insurance.

Choose a Family Policy

Married people are more likely to find a reasonably-priced policy than those who are singles. Insurance providers usually offer discounts for buying two or more policies with the same company. Switching to your spouse’s plan may help you save hundreds of dollars a year. However, it is necessary that you do proper research before buying double coverage. In some states, it may be more affordable to get separate plans for you and your spouse. Rates may also differ from one insurance provider to another.

Consider Catastrophic Coverage

Another way to save money on health insurance is to opt for catastrophic coverage. A catastrophic insurance policy is suitable for healthy individuals who don’t need medical care on a constant basis. This type of coverage comes with a very high deductible that can reach $2,500. Unlike indemnity health insurance or managed health care plans, catastrophic coverage does not cover routine check ups, immunizations or maternity care. As the name suggests, this policy only offers protection against a catastrophe.

Use Available Tax Breaks

Individuals who are self-employed can deduct 100% of their health insurance premiums. However, medical expenses have to exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income so that you receive tax benefits. If you are permanently disabled, you may apply for federal or state-subsidized insurance plans. There are many programs specifically designed for those with a low income or extremely high medical expenses. Most states have a high-risk pool offering health coverage to low-income individuals. You may also cut costs by going to subsidized local clinics for medications and vaccinations.

There are many other ways to lower health insurance costs. Individuals who pay a year’s health insurance premium in advance qualify for substantial discounts. Joining various groups and organizations can help you save money. You may also consider a Health Savings Account (HSA) in order to spend less money on medical coverage.

Before you start shopping for medical insurance, take the time to evaluate your needs. As long as you know your options, you will be able to find a plan that fits your budget. Try to determine how long will you need health insurance and how much can you afford to pay every month. If you have pre-existing conditions, then you will get higher rates. Be sure to research your options in order to make an informed decision.

Realtors Trying to Head High Down-payments Off at the Pass

The housing and financial crisis of the past few years has caused Congress to take another look at the regulations surrounding these two industries. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law by President Obama last July, contains a number of new regulations and reforms many others. Several of these relate to home mortgages, and, unfortunately, the end result may be that it becomes almost impossible for the average household to purchase a home.

The ultimate reason this is so comes down to the risk retention section of the Act. The inter-agency group working on this act is considering a change to the loan standards for a Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) that would necessitate extremely high down-payments –as much as 10 or even 20%. As the vast majority of home loans are QRMs, this will effectively rule out home ownership for anyone who can not come up with the requisite large down-payment.

A quick look at the numbers will show why this is the case. The median home price in 2009 and 2010 was $170,000. Assuming closing costs of 5% of the home value, this translates into a 20% down-payment of $42000, or $27,000 for a 10% down-payment. A family making the median income of $49,777 would take 14 and 9 years, respectively, to save enough to meet these requirements, and that’s assuming a savings rate of $3,000 a year, or more than 6%. The current national savings rate is 5.8%.

Families who make less than the median income, or those who live in areas with high home prices, would have to save even longer. A newlywed couple might have children leaving for college before they managed to save enough to put down on a home. The institution of these requirements would be a disaster for the real estate industry and put home ownership out of reach for tens of millions of families.

Fortunately, the National Association of Realtors is fighting these new regulations. On March 16 they, along with two other organizations, sent a joint letter to the group of regulators considering these requirements and urged them to abandon the plan in favor of more reasonable approaches. There are other options the group could pursue, as NAR pointed out in their letter. A better approach would be the adoption of stronger core standards for mortgage underwriting. This would lower the risk of default. Such standards would include strong documentation requirements, prohibitions on high-risk loan features like balloon payments, and requirements that the lender assess the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

All of these reasonable requirements were ignored by many lenders during the housing boom, and now all homeowner’s may pay the price. Low down-payment loans have been around for decades and have tended to work quite well. If regulations are put into place that will prohibit predatory lending, they will continue to work in the future. There is no need to arbitrarily lock tens of millions of families out of home ownership to achieve the goal of stability in the housing market.

Get Financially Literate for Free

When an individual wants to become financially literate and he doesn’t have any money to do it, he can find several proven ways to obtain this invaluable knowledge for free. This is one of those rare moments when free and convenient meet in the same place.

Take Free Online Personal Finance Courses

There is a plethora of major universities and colleges including Yale, Rutgers and Utah State who offer online financial courses for free to anyone who simply logs onto their educational sites. Some of these courses are basic and consist of only one study module, while others teach aspiring students the most advanced aspects of finance, economics, taxes, accounting, and government financial regulations that anyone could ever wish to learn about.

The more advanced courses require studying online for between several weeks to a couple of months while the beginning courses can be mastered in a a matter of hours or only a day or two. No matter what the level of intensity of the financial education being offered for free online, these are exceptional opportunities for people of all ages to learn the ins and outs of the complex but fascinating world of finance.

