MONEY Shopping

Here’s How to Save Hundreds on Groceries

Shopping Carts
Baldomero Fernandez

These 29 surprising and easy moves will help you find the best prices, avoid the sneakiest store tricks, and prevent those costly impulse buys.

Regardless of whether you’re feeding just yourself or a whole family, you probably find that groceries take a big bite out of your paycheck.

Food is the third-largest household expense, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And for a family of four, the average monthly tab runs between $568 for the super thrifty to $1,293 for those on a more liberal budget, according to the USDA.

MONEY consulted supermarket-savings experts for strategies that would help you trim the fat, without giving up the foods you love. Employing just a few of these 29 tricks—because let’s face it, you hardly have time to cook let alone turn shopping into a project—can take your bills down by 25%.

In other words, you could realize between $1,700 and $3,900 in annual savings.

Now that’s pretty delicious.

Plan Ahead

1. Do an inventory. Take stock of your pantry and freezer once a month to get a sense of what items you need and what you can skip buying, says Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. Her husband and co-author Steve adds, “you don’t want to get in a panic when you’re in the grocery store and impulse buy an item at full price only to go home and find you’ve already got it.” Use an app like Out of Milk to help with your inventory.

2. Plan meals by the ads. “A lot of people make a weekly meal plan and then go look for a deal,” says Steve Economides. “Instead, look first at the deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. This way, you can get meals for half price.”

3. Use up your pantry. Americans typically toss about 25% of the groceries we buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council. To prevent your food from turning into wasted money, sort through your fridge and pantry about once a week for items that are about to expire and place those in a designated space so that you remember to eat them before they go bad. Plug in what you’ve got at Supercook to find recipes that will help you use up your ingredients.

4. Shop only once a week. “The less you shop, the more you save,” says Annette Economides. Reduce impulse purchases and save gas by planning your shopping list so that you get a week’s worth of groceries in one shot.

5. Look for substitutes. Review your last grocery receipt and circle your most expensive purchases. When you’re next in the store, consider swapping these items for lower-cost alternatives—like ground turkey for ground beef. Subbing out a few items each trip can add up.

Get the Best Price

6. Do some reconnaissance. Pick the 10 or so items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, cereal, bananas, chicken, detergent) and make a one-time mission to a few stores in your area (supermarket, Walmart, Target, Costco, dollar store) to compare the prices. A spreadsheet like this one from the Balancing Beauty & Bedlam blog can help. Your goal: to find out if you’re actually shopping the store with the lowest overall prices for your needs, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the CouponMom.com.

7. Know the rock-bottom price. Learn the price range of the items you buy most frequently so that you’ll be able to recognize when they hit their lowest and stock up then, says Nelson. “For my family, one of our biggest grocery expenses is boneless chicken breast,” she says. “In my area, they’ll drop to $2 a pound and peak at $5 a pound over the course of three weeks. By stocking up at the lowest price, I’ve saved nearly $500 a year on just one item.”

8. Be wary of 10 for $10 sales. Or any promotion in which a store is offering several items for one price. Check the price of the item to make sure it is actually discounted, and not just clever signage making you think 89¢ cans being sold 10 for $10 is a steal. Also, if it is actually a discount, keep in mind that you don’t need to buy 10 to get the lower price.

9. Weight it out. Compare items by not just the sticker price but the price per ounce or pound to be sure you’re getting the best deal. Most stores post this number on the label on the shelf. For meats, look at the cost per serving instead so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.

10. Download coupons… Couponing doesn’t require circulars and scissors anymore. Visit Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or redplum.com to easily see what coupons are currently available in your area, then either print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card so you don’t even have to remember to bring them with you, says Nelson.

11. …then deploy them wisely. “When we find a coupon, we feel like we must use it right away,” says Nelson. “But wait until the item is at a really good sale price. This way you get savings from both the store discount and the coupon.”

12. Buy for 10 weeks at a time. Sales run through cycles, typically on an eight to12 week rotation, lifestyle and money-saving blogger Leslie Lambert of Lamberts Lately found. So if you know you’ll go through a box of cereal a week, buy 10 when they’re a deal to see you through the weeks when the item will be at full price.

13. Get an IOU. If a sale item is out of stock, ask the store for a rain check. It’s a slip of paper that grants you the sale price once the item’s back in stock regardless of whether the promotion is still running. Or if you don’t want to come back into the store, ask a manager if you can sub a similar item for the one on sale, recommends Annette Economides.

14. Photograph your receipt. You can earn cash-back on your groceries with apps like Ibotta, SavingsStar and Checkout51. These services offer weekly cash-back deals on a range of goods and all you need to do is take a photo of your receipt showing you bought the item to take advantage of the kickback, says Nelson.

Be Smarter in the Store

15. Be loyal. Pick one grocery store and one drugstore you go to frequently. “Sign up for their loyalty programs and get familiar with the promotions they run and what rewards they give out,” says Nelson. Understanding the program will help you concentrate your efforts so that you can get items for free, she notes.

16. Learn the layout. The more aisles you walk down, the more likely you are to add things to your shopping basket that you hadn’t initially intended to buy. Shoppers who decreased the number of aisles they visited checked out with only half their items being unplanned purchases vs. 68% of items for those who visited most or all aisles in a shop, according to a Marketing Science Institute study.

17. Go alone. The larger your shopping party, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. About 65% of the items in our baskets when we group shop are unplanned, an eight percentage point increase over shopping alone, according to that same Marketing Science Institute study. So leave your spouse and your kids behind.

