How To Rent Out Your Spare Room

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Are you interested in paying off the mortgage faster, adding some breathing room to the monthly budget, having some company or even avoiding losing the house? If you're thinking of becoming a live-in landlord by renting out one or more rooms in your home while continuing to occupy the home as your primary residence, you should first learn about the numerous tasks involved and the essential legal procedures you'll need to follow. Read about them in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How to Rent Out Your Spare Room.

How To Attend a Wedding for Less

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There's plenty of advice out there about how to throw a wedding on a budget. But what about how to attend one?


When you're in your twenties and thirties, you may be invited to dozens of weddings. Attending each one has a cost, and those costs can seriously add up. At a time in life when most people don't have a lot of financial breathing room, it can actually become burdensome.No bride or groom wants it to be expensive or difficult for their guests to attend, though.


That being said, weddings are also expensive to host—the bride and groom or their families probably spent at least $100 for you to attend. So if you do attend, keep in mind that there's a difference between watching your wallet because you have to and being stingy. If you think you’ll save money and no one will know what you spent if you go off the registry, think again—when the couple tries to return that thing they don’t want, they’ll find out exactly how much it’s worth (or that you received it for your own wedding 10 years ago and are regifting it!).


For some tips on managing these costs when you're an invited guest, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, How to Attend a Wedding for Less.

Consider the Company’s Perspective on Cell Phone Contract Cancellation

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It may seem like cell phone service providers charge early termination fees just because they can, and there’s some truth to this. If millions of consumers, acting on their own free will, are signing long-term contracts that provide for early termination fees, they must find it acceptable on some level or they wouldn’t sign the contracts. There are plenty of alternatives these days, and those alternatives have been around for as long as anyone’s current contract has.

Don’t forget about that free or heavily discounted phone you receive when you sign up for a plan. The company provides this phone discount with the expectation that they will recoup its cost over the life of your contract. If you end the contract early, the company loses money on the phone. Verizon’s website, for example, clearly shows the discount consumers get by agreeing to a two-year contract. You’re welcome to sign up for month-to-month service, but you’ll have to pay the full price for the phone. For example, if you want Motorola’s Droid 3, you can get it for $199 as part of a two-year contract that has a $350 early termination fee, or you can buy it for $459 and sign up for a month-to-month agreement. (These price differences do raise the question of why the early termination fee is $91 more expensive than buying the phone outright.)

If cell phone companies are going to offer heavily discounted phones, they need a contract provision that protects them against people signing up for a plan, getting a discounted phone, then canceling the account. It's unfortunate that consumers who have legitimate reasons for wanting to exit a contract early have few alternatives to paying the early termination fee and rarely seem to get the benefit of the doubt from the cell phone companies. If a consumer's call quality or data service inexplicably declines, customers should have recourse, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Avoid Early Termination Fees Forever With Prepaid Cell Phone Service

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Once you’ve gotten out of your old cell phone contract, don’t get yourself stuck in another one. You have plenty of options for avoiding them. You can switch a portion of your phone calls to Skype. You can use a prepaid phone like ATT’s GoPhone. You can sign up for any number of month-to-month, no-contract plans. You can use Google Voice with a bare bones cell phone plan to save money. Check out the options below--you might find something that works for you. Personally, I have found that a combination of the GoPhone, Skype and Google Voice works well and keeps my phone bill to about $10 a month.

T-Mobile’s No Annual Contract Store

Get Out of Your Cell Phone Contract Early with Materially Adverse Changes

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While it's difficult to get out of a cell phone contract early without paying an early termination fee, there are a couple of loopholes.

Take Sprint’s contract language, for example:

When You Don't Have To Pay An Early Termination Fee
You aren't responsible for paying an Early Termination Fee when terminating Services: (a) provided on a month-to-month basis; (b) consistent with our published trial period return policy; or (c) in response to a materially adverse change we make to the Agreement as described directly below.

Our Right To Change The Agreement; Your Related Rights
We may change any part of the Agreement at any time, including, but not limited to, rates, charges, how we calculate charges, or your terms of Service. We will provide you notice of material changes—and may provide you notice of non-material changes—in a manner consistent with this Agreement (see "Providing Notice To Each Other Under The Agreement" section). If a change we make to the Agreement is material and has a material adverse effect on Services under your Term Commitment, you may terminate each line of Service materially affected without incurring an Early Termination Fee only if you: (a) call us within 30 days after the effective date of the change; and (b) specifically advise us that you wish to cancel Services because of a material change to the Agreement that we have made. If you do not cancel Service within 30 days of the change, an Early Termination Fee will apply if you terminate Services before the end of any applicable Term Commitment.