Study Free Internet Financial Websites

Sites such as CNN and MSNBC online as well as Money magazine and Forbes all offer free online financial instruction on their websites. Fledgling students can learn related finance topics such as business administration, how to start up a small business, the tax advantages of forming a corporation, macro and microeconomic principles and fundamentals of investment management. Some of this free material goes so far as to teach online students information that top mutual fund and hedge fund managers actually know.

They really go into depth and don’t hold back. As long as the online student is willing to learn and absorb the financial information, it’s all here for him. It’s great for teens, college students, parents, and even grandparents who all desire to learn more about the intricate and fascinating financial world. Many of these sites offer these free learning opportunities as an academic adjunct to what readers of their print version magazines can learn or what viewers of their cable and satellite TV stations can learn if they watch consistently. The free information also helps build up potential readers and TV station subscribers as well.

Read Finance Books from Local Library

Despite the ever present Internet and it’s boundless array of financial information, ambitious individuals of financial informational learning shouldn’t overlook the absolutely free resources of their local, public libraries. The nonfiction stacks have shelf after shelf of both older and up-to-date books on finance. Many are second third, and fourth editions since they’ve become so popular over the many years they’ve been in print. These may be college textbooks or consumer trade versions.

They can be read in the library or taken out to be read in the comfort of one’s own home. It’s all up to the individual financial learner. And with libraries, these books can be renewed again and again if the initial information is not fully absorbed the first or second time before the due date when it needs to be returned. But the amount of free financial information here is simply overwhelming.

The End of Tax Return Loans

Each person who has had their taxes prepared by H & R Block or Jackson Hewitt has heard of refund anticipation loans, also referred to as RAL. Regulation changes for this tax season has taken H & R Block out of the race on these. However, in the future they will no longer be offered at all.

What is a refund anticipation loan? It is basically a loan against the tax refund you are expecting at an outrageous interest rate. For some people, their refunds are available in days, making the rate even higher. People request these loans because they need the money right now, not in a few days. However, the FDIC considers these to be unsound as well as unsafe, taking millions of dollars away from people that need it the most.

With the increasing number of people filing their federal taxes electronically, the time which it takes to receive your refund is greatly reduced. For this reason, a refund anticipation loan may only be in effect for up to 15 days. If there were no loans available, people would learn to wait for the deposit from the Federal Government.

The history behind refund anticipation loans goes back many years. When they were first initiated, tax refund payments could take weeks to receive, even months. This was a time when almost no one had the ability to file their taxes on their own, online. Today, everyone has the ability to file their own taxes online or have them done for them at a low cost or at no cost.

Because of the recent changes in the financial sector and regulatory changes, this type of loan will soon be discontinued. As it stands today, only one bank will continue these loans if they win their case against the FDIC which is pending. All of the three banks that are still offering this type of loan for the current tax season were told that they will have to discontinue them. Only one has chosen to dispute this.

People today need the cash fast, but they need to not throw away hundreds of dollars to get their cash fast. The fact is that filing online and using direct deposit will provide them with their refund quickly. Depending on the timing of the filing it can take as little as eight days to get the deposit into your account. This process will not cost any additional fees.

It is believed that as the ability to process returns and send deposits is improved by the Federal Government, the need for this type of service will be greatly diminished. Improvements in technology and screening software allow for many returns to be processed and approved without ever being looked at by a person. Computerized processing accounts for the majority of the speed that has been added to the time for processing. As further improvements are made, it is expected that the time that is now required will be further reduced.

Three Best Place to Retire on the Cheap

Finding the perfect spot to retire is on the mind of many people these days. With the volatility of the stock market and other investments, retirees evaluating practical retirement options are looking for affordable options that suit their lifestyle. Three cities have been named in the media lately as the best places to retire an they are not as far away as you might think.

St. Augustine, Florida

There is a reason we all think about Florida as a retirement capital. In Smart Money’s March, 2011 issue, the city of St. Augustine, Florida was selected as the second most attractive retirement spot for retirees. With an average home price of $115,400, it is hard to beat this quaint old beach town for affordability. To sweeten the picture even more, Floridians do not have to pay state tax.

The St. Augustine beaches are second to none, stretching out over miles of pristine Atlantic white beaches. Located about forty five minues south of Jacksonville Beach, and a major airport, and tugged into the northeast section of Florida, St. Augustine offers moderate temperatures and a summer ocean breeze to cool hot summer days. With a small population of about 13,000, St. Augustine graces retirees with a small town vibe, free from the stress of larger cities.

As the oldest US city, discovered in 1513, St. Augustine’s historic downtown is quaint and memorable with brick streets and Spanish architecture. There is no shortage of shopping and restaurant venues. With Flagler college in the heart of the city, this small college town has a diverse population, filled with tourists, college kids and retirees.