18. Pack mints. Or eat before you go. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers are likely to spend more if their appetites have been stimulated beforehand. That’s probably why baked goods and rotisserie chickens are placed by the entrance of the store. Combat those tempting odors by eating a mint—which satiates hunger and can help overwhelm other scents—or by making sure your belly is full.

19. Bring your own soundtrack. Studies show that stores play music with a slower beat to encourage you to move more slowly through the aisles. That slower pace can lead shoppers to buy 29% more, found Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Create your own mix of upbeat songs.

20. Use a Goldilocks cart. Lindstrom told CNBC that doubling the size of a cart makes people buy 40% more. And opting for those handheld baskets can be equally dangerous. A study from the Journal of Marketing Research found that the strain of carrying the basket made us more likely to pick up “vice products” like candy and soda as an unconscious reward for putting up with the hassle. Opt instead for a smaller wheeled cart.

21. Look high and low. Avoid the middle shelves and end caps. Companies pay to place products at your eye level—and your kid’s. Scan the top and bottom shelves instead as most of the time you’ll find the less expensive brands and best deals there.

22. Check yourself out. Impulse purchases dropped by 32% for women and about 17% for men when shoppers used the self-checkout line instead of a staffed checkout, found a study by IHL Consulting Group. The reason: There is less merchandise for you to pick up last minute around self-checkout stands, and the wait time is typically shorter—giving you less time with those tempting items.

Save on Specifics

23. Skip the deli. Whether you’re buying freshly cut meats from behind the deli counter or pre-sliced by the hot dogs, you’re spending more on cold cuts than you need, according to Steve Economides, who instead opts for large chunks of prepackaged meat called chubs. He then asks the deli or the butcher to slice the chubs for him. “At the deli, I can get a pound of ham for $7 to $9,” says Economides. “If I go to the meat counter and have a chub of ham sliced, it costs between $3 and $5 a pound, meaning I can save up to 66%.” You could also cook up larger portions of a meat, say a roast beef, and slice up those extras for sandwiches.

24. Do your own slicing and dicing. Prepackaged and single-serving foods are easy mark-up territory. (Example: Through New York City’s Fresh Direct delivery service, we found a cut and cored pineapple cost $5.99 while an uncut pineapple cost $3.99.) Though it may be more time-consuming, buy the whole chicken, block cheese or pineapple and do the chopping yourself. You can create your own smaller servings—say, for school lunches—by dividing up the food into baggies or Tupperware.

25. Don’t get milk at the supermarket. Moo juice sold at drugstores and convenience stores typically costs 30¢ to 50¢ less per gallon, Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, told Reader’s Digest.

26. Grow your own herbs. Stop buying bundles of herbs—at $2-plus a pop—that you’ll never be able to use up in time and instead plant a couple pots with fresh herbs to keep in your kitchen or porch. For a one-time cost of around $5, you’ll always have fresh herbs ready, and you won’t end up wasting any.

27. Follow the produce cycle. “You can save 30-50% on the price of produce by buying what’s in season,” says Annette Economides. If you do want those berries in the off-season, buy extra when they’re cheap and freeze them so you can enjoy them year round. For a guide to when certain produce is in peak-season, see this chart from the USDA.

28. Check seafood labels. At the counter you’ll find products labeled “previously frozen” in small type. That product is often the same thing you can find in the frozen-food aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy frozen and do the thawing yourself. Your fish will be fresher and you won’t have to use it right away.

29. Get meat in bulk. Washington-based Zaycon Foods offers consumers very competitive rates—e.g. chicken breast for $1.79 a pound—for those willing to buy orders starting at 40 pounds. To get these deals, you’ll have to order online and then pick your food up at a prearranged time from the back of a refrigerated truck waiting in a church or shopping center parking lot. Can’t store 40 pounds of meat? Split it with a friend, and you’ll both save.

Read next: Amazon Will Start Delivering Fresh Groceries in New York Today

MONEY Ask the Expert

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Beneficiary for a Health Savings Account

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “What happens to the money in a health savings account when the account owner dies?”–James McKay

A: It’s up to you to decide.

But let’s back up a step: A health savings account offers those in high-deductible health insurance plans the opportunity to save pretax dollars and tap them tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses, with unused funds rolling over from year to year. Unlike a Flexible Spending Account, you have the opportunity to invest the money. And once you hit age 65, the money can be used for any purpose without penalty—though you will pay income tax, similar to a traditional IRA. So for many people, an HSA also functions as a backup retirement account.

When you open an HSA, you will be asked to designate a beneficiary who will receive the account at the time of your death. You can change the beneficiary or beneficiaries any time during your lifetime, though some states require your to have your spouse’s consent.

Your choice of beneficiary makes a big difference in how the account will be treated after you’re gone.

If you name your spouse, the account remains an HSA, and your partner will become the owner. He or she can use the money tax-free to pay for qualified healthcare expenses, even if not enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, says Todd Berkley, president of HSA Consulting Services. Should your spouse be younger than 65, take a distribution of funds and use them for something other than medical expenses, however, he or she will pay a 20% penalty tax on the amount withdrawn plus income taxes (a rule that also applies to you while you’re alive).

Thus, Berkley warns against a spouse taking a full distribution to close the HSA. He says that it’s better to leave money in the account first for medical expenses, then later for retirement expenses both medical and non—since your partner gets the same perk of penalty-free withdrawals for other expenses after turning 65.