Currently, Sprint customers have an opportunity to exit their contracts for this very reason. If your August statement describes an increased administrative charge that goes into effect on 9/9/11 and a change in terms and conditions, you can contact Sprint within 30 days of receiving this notice and use the materially adverse change clause to get out of your contract.


If the materially adverse change argument doesn’t work, you could try arguing that the company has fallen short of its customer guarantee, if it has one. The customer guarantee has significantly less legal strength than the terms of your contract, however.

Also, remember that any time you don’t get what you want from a customer service representative, you can try calling back and talking to a different person. You may eventually have a breakthrough.

One problem with this strategy is that you have to wait for your cell phone service provider to actually make a materially adverse change to their contract, which may not happen as quickly as you need it to. The Consumerist provides ongoing coverage of such changes, so visit the site regularly if you’re looking for a possible way out of your contract.

Tips for Getting Out of a Cell Phone Contract

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Many consumers think that they should not pay early termination fees when they want to cancel their cell phone services before the terms of the contracts have expired. Sometimes their reasons are valid, such as a loss of service. Other times they're not, such as wanting a new phone that is only offered by another carrier.

Regardless of the reason, consumers don't have many options for getting out of a contract early without paying a fee. The options they do have can be challenging, stressful and time consuming. Learn about some options you can try in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Tips for Getting Out of a Cell Phone Contract.

Great Financing Deals on Popular 2011 Cars

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Looking to buy a new car? Now is a good time. 2012 models are coming out, so dealers will want to unload their remaining 2011 inventory. Also, a number of great financing deals mean that borrowing money to buy a car isn't such a terrible idea. Here are some of the deals currently available from six top automakers.

1. Honda: Civic Sedan or Coupe, 0.9% APR for 24-36 months or 1.9% for 37-60 months through 9/6/11. Learn more about this Honda deal here. There are also deals starting at 1.9% or 2.9% for many other models.

2. Nissan: Altima, 0.0% APR for up to 60 months or 1.9% for up to 72 months or $1,500 cash back through 8/31/11. Learn more about this Nissan deal here. The Altima was the No. 6 best-selling car in July according to Edmunds.com.

3. Chevy: Malibu, 0.0% APR for 60 months through 9/6/11. Learn more about this Malibu deal here. The Malibu was the No. 8 best-selling car in July according to Edmunds.com. (I wonder if that's because of its popularity as a rental car?)

4. Mazda: Every 2011 model, 0.0% APR for up to 60 months and no payments for 90 days through 8/31/11. Learn more about this Mazda deal here.

5. Hyundai: Sonata, 0.9% APR for up to 36 months, 1.9% for up to 48 months, 2.9% for up to 60 months through 8/31/11. Learn more about this Sonata deal here. The Sonata was the No. 7 best-selling car in July according to Edmunds.com. It also received 25.4% of the vote in Edmunds’ midsize family sedan category for its 2011 Consumer Favorites poll. (Older Hyundais don't have the greatest track record for reliability in Consumer Reports; how the 2011 will fare remains to be seen.)

6. Toyota: Camry or Corolla, 0% APR for 36, 48 or 60 months through 8/31/11. Also includes a complimentary maintenance plan for 2 years or 25,000 miles. Learn more about this Camry deal here. The Camry was the No. 2 best-selling car in July according to Edmunds.com.

To get any of these deals, you'll probably need excellent credit. Also, you'll likely need some money up front for the down payment, first month's payment, title, license and registration fees. These costs will probably range from $2,000 to $3,500 You could put more down if you wanted, but with such low interest rates, you might prefer to keep the money in your emergency fund.

According to Interest.com's survey of major auto lenders, the average interest rate on a 60-month auto loan has been 5.57% this month, so these deals look pretty great.

Interest rate isn't the only factor you should consider when buying a car, but it might tip the scales when evaluating used versus new or one model versus another.

Fees That Could Hit Your Home Improvement Budget

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Have you ever planned a home improvement project, set aside what you thought was enough money, then gotten a professional quote and found that your estimate was under by several hundred dollars or more? I have. Learn about the types of unexpected costs you might face in my Interest.com article, Fees That Could Hit Your Home Improvement Budget.