Lexington, Kentucky

While some retirees want the beach, others favor rolling hills and the four distinct seasons offered by a city like Lexington, Kentucky. Boasting an intellectual population, with almost 40% of the residents having a college degree, Lexington promotes the idea of lifetime learning. Citizenas over 65 can audit classes for free, filling any empty seats they find at the University of Kentucky.

Median home prices are an affordable $144,200, as printed in CNN’s article “25 Best Places to Retire”. With 29% of the population over 50, there is plenty of company for outings to great restaurants and equestrian events, or to take in a basketball game.

Bellingham, Washington

For retirees looking west, Bellingham, Washington is a city that should not be overlooked. The average price of a home is $$258,450, which is a real bargain for the west coast. The fact that there is not state income tax makes this city even more attractive. Located geographically close to both Seattle and Vancouver, this community is home to an international airport and a picturesque downtown harbor.

A state college and nationally acclaimed hospital also call Bellingham home. A farmers market located in the downtown area hosts local vendors offering a quaint shopping experience. The beneficiary of moderate temperatures, Bellingham offers residents a break from the heat, and the extreme cold weather that many other parts of the country claim.

Seven Retirement Basics

Everyone wants to retire, and everyone wants to have enough money to live comfortably when they finally leave the corporate world behind. How do you know if you’ve saved enough? How do you save more? Here are seven retirement basics to help you plan.

First, you need to know how much money you will need. For this you need a plan. How do you intend to live in retirement? Do you want to retire to a simple existence in your current home? Do you want to move to the beach? Don’t forget to factor in your expected health care costs and lifespan. All of these will determine how much money you will need.

Secondly, determine how much income you will receive from social security and any pensions you may have coming. The difference will have to be covered out of your retirement savings.

Third, set up a 401(k) or an IRA if you haven’t already done so. Both of these are excellent vehicles to help you save for retirement. Both have significant tax advantages. In a 401(k) or traditional IRA, taxes are deferred on contributions. You will not pay taxes until the money is taken out. In addition, many employers match workers contributions into a 401(k), up to a certain amount. IRAs offer more options for tax-free withdrawals.

Fourth, decide how to invest the money in your accounts. Most advisors recommend you keep the majority in stocks if you are 20 or more years from retirement, and then gradually shift most of your money into bonds as you near retirement age. Keeping all of your money in one kind of investment also has it risks, however, so the best plan is to keep your portfolio at least somewhat diversified.
Fifth, don’t keep all of your savings in your retirement accounts. If all of your money is tied up in your 401(k) or IRA this increases the likelihood that you will have to break into the account –thus paying taxes and penalties –should there be an emergency in your life, such as a job loss or a major medical bill.

Sixth, eliminate as much debt as possible before you retire. This will allow you to live on less income and use your income for other things, like that long delayed trip to Jamaica.
Finally, consider other ways to boot your income or reduce your expenses when you hit retirement. Consider moving to a less-expensive area or taking on a part-time job.

Finally, consider other ways to boot your income or reduce your expenses when you hit retirement. Consider moving to a less-expensive area or taking on a part-time job.

Figuring Out Your Financial Goals

Most people have a general idea of what their financial goals are, but they never dig down to the specifics. If you want financial independence, for example, what does that mean? It is important to create a detailed explanation of your financial goals so that you can begin to work seriously toward them. You will have better success meeting your financial goals when you have a better understanding of exactly what they are. The sooner you start, the more you will be able to take advantage of accumulating interest that could speed you toward your goals even faster.

Make a List

Begin with a broad list of your financial goals. Think of big things, like buying a new home or paying for college tuition for your children. Once you have defined the big goals, do some research into possible ways to achieve those goals. If you want to send your kids to college, find out about the tuition and housing rates at some of the schools in your area. Give each of your goals a real number to achieve so that you can create a realistic time frame for reaching that number.


Once you have a good list of goals, you need to decide which ones are the most important. You may not be able to afford to save for college tuition and pay for braces at the same time. Think about each of your goals realistically and arrange them in a manner that makes sense. When they are arranged by importance, you can focus your money and energy on the goals at the top of the list first. Once those goals have been met, you can begin to work on goals that are further down the list. The importance of some goals may change as time passes, so you should update your priorities once every other year or so.

Scrutinize Spending Habits

The toughest part of working toward a financial goal can involve adjusting your daily spending habits. When you start to buy a new electronic gadget, think about how much money you are spending. How far would that amount of money put you toward your goal if you put it in savings instead? How long would it take you to make up that amount of money if you did not apply it to your goal. Find ways to remind yourself of how important the goals are. You should also allow yourself some fun money in your budget so that you don’t feel like you are always sacrificing.