When the beneficiary is not your spouse, the HSA ends on the date of your death. Your heir receives a distribution and the fair-market value becomes taxable income to the beneficiary—though the taxable amount can be reduced by any qualified medical expenses incurred by the decreased that are then paid by the beneficiary within a year of the death.

Failure to name a beneficiary at all means the assets in your account will be distributed to your estate and included on your final income tax return.

MONEY Careers

Career Advice for the New Mrs. Clooney

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Robino Salvatore—Getty Images

Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney. Chances are the name change won't hurt the human-rights attorney's career, but less famous wives may want to do some planning before adopting a spouse's name in the workplace.

Just back in the office after getting hitched to an actor in Venice, London-based human-rights attorney Amal Alamuddin is going by a new name: Mrs. Clooney. While the former Ms. Alamuddin, 36, has established a professional reputation under her own moniker, it’s safe to say that being identified as the woman who got the sexiest man alive to settle down won’t damage her career prospects.

But what about accomplished women who aren’t boldface names by marriage or—like Kim Kardashian, who announced earlier this summer that henceforth she would be known as Mrs. West—boldface names in their own right? Suddenly appearing in the workplace as Mrs. So-and-So can cause some confusion among clients and colleagues.

As we noted when Kim made it official, the fact that women are marrying later, often after they’ve spent years establishing a career, can make the change to a new name more complicated—and risky. If you’re considering going by a different handle in the workplace, here are eight steps to ease the transition without hurting your prospects.

1. Hedge your bets. Think about how costly it would be to cut off your connection to the body of work or marketing that’s tied to your maiden name. If that worries you, opt for a more moderate approach. “The easy out is to keep your maiden name at work and in professional contexts, but use your spouse’s last name socially,” says Danielle Tate, founder of MissNowMrs.com, a site that helps women change their legal name.

Another compromise is to use both surnames, either by making your maiden name your middle name, using both last names, or creating a hyphenated last name. Kim took this approach initially. Shortly after exchanging vows with Kayne, she changed the name on her social media accounts to Kim Kardashian West. And just as Kim has done, you can use both surnames for a brief transition period to help people get used to your new identity before dropping your maiden name.

2. Get help from your company. If you plan on making a complete switch, reach out for advice. “You don’t have to figure it out all on your own. You’re not the only who has gotten married or changed your name,” says Michelle Friedman, a career coach who specializes in women’s career advancement.

A good first move is to check in with your HR department, which may have policies in place outlining exactly what changes you need to make to your beneficiary designations, insurance benefits, company email and directory listing, and tax and Social Security forms. Aside from offering help with name-change paperwork, HR may be able to offer advice about managing contacts, as well as insights into how others in your industry have handled the change successfully (ask co-workers too).

3. Don’t make it a surprise. Give co-workers and clients ample notice about your name change to avoid confusion, especially if contact info such as your email address will be updated. Sandra Green, a U.K.-based executive coach, recommends reaching out a week to ten days before the wedding.

One easy way: Put a small note in your email signature in advance, says Julie Cohen, a Philadelphia career and personal coach. It’s an unobtrusive reminder and a good way to get people familiar with the change.

Not everyone in your email contact list needs to know. Run through your list of clients and sort them into groups based on the closeness of your working relationship. Some you’ll just need to include in a quick email blast, while others you should talk to directly.

“Obviously you don’t want to get on the phone with everyone, but in certain important client relationships this may be good to do,” says Friedman.

4. Stay on top of the technology. After you’ve made the switch, set up forwarding on your previous email account, or write an automatic reply that includes your new contact info. This way you don’t miss any important messages, and people have a longer grace period to update their contact info and adjust to your new name.

5. Go back in history. Give former employers and references a heads-up about this change as well. This way if you’re applying for a new job, your background check will go smoothly, and you won’t run the risk of having people mistakenly deny that you worked for their company.

6. Use this as an excuse to network. Send an email to everyone in your work circle. “Whenever someone changes jobs or retires, they send these emails about good news,” says Cohen. “Do the same with this.”

This also gives you a perfect excuse to remind your network what you’re up to. “You always want to remain in contact,” says Friedman. “But sometimes it’s hard to think of a natural reason for reaching out. This gives you a celebratory excuse.”

You could even send this blast twice, says Green. First a few days before the wedding and again after you return from your honeymoon, when the change is in place.

7. Make yourself easy to find. Think about how people locate you and your business. Is it through search, a review website, social media, or all of them? Update all your bios.

When you add your new name on sites like LinkedIn, keep a vestige of your old name. That can help people find you during the transition period. “Include your maiden name on social,” says Cohen. “If people are finding you by search it will serve you best to keep connected to both names.”

If you had a more common name or are making the switch to a more popular surname, adds Tate, having both names online could even help you come up higher in search results.

8. Update your memberships. To further help your new name show up high in search results and build up credibility for your new moniker, Friedman recommends having any professional organizations, alumni associations, company or community boards, or other groups you belong to change your name on their membership roles.

If you hold a leadership position or are listed elsewhere on an association website, perhaps for winning an award, request that the name change appear throughout. Ask to have any older content that can easily be altered, such as a post listing you as a guest speaker at a conference, updated too.

 

MONEY Careers

The Best Way to “Come Out” to Coworkers and Bosses

Desk with photo of two brides
MONEY (photo illustration)—iStock (main)—Getty Images (inset)

Tired of ducking out of relationship conversations at the water cooler and using gender-neutral pronouns? These strategies can help you open up with your colleagues.

