A classic book from over 200 years ago which still pertains perfectly to the present day

Each month, I read several personal finance books and have never come across such a short financial management story that packs as much of a punch as Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way To Wealth.”

In the practice of not spending money to gain this bit of wisdom, I found an online version you can read for free.

Of course, since this was written over 200 years ago, there’s a bit of old English language that dates the story, but the content is every bit as relevant today.

Ben Franklin, the ghost-writer of the yearly “Poor Richard’s Almanac” under the pen name Richard Saunders, tells a story of when he stopped his horse in a crowd that was gathering, waiting for an auction to begin. In response to a random question about feelings regarding taxes from a bystander in the crowd, a character called Father Abraham begins to address the crowd. To Richard Saunders’ surprise, Father Abraham begins speaking about finances, quoting passages of financial wisdom from the past 25 years of the Poor Richard’s Almanac, not knowing that “Poor Richard” was standing nearby in the crowd.

A few quoted gems of financial wisdom

The ones that struck me the most are the ones that pertain to buying things, credit and debt.

Silks and satins, scarlet and velvets, put out the kitchen fire.”

Have you ever bought things because they were such a “good deal” or because you felt you deserved them, but then not had enough money to purchase gas or food for your family without using a credit card?

“A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees”

Have you ever had to ask family and friends to borrow money because you were spending and living above your means and had no savings of your own?

“If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing.”

What sorrows have you experienced from borrowing money from friends or family or by continually charging up credit cards?

“The second vice is lying. The first is running in debt.”

Have you ever had to lie about your spending or debts to your family or to creditors or even to a family member or friend from whom you borrowed money?

“Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

Maybe you have heard the advice to pay bills on time, to keep an emergency savings fund, to keep small balances on credit cards and to keep a budget but you just keep spending away anyway. Or, do you complain about your bills and debts but adopt no new actions to change them?

Finally, just as the auction was about to begin, the old man ended his speech. What do you think the crowd did next?

The best part is what Richard Saunders decided to do when thinking about a new coat, which was the reason he stopped at the auction.

Since reading this short, fun story costs no money and contains all of the current day ideas for responsible personal financial management, it’s highly worth a read. Are you more like the auction attendees or more like Richard Saunders?

When you use your free Shopperfund account to buy your monthly necessities, you can earn PayOff Credits to help you pay down any debt or bill you choose.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When there is more month than money…every month

Have you ever actually felt, “sick to your stomach” about your money problems? The Guardian Life Insurance company recently released a study that found that anxiety over personal finances is the leading cause of emotional stress in America today. A majority of workers said money was their main source of stress, and that this stress contributes to lower physical wellness. If dealing with collections calls or running out of money during the month and struggling to pay bills has ever given you a headache or made you feel nervous, then you know exactly what this financial stress feels like.

If you’re sick and tired of being stressed out by debt, lack of savings or how to make your budget work every month, then take advantage of any or all of these free (or low cost) resources from the non-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

Face your finances:  You can learn more about your specific financial strengths and weaknesses as well as how to improve them by using the free, interactive “My Money Checkup” offered by the NFCC. Also, by facing your financial problems without making excuses for the behavior, you will be ready to work on solutions. If you have trouble with unexpected expenses, debt or having enough money every month, it’s a clear sign that you are overspending. This free tool can point you toward the problems and learning new financial skills to solve them.

Learn more about personal finance. Once you are more aware of your financial weaknesses, you may feel  unsure of your knowledge about handling your finances.The quickest way to develop more confidence in your financial skills is to learn more about managing your personal finances. Discover different ways to pay down your debt, raise your credit, build a cash emergency fund and even start to save money for your future. On the Shopperfund Blog, for example, we write about banking, spending, saving and credit regularly with the goal of giving you tips to improve your finances at every turn.

Consider free or low-cost  professional help:  In the most recent NFCC poll, 44% of respondents said they were most likely to reach out to a parent or other family member first when experiencing financial distress. While debt collectors and emergencies can put pressure on you to find a fast cash solution, a cash bailout from a family member often does nothing to prevent the situation from happening again in the future. The NFCC advises that family members may not be in the best position to offer suitable solutions because they are often not aware of all your choices and tools available to help solve your financial problems. Credit counselors are professionals who are aware of all your choices and can help you work out a debt management plan with your creditors that fits your budget. Together, you will create a realistic plan based on your exact income and expenses to pay back creditors while improving your credit at the same time. While this route may take longer, it is less stressful in the long run when you stick to it because you are actively solving and preventing financial problems both now and in your future.

