MONEY Banking

The Hidden Risks of Paying Your Bills Automatically

open wallet
Alamy

It's convenient to put your regular bills on autopilot. Just don't ignore them entirely or you might find yourself short on cash.

Autopaying bills is a no-brainer. You are never late with a payment, and you do not have to spend all that time going through stacks of bills, filling out checks, and then stuffing and stamping envelopes.

But Brent Cumberford learned the hard way that automatic bill paying is not as simple as setting it up and walking away.

Last year, his natural gas was turned off because expected automated payments were not made, a canceled subscription kept getting paid and another canceled service automatically renewed itself.

Cumberford, 32, who runs the personal finance site Vosa.com and splits his time between San Diego and Calgary, resolved the natural gas situation without figuring out what exactly went wrong (the bank and the utility blamed each other) and got the automatic renewal credited back. But he is still dealing with the subscription.

“The lesson I learned was that it’s important to still track automated payments,” Cumberford says.

About 61% of Americans have set at least one bill to pay automatically, says Eric Leiserson, a senior research analyst for financial technology services company Fiserv.

The main reason consumers use autopay is to make sure bills are paid on time. That is vital to their credit scores when it comes to debts like car loans, credit card balances, and mortgages, but most other on-time payments are not recorded.

A recent study by credit reporting firm Experian, however, suggests that including positive utility payment histories, which is not commonly done, could help elevate the credit scores of millions of Americans. The report also says people with thin credit histories would benefit from having a richer record of payments made.

As much as automation can be a positive, there are plenty of catches to be watch out for:

1. Changing accounts

If you decide to pay from a different account, be sure all the changes are in place. Marketing consultant Peter Brooks, 56, of Vallejo, Calif., says it was a big hassle to re-enter all the payment information after he changed checking accounts.

2. Being short of funds when bills are paid

Not having enough money in the bank is a main reason not to automate bill paying. If you have a bill set up to pay automatically and you lack money to pay it, this could affect your credit history as much as forgetting to mail in the check. Being on time 99% of the time does not help you much, but missing one payment could hurt your credit score for years.

3. Continued withdrawals even if you stop using the service

Monthly recurring charges for services can keep occurring even if you asked for them to stop. A gym membership or subscription set to be paid automatically every month could lag a request to cancel. So it is vital to keep an eye out to see if withdrawals persist after you have canceled a service, experts say.

4. Inadvertently disengaging the automated payments by making one manually

Bob Girolamo, 41, of Chicago, who runs the startup data and statistics organizer Sorc’d, learned that the hard way. He says he made a manual payment for his health insurance that disengaged the autopay. He did not notice the missed payments until he received the cancellation notice.

5. Errant payments

Monitoring transactions is key to fixing errors. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, says putting payment dates in an online calendar is one way to stay on top of what payments should be going out. “With 24-7 online and mobile account access, keeping tabs on your account is easier than ever,” he says. “Taking a matter of seconds each day is all it takes.”

MONEY Pets

How to Turn Your Dog into a Cash Cow

Boo the Pomeranian, named the cutest dog in the world Cutest Dog in the World Flies High
Virginamerica/Rex Features—AP Boo the Pomeranian, named the "cutest dog in the world."

Social media can be big business for pets, too.

Your dog may never make it like the beagle Miss P, winner of the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club’s best in show award, but he or she may still have a shot at becoming a YouTube star or nabbing a modeling contract based on an Instagram photo.

It happened for Tuna, a Chiweenie mix of Chihuahua and dachshund. This unlikely Internet star, found as a stray at a California farmer’s market, has more than a million followers on Instagram because of his cartoonish overbite. A book, The Underdog with the Overbite, goes on sale in two weeks with a list price of $14.95.

At the pinnacle is a dog named Boo, a Pomeranian with 17 million fans on Facebook, multiple books and a line of toys. He even got a deal from Virgin America Inc to be its official “pet liaison.”