On Saturday, in celebration of the 26th annual National Coming Out Day, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals took the courageous step of expressing their sexual identity to parents, relatives, and friends.

Few of those who spoke out, however, are likely to share their news with co-workers and employers now that they’re back at their jobs.

Despite rising public support for LGBT rights and the increase in state laws recognizing those rights, a majority (53%) of LGBT workers in the U.S. hide this part of their identify at work, according to a study released this year by the Human Rights Campaign.

According to the survey, the reasons for not being open at work range from feelings that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is “nobody’s business,” to fear of being stereotyped, to concern that bias could have a negative effect on one’s career and professional relationships. What many don’t realize, however, is that remaining in the closet can itself have negative effects: Many LGBT workers report feeling exhausted and distracted at work from all the time and energy they spend hiding their identities, according to HRC.

Coming out to professional relations can seem just as challenging—if not more—as coming out to personal ones. “But often fears are overblown in our minds,” says Sarah Holland, an executive coach who formerly headed the Visibility Project, a national organization that helped corporations address issues of sexual orientation in the workplace. “The world is more receptive to LGBT individuals than it’s ever been before. More often then not your colleagues have already made assumptions about your sexual orientation, especially if you never say anything about your personal life.”

There’s no need to share your orientation if you don’t care to, experts say. But if you decide that it’s finally time to let your guard down, take these steps to make it easier:

Assess the Risks

Before doing anything, you want to make sure that you won’t put your career or personal security in any kind of jeopardy by saying something.

Start by checking whether your state has a non-discrimination law that would protect you from being fired, harassed, or discriminated against. Currently 21 states have such laws in place regarding sexual orientation, and 17 of those for gender identity as well. (No workplace protections exist in federal law.)

While it’s a reassuring backstop if your state is among those that offer protections, it’s arguably more important to assess your company and department culture to get a sense of how your news will be received, suggests Deena Fidas, director of workplace equality for the Human Rights Campaign.

Does your employer have a written non-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation and/or gender identity? The vast majority (91%) of Fortune 500 companies have workplace protections in place on the basis of sexual orientation and 61% on gender identity. Does your company offer domestic partner benefits? Is there a support or affinity group for LBGT individuals, or is anyone in your department openly gay? (If so, you might want to talk to people to learn about their experiences coming out and for their insights.) Is your company ranked highly on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index?

On the other hand, have you heard anyone at work make derogatory comments about LGBT people?

Should you get the sense that it wouldn’t be comfortable to come out, you might want to rethink your corporate affiliation, says Holland. “Consider why you want to be at that company. Do you really want to spend your work life being closeted for fear?”

Start with Your Closest Colleagues

Once you determine that your workplace is LGBT friendly, begin by sharing more details of your personal life with a trusted coworker whom you know is LGBT-supportive, recommends Fidas.

Having an ally will make you feel more comfortable opening up to the rest of the workforce, and can help you deftly handle any conversations that get awkward or too personal.

For the other folks in your social circle, “use the Monday morning coffee talk as a chance to be more forthcoming,” suggests Holland.

Chances are, you’ve been ducking out every time the social chatter turns to relationships or dating—and 80% of straight workers say that these conversations come up weekly or even daily, according to the HRC survey. But now use them to your advantage: “When asked how you spent your weekend, don’t change the gender of your partner,” says Holland. “Say if you went to a function for gay rights.”

By speaking about your LGBT identity casually, you can help coworkers to follow your lead and treat it the same way.

Let Everybody Else Figure it Out

While coming out to family and friends often happens with a discrete announcement, “in the reality of the workplace, coming out is more of a daily process, not an announcing that one is gay,” says Fidas.

In other words, you need not go around to everyone from the IT guy to the mail clerk to formally and awkwardly inform them about your sexual orientation. There are many subtle, discreet ways you can clue in coworkers with whom you’re less likely to talk about these topics.

For example, putting photos of your partner on your desk or having your loved one pick you up at the office allows coworkers to make the discovery themselves without you hiding any aspect of your identity.

Fidas also recommends using an opportunity to correct a coworker’s mistaken assumption as a way to make your sexual orientation or gender identity clear: “If you’re staring a new job, and a coworker asks if you moved from Boston with your husband, you can say you moved with your wife, rather than saying your spouse moved with you.”

Remember most of all that “you do not need your coworkers’ approval,” says Judith Martin, author of Miss Manners Minds Your Business. “You only need them to be respectful of you, which your workplace probably already obligates them to do.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why This Estate Planning Tool Beats Just Having a Will

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “We established a living trust this past year and put our home and two rentals into it. Most of our investments are in IRAs, and I don’t want to put them into the trust. I am now thinking that I may not have really needed the living trust. Should I go back to just a will and cancel the trust?”—Mark Schmidt

A: A living trust has advantages that a will can’t offer, so you may want to keep both, says Greg Sellers, a certified public accountant and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils.

A revocable living trust is similar to a will in that it indicates how you would like your assets to be distributed after your death and can be amended anytime. While you should always have a will, a living trust—which is simply a trust set up during your lifetime as opposed to one created after your death—can be a valuable addition to your estate plan. Here’s why.

1. Your estate can be settled more quickly. Unlike with a will, the assets in a trust do not have to go through the probate process. Your heirs can skip the expense (lawyers, executors, paperwork, and the like), potential publicity, and inconvenience of a court-supervised distribution of your estate. And there’s no delay while your heirs wait for creditors to come forward and file claims, even when you owe no one.

