How To Use Price Adjustments To Get The Best Deals

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Some stores will refund the difference if an item's price drops after you buy it. I've reviewed the price adjustment rules of some popular stores and tell you how to take advantage of these policies at Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Walmart, Kohl's, and the Gap family of stores in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How To Use Price Adjustments To Get The Best Deals.

How To Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

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Identity theft doesn't just happen when you're at home. In fact, you may be even more vulnerable to it while traveling because you're carrying your valuable personal information around with you in unfamiliar and distracting environments. In my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How To Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling, I provide some tips for keeping your identity safe while you're on the road.

What To Expect From The Zynga IPO


Photo: JelleS

Social media stocks have been all the buzz in 2011.

As the year draws to a close, Zynga, maker of popular Facebook games like FarmVille, CityVille, Mafia Wars and Words with Friends, is one of the most talked about of the 11 remaining IPOs scheduled for the year.

Take a look at what investors will be buying into and how they might fare in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, What To Expect From The Zynga IPO.

Low mortgage rates are the best gifts for home buyers

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Missed out on those holiday shopping deals? Don't fret. The best deal awaiting you this year could be a new mortgage.

With interest rates remaining near record lows, you should seriously consider adding a mortgage to your holiday shopping list, whether you’re looking to buy a new home or want to refinance.

The savings you lock in will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Just a couple of years ago, today’s rates would have looked like door-buster deals.

We’ve found advertised rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages as low as 3.75%, with no points and application fees of less than $2,000.

While this is a great time to take out a new home loan or refinance an existing mortgage, tougher loan standards mean about half of all homeowners couldn't get a mortgage if they applied today.

Before you apply for a mortgage, learn about the most common reasons for rejection and how to increase your approval chances in my Interest.com article, Low mortgage rates are the best gifts for home buyers.

Just in time for the holidays: Credit card bonuses

Photo: Keith Williamson

How would you like $500 in gift cards?

That's just one of the perks available right now from credit card issuers who are competing heavily to offer the best incentives and gain new customers.

Today's sign-up incentives might be bigger, but they also require more of the cardholder.

We've seen a lot of offers this year that require a pretty significant spending threshold in order to receive the bonus.

That being said, if you can meet the spending requirements with your normal spending patterns, these signup bonuses can really pay off. Learn more about them in my Interest.com article, Just in time for the holidays: Credit card bonuses.

End-Of-The-Year Income Tax Checklist

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Every year around this time, we hear about the same old things we should do by December 31 to save money on our taxes the following April.

My article provides some lesser-known tips and strategies for last-minute tax savings. I also share some arguments against taking commonly recommended measures like paying property taxes and the January mortgage bill in December.

Read more in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, End-Of-The-Year Income Tax Checklist.

Who Should You Tip During The Holidays?

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Holiday tipping isn't about going down a list and rewarding everyone on it with an amount dictated by an etiquette expert. Holiday spending in any form is supposed to be about showing your heartfelt appreciation for the people you care about and the people who make your life better in some way.

If you do want to show your appreciation with special tips this holiday season, you'll find a guide to the people in your life you might consider tipping and how much you should give them in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Who Should You Tip During The Holidays?

More homeowners shorten terms when refinancing

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More than a third of homeowners who have refinanced their homes recently have shortened their loan terms, according to data released by mortgage giant Freddie Mac. That's the largest percentage of mortgage refinances converted from 30-year, fixed rate loans to 15- or 20-year loans since 2003.

And even if they don't opt for a shorter-term loan, some 95% of homeowners who refinanced in the second quarter chose a fixed-rate loan over an adjustable-rate mortgage, Freddie Mac's data show. Why are so many people choosing these options? Read more in my Interest.com post, More homeowners shorten terms when refinancing.

3 ways to determine the best home purchase price

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You've settled on a home you'd like to buy. But how much should you offer to pay for it? No strategy for establishing an offering price will be perfect, I offer some guidelines in my Interest.com post, 3 ways to determine the best home purchase price.

Sewer lines can be a hidden problem for home buyers

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While the sewer in the street is usually the municipality's responsibility, the pipe running from the home to the street is usually the homeowner's responsibility. Many home buyers and owners don't realize this until that pipe breaks, sending sewage into the house and creating a memorable emergency. Find out why homebuyers should consider having a sewer inspection before completing a home purchase in my Interest.com blog post, Sewer Lines Can Be a Hidden Problem for Home Buyers.

4 Ways to Get the Most from Your Credit Card This Cyber Monday

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When you're shopping online this Cyber Monday, don't just look for the best prices. Look for the best cash-back opportunities as well.