Escrow Balance Too High? How to Get a Refund

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If you are required to make monthly payments to your mortgage company toward your property taxes and homeowners insurance, those payments go into an escrow account until the bills are due. Sometimes your account can end up with too much money in it and you'll want to get the excess back. To learn how to do this, read my article for Interest.com, Escrow Balance Too High? Ask for an Analysis.

Refinancing Made (Relatively) Easy with FHA Streamline

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If you have an FHA mortgage, you might have a refinancing option available to you that you weren't aware of. It's called the FHA Streamline refinance, and it allows you to refinance even if you're underwater on your mortgage. To learn more about how the program works, read my Interest.com article, Refinancing made (relatively) easy with FHA Streamline.

Do e-Textbooks Help Students Save Money?

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Textbook costs have traditionally represented a major expense for college students. In recent years, savvy consumers have cut these costs by buying used textbooks and older editions of textbooks online. Students have also used the Internet to sell their textbooks at semester's end for more than the college bookstore's buyback price.

Now, a third option, electronic textbook rental, advertises both cost savings and convenience. To learn about the potential cost savings of choosing e-textbook rental over other common options, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Do e-Textbooks Help Students Save Money?

3 High-Pressure Home Improvement Sales Tactics

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Do you want to replace one window in your home? That will require an extra $200 fee because the job doesn’t meet our three-window minimum.

That's what I was told recently when I got a quote from a major home improvement vendor to replace one window in my home. Fortunately, if I wanted to replace my gutters for $1700, the $200 fee could be waived.

Vendors selling products related to the improvement of your home can be some of the hardest sales people to deal with. Why? Because it’s easy to convince yourself to spend more money on your home. You spend lots of time there and you want any upgrades you make to be done right and to last for years. What’s more, these sales professionals often require a visit to your house—and it’s much harder to get someone out of your house than it is to walk away from someone in a store. Learn how to deal with some of the high-pressure home improvement sales tactics you might face in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 3 High-Pressure Home Improvement Sales Tactics.

Why Card-Specific Discounts Don't Work

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It's tempting to sign up for store credit cards that offer perks like a percentage off on every purchase or special sales throughout the year. But is it really in your best interest to open one of these cards? To get an idea, I consider the perks, interest rates and fees of four popular store credit cards in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Why Card-Specific Discounts Don't Work.

How To Spot a Refinance Offer That's Too Good to Be True


Some lenders will do anything to get your attention when it comes to refinancing. How do you separate the legitimate offers from the scams? Learn How To Spot a Refinance Offer That's Too Good to Be True in my article for Interest.com.

7 Unusual Property Ownership Rules

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Owning real estate is challenging for most people. Few of us have all the financial, legal and handyman training that would make us top-notch property owners. In some jurisdictions, all the usual difficulties are compounded by unusual rules, procedures and customs. Take a look at seven of these factors in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, 7 Unusual Property Ownership Rules.

Real Estate Indicators For Prospective Homebuyers

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If you want to buy a home but you're holding out until market conditions show signs of improvement, housing indicators can help point the way. There are dozens of economic indicators, and many of them relate to the housing market in some way. Learn about four of the most important ones in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Real Estate Indicators For Prospective Homebuyers.

Cash-Out Refinancing at 15-Year Low

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Freddie Mac released its quarterly refinance data last Monday. The data reveal some interesting information:

-What interest rate did most people who refinanced get?
-How many people did cash-out refinances?
-How many people did cash-in refinances?
-Is it still a good time to refinance?

The answers may surprise you. Read my Interest.com article, Cash-Out Refinancing at 15-Year Low, to learn more.

Chase Payment Protection Product Class Action Lawsuit

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I received a notice in the mail printed on a piece of cardstock smaller than a postcard informing me of a class action lawsuit against Chase. The notice is addressed to Chase credit card holders who were enrolled in a payment protection product between September 1, 2004, and November 11, 2010.

The lawsuit, Kardonick v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., is about whether Chase engaged in "breaches of contract, unfair and deceptive practices, and other wrongdoing" regarding its payment protection products. The lawsuit says that Chase unilaterally enrolled cardmembers in the program without explaining it to them, and that it was difficult to claim benefits or to unenroll.

Chase has not admitted wrongdoing but has created a $20 million settlement fund. There are three levels of potential payouts depending on a customer's level of interaction with the service: $60, $30 or $15 before fees and expenses.

The card provides instructions on how to opt-in and file a claim for money, opt-out and exclude oneself from the settlement, or object to the settlement. You must fill out a claim form by TODAY, August 8, to receive a payment. You can make one of these choices and learn more about the case at KardonickSettlement.com.