This probate escape hatch is more valuable in some states than others. Many states have an expedited form of probate for estates below a certain value, which varies by state. For example, in New York, you can use the simplified small estate process if the property, excluding real estate, is worth $20,000 or less. To see what probate shortcuts your state offers, check Nolo.com’s list.

If most of your estate is in the form of IRAs or life insurance, you will not need to worry about probate either. As long as you have named a beneficiary, those assets will bypass probate.

2. You have back-up investment help. Because you must name a trustee to manage the assets, pay the taxes, maintain good records, and make payment to the beneficiaries—or a successor trustee if you’re managing the trust yourself—you already have someone in place to take over if you become disabled or incapacitated and are no longer able to manage your money.

3. You can set things up for your children. Trusts can also be good if you have minor children or heirs with special needs. When you set up the trust, you can add provisions specifying when a child can receive the assets and how he or she can use the property. With a will, your assets pass straight to your heirs.

If you don’t find managing the trust too onerous, Sellers recommends keeping it since you’ve already gone through the effort and expense of establishing and funding it (you need to retitle the assets you put in a trust, for example). On a final note, you shouldn’t transfer an IRA to a trust. That’s counted as a withdrawal and could subject you to a penalty, depending on your age.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When You Do—and Don’t—Need a Pro to Manage Your Money

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: “At what net worth should I consider getting a money manager?”

A: There is no magic number for when you need help. Similarly, you don’t have to wait for your net worth to hit a certain mark to seek out the services of a pro.

“As soon as you have enough money that it’s keeping you up at night wondering what to do, then that may be when you need to find some help,” says Deena Katz, a certified financial adviser and associate professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. “But that number will be different for everyone. Some people will feel it at $100,000, others at a million.”

Determining whether you need a money manager basically boils down to the questions you have about your money and whether you’re able to find the answers yourself and then follow through.

If your financial situation is complex—say you also manage your small business—or if you simply don’t have the time to dedicate to understanding and managing your own investments, paying an adviser to help you look after your funds could be worthwhile, says Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar.

You may also want to get investment help if you’re paralyzed by fear or know you’re prone to chasing hot funds, panic selling, or overreacting to market swings. A pro can act as a coach and help you keep your emotions in check, says Benz.

On-going money management can be costly, though. You’ll typically pay an annual fee equal to 1% to 1.5% of your total assets under management. And many wealth advisers won’t take on you as a client unless you have a minimum amount of money to invest, typically a quarter to half a million dollars.

Help just when you need it

Luckily, you probably don’t need investment guidance on a continual basis. Most of us are fine DIY-ing it the majority of the time—using simple online asset allocation tools such as Bankrate’s and sticking with broadly diversified stock and bond index funds—and getting an expert second opinion only when we’re getting started or making a big change.

In that case, you can find a financial planner who charges by the hour or per project. “If you do need more long-term help than these advisers are likely to be able to provide, in my experience they’ve always been quick to refer clients to money managers who can,” says Benz. “It’s a good first step to getting a read on how much help you may need.”

For help finding an adviser who charges an hourly or project-based rate, search the Financial Planning Association website or the Garrett Planning Network’s website.

Help that won’t cost you much

If you don’t want to go it alone but want some investment guidance, you have several options, even if you don’t have a big portfolio. One is to keep your money in a low-cost target-date retirement fund, where the manager will adjust your investment mix based on the retirement date you select.

For a more tailored approach, another low-cost route is a “robo-adviser,” says Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network. Companies like Wealthfront and Betterment offer portfolio advice that’s somewhat personalized via the web and apps. The firms use software to come up with a stock and bond mix based on your investing goal and time horizon. They then put you into low-cost ETFs and rebalance regularly. Annual fees typically run from 0.15% to 0.35% of assets, on top of ETF charges.

Finally, Vanguard has a pilot program called Personal Advisor Services, which charges 0.3% of assets a year for investment management. You must have $100,000 in Vanguard accounts to qualify; the fund company plans to drop that minimum to $50,000 in the near future.

MONEY Credit

The Crazy Easy Trick to Getting a Credit Card Fee Waived or Your Rate Lowered

Woman on phone calling about credit card fees
Robert Warren—Getty Images

A new report finds that the majority of Americans who've tried this simple move have been successful.

Want to get your credit card issuer to waive a late fee or drop your interest rate? All you have to do is ask, a survey released Thursday by CreditCards.com found.

Nearly nine in 10 cardholders have successfully had a late payment fee waived after asking their credit card company to do so. And two-thirds had their requests for a lower interest rate approved.

As simple as it sounds, only 28% of cardholders have ever asked to have a late payment fee removed and only 23% have requested a lower interest rate, meaning many of us are parting with our money unnecessarily.

A late payment fee can cost up to $26 for first time offenders, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And the difference between a 20% APR on a credit card with a $5,000 balance and an (average) 15% can be as much as $2,496 over the life of the debt if you only make a 3% minimum payment.

“If you haven’t asked before and you are a decent customer, you’re going to get what you ask for,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

There are two other factors, the survey found, that can affect your chances at success: your age and your income.

People in households with annual incomes topping $75,000 were more likely to receive what they had requested: 72% of these folks had their rates decreased vs. 55% of those in households earning between $50,000 and $74,999. And 93% of people in higher-earning households had their late fees removed, while only 84% of those earning between $50,000 and $74,999 did.

Credit card companies also favor older cardholders. While 79% of 50 to 64 year olds had their lower-interest rate request approved, the number dropped to 59% of 30 to 49 year olds and 33% of 18 to 29 year olds.