Help pay down debt even faster by purchasing your monthly necessities online through your free Shopperfund account. This way you stay out of the stores and you earn PayOff Credits which can be applied to any debt or bill.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

 

 

 

 

Double check everything on your tax returns!

Did you know that as of 2015, the federal tax code, including all the laws and regulations, has grown to over 10 million words in length? That’s enough to make anyone’s head spin and 72% of Americans surveyed by Pew Research in 2015 believe the federal tax code is too complex.  After all, the PDF instructions to complete the most basic federal tax Form 1040 for 2016, is currently 106 pages long.

But, it doesn’t have to be so complicated for everybody. If you have regular income from a job which provides you with a Form W-2 and you are currently married or single and do not itemize your deductions, taxes do not have to be a complicated chore. Additionally, with some easy new ways to file taxes for free you can check the status of your refund online. Here’s a simple checklist:

  1. Report all your income. You might mistakenly think that if you didn’t get a Form W-2 or Form 1099-MISC, that you do not need to report any additional income you received. All of your income is taxable unless it is specifically exempt, as in the case of full time students, for example. Remember, anyone who pays you money is also required to report that payment as an expense. If the IRS notices a large discrepancy there, they can flag your tax return to rectify the difference.
  2. Use IRS “Free File” if applicable to you. If you earn less than $64,000, you can use the new IRS Free File e-file service directly through the IRS website to do your simple return quickly and receive your return quickly. The IRS partnered with branded software products for the first time in 2017 to provide this service, so you know it is reputable. If you earn more than $64,000, you can use the IRS Free Fillable Forms to file for free as well.
  3. Double-check your return for errors. You want to look for more than just math errors. Check that the bank routing number and bank account number listed for your refund direct deposit are correct along with all social security numbers, birth dates and name spellings. Any other clerical errors, such as the wrong number of dependents, could result in delays of your refund as well as you paying more in taxes than you need to. In the worst case, interest and penalties can be charged on any amount you owe
  4. Get a signed, completed copy of your tax return. If you decide to hire an outside professional, such as a certified public accountant, an enrolled agent, or someone from the local H&R Block, check the credentials of the tax preparer first. Then, make sure they provide you with the completed copy of your tax return including their signature and their Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN), which is required by law. Do not pay anyone who does not have this number or asks you to sign a blank tax return.
  5. Check “Where’s My Refund.” If you’re waiting for your refund after you’ve already completed and filed your return, you can use the IRS “Where’s My Refund” Tool to check the status of your refund, no matter how you filed it. You can check the tool at least 24 hours after the IRS has received your e-filed tax return or 4 weeks after mailing your paper tax return. The information is updated every 24 hours.
  6. Start keeping better records for next year. Every time something new in your life happens that you spend money on such as a marriage, a child, college courses (or continuing education), a new work vehicle or a divorce, keep a record of it in a special “tax time” folder.  This way, while you may have forgotten some important expenditures and changes in your life throughout the year, you will have these important items handy at tax time to help your tax preparer maximize your taxes.

Sign up for a free Shopperfund account and watch your debts reduce as your PayOff Credits add up over a year.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a press release warning everybody to be on the lookout for fraudulent tax return preparers trying to lure you with promises of inflated tax refunds. This is a tax scam on the IRS “Dirty Dozen” annual list of tax scams.

“Exercise caution when a return preparer promises an extremely large refund or one based on credits or benefits you’ve never been able to claim before,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, in the press release. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Here are some clues to unscrupulous tax return preparers

According to the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation® (ACAT) you want to watch out for any of the following fraudulent tax practices so you avoid being scammed.