Credit card companies, airlines and other businesses provide numerous ways to get a little something extra from your online credit card purchases.

Learn four ways to get the most out of your spending in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 4 Ways to Get the Most from Your Credit Card This Cyber Monday.

Top Ways to Profit from Storage Auctions

Photo: Tim Patterson

People rent space in self-storage facilities for a number of reasons. They may have too much stuff, be in between moves, have lost their homes, have been deployed for military duty, or be college students who have moved out of their dorms and are living with their parents for the summer.

Sometimes people stop paying their rent on these spaces and the facilities auction off the contents. Storage facilities don’t make money on units they can’t rent out, and they have ongoing overhead costs like personnel, property taxes, insurance and utilities. These self-storage facilities contain hundreds of units, so at any given time there’s a good chance that some renters are in default and the contents of their lockers headed to auction.

Laws vary by state, but usually a certain amount of time must have passed without payment (such as 30 to 90 days) and/or the renter must be delinquent by a certain dollar amount. The owner must be notified, and the auction is considered a last resort.

For the average person, these auctions represent a money-making opportunity.  It's not as simple or as glamorous as it looks on TV, but the average person can learn how to implement the same skill sets as the characters on Storage Wars to earn their own profits from treasure hunting. Here are some tips for earning a profit.

-Know your competition. Some of the best in the business have a lifetime of experience. American Pickers’ Wolfe began picking when he was just four years old. Don't try to compete with or outdo the professionals. Just try to do the best you can with your own budget and skill set. Expect to make some mistakes and realize that it will take time to hone your skills.

-Leave your ego at home. Don't get caught in a bidding war because you don't want to let the other person win. You're not going to win every unit you bid on. Stick to your budget. Set spending limits ahead of time both for the day and for individual units.

-Put a price on your time. Cashing in on other people’s loot takes a lot of time. You have to find the auction, attend the auction, load up and haul away all the stuff, unload it and sort through it. Then you might have to drive some of it to different parts of town to get it appraised, sold and disposed of. You also have to clean items before selling them, research values, price and sell items, and do all the tedious bookkeeping and administrative work associated with buying and selling the stuff.

If you don't put a price on your time, you can spend much more time than you should on these activities--time that could be more profitably spent on another activity. It's normal to not be very efficient when you're just starting out, but at some point you'll have to decide whether the time you spend on storage auctions is worth the profit you're earning. Without a lucrative television contract, you’ll be entirely reliant on your buying and selling skills to turn a profit from what appears to be junk.

-Buy to learn. If you have a hunch about what might be hidden in a locker based on what you can see, you're not going to learn if you're right or wrong unless you buy that unit. The more times you make these guesses, the better you'll get. For a lower-risk strategy, let someone else win the locker, then try to find out from them what was in it and how much profit they made.

-Don't feed your collecting habit. You won’t earn a profit if you hang on to your finds. Also, just because you think something is cool doesn't mean it's going to be worth a lot.

-Don't throw money away.  Donate less valuable items rather than throwing them out; get a receipt and deduct the donation on your tax return. For valuable items, get them authenticated to get top dollar. For example, a comic book with a high grade from a certified comic book grader typically fetches an exponentially higher price on the aftermarket than the same book in similar condition without professional grading. The emergence of the Certified Guarantee Company (CGC) as the industry leader in professional grading has further enhanced the value of graded comics; CGC-graded comics often sell for amounts many times the value of an ungraded comic.

-Learn the art of bidding. If you watch Storage Wars' Dave Hester carefully, you’ll notice that he bids strategically. He’ll wait until the auction appears to be almost over—in other words, until all but one person have bowed out—and then he’ll start bidding. This may prevent him from bidding the prices up on himself by participating earlier in the auction. He also waits until the last possible second to bid—slowing down the auction can help keep the final price down. 

For more tips, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Top Ways to Profit from Storage Auctions.
Also read my previous blog posts, How to Find Public Self-Storage Auctions and What to Bring to a Self-Storage Auction and Why.

What to Expect from a Home Inspection

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The results of a home inspection determine whether buyers proceed with the purchase of a home they have under contract. You definitely should not proceed with a purchase before you've had a home inspection. But what does it cover?

The American Society of Home Inspectors trade organization expects its members to examine the following components of a home during an inspection.