If you’re a younger and/or lower-earning cardholder, you can increase your odds of getting your issuer to give you what you want by setting the conversation up right, says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst.

Looking to lower your card’s current interest rate? “Find out what rates other card companies would be willing to offer you, then play this information off your current issuer,” says Schulz. “You could say: ‘I’ve found some other cards that I qualify for with lower rates, and while I’d like to stay with you, I would be willing to leave if you can’t match the rate.”

If your card issuer can’t reduce the rate on your current card, ask if the company has another card that you would be a good fit for that also has a lower rate, advises Detweiler.

Looking to get a fee waived? It helps if this is your first offense: Many companies have policies that will forgive your first fee, says Schulz. Those who have a history of late payments or have not used the card very much are less likely to avoid the fee, says Detweiler.

“The most important thing to do before asking is to make sure that you have paid the balance on the card,” says Schulz. “Then explain that it won’t happen again.”

You’ll also want to provide a succinct explanation for why your payment was late. “Don’t go into great detail, but say something short and reasonable like you were traveling and lost your wallet,” says Detweiler. “Cards companies are generally policy-oriented and just want to see if you fit into one of their reasons for granting an exception.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Pick a Trustworthy Manager for Your Trust

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “I want to set up a trust fund for my son and grandchild, but I’m not sure who I should get to manage it? —Judy Gillis, Crossroads, Texas

A: Once you set up a trust, you’ll need someone to invest the money, maintain good records, handle taxes, and make payments to the trust beneficiaries. The person that takes on those roles is called a trustee, and your trustee (or trustees) could be a friend or family member, a financial pro, or even you, in certain cases.

Another option is a hybrid set-up: Name a trustee who administers the trust but hires an outside manager to invest the money.

Typically, the trustee’s powers come from the trust agreement you establish, and he or she is legally bound to follow your directions and act in the best interest of the trust. You can specify any rules you wish, such as how much income your beneficiaries should receive. Or you can let your trustee have more discretion based on the guidelines you lay out.

“Serving as a trustee should not be considered an honor. It’s a job,” says Greg Sellers, a certified public accountant and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. “You want someone you can trust implicitly with both the financial responsibilities of managing the trust and with carrying out your desires laid out in the trust.”

Here’s what to consider before you pick your trustee.

What Type of Trust Is It?

If you are setting up a living trust, which is simply a trust you set up while you’re alive, you can act as the trustee and keep full control of the trust’s management. This is the easiest approach. But if you don’t want to tackle this on your own, you can be a co-trustee or name a trustee to take over.

If you are creating a testamentary trust, which is set up in your will and established only after death, you will need to name a trustee.

How Big or Complicated Is Your Trust?

Choosing a family member to manage or co-manage your trust can be a good move for a small- to medium-sized trust. A relative won’t charge you a fee and generally has a personal stake in the trust’s success.

A corporate trustee such as a bank trust department, a lawyer, or a financial adviser will typically know more about trust management, investments, and taxes than a family member, so a pro can be a good choice if you have a large trust or complex assets in it. A professional trustee is also a smart choice if your trust will last for many years or generations.

Sellers advocates a middle-of-the-road approach with a relative acting as a co-trustee or trust protector, which is a person you can designate to oversee a trustee, alongside a professional trustee. This style means the trust will have both an advocate for the beneficiaries as well as an experienced manager.

A professional trustee will cost you, though. You could pay 0.75% to 2.5% of the trust assets a year. Typically, you’ll pay more if your trust is smaller, says Sellers, or if you have high-maintenance assets like apartment buildings within it. To get professional help for less, you could choose a relative as trustee and have them hire an investment company as an independent adviser rather than a co-trustee.

Who’s Right For the Role?

If you want to go with a relative or friend as your trustee, choose someone who is open to learning how to handle the money, who will seek outside help if they need it, and who gets along with the beneficiaries.

Once you’ve got someone in mind, talk with him or her about the role. You don’t want someone to accept out of pressure or feelings of duty when he or she lacks the interest or will necessary to perform the job well.

Sellers also advises against naming one of the trust’s beneficiaries to act as trustee. You want your trustee to manage the trust in the best interest of all beneficiaries and not have conflicting interests.

MONEY family money

Money Fears Keep Women in Abusive Relationships. Here’s How to Change That.

140909_FF_WhyIStayed
Ray Rice with his wife, Janay Palmer. Vernon Ogrodnek—AP

Domestic abuse victims have opened their hearts to share #WhyIStayed stories on Twitter—and many cited financial dependence among their reasons. These 8 key steps can help break the cycle.

“Why did she stay?”

That was the question many people asked online Monday after they saw the graphic video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an elevator. The media event inspired Palmer’s fellow victims of domestic abuse to come out—through the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed—to explain why leaving isn’t that easy.

One of the major themes running through those tweets is financial dependence.

Many victims who tweeted their stories said they feared they’d be homeless or living in poverty if they left. Some said they’d be without any income or health insurance. Others expressed that their partners exerted economic control to prevent them from leaving: keeping them from getting jobs, running up debt on their credit cards, restricting access to money.

Even when victims of domestic abuse do leave their partners, ruined credit scores, erratic employment histories, legal issues, or debt threaten their future employment and financial security—which then leads many of them right back to their abusers, experts say.