To bring in money, you need more than a random clip of your dog doing something funny. It takes an orchestrated campaign to gain enough popularity to merit offers from corporate sponsors, get product placement deals, and move merchandise.

“People who have over half a million followers are getting serious money,” says Katie Sturino, who owns Toast, a King Charles pup with no teeth and a tongue that hangs from her mouth. “The ones who have really broken out are getting a lot.”

Rescued from a puppy mill, Toast has 168,000 followers on Instagram. Sturino says she has been working with companies looking for product placement or endorsements.

Going Viral

What captivates a mass audience and goes viral usually is not a fluke, says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. You need a good story to get started, and then you need a savvy strategy.

“We often look at these videos and think they must be luck or by chance,” Berger says. “Can you guarantee that something will go viral and get millions and millions of page views? No, but you can guarantee it will do better.”

Animal advocate and author Wendy Diamond says the biggest influencers are those who have a following and a personality.

“Your dog either has to have a deformity or a disability or a well-connected parent,” Diamond says.

Boo’s connection is clear. His owner, Irene Ahn, is an executive at Facebook Inc, although she has stayed out of the limelight during her dog’s climb.

But there are other routes to the top.

Jon Huang and his girlfriend, Amber Chavez, got Manny, a French bulldog who was the unwanted runt of the litter, at a half-price discount four years ago.

What started as a way to share photos and videos of their puppy with friends and family exploded in the past couple of years to following of about 796,000 on Facebook and 643,000 on Instagram.

“Basically, I just started posting unique pictures,” says Huang, 37.

After photos of Manny sleeping in a sink went viral, the dog’s popularity started to swell. As the monetary potential became clear, Huang says they made charity a big part of the Manny craze. Team Manny has raised more than $100,000 in the past year.

Manny has deals with Evanger’s Dog Food and Zico Coconut Water, among others. With all the merchandising, fundraising, deals, appearances and travels (a 15-city tour that goes from coast-to-coast), Chavez now is working full-time with Manny.

“There would be no way to manage all the stuff without her quitting her job,” says Huang. “We didn’t expect any of this. It happened so fast.”

MONEY technology

How to Trim Your Internet Bill After You Cut the Cord on Cable

laptop with cord in shape of piggy bank
Atomic Imagery—Getty Images

Pay attention to how much speed you're paying for—and what you really need.

You can cut your land line and sever your cable TV, but if you want to stream the new season of “House of Cards,” you need to hang on to your Internet connection. Whatever savings you might achieve by ditching other services, you will almost certainly give them back as your bill for Web connectivity inexorably creeps up.

Consumers now pay an average of $50 a month for a broadband connection to the Web, which is up from a monthly average of about $40 a decade ago. But costs can vary widely—ranging from $10 to $120— depending on whether the service is bundled with cable and phone, is an introductory rate, and depending also on your connectivity speed.

Cutting costs for Internet starts with understanding what you are currently paying. Most people cannot even parse this out because their bills are a jumble of bundled pricing and fees, says Kim Komando, who has hosted a national radio talk show on computers and technology for more than 20 years.

“If you haven’t looked at your whole internet package, then it’s time to go through it A-Z,” she said.

The items to look for include: the base price, speed surcharges, and equipment. If you cannot figure it out based on the arcane coding on your bill, call and ask.

One potential way to save is to buy your own modem/router combination—at $50 to $100, you could quickly make up the $5 to $10 a month rental fee you may be charged.

Another variable to control is your speed. A study released recently by the Federal Communications Commission says standalone Internet service that delivers 10-25 megabits per second (Mbps) is becoming the standard for the typical family that streams video. Many, however, opt for even higher speeds.

You could be paying for more than you need, or getting less than you expect because the wiring to your home simply cannot deliver.

The bottom line, according to savings expert Andrea Woroch, is do not pay for more speed than you need. Someone who goes online mainly to check email could make it work with a connection of 1 Mbps rather than the typical offering of 10 Mbps or more.