Structure: foundation, wall structure, floor structure, ceiling structure and roof structure

Exterior: roof, skylights, chimneys, gutters, siding, flashing, trim, doors, decks, balconies, steps, porches, grading, drainage, walkways, patios and driveways

Interior: walls, ceilings, floors, steps, countertops, cabinets, doors, windows, garage doors, insulation

Plumbing: fixtures, faucets, drains and water heaters

Electrical: conductors, cables, raceways, fixtures, switches, ground fault circuit interrupters, electrical panels

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning: heating equipment, vent systems, flues, chimneys, ventilation, fireplaces

For more details, see the ASHI's Standards of Practice at the ASHI website.

This list might sound exhaustive until you learn what home inspectors won’t examine--but that will be the subject of another article.

To learn more about home inspections, read my Interest.com article, What to Expect from a Home Inspection.

Should You Take Out A HELOC?

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If you have more than 20% equity in your home, you may qualify for a home equity line of credit, or HELOC. A HELOC is a convenient and often inexpensive way to borrow money. You don’t have to get a HELOC from the company that services your mortgage, either—you can shop around with a number of lenders. Let’s look at how a HELOC works and whether its unique features might make it a good or bad option for you.

-Borrowing term: A credit card lets you borrow in perpetuity, but with a HELOC, you can only borrow funds during the draw period, which is usually the first 5 to 10 years of the loan. The rest of the loan term is a repayment-only period that usually lasts 15 to 20 years, for a total HELOC term of 25 to 30 years. You do have to make payments during the draw period, but you can’t borrow more money during the repayment period. The long duration of HELOCs can mean that you’ll pay more interest in the long run without even realizing it. The high interest rate on a credit card might compel you to pay back what you borrow faster.

To learn about the other key features of HELOCs and how they can help or hurt you, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Is Taking Out a HELOC Right for You?

Advantages of Renting out Your Extra Bedroom

Photo: Lara604

Do you have a bedroom  or other livable space in your home that you could do without in exchange for income? If so, you might want to rent out the space to a tenant. Why?

-First-time homeowners who don’t want to stretch themselves too thin can benefit from the extra income of renting out one or more bedrooms.

-People who aren’t home very often aren’t getting the full value of the home they’re paying for. This might include people who travel frequently on business or work long hours. These people might also be less bothered by having a roommate if they’re largely home just to sleep.

-Assuming you have a responsible renter who does things like keep the doors locked, your tenant can help keep the home safe from criminals simply by occupying it. Having an additional person or two living in the house can mean that it’s occupied for more hours of the day, making it less of a target for break-ins.

-People who want to pay off the mortgage early to save thousands of dollars on interest will have a much easier time doing this if an additional person is helping to pay the mortgage.

-You might need the extra cash because your budget is extremely tight and/or you've lost your job or had your hours cut.

-Taking care of a home, especially if it has a yard, is time consuming and a lot of work. Your renter might be able to help out with the burdens of household chores and yardwork, perhaps in exchange for a small reduction in rent.

Also, people who want to own a home but are daunted by the prospect of living alone and/or being responsible for a large mortgage payment might consider having renters both for company and to ease the financial burden.

For more advantages of renting out your spare bedroom, read my Interest.com article. To learn how to rent out your spare room, read my Financial Edge article.

Returning an Item Purchased with a Credit Card Account You've Closed

Photo: Andres Rueda


What happens when you return something that you purchased with a credit card account that you closed?

I used to think that I had no choice but to get store credit, but I recently tried another strategy. I took my canceled Chase credit card to the store with me to return an item. I was curious to see if the refund would go through even though the account was closed--and it did. The account had been closed for two months.

While it was a little unnerving to walk out of a store without the item I returned and without any way of accessing the refund money, I knew I had my receipt as proof of the transaction and I could send a copy of it with a letter to the credit card company if necessary to get my money back.

After two to three months of waiting, I received a refund check in the mail from the credit card company. It took quite a long time to get my money back, and maybe I could have sped up the process by contacting Chase, but I didn't. Despite the long wait, I was happy to have been able to return the unwanted item and get a cash refund rather than keeping something I didn't want or getting a store credit that would probably have taken me forever to use.

Alternatives to a Traditional Mortgage

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You've decided that the time is finally right for you to become a homeowner. You know you need to borrow money—a lot of money—to buy that house. So you put on your best "I'm responsible and know what I'm doing" outfit and head to the nearest bank.

A quick chat with their mortgage specialist reveals that there's no way a person with your down payment/job situation/credit score/income could get a mortgage. What's an aspiring homeowner to do?

There are several unconventional options available, and one of them might be right for your situation. Read my Investopedia article, 4 Alternatives to a Traditional Mortgage, to learn more about rent-to-own, borrowing from your whole life policy, taking advantage of self-directed IRAs, and arranging seller financing.