“Economic self-sufficiency is frequently the difference between violence and safety for many victims,” states the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

One in four women experience partner violence, according to the coalition. If you are one of those victims, or know someone who is, make sure financial planning is part of the exit strategy. The advice outlined below can help people get ready financially to go—so that more can share their stories at #WhyILeft.

Understand where you stand

If you don’t handle the family’s money, you may not be aware of the state of your entire financial situation. Try to get a sense of what you and your spouse own and owe, and in whose name those assets and debts reside.

Unfortunately, this info may not be easy to get. “Some victims are scared to even inquire about these accounts for fear of violence or verbal abuse,” says Brent Neiser, senior director for the National Endowment of Financial Education, which has created a free book to help domestic abuse victims called Hope & Power for Your Personal Finances: A Rebuilding Guide Following Domestic Violence.

Also, by trying to acquire account information, you may accidentally flag your intentions to your spouse. So you’ll need to be careful. “Find a safe place where you can write down information as you come across it, like noting which bank the statements are coming from and any bank account numbers you find,” says Neiser. “You may have to go into a branch and inquire in person about accounts.”

If you’re looking online for information, be sure to use a private browser window so that your searches are not saved in the cache for your partner to see.

Gather key documents

Try to make copies of any important financial or personal documents—bank statements, birth certificates, marriage certificates, ownership documents for shared assets. Store these with friends or family or in a safe place at home.

When you do leave, take these copies and, if possible, all original documents that list your Social Security number and passwords.

You’ll want to have all your personal data with you to help re-establish yourself and keep your abuser from being able to commit ID theft. If your partner knows your information, or if you weren’t able to take all your records with you and fear your partner may seek financial revenge, consider changing your Social Security number, says Neiser.

Check your credit

Request a free copy of your credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus via annualcreditreport.com.

Look at the document to make sure that your partner did not open any lines of credit in your name that you don’t know about. If there is any fraudulent or incorrect information in the report, dispute the error with the credit bureaus.

Change your passwords

Pick new personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords on all accounts just before you leave—maybe as soon as a few hours before if you’re afraid of your spouse finding out—or as soon as possible afterward. Don’t forget about your email and benefit plans, says Neiser.

Avoid using personal details that your partner could guess in your password, so as to keep the person from running up bills in your name or draining your accounts.

Establish solo accounts

If you don’t already have one, set up a personal checking and savings account for yourself as soon as you can before you go. Make sure the account is listed only in your name and that statements from the account are sent to a secure mailing address or email address so that your abuser cannot access the account or have knowledge of your finances.

Squirrel away whatever money you can without your spouse noticing—maybe a part of whatever allowance you receive or, if you work, as much of your paycheck as you think you can get away with. You want to have a cushion when you leave.

Get your direct deposit set up so that the first paycheck after your planned departure date will go to your personal account.

Protect yourself from debt

Try to pay off any balances on joint credit cards so that it will be easier to close the account and prevent an abuser from racking up debt.

If you’re unable to pay off what’s owed, call your credit issuer and request that your name be removed from the account. This won’t protect you from any existing debt, but it may help protect you from having to pay for anything charged after you leave the abuser.

Take your share

Assuming you have access to joint bank accounts, you will want to make a withdrawal of 50% of the balances and put that in your personal account, says divorce attorney Emily Doskow.

If you live in one of the nine “community property” states—in which whatever is earned or acquired during marriage is split 50/50 in a divorce—you are legally entitled to half. The rest of the states attempt to split property fairly based on what each person brings in and other factors, meaning it can be 50/50 or not. But even if the court finds you aren’t entitled to half, the worst consequence is that you have to pay some of the money back.

To protect yourself, take screenshot of account at the date at which you do it showing the amount before and after.

Making this withdrawal is the last thing you should do before you leave, as this will definitely alert a spouse to your plans to go. But you do want to make sure you get this money before your partner can drain the account.

Ask for help

Need help finding a place to live or a job, recovering your money, or handling the trauma of abuse? The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a coalition in each state that can help you find resources in your area.

Also, as you begin rebuilding, you might consider taking Allstate’s free financial empowerment and career empowerment courses, which have helped more than 400,000 domestic abuse victims become financially independent.

Above all, remember that you are not alone. “Talk with people who are more advanced in their recovery and getting re-established,” says Neiser. “Ask them to share the smart, insightful techniques they’ve used. Many people working at these shelters and advocacy groups are victims themselves.”

A previous version of this article referred to Janay Palmer as the wife of Ray Rice at the time of the incident. The couple later married but at the time she was his fiancée.

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MONEY

6 Ways to Help Your Adult Kids Without Spending a Dime

Training wheels left behind
Michelle Lane—Alamy

Got a grown child who's struggling financially? These strategies let you lend a hand without offering a handout.

If you have an adult child who’s still on the family ticket, you’re probably getting tired of kicking in for everything from cell phone bills and health insurance to rent and groceries—and you may be more than a little worried about how your kid’s prolonged dependence will affect your own financial plans. (Retirement at 75 instead of 65? Not an appealing picture.) Yet when your child is struggling to make ends meet, what else can a loving parent do but cough up a few bucks (or a few hundred, or a few thousand), as needed?

Plenty, actually. If you’re among the many parents providing financial assistance to an adult child—nearly three quarters of people ages 40 to 59 with at least one grown child say they helped to support an adult son or daughter in the past year, the Pew Research Center reports—understand this: A handout is not the only way to ease your offspring’s transition to financial adulthood. In fact, in most cases, it’s not even the best way, since a bailout doesn’t teach Junior how to stand on his own two feet.