Some of the biggest cable providers are offering “basic” Internet connections for about $15 a month for these light users. The same deal applies for DSL, a slower Internet connection offered by phone companies and delivered over traditional phone lines. Light users will enjoy a decent price compared with those who pay for high-speed broadband, but the trade-off is that they cannot expect to stream movies without frustration or engage in video game battles online.

For those who want to make sure they are getting the speed they are paying for, numerous websites such as SpeedTest.net measure the actual speed of your connection.

If it turns out that you are paying for one speed but are receiving far less, Komando said it is important to go back to your provider and ask for an adjustment.

Vote With Your Feet

The next step is to call the competition, if you have alternate service providers in your area. If you do not, Woroch said it is still worth calling your provider to ask for a lower rate.

If you price out a cheaper plan, you can ask your current company to match it.

If they balk, all the better. The best deals can come from the cancellations department, says Ian Aronovich, 42, of Great Neck, New York.

Aronovich, who runs the website GovernmentAuctions.org, says he first went to Cablevision Systems Corp, his provider, about four years ago and asked for a rate that would match the introductory offer of a competitor. That deal bundled phone, TV and Internet for about $90 rather than the more than $150 he was paying.

After following up yearly to ask for better rates, Aronovich is still receiving about the same discount today—which works out to $29.99 for a high-speed connection with a free router.

MONEY Food & Drink

Why Organic Chocolate Isn’t Always Worth the Price

Dagoba organic chocolate
James F. Quinn—KRT/Newscom Dagoba organic chocolate

An organic label doesn't mean the candy will taste any better, and premium chocolate that is yummier may not actually be organic.

If you plunk down some big bucks for organic chocolate this Valentine’s Day, your sweetie may or may not be impressed.

Despite what some people say, such candy does not taste better just because the ingredients are organic, according to experts. The manufacturing process plays a major part.

Andy Ciordia, owner of The Secret Chocolatier in Charlotte, North Carolina, says consumers are most likely to notice that mass-produced chocolates using a cacao solution taste flatter than those made on a smaller scale and with natural ingredients.

Among the best-known organic brands are Dagoba from Hershey Co, Green & Black’s from Mondelez International Inc’s Cadbury and Newman’s Own.

To be called “organic,” a chocolate bar must consist only of certified organic ingredients. That means pesticides and genetically modified ingredients cannot be used.

Other chocolates, including the high-end and artisanal kind, may use similar standards but simply lack the certification. Most of what you find at fancy chocolatiers is not organic.

The certification costs money, which is one reason organic chocolate costs more.

You can pay still more if you buy from the growing number of bean-to-bar organic chocolate makers.

Acquiring beans from small co-ops and farms rather than the bulk market and the time-intensive way to produce a chocolate bar results in the big premium.

A typical 1.8-ounce bar made by Raaka Chocolate in Brooklyn, New York, for example, retails for $7.99, or $4.44 an ounce.

At a Walmart store, though, you can find a 3.5-ounce organic Green & Black’s bar for 94¢ an ounce. Ounce for ounce, that is still more expensive than what the chain charges for a premium Lindt bar, which is not organic, at 71¢ or a giant bar of Hershey’s Special Dark for 29¢.

But bean-to-bar chocolate is likely to have only two or three ingredients, usually the beans and sugar, sometimes cocoa butter.

By contrast, a bar of Hershey Special Dark has sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa processed with alkali, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, PGPR (emulsifier), vanillin, artificial flavor, milk.

A Matter of Principle

U.S. sales of organic chocolate and organic candy bars were up 16.5% in 2013, according to the latest Organic Trade Association data.

That is quadruple the growth rate for the overall chocolate market, says Curtis Vreeland, president of confectionery industry market research firm Vreeland & Associates.

However, he notes, the organic side represents only about 1% of the $20 billion U.S. chocolate market.

Perhaps that is because buying organic is more about principles than product.

“The primary reason for purchasing organic chocolate is the social and environmental motivation,” says Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy-wellness for the branding firm Daymon Worldwide.