Internet, Gold And Other Bubbles: What’s The Cause? (Investopedia)

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While most people agree that asset bubbles are a real phenomenon, they don’t always agree on whether a specified asset bubble exists at a given time. There is no definitive, universally accepted explanation of how bubbles form, either. Each school of economics has its own view.

To learn more about some of the most common economic perspectives on the causes of asset bubbles, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, What Causes Bubbles?

6 Tricks To Make Coupons Work For You

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You probably think that coupons save you money, and if you use them correctly, you're right.

However, stores and manufacturers issue coupons to increase their total sales, which means that if you aren't careful, you can end up overspending when you shop with coupons. Coupons expose consumers to additional advertising, increase shopping activity, steer consumers toward more expensive products and provide temptation to buy discretionary items.

To make sure that you really are saving money when you shop with coupons, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 6 Tricks to Make Coupons Work for You.

And for background on this topic, read 6 Sneaky Ways Coupons Make You Spend More.

FHA Requirements Complicate Fixer-Upper Purchases

Many of the homes for sale are foreclosures that have fallen into disrepair or that have been vandalized by their former owners or random thieves. While there are buyers on the market who are willing to buy these homes and fix them up, sometimes their financing sources don't want to put their money behind these homes.

Read more about one instance of such financing difficulties in my Interest.com article, FHA Requirements Complicate Fixer-Upper Purchases.

4 Difficult Places For Foreigners To Buy Real Estate

Photo: Bruno [BRA]

Have you ever dreamed of owning property in a foreign country? Plenty of people do it, but how difficult the process is has a lot to do with where you choose to buy.

Buying property is a complex process that involves numerous steps, and requires specialized knowledge, to ensure the correct, legal transfer of property, and the protection of both the buyer's and seller's legal and financial interests. When you take an already complex process, translate it into a foreign language and add unfamiliar customs and laws, buying property abroad can seem like a minefield.

To learn about four countries where the ownership rules, borrowing and payment restrictions, and local customs make it extra difficult for foreigners to buy real estate, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 4 Difficult Places For Foreigners To Buy Real Estate.


Retirement Planning For Those Who Live Past 100

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If you plan to retire in comfort and style, don't underestimate how long you might live.

Death rates in the United States have reached an all-time low, and life expectancies continue to rise. The life expectancy for a woman at birth is now 80.4 years; for a man, it's 75.4 years.

The American Society of Actuaries estimates that more than half of us will exceed average life expectancies. What's more, a 2009 article in the Lancet, a leading medical journal, projected that more than 50% of people born since 2000 in developed countries will live past 100.

To learn how to plan for your retirement given the possibility of living longer than you initially planned for, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Retirement Planning For Those Who Live Past 100.  

What to Expect from a Home Inspection

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Home inspectors are specially trained to spot problems the average person is likely to miss. However, there are limitations on what inspectors can legally examine.


To find out what home buyers should expect an inspector to look at, read my Interest.com article, What to expect from a home inspection.




3 homeowners association headaches

 Photo: Nikonian Novice

Living in a homeowners association is about more than just paying monthly dues. If you’re thinking about buying property in an HOA, learn what you need to know about how the association will affect your finances, the use of your property, and your life in my Interest.com article, 3 Homeowners' Association Headaches.

Top 6 High-Paying Environmental Jobs

There are two main types of green jobs: those that produce goods or services that improve the environment, and those that improve an existing business's environmentally unfriendly practices.

These jobs might focus on producing renewable energy, conserving resources, increasing energy efficiency, alleviating pollution or increasing awareness and compliance.

Green jobs exist in hundreds of industries, from farming to mining and telecommunications to transportation. What's more, it's possible to have a green job without sacrificing your financial goals.

If you want to work in this industry while bringing home an enviable paycheck, consider the options I present in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Top 6 High-Paying Environmental Jobs


Discover’s cash-advance option could replace your debit card

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In the face of new debit card fees, Discover's Cash Over feature could help you save money. Instead of using your debit card to make a purchase and get cash back, you can use a Discover card. To learn more about how this option works, read my article for Interest.com, Discover's Cash Advance Option Could Replace Your Debit Card.

When to avoid making a homeowners insurance claim

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Homeowners insurance provides essential protection against expensive damage to your home, but that doesn't mean you should file a claim every time something goes wrong.


In some cases, you might be better off if you handle the problem yourself. Other experts advise filing every claim you can.

Given this conflicting advice, how do you know what to do when you experience a covered loss?

Find out in my Interest.com article, When to Avoid Making a Homeowners Insurance Claim.