Here are six ways you can help your adult kids financially that don’t involve withdrawals from the Bank of Mom and Dad.

1. Be their financial BFF.

More than cold, hard cash, millennials need guidance about navigating the adult world of money. After all, they don’t teach you how to pick funds for your 401(k) in college or about the best way to set up and stick to a budget. Indeed, a study earlier this year from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that only about a quarter of twentysomethings were able to get a passing grade on a basic five-question financial literacy quiz, leading study author Gary Mottola to conclude: “Younger Americans lack the financial knowledge to make well-informed decisions,” which leads many of them to “engage in behaviors that are detrimental to their financial health.”

Since your child may be reluctant to admit just how little he knows about this stuff—or doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know—it’s up to you to introduce the subject. Best bet: Ask a leading question or two, using your own experience to ease the way into a conversation, rather than telling him what to do or not to do. For instance, you might offer that your company has just changed the choices in your retirement plan and you’ve had to switch investments, then add, “By the way, have you had a chance to sign up for your 401(k) yet? Need any help with the forms or figuring out which funds to go with?”

2. Share your own money mistakes.

Over the years, chances are you’ve messed up plenty when it comes to managing your money, especially when you were first starting out. What kid, of any age, isn’t secretly delighted to hear about a parent’s screw-ups? This approach to talking about money makes you seem more, well, approachable, and allows you to introduce a discussion about financial pitfalls and how to recover from them without seeming like you’re judging or lecturing. “You don’t want to be a paragon of perfection,” says Jayne Pearl, author of Kids and Money: Giving Them the Savvy to Succeed Financially. “You want to create this bond where your children can share their own mistakes and hopefully learn to avoid some of the poor choices you made when you were younger.”

3. Offer practical tools to succeed.

Twentysomethings are creatures of the digital age, and will likely feel comfortable using one or more of the many websites and apps that help users manage their money. Sites like mint.com, youneedabudget.com, budgetracker.com, budgetpulse.com, and learnvest.com all offer financial newbies an easy way to create and stick to a spending plan, manage debit and credit cards, track expenses and bills, and generally become smarter about saving, spending, and borrowing. The mint.com app even includes an alert that signals when the user has gone over a set budget. Maybe you should consider signing up too.

4. Help them lighten their load.

Seven in 10 students who attended four-year colleges graduated with loans outstanding, according to the latest stats from the Project on Student Debt—at public colleges, the average is $25,550, a 25% increase in five years, and at private schools, the average is $32,300, a 15% jump since 2008. Little wonder, then, that so many millennials are struggling financially (46% of them worry about having too much debt, the FINRA study found). One way Mom and Dad can help is to provide information about programs that help lower the monthly bills for college loans, such as income-based repayment plans for federal borrowing. Instead of the standard 10-year payback term, monthly payments under this program are capped at 10% or 15% of the borrower’s discretionary income, depending on when they took out the loans. Although your kid may rack up more interest over a longer payback period, the plans make payments more manageable now and any balance remaining after 20 or 25 years of consecutive payments will be forgiven. If your child is a teacher, works for the federal government or has another public-service job, she may also qualify for loan forgiveness after 10 years. (Get details from the Department of Education here.)

Financially strapped young adults can also benefit from having a credit card to fall back on and occasionally bridge the cash-flow gap from paycheck to paycheck. One gift you can provide is to point them to plastic with training wheels — that is, a card that can help them in a financial pinch without allowing them to get into too much trouble. A good option: Northwest FCU FirstCard. Specifically designed for first-time cardholders, this no-fee card has an ultra-low fixed APR of 10% (most cards are variable rate; recent average rate: 15.7%) and a credit limit of only $1,000 so the cardholder can’t get too overextended. Bonus: Applicants are required to take a 10-question quiz about credit, so there’s an educational element too. You must be a credit union member to apply, but this only requires a $10 donation to the Financial Awareness Network.

5. Make some introductions.

To get into the field she wants or maybe even to land that first salaried job, your child will need to network. You know people, and your people know people. Help her out by sharing her job search with your friends, coworkers, and clients, who may be able to recommend folks who’d be willing to meet for an informational interview or who will pass along news of appropriate job openings.“The best thing you can do is introduce your child to a professional in their field who can answer her questions, connect her with others, and just talk about the job,” says Jenny Erdmann, who helps direct Money MindEd, a teen financial education program.

6. Share a valuable secret.

When your kid’s pressed for cash, it may seem odd to stress the importance of saving, but do it anyway. Even putting aside a small, say, $25 a week, can get her in the habit of saving and make a big difference down the line. The sooner your child starts saving, the less of her own funds she will need to contribute to meet her financial goals, thanks to the power of compounding earnings on her investments. That’s an invaluable lesson to learn at a young age.

The secret to saving, as anyone who’s ever signed up for a 401(k) at work knows, is to automate it: Set up a savings plan at work or through a bank or mutual fund company that will automatically shift a set amount of your choosing at regular intervals (say, weekly or monthly) from your paycheck or a checking account into an investment account. Young people can start small, use automated savings plans to build up both an emergency fund and a retirement plan, and then increase the amount every time they get a raise. Studies show that people who do this end up with substantially more money than those who do not automate. “The biggest mistake someone can make is to push things off and wait for years to go by before they think about savings,” says Suze Orman, author of The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke. “Time is the most important ingredient in the financial freedom recipe.”

That’s a pretty cool concept for Mom and Dad to pass along.

Related:
How to Avoid Paying for Your Kids Forever

 

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