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Personal Finance

    Did you run out of money before you crossed everyone off your holiday shopping list? Fear not, as there are many amazing zero-dollar gift ideas out there in the world. Here are five to get you started! RELATED: 9 money mantras to avoid overspending Creative gifts for people with tight budgets Magazine subscriptions If you have a scattering of frequent flyer miles from random airlines, then you need to know about Mags for Miles. This website works with almost all the major airlines and allows you to trade in your dormant miles for magazine subscriptions. From Vogue to People, Sports Illustrated to Cigar Aficionado, there’s likely a magazine for that certain someone on your holiday list. (Of course, this is only a good idea if your frequent flyer miles weren’t on their way to earning you a free plane ticket.) Utilize your gift cards You may not have any cash on hand, but you likely have an assortment of gift cards languishing throughout your home. Whether they’re loaded with $100 or $7.53, it’s worth gathering them up for your holiday shopping needs. Most retailers allow you to check the balance online, and you can even use them to buy new gift cards for others! Go ahead and transform your forgotten plastic into holiday presents without spending a dime! Regift Regifting may have a reputation for being a tacky move, but many of the gifts we receive are perfectly fine, they simply don’t fit in with our personal style. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be valued by someone else. Be it a book, funny T-shirt or a pair of kooky socks, just make sure to remove any personal notes and gift it outside of the original giver’s circle of friends. Family mementos If you’re the keeper of great-aunt Ethel’s box of family heirlooms, maybe it’s time to spread the wealth throughout the family. Whether you have items of value such a sterling silver tea set or simply Grandma’s bronzed baby shoes, items of meaning make great family gifts. Take the time to clean and polish each item, and then write up the full known history on each gift. Enrich this winter’s gatherings with family stories and history. Give from your time and talents Not all gifts needs to be things, and the gift of time and service can be more appreciated than any solid object. Whether it’s an evening of babysitting, an afternoon of household organization or the teaching of a skill, a personalized gift certificate can be very welcome. Figure out your personal skills and talents for a truly unique set of gift. Just make to to actually follow through on your intentions! Having an empty wallet doesn’t have to mean that your friends and loved ones go without this holiday season. Look around at what you have on hand and exercise your creative muscle. The winter holidays are about faith, community and caring for one another, which was never found in the mall in the first place. RELATED: 13 things I learned about money in my 20s Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • If you’ve always thought that Tuesday was the best day of the week to book a cheap flight, think again! The lowest average ticket price is generally found on Sunday for both economy and premium fares, according to the ARC 2018 Air Travel Outlook Report. The study is a collaboration between Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation. Read more: Use this packing trick to avoid a checked bag fee Travel alert: Tuesday is NOT the best time to buy a cheap airline ticket Although it’s impossible to guarantee when travelers will find the lowest fares, the data scientists at ARC and Expedia used trends to identity the best times to book a trip. Here’s a summary of the key findings to help you save money:  Search for low fares on the weekend: The cheapest fares for domestic economy and international economy flights were booked on a Sunday. Friday was the most expensive day of the week to book. It pays to book your flight early: For most economy and premium air travel, booking more than 30 days in advance often resulted in cheaper fares. Don’t wait until the last-minute! Be flexible with your departure date: Thursday and Friday were the cheapest departure dates for international economy flights. The best day to depart varied widely by origin for domestic economy flights. Most/least expensive months: June had the highest average ticket prices for economy travel within the U.S. and September had the lowest prices. Read more: These 35 hotel chains offer free breakfast If you’ve been following Clark for a while, you know that his #1 rule of cheap travel is to buy a deal first and then figure out why you want to go there! No matter what this report or any other study finds, you can’t go wrong by following the sales. “Though there are generally better days than others to find great prices on travel, one way to find the best deals is to pay attention to the sales,” said Charis Brown of ClarkDeals.com. “Airlines often take advantage of #TravelTuesday to offer airfare deals, in conjunction with the social media hashtag. You’ll save the most by taking a look at sales and deals as often as possible!” Finally, have you heard about Scott’s Cheap Flights? You can sign up for either a free or paid subscription and have cheap flight deals delivered to your inbox all the time. To stay on top of the best travel deals, visit our Clark Deals site! Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • Tesla envisioned a bright future for solar energy in the United States when it took over Solar City in 2016. But that’s not exactly how it’s played out for CEO Elon Musk & Co. RELATED: Tesla set to begin production on solar shingles Tesla’s sunny outlook on solar turns cloudy When Tesla first announced its plans to roll out a line of solar shingles, the interest level was intense. People were very excited to learn about attractive shingles for your roof that generated energy and helped cut down on your electric bill. But that enthusiasm waned somewhat when the price was revealed. The actual cost of solar tiles is $42 per square foot including materials and labor — but that’s before accounting for the money you’ll save from energy generation over time. When you factor in that, the equation changes. “The typical homeowner can expect to pay $21.85 per square foot* for [a] solar roof and benefit from a beautiful new roof that also increases the value of their home,” the company wrote in a May 2017 blog post. Not included in that price are taxes, permit fees and additional construction costs such as significant structural upgrades, gutter replacement and skylight replacement. So it’s still an expense proposition to outfit your home with Tesla shingles. Still, Tesla looked like it had an innovative new product on its hands and it pushed on with developing a sales strategy. The acquisition of Solar City in late 2016 looked like it would position Tesla to dominate the U.S. solar installation market. But early on, Tesla decided to break with Solar City’s tried-and-true sales approach. The implications of that move are only now being felt. A look at the damage done Solar City had selling solar in residential neighborhoods down to a science. The company reportedly had 1,000 door-to-door salespeople selling the shingles throughout solar-friendly states. But Tesla’s decision to rejigger the way shingles would be sold after acquiring Solar City has seriously dampened sales, according to a new analysis by GTM Research. Reuters reports that home solar installs across the country will fall for the first time this year after double-digit growth during the last four years. GTM Research is forecasting a 13% decline this year in the U.S. solar install market. That’s a sharp decrease after nearly 20% growth last year and four straight years prior of 50%+ increases in growth. Solar City alone accounted for between around a 30% share of the U.S. solar market from 2014 through 2016. So when the company got bought out and had its proven sales formula changed by Tesla, something was bound to change in the marketplace! No longer could eager homeowners get on board with the company’s no-money-down offer and pay a monthly fee to go solar. Investor concern about debt — particularly after the company was acquired — put the kibosh on that business model despite its popularity. Now, Tesla skips the direct residential hawking and only sells solar shingles in its own stores, alongside its own cars and batteries. The moral of the story here might just be this: If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it! We are only now beginning to see the fruits of Tesla’s modification of the proven Solar City sales model. And an economical solar installation business model is now suffering because of it. The sad part is that just puts the financial and energy independence that solar promises one step further away from the average homeowner. RELATED: 12 things to know about Tesla’s solar roof Solar City and Tesla introduce solar roof Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
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  • As the temperature continues to drop and the winter doldrums kick in, many homeowners are looking to their fireplaces to supplement the heat in their home. And what’s more comfortable than sitting in front of the fireplace while the warmth envelopes the room? The problem is that a big percentage (some say up to 90%) of that warmth is distributed inefficiently in the room and home. In other words, you’re losing much of the heat being generated. Now, it needs to be said that a fireplace can’t take the place of a furnace. Fireplaces — unless you live in a single-room cabin — are basically good for heating one room and only for a period of hours. That being said, it’s important to nip heat loss in the bud is because of the inefficiencies: A fireplace may actually cause your heat bill to rise because you have to run your furnace longer to make up for the heat lost through inefficiency. 5 ways to reduce heat loss from your fireplace Here are some ways to keep much of the heat from your wood-burning fireplace or chimney. Use a flue sealer: “Flue sealers are removable stoppers that prevent air from escaping through the chimney,” says IndianaMichiganPower.com. “These inflatable devices — made from heavy-gauge plastic — are inexpensive, and easy to install and remove. Place the flue sealer just below the damper to prevent heat loss and downdrafts when the fireplace is not in use.” Caulk it: Make sure to apply caulk around the fireplace hearth. Failure to seal or doing it improperly is a main way that many fireplaces are losing heat. Seal off the room: Another way to reduce heat loss is close the room’s doors if you can and to crack open the nearest window, no more than an inch. This will actually help the fire to emanate and heat the air, creating a feeling of warmth all around. Adjust the thermostat: A lot of people run their heating units too high while using a fireplace. To do its job, a good setting for the thermostat is 50° to 55°F. Install a heat-air exchange system:  A heat exchanger captures air from the room and channels it through hot tubes, redistributing heat and bringing additional warmth. As a result, you get more bank for the bucks you’ve spent on wood. Of course, there may be some other ways to reduce heat loss from a fireplace. Feel free to leave those in the comments. The main thing through all of this is to stay safe. If smoke is not being contained in the firebox and escaping into the room, that means your fireplace is not operating as it should. Have it checked out! RELATED: Weatherproof your wallet: How to avoid pipe bursts this winter Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • You might want to get ready to say goodbye to passwords forever — a majority of people asked in a survey want