Vision Care Insurance: Will You See A Benefit?

Photo: NCBrian

We all know that health insurance is something you shouldn't live without - but what about vision care insurance? Your ability to see is surely almost as important as your health. Vision care insurance can be purchased as a group benefit through your employer or as an individual policy. But how does the cost compare to the coverage you'll receive? Find out in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Vision Care Insurance: Will You See A Benefit?

Store Credit Cards: Do The Incentives Pay Off?

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Have you ever wondered whether you should have said "yes" when the cashier asked you if you wanted to open a store credit card account and save 10% off your purchase?

While store credit cards fundamentally work just like regular credit cards, they have unique advantages and disadvantages. I've written an article that examines the incentives stores offer with their credit cards, what pitfalls you might encounter if you sign up and whether the payoff could be worth opening an account.

Get the full story in my Investopedia article, Store Credit Cards: Do The Incentives Pay Off?

Do You Need a Home Warranty?

Photo: Timmy

When you purchase a home, even a home that isn't new, there is a very good chance that you will be offered a home warranty. The seller may offer to purchase one on your behalf to provide peace of mind that any component of the home that fails can be fixed affordably. If not, you will likely receive numerous mail solicitations to purchase a home warranty once the sale closes. But do you really need a home warranty? Learn more in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia.

Who Profits When You Refinance?

Photo: Bitman

When you refinance, you need to be an informed consumer. Refinancing is just as big of a deal as getting an initial mortgage, and the stakes are high if you get the wrong loan, get a subpar interest rate or pay excessive closing fees. To gain a better understanding of the process, read my Interest.com article, Who profits when you refinance?

Why Sellers Should Get a Home Inspection

Photo: Chad Jones

Did you know that home inspections aren't just for buyers? It can make a lot of sense for sellers to get their homes professionally inspected before putting them on the market. To find out why, check out my Interest.com article, Why Sellers Should Get a Home Inspection.

What to Bring to a Self-Storage Auction and Why

Photo: David365

If you want to bid on and win a unit at a self-storage auction like the stars of Storage Wars, you can’t just show up—you need to come prepared. Here’s what you’ll need.

-Cash. Bring as much cash as you’re willing to spend. Many facilities require that you pay for your winnings in cash immediately after the auction ends. Factor into your budget sales tax and possibly a clean-out deposit (the latter will be refunded as long as you take all of the contents with you).

-Photo ID. some auctions require all attendees to register and present identification before they are allowed to bid.

-A strong flashlight. You can’t enter the unit, so you’ll need to improve your ability to see all the way into it while standing outside.

-A smartphone. If you spot something you think might be valuable before the bidding begins, some quick
online research can help you determine whether to bid or pass.

-A large truck/van/SUV. You’ll usually have only 24 hours to remove the contents of the storage unit you win, so come prepared for moving. Even if you end up with a locker full of trash, you’ll have to haul it away to dispose of it—you can’t use the storage facility’s dumpsters. If you need more time, you may be able to negotiate with the storage facility or even lease the unit. Of course, a fee to lease the unit will cut into your profit margin.

-Padlocks. The owner’s lock must be cut off in order for the contents to be viewed and auctioned off. If you win, you’ll need a way to secure your new locker while you participate in the rest of the day’s auctions or at least until you can get your vehicle pulled up to the unit.

-Gloves. Gloves aren't required, but when you're pawing through someone else's stuff, you never know what you're going to find or how clean it's going to be. Gloves can help prevent the ick factor; they can also protect your hands when moving rough, sharp, or heavy objects.

For more on storage auctions, see my earlier post, How to Find Public Self-Storage Auctions.

Industries Prone To Bubbles And Why

Photo: Rev Dan Catt

A bubble (sometimes called an asset bubble, financial bubble or investment bubble) exists when the market prices of assets in a particular class far exceed those assets' true value. These inflated values are unstable and eventually fall dramatically.

Dozens of bubbles have inflated and burst over the course of history. While some bubbles appear to be one-time events, certain industries have seen bubbles form repeatedly, with investors seemingly never learning from past mistakes. Take a look at a few of these industries and what appears to make them bubble-prone in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Industries Prone to Bubbles and Why.

10 Ways to Prepare for a Personal Financial Crisis

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The thought of being hit with a major negative event that could affect your finances, like a job loss, illness or car accident, can keep anyone awake at night. But the prospect of something expensive and beyond your control becomes less threatening if you're properly prepared. Learn 10 steps you can take to minimize the impact of a personal financial crisis in my Investopedia article, 10 Ways to Prepare for a Personal Financial Crisis.