  • No Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) or blank return: This number is required for all tax preparers and if you pay someone to prepare your taxes, they must sign the return and enter their PTIN. Walk away if any preparer asks you to sign a blank or uncompleted return or any return that is not signed by them which includes their PTIN.
  • Fees based on a percentage of your refund: These bogus preparers will not be able to state a flat fee for their service and instead will tell you they can get you a larger refund than you’ve ever gotten before in ways you’ve never been able to use before. They will promise to base their fee on your refund, finding unscrupulous ways to drive that amount up.
  • Refunds that go to the tax preparer: Any tax refund due you should be directly deposited into your bank account or sent to your address and should never go directly to the tax preparer’s address or bank account.
  • E-filing taxes using a paystub: The IRS requires a form W-2 for regular income and does not accept paystubs for filing taxes, so be wary of any preparer who says they can do that for you.
  • No copy of the return: Preparers are required to give you a copy of the return so that you have a record of what was filed. Always ask for it and do not pay anyone if you do not receive it.

Check the credentials of any tax preparer looking for the Certified Public Accountant, Enrolled Agent or Tax Attorney status or at the very least, someone who has received the designation of Annual Filing Season Program Participant and has a PTIN.

For those with simple taxes, such as one job and a W-2 form, who earn less than $64,000, the IRS has partnered for the first time this year with many software providers to offer the Free File program (and those earning more can use Free File Fillable Forms.)

It’s important to choose a reputable tax pro because, as the IRS warns, you, the taxpayer, are the one who is legally responsible for what appears on your tax forms, no matter who prepared it. You are the one who can end up being penalized for receiving fraudulent refunds or filing fraudulent claims.

With a free Shopperfund account to shop for your necessities every month, your PayOff Credits get deposited directly into any debt or bill account you choose.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

To share your money or not to share your money…

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we decided to take a look at how couples handle their bank accounts.

A 2016 TD Bank Survey found that nearly half of couples maintain separate bank accounts in addition to accounts. Of course, couples handle their money in different ways for different reasons. The survey also found that one of the most common financial secrets across all generations is that about half had a secret bank account, which can put stress on your relationship.

“Secret bank accounts, or major debt not revealed, are secrets that can really impact trust and intimacy in a relationship,” said April Masini, relationship expert and author of the ‘Ask April’ advice column, in the TD Bank survey press release. “The damage is never about the money — it’s about the secret. The secret is the damaging dynamic.”

Secret bank accounts are probably not a good thing for your relationship but separate bank accounts might be, according to Northwestern Mutual Bank.

Keep joint bank accounts for…

  • Togetherness:  When pooling all of your money as a couple and deciding together on your budget, how and when to pay bills and how and when to save money, you can feel more unified and equal as a couple working toward your financial goals using a joint checking and savings accounts. Surveying a wide range of generations, TD found that 76% of couples share at least one bank account, including 79% of those who said they are happy in their relationships.
  • Savings on fees: Many banks charge checking fees and only waive them if you meet certain deposit thresholds or direct deposit requirements. By pooling your money together, you may have an easier time meeting those thresholds and avoiding the additional monthly fees of maintaining separate accounts.
  • Ease: If all the money is only in two shared accounts (one checking and one savings) it’s easy to pay bills and allocate savings. It’s also easy to see how much money is left at any given time.
  • Access: In married relationships, you will have access to all joint accounts, but separate accounts will require a power of attorney to access. This is important in the case that something should happen to either yourself or your loved one.

Keep separate bank accounts for…

  • Protecting inherited assets: If one partner comes into an inheritance, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer before pooling the funds into any joint accounts.
  • Having some money of your own: Sometimes couples need some of their own “mad money” to spend as they please, as long as this spending behavior fits into their monthly budget. It can be difficult to keep track of the spending of two people with debit card access to one joint checking account, so maintaining small separate accounts or cash for this “mad money” can help. Using this method, the checking account is reserved for the shared household expenses and bills.
  • When you are unmarried: In the case of unmarried couples, if you both put your names on a joint bank account, either of you can have access to the funds in that account no matter what happens in the relationship. This is true until you both agree to close the account.

You can keep separate or joint Shopperfund accounts. Either way, the more you shop for your regular monthly necessities through your free Shopperfund account, the more you will both earn in Shopperfund Payoff Credits to put toward any debt or bill you choose.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

 

 

Earlier this week, I came across a shocking figure: Bankrate.com estimated the cost of an amazing Valentines’ Day celebration including a dozen red roses, chocolates, a nice dinner for two, jewelry and champagne. Based on current prices, the total cost came to about $500. But is spending that much really necessary to show someone how much you love them?

Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com says the key is to show loved ones that you care about them by making Valentine’s Day more personal, not by spending the most money.

I agree, especially if you don’t have the extra cash available and were going to use your credit cards for Valentine’s Day spending. Personally, I would much rather have a day-trip instead of dinner at a restaurant, a fancy card and over-priced flowers that die in a week. It’s not that I’m not romantic. I’d rather do things together and remember them than spend money on thingssoon forgotten.

Here are some more fun ideas from Nelson on how to make Valentine’s Day more fun and more memorable for less money

Make home-made cards. Fancy store-bought cards can run $5 and up, according to Nelson.

In my family, we have a tradition to make cards using one or more special photographs of a place we’ve been together or great pictures of each other and we leave messages inside about the memory that made it so special or why we love that person. With kids, there’s nothing more fun than laying out the art supplies and letting them be creative and even for very little ones, letting them tell you what to write inside.

Prepare a candle-lit homemade dinner with all your favorites. A fancy dinner out with champagne costs well over $100 according to the bankrate.com survey. Additionally, Nelson says most restaurants do not accept coupons or discounted gift cards on Valentine’s Day.

I say, stay in and make your all-time favorite dinner and desert. Invite family members to dress up and serve dinner by candle light, even with kids. Instead of expensive champagne, you can have just as much fun with a $10 bottle of bubbly sparkling wine, asti, prosecco or moscato. Other ideas include making a brunch, a lunch or a picnic.

Cause a sparkle in their eyes. According to the bankrate.com survey, the average price for a pair of princess-cut, one-quarter carat diamond earrings with moderate color was $323.26. That’s a nice sum of money that could be spent on events, activities or services. Perhaps you would really love a massage or a day at the Museum. Nelson advises checking sites like Groupon or Living Social to buy discounted gift certificates often providing savings of up to 50% for services in the Beauty and Salon segment or other event and activity categories where you may spend $39 for a really special gift.

Give the whole plant.  A dozen red roses may cost over $50 during the Valentine’s Day rush, says Nelson. She says her husband once gave her a flowering plant which they planted and it lived until both their children graduated from high school. If your partner loves gardening and planting, giving the whole plant is the way to give more for less. If not, Nelson suggests buying a pretty bunch of flowers at Trader Joe’s or your local grocery store for $10 or less and arranging them yourself in a vase or jar

Make your own sweets and treats. If you want to have more fun than the usual heart-shaped box of chocolates, how about making heart-shaped brownies, pancakes or iced sugar cookies you can make together for a fraction of the cost? All you need is a heart-shaped pan or cookie cutter. Nelson also suggests buying Valentine’s Day bagged chocolates such as M&M’s or conversation hearts on sale for $2 or less and putting them in a glass jar or mug, tied with a bow.

Buy everything you need for Valentine’s Day through your free Shopperfund account and earn Payoff Credits you can use to pay down any debt or bill.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund Blog.

fianncial fearsDo you want to make a change in your life that might actually stick? According to Fidelity Investment’s 2017 New Year Financial Resolutions Study, the top three financial resolutions among Americans considering one this year are to :

  • Save more
  • Pay down/pay off debt
  • Spend less

These resolutions sound pretty plain and not that serious when they are not attached to what could happen if you don’t follow through. According to researcher John C. Norcross, PhD,  author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions,” and an expert on the science of behavior change and keeping resolutions, you need to summon up and feel the negative consequences and emotions of failing the goal instead of constantly trying to push them out of your mind as you swipe your credit card for coffee or shoes, yet again.

Print out this worksheet. Go through the worksheet or just answer the questions and think things through on a separate sheet of paper. Once completed, see how serious you are about making a change to your personal or family finances this year.

Face the facts and feel the fears

Norcross explains that we are all wired to fear change because it’s uncomfortable. So, we do everything we can to deny the problems and fears and push them out of our minds. Instead, bring those fears front and center and get them working for you.

□ What are your greatest fears about your financial issue? What have you learned about your financial problem and its causes and consequences? What might happen if you continue spending, swiping or not saving this way? What do your family and friends say about this financial issue? List the cold truth about your financial problems here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

□ Now, summon up the worst outcome possible and all the dramatic emotion you can (instead of pushing it away) into a visual you can picture in your mind. Perhaps the negative outcome you imagine could be having your wages garnished, being sued over debt, being seriously homeless with your family, having to work at the age of 75 or facing a serious medical emergency with no available cash or credit. Describe the negative visual in stark detail. What does it feel like when you see yourself and your family this way?