Amy Grey, 24, a writer for exercise bike retailer Spinning’s website in Venice, California, says eating organic chocolate makes sense.

“You wash your fruit and vegetables to get the pesticides off before you eat them, but you can’t really wash your chocolate to get rid of those chemicals,” Grey says. “Organic chocolate means no pesticides and no harmful chemicals being put into your body.”

MONEY Travel

Why You Should Book Your Summer Vacation Now

Rome, Italy
Image Source—Gallery Stock Rome, Italy

Planes are expected to be crowded, so finding low fares will take some work and advance planning.

With snow piling up in much of the United States, it might seem a bit early to start thinking about summer. But if you want to take a vacation on your terms, travel experts say now is the time to get the ball rolling.

Cheaper fuel prices, a strong dollar, and an economy on the upswing mean consumers will have a lot of competition booking airplane seats for summer vacations. “This is the perfect storm,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, which analyzes airfares.

While experts say expectations of a booming summer travel season will prompt airlines to add capacity, the companies’ computer models will adjust pricing according to ticket sales. The fewer the seats left, the sharper the price increases.

Expect prices to rise through the spring, says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president for travel service CheapOair.com. Travelers should start booking international flights this month and domestic flights in the next month or two.

Asia- and Latin America-bound vacationers might find some bargains, while the carriers’ sharing alliances that dominate the business will probably limit the availability of deals elsewhere, says airline industry consultant Bob Mann.

How To Gear Up

To shop now, use one or more of the airline pricing websites to get notified of changes. Among those offering free fare alert services are Kayak, Yapta, Airfarewatchdog, CheapOair, and FareCompare.

A flight from New York to Paris on American Airlines on June 25 for one week would cost $1,232 non-stop round-trip if booked now. Trying for another day could reduce the price by $100 or more, so it is best to be flexible about travel dates.

And if you are willing to fly on a no-frills discount airline, you could pay even less. XL Airways France has a flight for $1,097 round-trip.

The day of the week you fly matters, FareCompare’s Seaney says. To get the best prices, try booking a flight for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or a Saturday.

On longer trips, Seaney suggests considering a connecting flight to get further savings. An example: An early summer non-stop from Washington, D.C., to Rome costs about $2,047 round-trip on United, compared with as low as $1,036 if you toss in a stop in Istanbul and fly Turkish Airlines.

You may want to vacation during off-peak periods. Seaney notes that the higher summer-season pricing does not start until after the first week in June and typically tapers down after the third week of August.

Also, keep an eye on the total price of a ticket, which can include taxes, surcharges, and fees as well as airfare.

For instance, there is still a $450 fuel surcharge levied on flights to Europe, but Seaney says it is just a matter of time before that is dropped or lowered because energy prices are so low.

Flights into and out of London’s Heathrow Airport carry an extra $70 to $90 tax, so you may want to use a different nearby airport, like Gatwick.

Cruise for Deals

This time every year, the cruise industry dangles its best deals during the so-called wave season—buy now for trips during the rest of the year.

“Now is when people will find some of the best pricing of the year and, more importantly, the best incentives,” says Gabe Saglie, senior editor for discount travel site Travelzoo.

One recent deal promoted on Travelzoo offered free drinks, prepaid gratuities and a $100 shore excursion credit on a 10-day Alaska cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line—about $1,200 in perks. An ocean-view room for a midsummer sailing was going for about $1,800 per person (based on double occupancy) with those bonuses tossed in.

Related: 6 Ways to Be a Savvier Traveler in 2015

MONEY Fundraising

Crowdfunding for a Good Cause Gets Cheaper

Ball picking up money
Getty Images Websites can help you turn small donations into a life-changing gift.

A growing number of sites will help you raise big money for a friend in need. But watch for high fees.

The week before Christmas, a fire gutted the Beverly, Massachusetts home shared by Kevin Wagner, his fiancée and their four young children. Most of their basic possessions were destroyed along with their Christmas presents.