The key piece of data you will have to provide on the claim form is "Last four digits of ANY of your Chase credit card accounts that were enrolled in a Payment Protection Product at some time between September 1, 2004 and November 11, 2010."

Since I am not sure if, when, or with what card I might have been enrolled in such a program, I'm going to do nothing. But if you feel like you were wronged by Chase's payment protector product, feel free to opt in, and make sure you do it today.

Small Retirement Savings Really Do Add Up

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Do you need a million dollars to retire? Or is two million the new one million? It really depends on a number of factors--the number of years until you retire, how long you expect to live, what your fixed expenses will be, how much you expect to receive from Social Security and more. The truth is, it's not easy to estimate how much money you'll need to retire, though there are plenty of online calculators that will help you try.

Personally, when I was in my early twenties, I didn't see much point in saving for retirement because it seemed like even if I saved a few hundred dollars every month until I retired, I still wouldn't have the recommended million-dollar nest egg. Fortunately, I set some money aside every month despite my reservations, and along the way I discovered the power of compound interest, self-employed retirement accounts, 401(k) matches and other tools that have made it easier to save.

Don't let the notion that you'll never have enough money for retirement or that you don't have "enough" to contribute every month prevent you from saving. Even small savings add up, and when the day comes that you choose to or are forced to stop working, you'll be glad to have whatever you've saved, even if you do wish it was more. Everyone always wishes they had more!

For more on this topic, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Why Small Retirement Savings Count. I hope it will inspire you to start saving, or to save just a tiny bit more than you already are.

Mysterious Phone Calls from American Express--Real or Scam?

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At the end of June, I started receiving repeated phone calls from a caller that may or may not actually have been American Express. The phone number showing up on my caller ID matched American Express’s customer service phone number as shown on the American Express website (1-800-528-4800), but caller ID can be spoofed. 

I never answered any of these calls. Most of the time, the caller did not leave a message. Sometimes, they would leave a nonsensical message that sounded like it was being read from a script. The message also made it sound like the caller didn't realize that they were talking to a voice mail service.

People occasionally make mistakes about whether they are talking to a person or voice mail, but three different callers made the same "mistake."

In addition to the strange and sporadic messages, I was suspicious of these calls because I was not an American Express card holder at the time. I had closed two accounts about a month earlier, so I didn't see what the company could legitimately want to talk to me about.

One message sounded something like this:

"My name is ____. I'm calling on behalf of American Express. May I please speak to Amy Fontinelle? (4-second pause) Amy Fontinelle please. On behalf of American Express I want to thank you for speaking to me. If you have any additional questions please contact us at the number on the back of the card. You have a nice evening."

There was no pause in the message after they said "Amy Fontinelle please." Also, I never spoke to them, so why did they thank me for speaking to them? It should be noted that all of the voice messages were from women who sounded unmistakably American--I don't think there was a language barrier problem. 

Another message sounded something like this:

Hello this is ____ calling on behalf of American Express on a recorded line may I speak with Amy Fontinelle. (2-second pause) On behalf of American Express I want to thank you for speaking with me today. If you have any additional questions you may contact us at the number on the back of the card and have a good day.

I'm not sure what a recorded line is.

The calls eventually stopped, and I never found out what they wanted. I didn't contact American Express about these phone calls because, well, why would I subject myself to a customer service phone call if I could avoid it?

Have you received any phone calls like this? 

4 Reasons Not To Refinance Your Home

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Interest rates are still extremely low, but they aren't expected to stay there for long. Should you refinance before it's too late?

Not necessarily. Learn more in my Investopedia article,
4 Reasons Not To Refinance Your Home.

4 Unexpected Warehouse Club Bargains

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Did you know that one of the cheapest ways to get a gym membership isn't by playing hard to get with the gym membership sales rep, but by purchasing a membership online through Costco? Neither did I. And gym memberships aren't the only unusual deal you can find at a warehouse club. My Investopedia article, 4 Unexpected Warehouse Club Bargains, describes several surprising discounts on items you might not think to shop for at a warehouse club. Sometimes the discounts are so good that you'll instantly recoup your membership fee and still come out ahead.

How Many Credit Cards Should You Have?

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-How does having multiple credit cards affect your credit score?
-What are the benefits of having more than one credit card?

If you've ever wondered about the answers to these questions, read my Financial Edge article for Investopedia,
How Many Credit Cards Should You Have?