 

 

 

 

 

□Train yourself to conjure up this visual every time you are faced with the cause of your financial problem (for example, the daily coffee, the drive-thru, the shoes or your many credit cards). Put sticky notes on the mirror, your wallet, your car dashboard. List some trigger people, places and things where you might need this:

 

 

  

Now, get positivity working for you

 Norcross stresses that change happens most successfully when you are both repulsed by your negative money problem and past and simultaneously drawn and pulled to your positive future after the change.

 

□Make yourself any easy to see PROS and CONS chart about the change you want to make.

PROS OF CHANGING

SELF

CONS OF CHANGING

SELF

OTHERS OTHERS

 

□Envision your finances changed and your life with the new you. How does it look? What are you and your family and friends like? Use details to construct a clear visual of this new you and your changed life for the better. Describe the positive visual in detail. What does it feel like when you see yourself and your family this way?

 

 

 

 

□Frame your choice/change/goal statement in positive terms by stating what you WANT to do (not what you DON’T want to do). Make it your motto, or your slogan, and repeat it to yourself every day, all day long.

 

 

 

 

□Make a very detailed vision board collage of pictures of the change you want in your life and hang it by your bed so you look at it and envision your positive changes when you go to sleep at night and first thing when you wake up in the morning.

 

 

□Make your “I WILL” list of positive smaller actions you will take towards your goals, below.

Write affirmations telling yourself what you WILL DO (not what you won’t do) and when and post it on the door, your desk at work and in your purse. These are all the smaller specific actions that will get you to your goal.

 GOAL                           AFFIRMATION – POSITIVE STEPS

 

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

 

5.

 

6.

 

7.

 

8.

 

9.

 

10.

 

Check each step off as you complete them and don’t skip any of these steps for success.

Complete this worksheet (take your time) and think about these issues repeatedly every day, to stay focused on the change. Science has found that the pathways you use most in the brain become the strongest, so you have to create the path by thinking about it often, especially in the beginning.

TO DO: Sign up for a free Shopperfund account so that any online shopping for necessities earns you PayOff Credits you can use to pay down any debt or bill.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund blog.

walletNothing has as much to do with your spending as your wallet, since you have to go through it to get to your cash or cards every time.

What does yours look like? Is it bursting with receipts? Is it a disorganized mess so you can never find what you are looking for whether bills, change, your license, your health insurance card or your debit or credit card?

Here’s how to clean out your wallet out and organize it so you will spend less in the new year.

Organize those receipts:

Remove all the receipts floating loose in your wallet and/or handbag. Get a notebook with lined paper and write down what you bought and what you spent. Now put a line through all of the purchases that you could have done without, that you don’t want to make in the future. If any receipts were for big-ticket items, save the receipt with the registration paperwork for that item. Save any business receipts in a separate envelope which you will need to r itemize for taxes or for reimbursement. Now, get another envelope to keep in one compartment of your purse for storing all receipts for next month and then repeat the process again. This should give you a good handle on your spending.

Optimize your cards:

  • Your license should be front and center so you can easily get it or show it when needed.
  • The next most visible card should be your health insurance card so you or someone else can easily see and locate it in case of an emergency.
  • If your social security card is even in your wallet, remove it immediately and place it in a secure location in your home. You don’t want thieves or others to have easy access to your social security number or the card in your wallet.
  • If you have a roadside assistance card, keep that easily accessible, too, and not behind another card, in case of a road emergency.
  • Keep the financial cards separated to the other side if possible so you are not shuffling through those when trying to access your AAA card, for example.
  • Remove the cards that are strictly for accessing your savings account money or emergency fund and keep those secure at home.
  • If you have credit spending problems, remove all the credit cards and keep them at home, preferably frozen in a block of ice so you can’t even get at them for online spending.
  • Keep any business credit cards separated from your personal debit and credit card.
  • Keep the debit card or credit card you use most often front and center on the financial side of things for easy access and less chance of spilling out the contents of your wallet looking for it.
  • Keep loyalty cards separate and easily accessible in the outside pocket so you can whipthem out when buying from retail stores and restaurants that accept them.