While insurance will cover much of the rebuilding, friends stepped in right away with cash to fill the gap until the claim is settled. As is becoming more common these days, they started crowdfunding campaigns on popular sites—one on DreamFund.com, which holds money in an FDIC-insured savings account, and another on GoFundMe.com, which is linked to a personal bank account. Both sites collect a 5% fee from the donations and pass along a credit card processing fee of about 3%.

For the $25,000 Wagner’s friends raised on DreamFund, that amounts to $2,000, and another $800 went to GoFundMe and its credit card processors for the $10,000 raised on that platform.

A few people were put off after learning about the fees, Wagner says, and simply handed him checks, which added another $10,000 to the effort.

Nevertheless, raising money for personal causes through crowdfunding sites is a skyrocketing business—GoFundMe says such fundraising campaigns increased by 291% between 2013 and 2014, after rising by more than 500% the year before. But the fees make it clear the platforms themselves are, indeed, businesses rather than purely charitable efforts.

More than 2,000 crowdfunding sites have sprung up to try to catch the wave of this rapidly growing industry, says Howard Orloff, vice president of Zacks CF Research and founder of Crowdfunding-Website-Reviews.com. Of those, many are start-ups with little staying power and many are aimed at businesses seeking capital rather than personal causes. Some, like Kickstarter, one of the best known sites, don’t allow personal fundraising.

Regardless of type, the sites make money by taking a percentage of pledges, which results in either a donation being reduced when it reaches the recipient or a surcharge added to the donor so the recipient gets the net amount pledged.

But when it comes to raising money for charity, that may be changing.

On Dec. 15, popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which typically charges 4% to 9% (plus fees for PayPal or credit card processing), decided to drop the fee for personal fundraisers. Users of its new IndiegogoLife service only have to sacrifice the 3% taken by the credit card processors.

Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann says the company didn’t want those who were in need of charity to be subject to the same charges as those trying to launch a business.

“Every dollar counts—we’ve heard that again and again and again,” she says.

Dropping that platform fee is a “game-changer” in the world of crowdfunding, Orloff says. “Smaller sites [like YouCaring.com and Tilt.com] have offered no-fee crowdfunding for a while but none with website traffic, and public trust, anywhere near Indiegogo.”

By contrast, collecting the old-fashioned way—by accepting cash in person or checks to be deposited in a bank—usually involves no extra costs, although some banking fees may apply depending on the kind of account you choose.

But real-world collecting like that has limitations of reach, and not much possibility of the campaign going viral.

With crowdfunding, if the cause is popular enough to land on the home page of one of the more popular sites “it can go pretty wild,” Orloff says. “It can change somebody’s life.”

Indeed, the campaign to raise money for Wagner and his family went far beyond the $5,000 he imagined—the $50,000 raised so far may actually be more than they need.

“We didn’t expect this at all,” Wagner says. “If there is extra , we want to help others. We hope to pay it forward.”

MONEY Travel

Canceling a Hotel Reservation Last-Minute Could Cost You

Hilton New Delhi Janakpuri, India.
Hilton Hilton New Delhi Janakpuri, India.

Some hotels are altering their cancellation policies, and it could mean extra charges for travelers if their plans change unexpectedly.

When it comes to changing hotel reservations, the concept of “last-minute” is about to get a bit longer.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, last-minute will mean by midnight the night before, or a penalty of one night’s stay at Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, which operate about 8,000 hotels. Previously, many properties offered free cancellation as late as the evening of the reservation.

“These changes will make more rooms available for travelers needing last-minute accommodations,” Hilton said in a statement.

Other chains have yet to announce such changes. Many hotels within chains have varying policies. Some allow cancellations as late as 6 p.m. the night the reservation was to start and others require 24 hours or more notice in advance.

At IHG hotels, which include InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn, spokeswoman Monica Brosman says individual properties set their own cancellation policies. Other chains, including Wyndham and Starwood, direct guests to terms set by the hotels they reserve.