How To Find Public Self-Storage Auctions

Photo: Tim Patterson

Have you watched every episode of Storage Wars and are dying to try making money on a locker yourself? Are you just curious about how it works in real life?

Here’s where to look to find storage auctions.

-Visit the self storage association website for your state to locate upcoming auctions. For example, the Texas SSA lists auctions at http://auction.txssa.org/.

-Locate auctioneer websites. Professional, independent auctioneers, not storage facility employees, run self-storage auctions. They earn money for doing this, so they have an incentive to advertise their upcoming auctions. For examples, check out http://hammerdownauctionsinc.com/auctions/south-florida-auctions.html and http://www.auctionzip.com/MD-Auctioneers/12474.html.

-Storage company websites sometimes advertise their auctions. Others don’t. Considering that the websites are largely designed to attract new customers, they may not want to advertise what will happen to a customer’s stuff if they don’t pay.  One that does is CubeSmart, http://www.cubesmart.com/storage-auctions/. Only about 10% of self-storage companies are big-name public corporations like Public Storage and U-Haul, so do a zip code search to locate lesser-known facilities in your area.

-Call facilities and ask. If a facility doesn’t advertise its auctions online, call to inquire.

-Use a self-storage auction locator website like http://www.sparefoot.com/auctions.html or http://www.auctionzip.com/storage.html. Some websites will even show how many units are being auctioned off on a given date and provide a general idea of what each unit contains. 

When you’re deciding which storage auctions to visit, you might want to focus on convenience and stick with facilities near your home. But if you are trying to think about it more strategically, don’t assume that the best parts of town have the best stuff—people from wealthier areas sometimes store their stuff in less expensive areas where the rent is cheaper.

How To Choose A Home Inspector

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When you're buying a house, you shouldn't skip the home inspection. This crucial step can help you to determine whether to move forward with a purchase or retract your offer. It can shed light on whether you're about to make a smart investment or fall into a money pit; whether you're about to pay a fair price or overpay. But how do you find a competent home inspector, especially if you're wary of going with your real estate agent's suggestion? To find out, read my Interest.com post, How To Choose A Home Inspector.

How Real Estate Investors Hurt Home Values

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Real estate investors make up a significant portion of the residential real estate market, but for ordinary homeowners, this isn't necessarily good news. To find out why, read my Interest.com article, How Real Estate Investors Hurt Home Values.

Tapping Home Equity Is Cheap, but Qualifying for a Loan Is Tough

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A home equity line of credit can be a great way to borrow money inexpensively if you thoroughly understand how it works and have the self-discipline to borrow responsibly. People use these loans for home improvements, debt consolidation, buying a car, sending a kid to college and more. Learn more about this type of loan in my Interest.com article, Tapping Home Equity Is Cheap, but Qualifying for a Loan Is Tough.

How Much Does It Cost to Get Out of Your Cell Phone Contract? Examining Four Carriers' Early Termination Fees

If you're shopping for a new cell phone contract, you should know before you sign up what will happen if you want to cancel your contract early.

How Expensive Will It Be?

Early termination fees vary from carrier to carrier. ATT, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all pro-rate their termination fees, so the amount you’ll have to pay will depend on the remaining length of your contract. The highest fee applies to advanced devices like the iPhone. Verizon’s full fee is $350; ATT’s is a close second at $325.

Here's an overview of what the major carriers are charging these days (it's nice to see that they've started pro-rating the fees).

ATT: For advanced devices, such as iPhones and Blackberries, “$325 minus $10 for each full month of your Service Commitment that you complete.” For standard devices, “$150 minus $4 for each full month of your Service Commitment that you complete.” Visit ATT’s Early Termination Fees webpage to see which category your phone falls into

Verizon: “If you cancel a line of Service, or if we cancel it for good cause, during its contract term, you'll have to pay an early termination fee. If your contract term results from your purchase of an Advanced Device after November 14, 2009, your early termination fee will be $350 minus $10 for each full month of your contract term that you complete. (For a complete list of Advanced Devices, check verizonwireless.com/advanceddevices.) Otherwise, your early termination fee will be $175 minus $5 for each full month of your contract term that you complete. Cancellations will become effective on the last day of that month's billing cycle, and you are responsible for all charges incurred until then. Also, if you bought your wireless device from an authorized agent or third–party vendor, you should check whether they charge a separate termination fee.

Sprint: “Subscriber Agreements are subject to Sprint's prorated policy ($200 through month 5 of term, decreasing $10 a month until $50 minimum applies to remaining terms).”