Keep cash easily accessible

Choose one place to store change and stick to it. Every week empty change into a large jar in your closet and save it up as a mini emergency savings. Choose one place to neatly store dollar bills as well.

One idea if you need help with your budget is to try the envelope method of budgeting. This is where you figure out what you need to spend in cash every week. Examples include lunch money for the kids, incidental necessities, a meal out or a daily coffee or tolls, donation at a meeting, splitting a gift. Budget it by placing the cash in an envelope every week. When the need for cash arises, take it from the envelope and when the cash in the envelope is gone, you don’t spend any more cash no matter what. Then you can see how your cash budget needs to be adjusted next time.

Get rid of anything you are not currently using at all such as old business cards or loyalty cards to make room for being more organized with your finances, starting with your wallet.

Another way to spend less cash: Purchase monthly necessities online through your free Shopperfund account and earn payoff credits you can use to pay any debt or bill you choose.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund blog.

 

 

 

dive better

When it comes to getting personal finance information, whether on the fly or going in for a deep learning dive, there’s no better place than finding the financial information you need online. The trick is in knowing where to find reputable information (that’s not just selling you stuff.) So here, is my best list of where I find some of the best financial information, news and educational materials online that can help you master your money.

For learning about credit and getting free credit reports and free credit scores (no credit card required)

Want to learn more about your credit score, credit cards, your credit reports and generally improving your credit?

  • Credit Sesame Blog: Get a free monthly credit score and free credit monitoring and learn all about good credit, managing money and credit cards.
  • Credit.com Blog: Compare 2 different free credit scores, use free credit monitoring and learn more about improving your credit and managing your money
  • AnnualCreditReport.com: Learn all about credit reports and get your free credit reports once per year from the only website authorized by federal law.

Shopperfund posts about credit:

For learning about banking

Want to understand more about the banking system, new developments, how to avoid fees, search for bank accounts and use your bank accounts wisely?

  • Bankrate: How to find and compare bank accounts and use them responsibly, including general personal finance news and calculators for all credit and banking products.
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC): Learn how banks and bank products work, including rules and regulations.
  • Nerdwallet Banking Blog: Learn all about how to use and choose a bank and bank products including in-depth reports on banking products.
  • GoBankingRates: General personal finance news, advice and tips every day.

Shopperfund posts about banking:

For learning about debt and debt pay-down:

Want to learn more about how debt grows and how you can pay it off?

Shopperfund posts about debt and debt pay down:

For learning about smarter spending, shopping, discounts and deals:

Interested in finding and using more deals and discounts?

  • DealNews: Specific deals and product guides to help you make the best shopping and spending choices.
  • Retailmenot: Easy saving and smart spending advice, plus a searchable coupon and coupon code database.
  • The Krazy Coupon Lady Tips: A lot of information on smarter shopping and saving for specific stores and categories, as well as how to coupon.
  • Shopperfund: How to shop, save and earn a portion of every purchase back in Payoff Credits you can apply toward any debt or bill you choose.

Shopperfund posts about smarter spending and shopping:

For learning about scams and identity theft:

Worried about becoming a victim of a scam?

Shopperfund Posts about scams and identity theft:

An easy way to save and learn at the same time: Sign up for a free Shopperfund account so you can shop, save and earn a portion of every purchase back in PayOff Credits you can apply toward any debt or bill you choose. Then, head to the Shopperfund blog for personal finance advice you can use every day to help you get smarter about managing your money.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund blog.

Evaluate your health plan for 2017 using our open enrollment checklist

Evaluate your health plan for 2017 using our open enrollment checklist

Open enrollment to apply for or change a marketplace health insurance plan that begins in January, 2017 ends next week, December 15, 2016, for the federal and state exchanges. If you don’t currently have any health insurance sponsored by an employer and are not on medicare, now is the time to enroll in a marketplace plan through the federal healthcare exchange at healthcare.gov so you avoid the penalty for not having health insurance for 2017.

So, I asked family finance expert, Ellie Kay, author of, “Lean Body, Fat Wallet” how to make smart choices when it comes to choosing the health care for the coming year for your family and your budget.

An open enrollment checklist

Kay said its important to evaluate your current plan and your new plan options against all of the following considerations to help pick a plan that will cover your healthcare needs and save you money on health care costs in 2017.