The new cancellation policy could make changes difficult for some business travelers. Sarah Howell, 33, of Austin, Texas, says she often makes hotel choices based on which one has a more generous cancellation policy.

“This policy just doesn’t allow for the flexibility a business traveler needs,” Howell says.

A corporate trainer who writes the “Road Warriorette” blog, Howell says her 70 to 80 nights a year in hotels have led to loyalty. “I have status with Hilton, plus they consistently have properties near where I need to visit. I’m not ready to change brands over it.”

Following the Airlines

Some see the cancellation policy change as following airlines that charge varying fees for some services. “As we’ve seen in the airline industry, the potential to generate substantial revenues from add-on fees is huge,” says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

At Manhattan’s Benjamin hotel, for example, rooms for a night in mid-December ranged from $263 with no-cancellation to a “flexible rate” of $329 for a room that could be canceled without penalty at 6 p.m. the night before the reservation. At the JW Marriott Marquis Miami, a non-refundable room was $314 while a room that could be canceled without penalty until 6 p.m. the day of the reservation was $349.

If you are thrown off course by bad weather or travel delays, contact the hotel you have reserved and explain the situation. That could lead to a penalty-free cancellation or another resolution so you do not pay for a night’s stay in a room you will not use.

There can also be advantages to using apps and websites like Hotel Tonight, LastMinuteTravel.com, and Booking.com, which list hotels offering discounts on the night to fill unbooked rooms.

MONEY charitable giving

The Best Ways to Donate to Help Fight Ebola

How to find a charity that will spend your money well—and how to avoid the scams that always spring up after disasters.

Many charities are immersed in the fight to control the Ebola epidemic, but so far the donors have not come forward en masse—although scams already are emerging.

For those ready to dig into their pockets, here are four tips to make an impact with your gift.

Sort the Lists

You can find comprehensive lists of charities fighting Ebola from organizations that vet nonprofits like Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

These lists can be overwhelming. Charity Navigator, for instance, identifies 45 charities with top accountability ratings aiding in the fight against Ebola and also helping victims.

Doctors Without Borders, which has been extremely visible throughout the outbreak that has claimed nearly 5,000 lives, tops most lists.

The organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, announced it is budgeting $64 million for its work fighting Ebola. It has raised at least $35 million in private donations and secured $25 million in institutional funding. The group operates six Ebola case management centers, with about 600 beds that are in isolation. It has treated 3,200 confirmed Ebola cases.

Also among those recommended by Charity Navigator are Pennsylvania-based Brother’s Brother Foundation (which distributes medical supplies), the Missouri-based humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope, and some better-known charities including the United States Fund for UNICEF, Oxfam America, and Save the Children.

Give Broadly

While donors want to know their donation is going for a specific purpose, such as helping victims in a specific country, Ken Berger, chief executive officer of Charity Navigator, says that’s not always the ideal way to go.

It’s best to give to an organization whose overall mission you trust and allow the group to decide where the money can be used, Berger says. Saying you only want the cash to go for a certain medication, for instance, could hamstring an organization that already has an abundant supply of the drug but needs cash for other purposes.

Some noteworthy organizations include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $50 million, committing the first $12 million to the World Health Organization, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another option is the CDC Foundation, which was created by Congress as a non-profit that raises money in support of the CDC. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $25 million to the foundation.

Donate Your Vacation Time

If you don’t have cash to spare, you can now give away your unused vacation time. The Internal Revenue Service this week added to the mix of donation options specifically related to the Ebola outbreak by allowing American workers to donate vacation, sick time, or personal leave.

Under the IRS guidelines, employees give vacation hours back to their employer who converts those hours into cash. Donating the funds to tax-exempt organizations working to help Ebola victims in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone qualifies for a tax break. And the employees don’t have the money counted as income, under this arrangement, which has been used for previous natural disasters.

Beware of Scammers

The biggest trouble spots for potential donors are crowdfunding sites along with social media because they can appear legitimate but lack verification.