identity verification for transactions to be done using their faces, eyes and fingerprints. RELATED: Can you hack an iPhone with Play-Doh? Visa tally finds passwords have fallen out of favor Visa conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans and found that common biometric authentications — such as fingerprint scanning and facial and voice recognition — are winning favor with consumers. Here’s a rundown of some key findings: 86% are “interested” in using biometrics to verify their identity to make payments 70% feel that using biometrics is easier than remembering complicated passwords 61% say biometrics are faster than passwords 50% cite eliminating the need to remember multiple passwords or PINs as the top benefit of using biometrics 46% believe biometrics as verification are more secure than using passwords or PINs So as you can see, the responses are overwhelmingly in favor of using biometrics. However, one area of dissent was noted. That was among the 49% of respondents who said they were worried about the risk of their biometric data being stolen and that biometrics would slow them down by requiring multiple attempts to work. The most popular type of biometrics was fingerprint recognition. A combined 75% of people said they’d already used it at a minimum of one to two times. Thirty-five percent of those people said they used it regularly. Voice recognition was the next most common kind of biometrics in use among the survey’s respondents. Some 32% said they’d used it at least once, yet only 9% described themselves as using it regularly. Vanguard was an early adopter of voice recogntion Here at Clark.com, we’ve been familiar with the use of voice recognition biometrics dating back to around 2011. That’s the first time money expert Clark Howard talked about Vanguard using this method to secure his investment accounts. “When I went into their system to enroll, they took voice patterns from me by having me say multiple phrases. In just a few minutes, they built a complete voice pattern on me,” Clark said. “I was told by a representative that every one of us have different speech patterns that are much more unique than fingerprints — even identical twins!” Of course, folks other than Clark feel there’s a lot of fear around the use of biometrics. In fact, some critics say we’re approaching what we saw in 2002’s dystopian fantasy “Minority Report.” The Tom Cruise flick was prescient in many of its predictions. In the film, Cruise gets implanted with a new pair of eyes on the black market to effectively change his identity in a world where everything is done by retinal scan. As Cruise walks into a GAP store, he’s addressed with a “Hello, Mr. Yakamoto” by a saleswoman’s hologram…because that’s the name of the person whose eyes he got in a retinal transplant! RELATED: How to reduce, or even erase, your digital footprint This new scam gives hackers full access to your accounts Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • Three months after the Equifax data breach, in which as many as 145.5 million Americans had their personal information exposed, we are seeing the first real responses from attorneys representing American consumers. The state of New York this week moved to tighten consumer protections by announcing new regulations governing how credit-reporting agencies communicate cybersecurity breaches to consumers. Equifax’s breach not only enormously damaged the reputation of the Atlanta-based firm, but also turned the spotlight on major credit agencies TransUnion and Experian, which are major cogs of the lending industry. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that “Consumer credit reporting agencies have a duty to deal fairly and honestly with all consumers, and here in New York, we will ensure the best protections are available to any victim of deceit.” New York moves to strengthen consumer protections in wake of Equifax breach In a statement, Cuomo added: “The current status quo of allowing consumers to be penalized for having their data breached is unacceptable, and with the addition of these new protections, this administration will hold agencies accountable and help protect New Yorkers and their financial future.” The new rules, which will no doubt set a precedent that other states may well follow, go into effect immediately, courtesy of an emergency order. Here are what the new regulations do to protect consumers: Require consumer credit-reporting agencies to identify “dedicated points of contact” for New York’s Division of Consumer Protection so that consumers there can promptly get the answers they need regarding their personal information Mandate that the agencies respond in a timely manner — “within 10 days” — to any requests for information made on behalf of consumers by the Division of Consumer Protection Stipulate that the agencies “plainly disclose” to consumers all fees associated with any identity theft protection product sold or purchased, “including when those products are originally offered for ‘free’ Require the agencies to disclose to New York’s Division of Consumer Protection all business relationships and contracts with companies involved in marketing credit monitoring services and related products. Months after the Equifax data breach, companies and local governments are starting to get serious about cybersecurity. “Technology and cybersecurity issues are the single most significant existential risk that businesses face,” Gerry Czarnecki, who heads a governance consulting firm called Deltennium Group, told the Wall Street Journal. “There’s the ability to bring organizations to their knees through a hack.” To read the new regulations instituted in New York, click here. Money expert Clark Howard says the No. 1 way to protect yourself from identity fraud is by freezing your credit. Equifax breach:  Get the latest info and advice all in one place RELATED:  Credit freeze guide: The best protection against identity theft Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • As consumers spend away for the holidays, many people are using their credit cards to buy gifts. That means that come January or shortly thereafter, those bills will become due. If you don’t pay at least a portion of what you owe, you may soon get a call from the dreaded debt collector. Debt collection agencies have employed various tactics through the years, including intimidation and straight-out lies, to get you to fork over what you owe — plus any added fees. One tactic that has become especially effective — and is generally illegal — is the threat of jail time. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), whose job it is to enforce the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, documents a case in which the National Check Registry, based out of New York, was routinely violating consumers’ rights by allegedly using “outrageous” methods to scare people into paying their debts. “Among the alleged tactics that National Check Registry used was telling people they had committed check fraud or another crime and threatening them with lawsuits, garnishments, arrest or imprisonment if they didn’t pay,” the FTC says on its website. “The FTC and the State of New York alleged that National Check Registry routinely told people they had to pay within 12 or 24 hours to avoid having a local court system or law enforcement agency come after them.” Can you really go to jail for not paying a debt? Money expert Clark Howard says, “If you legitimately owe a debt, you have specific rights under federal law. You have the right to tell a collector never to contact you again. Use a drop dead letter and send it via certified mail. You can still, however, be sued against the debt even after sending this letter.” When it comes to debt collectors, those who threaten to have you arrested and put into jail are themselves running afoul of the law, according to the the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. There are, however two instances in which debt can land you in the slammer. Two unpaid debts you can be locked up for The first debt that you can indeed be prosecuted and put behind bars for is failure to pay taxes, better known as tax evasion or, in the words of the IRS, tax fraud. It can take many forms, including not reporting income, claiming expenses for work not actually performed or owed, or simply not paying taxes. In 2016, the IRS launched nearly 3,400 investigations related to tax fraud, resulting in 2,672 convictions that yielded an average of 41 months behind bars. That’s some serious time! The other unpaid debt that can result in handcuffs, steel bars and “three hots and a cot” is failure to pay child support. The most common method that municipalities use to lock deadbeats up is to prosecute them for “contempt of court,” meaning that the deadbeat disobeyed a court order. Contempt of court related to unpaid child support is some serious stuff, and it could get compounded, depending on the complexities of the case. Other related charges could be levied as well, like desertion or child abandonment — all for not paying the debt. In summary, you want to make sure you pay your debts. Clark says one way to protect yourself from harassment and illegal threats is to “always record any calls from/to a collector. Both parties must consent to recording in California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.” RELATED: More sample complaint letters Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More New security warning about chip credit cards Read More
  • People who bought MyPillow, a popular poly-foam variety, may be in line for some money as the result of a class-action lawsuit that was recently settled. MyPillow, manufactured by a Chaska, Minnesota-based company with the same name, has been the subject of litigation over what many planitiffs described as dubious marketing techniques. We wrote about the company in January, when it was stripped of its accreditation from the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota after customer complaints. At issue was the firm’s buy-one-get-one-free deals, health claims and numerous third-party endorsements. As a result, the BBB asked the company to cease, reiterating that MyPillow had run afoul of marketing rules. Advertising regulations stipulate that offers labeled as “deals” and “discounts” must be either offered for a limited time or their prices should be marked as normal. But MyPillow resisted making changes to its BOGO deals and repeatedly denied the allegations. The class action settlement was preliminarily approved on September 25, 2017. How to find out if your pillow is included in the class-action suit If you bought a pillow directly from the company between April 26, 2012 and September 25, 2017, you may be entitled to compensation related to the settlement, according to TopClassActions.com. In addition, those eligible to take part in the lawsuit include those who “purchased certain My Pillow products in the United States from a source other than MyPillow between April 26, 2012 and October 13, 2016,” the site says. Claimants can expect to get $6 for each pillow purchased up to $24 for four of them. “If you submitted a timely and valid claim for the initial  MyPillow class action settlement , you will receive an additional payment of $5,” the site says. If you believe you are a part of this settlement, click here to file a claim. Before you hit the button, be sure. Fraudulent claims may open the filer up to perjury charges. RELATED: Should I file a lawsuit against Equifax? Related Articles from clark.com: Social Security's full retirement age will rise by 2 months in 2018 Read More Best cell phone plans and deals for 2017 Read More Apple users: Beware of this scary new scam that gives criminals access to all your info Read More
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