  • Check the 2017 premium: Health insurance premiums on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges are expected to increase faster in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks premiums. While a few states experienced a small decrease in premiums, most states saw increases spanning from the single digits all the way up to a 145% increase in Arizona. If you qualified for a subsidy and are set to qualify again for a subsidy because you had no changes to your income or family status, your subsidy amount will also probably change, as these are set to increase in most states where the premiums are also increasing.Your first order of business is to check the premiums and benefits for your current plan to see whether costs will be changing for 2017 and how much.
  • Consider your health in the next 12 months: Kay said to ask yourself some serious health questions to help decide on a suitable plan. Barring any sort of emergency, will you be needing to use a lot of healthcare services in 2017? Are you managing a chronic disease, needing a reconstructive surgery or undergoing cancer treatment where you will need diagnostics, procedures and doctor visits? If so, you will want to look for a plan that possibly has a lower deductible and lower maximum out-of-pocket expense (which is listed for each plan), even if the premium is slightly higher, because this plan will save you money on the actual healthcare costs you use. If you are relatively healthy and will not be needing any procedures or diagnostics you know about, then you can choose a plan with a lower premium and higher out-of-pocket costs because you are not planning on using many healthcare services, Kay said.
  • Consider your family in the next 12 months: If you have any changes to your family in the coming year you will need to pay attention to their health needs as well. Will you be having a baby, adding a young adult or getting a divorce and removing someone from your plan? Consider the health of that person being added or removed from the plan to evaluate whether you will be needing more or less healthcare services as a family. Some plans have personal deductibles as a well as a family deductible which can make a lot of difference in the out-of-pocket expense you will incur if someone on the plan uses a lot of healthcare services, but not everybody does.
  • Monitor your medication costs: Many people don’t realize the pharmacy co-pay and deducible is different from that of the plan itself. If you or those in your family need regular medications, check the benefits of any plan you are considering to make sure those medications are covered and check whether the plan co-pay and deductibles for medications suits your needs, said Kay.  “Regular medications such as those for blood pressure or cholesterol might be cheaper by using the mail order pharmacy programs covered by your plan so check all your options for saving money,” said Kay.
  • Check the provider list: Whether keeping the same plan or getting a new plan, provider lists can change yearly. Always take the time to check whether your current, necessary doctors are part of the 2017 network on any plan you are considering. Kay said staying in the network is the biggest way to save money on healthcare costs and going out of network could have you paying the entire amount billed. Also check where the covered hospital and the in-network urgent care centers are located.
  • Don’t skip preventative care: Maybe you didn’t realize that your preventative wellness screenings such as colonoscopy and mammograms, your annual physical and your annual well-woman exam are covered by all health plans at no charge to you, due to the Affordable Care Act. If you still have time, schedule them for 2016 and if you skipped them, you left valuable money on the table so schedule them now for 2017. “Getting these yearly screenings can identify health issues or concerns early before they become chronic conditions,” advised Kay. “These screenings also establish your baseline so your doctor can quickly identify changes when they occur.”
  • Examine all your options: Whether you are purchasing your own plan or evaluating options on your employer plans or you will newly qualify for Medicaid (because your income decreased substantially) or Medicare (because you turned 65), you may qualify for additional financial assistance this year and there are many options so you want to use resources such as healthcare.gov to check for plans that are unique to your own family and even the state you live in.
  • Check the tech: Is it important to you whether your health insurance plan has an app?  Kay said a mobile app can be helpful when searching for an urgent care or doctor when you’re away from home or for calculating out-of-pocket expenses to time a procedure so you stay in network and avoid using a credit card, for example.

Did you know the average cost of a 3-day hospital stay is $30,000 and that without health insurance, a broken leg can cost $7,500 or more (without surgery), according to healthcare.gov? You have until December 15 to choose your healthcare plan for 2017.

While we can’t help you save on health insurance we can help you save on health necessities you use every month. Sign up for a free Shopperfund account so you can shop, save and earn a portion of every purchase back in PayOff Credits you can apply toward any debt or bill you choose. Then, head to the Shopperfund blog for personal finance advice you can use every day to help you get smarter about managing your money.

The author is a paid contributor to the Shopperfund blog.