“Anybody can put up a crowdfunding site and promise to do something,” Wise Giving Alliance chief operating officer Bennett Weiner says.

Hundreds of such sites already exist, such as one that purported to benefit a Dallas nurse who had been infected. It was removed after her family members objected.

Tips from the Federal Trade Commission to avoid Ebola-related fund-raising scams include:

  • Avoid charities that appear to have “sprung up overnight in connection with current events.”
  • Be wary of charities whose websites or names are similar to those of established charities.
  • If you receive a call from a solicitor, and you’re interested, ask who they work for and the percentage of the donation that goes to both the fund-raising firm and the charity. Lack of a clear, direct answer is a red flag.
  • Do not send cash. You won’t know the money went where it was supposed to and you won’t have a record.

 

MONEY Taxes

How to Never Miss Out On One Valuable Tax Break

Odometer
James F. Dean—Getty Images

Workers who drive a lot for business can write off the costs. These three tools can make tracking those miles on the road easier.

More than 40 million Americans earn money while driving around in their cars, making them eligible for a valuable business mileage deduction from the Internal Revenue Service.

At 56¢ a mile, less than two business miles equals a dollar. So for someone driving 25,000 business miles a year, $14,000 in deductions is at stake.

Keeping an accurate mileage log used to be an arduous task involving a notepad and paper, but most people do not bother with the work. Many recreate their trips after the fact. Some just make it up. Do it wrong and you could get an audit.

“Getting a lot of round numbers means people either aren’t tracking or are rounding,” says P.J. Wallin, 33, a certified public account from Richmond, Virginia.

Bill Nemeth, an enrolled agent who represents clients in IRS audits, says most of his clients tend to exaggerate their business mileage and, when audited, it can be challenge to try to prove they actually drove the miles. Nemeth says he even uses Carfax reports from cars that clients have sold in order to document the actual mileage of the vehicles. In more than 25 years of doing taxes, Nemeth can recall only one client who presented a log that was clearly used daily.

MileIQ, which sells a GPS device that helps track mileage, surveyed about 1,000 of its users and found that only 36% of them had kept a written log previously. Another 18% admitted to making up numbers after the fact, 15% said they did nothing with their mileage, and 11% said they used their calendars to go back and recreate driving distances.

But in today’s highly automated world, apps and standalone GPS devices take the work out of the process, so there are no more excuses. Prices and functions vary, and some personal preference is involved.

Here are three different approaches – all of which are tax-deductible as a work expense.

MileIQ

This iPhone app (scheduled to be out soon for Androids) promises to be more automated than its cousins—always running in the background. It costs $5.99 a month or $59.99 a year. Lighter drivers, however, can use it for free. Users can log 40 drives a month before they would have to take a paid subscription, so you can take it for a test drive.

The idea is that the app does most of the work, although eventually users have to look over the results and eliminate listings that were not for business. Data from the app is regularly uploaded to the cloud, and reports sent automatically via email. Users can also customize the data.

MileIQ co-founder Charles Dietrich says the app actually learns from patterns and increasingly knows when a trip is of the reimbursable sort and when it is not.

Easy Mile Log

This device, which costs $149, is a small GPS tracking device you leave in your car. When you start a drive, press a button to note the trip is either work or personal. It will document the date and time of your travels, where you started, where you went and the distance. You can dump the data from the device onto your computer using a USB cord.

EasyBiz Mileage Tracker

At $2.99, EasyBiz Mileage Tracker is a cheaper app option, but not quite as automated as the others. Instead, it relies on the user to create what is basically a computer-assisted mileage log – starting and stopping each trip, while it notes the location and the distance via GPS.

Mileage Tracker allows users to customize report printing and add other entries – like tolls, for instance – that could come in handy when doing mileage reports.

MONEY

10 Smart New Uses for Your Old iPhone

old iphones hanging
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images If all else fails, tap your crafty side. Obsolete old phones + twine = wind chimes!