T-Mobile: “The early termination fee is: $200 if termination occurs with more than 180 days remaining on your term; $100 if termination occurs with 91 to 180 days remaining on your term; $50 if termination occurs with 31 to 91 days remaining on your term; and the lesser of $50 or your monthly recurring charges (including any applicable taxes and fees) if termination occurs in the last 30 days of your term."

These fees do sound really high, but Consider the Company’s Perspective on Cell Phone Contract Cancellation. In some cases, you can try Getting Out of Your Cell Phone Contract Early with Materially Adverse Changes. But sometimes it makes sense to just pay the fee, get out and move on.

Also, if you're concerned that you might want or need to exit a contract early, you might consider Avoiding Early Termination Fees Forever With Prepaid Cell Phone Service.

Don’t Ignore The Fee
If you think you will avoid paying the early termination fee by simply refusing to pay it, think again. The unpaid charge could go to collections and end up as a negative mark on your credit report.

Try Prepaid Service
Personally, I've been using prepaid service for years and I'm extremely happy with it. I've also saved a ton of money. Skype and Google Voice provide far superior service, call quality, and pricing for most of my phone needs.

Nissan offers 60-month, 0% financing on four 2011 models

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If you're shopping for a new car, Nissan has some of the best deals out there. They expire October 3, so check them out now if you're interested. Find out the details in my Interest.com article, Nissan offers 60-month, 0% financing on four 2011 models.

Let Fannie Mae Help with Closing Costs

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If you buy a Fannie Mae-owned foreclosure property that is part of the HomePath program and close by October 31, Fannie will pay your closing costs of up to 3.5% of the purchase price. This deal could save you thousands of dollars, but you'll need to get under contract almost immediately to meet the closing deadline. To learn more about the program, read my Interest.com article, Let Fannie Mae help with closing costs.

It's Not Always Clear What Home Warranties Cover

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Home warranties are supposed to give homeowners peace of mind and prevent financial strain when things break unexpectedly. In exchange for a few hundred dollars a year and a small service call fee, home warranties are supposed to make as-needed repairs and replacements to numerous components of a home, from dishwashers to furnaces.

Unfortunately, the reality isn't that simple. Learn about the complexities of home warranties and whether you should spend your money on one in my Interest.com article, It's Not Always Clear What Home Warranties Cover.

For another great article on this subject, head to Angie's List to read Why Home Warranties Are No Guarantee by Staci Giordullo.

How to Build a Stockpile to Save Money

A stockpile is a collection of nonperishable goods beyond what you need for day-to-day use. People rely on stockpiles to sustain themselves during tough economic times and natural disasters. They also incorporate them into their daily usage to lower their monthly expenses and eliminate last-minute trips to the store. Learn how to create your own stockpile in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How to Build a Stockpile to Save Money.

Not sure what to include in your stockpile? Here are some ideas:

Food
Nonfat powdered milk
Bottled water
Cereal
Protein bars
Protein shakes
Dried fruit
Nuts
Canned soup
Pasta
Pasta sauce
Coffee
Breakfast bars
Canned fish
Beans
Rice
Peanut butter
Chips, crackers and pretzels
Cookies
Baby food
Pet food

Household Items
Laundry detergent
Fabric softener
Paper towels
Cleaning products
Dish soap
Sponges
Trash bags
Aluminum foil
Sandwich bags
Batteries
Light bulbs

Toiletries
Shampoo
Soap or bodywash
Facial cleanser
Razors
Qtips
Toilet paper
Feminine products
Diapers
Contact solution
Toothpaste
Toothbrushes
Dental floss
Deodorant
Medicine
First aid supplies

Eating Healthy on a Budget

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People often cite the presumed high cost of healthy food as an impediment to maintaining a healthy weight. They also cite the cheapness and time-saving aspects of fast food as major contributing factors to the supposed epidemic of obesity in the United States. There are plenty of foods that challenge these notions, however, and you can learn what they are in my Financial Edge article, Eating Healthy on a Budget.

Home Prices Fall Again in Most Cities

When will home prices start leveling out or even rebounding? The latest data say most cities aren't there yet. Numerous cities are still experiencing double-digit price drops, while only four have recently seen double-digit gains. What's more, distress sales still make up a third of sales. For the full story, see my Interest.com article, Home Prices Fall Again in Most Cities.

Top 5 College Education Clichés: Fact or Fiction?

Photo: Patricia Drury

Another year of college has begun. If you've chosen not to attend, the panic may be starting to set in as you watch your friends begin the college experience and you wonder if you've made the right choice.