Make a Solid Plan

The best way to keep on track toward your financial goals is to create a realistic plan that you know you can follow for the long term. Some of your goals may take years to accomplish, so your plan needs to fit your lifestyle comfortably for a long time. Create a budget that allows you to put a specific amount of money toward your goals so that you can reach them in a timely manner, but don’t make the budget so strict that it is impossible to live up to.

So You Set A Budget…Now What?

Setting a budget is an important financial responsibility every individual should do. A list of total household income and expenses should be calculated and written down in order to get the most accurate picture of a person’s financial lifestyle.

Review and Reevaluate Budget Regularly

Once the initial task of compiling a budget is accomplished, it’s essential to review it several times for accuracy. Check all of the individual items in both the expenditure and income sources categories. See if they’re truthful and be honest. Then recalculate the grand totals several times as well to be certain no unintentional errors were made when using the calculator. Once this is done, and the budget feels totally accurate and honest, then it’s time to put the budget away for a short time. But it then has to be revisited on a regular basis. Every month is a great idea because changes in expenses and income can happen in any given monthly period.

Stick to the Budget

It’s essential to maintain adherence to the household budget. Don’t be tempted to overspend in any expenditure category that was itemized on the budget. If $200 was the average estimated utility bill for each month, then make sure to keep electrical costs down so that it’s only $200 again the next month and not more. Don’t deviate with any other category as well. Don’t feel that more has to be paid on the credit cards or that it’s necessary to double up on the car payment just to try to get ahead of the game financially. Stick to the maximum allowable monthly expenses and also try to maintain the same income levels as originally calculated in the budget.

When a person ignores his once carefully thought out budget. it’s inevitable that problems will arise. There won’t be enough money at the end of the month to pay all bills on time and maintain a strong credit history. Or expenses will get out of hand for unnecessary materialistic temptations that will prevent the person to be able to save or invest the amount budgeted for at each monthly interval. Discipline is the key.

Set Short and Long Term Monetary Goals

One of the best effects of setting up an intelligent and accurate budget is that individuals can gain psychological satisfaction by planning short and long term monetary goals. If $250 a month is dedicated to be saved out of one’s gross monthly income, then a short term goal can be to save a few thousand dollars as a down payment on a car that would help the household out. A longer term goal with this same amount of monthly savings can be to accumulate enough money to help pay for college expenses down the road.

These goals can come right out of an accurate and steadfast budget, and it makes a person feel completely in financial control of his lifestyle instead of living in constant fear about where his next dollar will come from and how he’ll end up never paying for substantial purchases and investments in the future.

It’s not at all difficult to accomplish these tasks when setting an intelligent budget. All it takes is a little bit of determination, planning, discipline, and awareness of an individual’s overall financial picture at a given point in time.

Seven Budgeting Basics

A budget is simply a plan… a plan that you make to tell your money where to go. A written budget will show where every dollar you goes and make your income work for you. Getting started is easier than you might think!

1. Track your spending for a month.

The first step in setting up a budget is to figure out how much money is coming in and how much is going out each month. You probably have a pretty good idea how much is coming in, but you may be surprised to see how much is going out.

2. Categorize your expenses.

You can come up with whatever makes sense to you, but some common categories are:

    • Savings & Retirement

    • Housing & Utilities

    • Food

    • Transportation

    • Medical/Health

    • Personal

    • Recreation

    • Debts

3. Pay yourself first.

Even if you can only save $5 or 10 each week, do it! The quickest way to wreck a budget is not having an emergency fund. When those unexpected expenses come up, you need to be prepared.

4. Figure out where adjustments are needed.

Are your expenses in line with your income? Maybe you found some money leaks… you know, those little expenses like fast food and movie rentals that really add up over a month’s time. You might not be able to do much about your fixed expenses, such as housing and utilities, in the short term; but you can take of control of those money leaks.

5. Reconcile your outflow with your inflow.

If you are fortunate enough to have more coming in than going out, you need to assign it a job; maybe paying down debt or adding to your emergency fund. If your outflow exceeds your inflow, you will have to cut some expenses or create additional income. This is the most important part of budgeting, because it’s the part that calls for action. Don’t forget, this is a process, and it may take two or three months to make your budget reconcile.

6. Use cash.

This is especially important for variable expenses like groceries, clothing, and entertainment. For example, withdraw only the amount of cash that you plan to spend in a shopping trip and discipline yourself to spend only that amount. Spending cash is much more painful than using your debit card!

7. Stick with it.

Your budget won’t be perfect the first month, or probably even the second month. It takes time and persistence to develop a written plan that will work for you. Keep in mind that your budget will change over time, hopefully for the better if you pay off debt or increase your income.

A budget is a powerful tool that you can use to change your future. A certain amount of self-discipline is needed, but the effort you put forth will be worthwhile as you take control of your money.