Don't let it take up space in a landfill or gather dust in a desk drawer. With a few free or cheap apps, you can give your out-of-date iPhone a second life.

With about 10 million new iPhone 6s ordered in the initial days on the market, a whole lot of old iPhones are destined for the scrap heap.

Sure, you could sell, donate, or recycle your old iPhone, but you probably will not. And there are better things to do with it.

One creative example: At the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a biology class is making old iPhones into microscopes. Using less than $10 worth of supplies, the old phones are mounted onto a lens and can magnify an object to 175 times its size.

Even an old phone with a cracked screen can be repurposed, says Josh Smith, editor of GottaBeMobile.com. “You’re only really limited by your imagination,” Smith says.

Here are 10 smart—and cheap—uses for old iPhones.

1. Clock

Set your old phone on a dock or a stand and use a clock app. With Standard Time ($3.99), you will have a timepiece unlike any other.

With this app, your clock is a non-stop time lapse video of construction workers switching out pieces of lumber to shape the actual time. “It’s mesmerizing,” says Shawn Roberts, 47, an Oakland, Calif., marketing executive.

You can also set up flexible alarms and get the phone to play soothing white noise as you go to sleep. Set it close enough to the bed, and it can be a sleep tracker, too, with an app like SleepBot (free).

2. Music for your car

Take your music library on the road. Some cars come equipped with docking ports for iPhones and have dashboard screens so you can navigate your musical options hands-free. Or you can just use the cigarette lighter for power.

3. Remote control

Televisions, speakers, and other devices now have apps that allow users to make their iPhones into sleek remotes.

Carm Lyman, 42, of Napa, Calif., converted his iPhone 4 into a remote for his household sound system after his iPhone 5 arrived. Lyman can control the audio levels and activate speakers in various parts of his home as well as access different music services.

4. Surveillance system

Apps can convert an old iPhone that has access to WiFi into a surveillance camera and motion detector. Presence, which is a free app, provides a live stream from the area you want to monitor. You can set it up to record video clips when it detects motion, too.

If you buy a robotic viewing stand for about $100, you can move the camera 360 degrees rather than stick with a stationary view.

5. Cookbook

No need to go through recipe books or hunt around for other devices when you have a kitchen iPhone. Download a cookbook app, such as My Recipe Book (99¢) or Big Oven (free), and just leave the device on the kitchen counter. It takes up almost no space and will hold far more recipes than any book.

6. Extra storage

Need a place to store old photos and music or other files? Turn your old phone into a storage drive using a free app like USB & Wi-Fi Flash Drive.

7. Voice recorder

Why buy a digital voice recorder when you have a retired iPhone? Using any of several free apps, including Voice Recorder and Voice Record Pro, you will have a designated memo recorder or a device to record interviews and speeches.

8. Document scanner

Genius Scan and Doc Scan are two apps that will turn an iPhone into a handy portable scanner that you can use for work, school reports, genealogical research, or recording receipts. And they will not cost you a penny.

For $20 and up, you can buy a stand that makes your iPhone into a stationary scanner.

9. Baby monitor

Sure, you can spend $100 or more on a baby monitor, or you can just set your old iPhone up to watch streaming video of your baby as well as hear and even talk to him or her.

Cloud Baby Monitor ($3.99) also allows parents to receive the signal on a wireless network or on WiFi so they do not have to be within a certain number of feet of the monitor.

10. Vehicle Tracker

Whether you need to find your car if it is stolen, record where you have traveled, or spy on your teenage driver, the built-in GPS in your phone can be used as a tracking device. An app like InstaMapper ($2.99) lets you watch the vehicle in real-time and have a record of it.

Of course, you may end up taking the simple path of letting a child use your old iPhone as an iPod Touch. Keep in mind that the phone can still dial 911, even if it does not have cellular service, Smith says.

You can also use your old phone as a back-up in case your new model suffers irreparable harm. That said, the battery of a phone that sits in a drawer unused could drain to the point where it is no longer viable.

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