College is expensive, though, and not everyone attends, or attends right away. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the record high percentage of students that went straight from high school to college was 70.1 percent in 2009. Assuming this year's numbers are similar, you're in good company with about a fourth of your fellow recent high school graduates if you're not in college right now.

It makes sense to question the idea that enrolling in college is a universally good idea. Attaining a college degree is not a guarantee of success. A series of practical individual choices made consistently throughout your life combined with ongoing hard work will be the most instrumental factors in how far you get in life.

A Georgetown study found that “37% of those with a high school diploma make more than the median earnings of workers with some college/no degree” and “40% of people with a Bachelor’s degree earn more than the median of workers with a Master’s degree.” These numbers indicate that a degree does not create a guaranteed advantage. In fact, a significant percentage of people are able to excel in their jobs without spending the time or money on a degree.

There are also a number of career paths whose ticket to entry is a certificate program that can be completed in much less time and at much less expense than a college degree. A Payscale.com article by Michelle Goodman reports that language interpreters, fitness instructors, mechanics, auto insurance appraisers and court reporters have average salaries that range from $37,113 for fitness instructors to $50,165 for auto insurance appraisers. A two-year associate’s degree is another a viable alternative to a bachelor’s degree.

Furthermore, many college majors provide little to no specific preparation for any sort of career other than one in academia. And Time’s “Top 10 College Dropouts” reminds us that super-successful people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, James Cameron, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga and Tiger Woods all dropped out of college.

So don’t believe everything that your parents, teachers, friends and guidance counselors tell you—the accepted wisdom about college isn’t always true.

For the whole story, see my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, College Education Cliches: Fact or Fiction?

6 Sneaky Ways Coupons Make You Spend More

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Consumers are using more coupons than they did before the recession, and 37.4% are using them "to stretch a limited grocery budget out of necessity," according to NCH Marketing Inc.'s "2010 Annual Consumer Survey".

If you're hoping to save money by using coupons, watch out because stores and manufacturers expect coupons to increase their total sales, which means you could end up spending more, not less. To protect your wallet, learn about these strategies in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 6 Sneaky Ways Coupons Make You Spend More.

In addition to the points in my article, consider these:

-Coupons can send you on a wild goose chase. When you have a coupon that you want to use for an unfamiliar item or for an item that you usually buy at a different store, you'll have to spend more time in the store hunting for that item. Sometimes the store won't even carry the item, especially if it's new, but while you were looking for it, hundreds of other items probably caught your eye, and if you didn't put a few of them in your cart this week, you might next week. Avoid this problem by asking a store employee to point you in the right direction.

-Coupons entice you to buy premium products when you really only need the basic version. Have you been using two-ply toilet paper your entire life? Well, wait until you use that coupon for three-ply toilet paper and see how thick and plush it is. Now the two-ply that seemed fine for years seems inferior, and you want to keep buying the premium product, coupon or no coupon. Coupons are often used to upsell consumers into buying a more expensive version of something they were already using.

-Coupons can get you hooked on a new product at a low price that will soon increase. Try a new product at a low, introductory price--then keep coming back for more later when it's selling at full price. When a new product is released, you can often find a high-value coupon for it and combine it with a store promotion to get the item for an unusually low price. If you like it, you may get sucked into buying it in the future when it's selling at full price and there are no more coupons available.

-High value coupons can be irresistible. When you clip a coupon, you often don't know how much the item it advertises will cost--only how much coupon is worth. You might get excited about buying a product when you see a coupon for a whopping $3 off. When it turns out to be a $12 item, you could be looking at buying something that costs more than you would normally spend.

Even someone with a lot of self-discipline can succumb to these tactics because of the thrill of getting a deal. But if you're aware of what's going on, you might think twice before you clip another coupon for a product you don't already use regularly.

How to Get a Price Match

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Have you mastered the art of shopping sales and using coupons? Then it's time to take your skills one step further and learn how to price match. Price matching means getting a store to honor its competitor's price - usually a printed, advertised price.

Why do stores offer price matching? Won't it put retailers with already thin profit margins at risk of losing money?

Not necessarily. Price match policies can actually be good for business. Learn more in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How to Get a Price Match.


Should You Buy Mortgage Protection Insurance?

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Property transactions are public records, and many companies take advantage of this to compile databases of recent homebuyers and market various products to them.

One such product is mortgage protection insurance. This product is supposed to protect the home from going into foreclosure if one of the people who contributes to the mortgage payments dies unexpectedly and the survivors don't have enough money to pay the bills.

It sounds like a good idea on the surface, but is it really? Find out more in my Interest.com article, Should You Buy Mortgage Protection Insuranace?