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:

Nonfat powdered milk
Bottled water
Protein bars
Protein shakes
Dried fruit
Canned soup
Pasta sauce
Breakfast bars
Canned fish
Peanut butter
Chips, crackers and pretzels
Baby food
Pet food

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

Soap or bodywash
Facial cleanser
Toilet paper
Feminine products
Contact solution
Dental floss
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?

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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?

"Free" Credit Reports That Aren't Really Free

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Many websites advertise that they allow you to check your credit report and/or credit score for free. But there's a catch: many of these "free" reports and scores actually cost money. Take a look at a few of these websites to see what they really charge in my Financial Edge article for Investopedia, Free Credit Reports and Credit Scores That Aren't Free.

If you want a truly free credit report, you do have a few options.

The FACT Act entitles consumers to one free credit report per 12 month period from each of the three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). The only website that really allows you to get your credit report for free with no strings attached is www.annualcreditreport.com. To get your credit score, you’ll still have to pay.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, if you receive an adverse action notice based on data in your credit report, you are entitled to a free credit report from the credit bureau whose file the decision was based on. You must request the report within 60 days of receiving the notice. If you are denied credit, insurance, employment, an apartment, utility service, a government license or a government benefit, you are eligible to receive the report. People who are unemployed and plan to seek employment within 60 days, who are on welfare, or who believe their credit files are inaccurate due to fraud are also entitled to free reports.

If you request a free score for any of these reasons, you’ll have to fill out a form that states, for example, which company denied you credit or the name and contact information for your former employer.

Finally, residents of 13 states can get free or reduced-cost credit reports. These states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Vermont, and Virginia. Check out the discounts here.

Best Loyalty Programs for 2011

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Clear benefits. Achievable rewards. Consistency. Sustainability. A feeling of appreciation. These are the characteristics of a good customer loyalty program. If customers don't understand a program or have the terms changed on them, they'll be uninterested at best and feel betrayed at worst. Read my latest Financial Edge article for Investopedia to learn about the Best Loyalty Programs for 2011.