Carson Kohler - The Penny Hoarder

On a recent Saturday, several people gathered in an inconspicuous warehouse in Philadelphia's East Kensington neighborhood for an ax-throwing competition.

Instructors taught first-timers how to aim and throw axes, while the veterans struck bull’s-eyes, eliciting cheers from members of the crowd as they grabbed brews from their BYOB coolers.

From the looks of it, you’d think ax throwing is America’s favorite pastime, but Urban Axes opened less than a year ago. It’s the one of the first of its kind in the U.S.

Competitive Ax Throwing?

[caption id="attachment_62074" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]An axe is pictured embedded in a wooden bullseye. One of the first of its kind, Urban Axes in Philadelphia, PA, is an axe throwing club. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis[/caption]

The sport originated in Toronto — apparently in someone’s backyard — about 10 years ago, but now it’s slowly but surely infiltrating the U.S. thanks to sprouting venues like Urban Axes.

Lily Cope, Urban Axes’ “axe master general” (or general manager), says the sport seems to grow organically.

“There’s something very exciting and kind of primal about putting an ax in someone’s hands and having them throw it at a target,” Cope says.

Somewhat comparable to darts, the goal of ax throwing is to hit the bull’s-eye 15 feet away. Depending on their preferred stances, competitors typically wind the ax over their heads and pelt it overhand at the target.

What It’s Like to Be an Axe Master General

[caption id="attachment_62077" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Lily Cope, the Axe Master General at Urban Axes, poses at the in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania facility in Philadelphia, PA. Lily Cope is the Axe Master General at Urban Axes in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis[/caption]

Had you asked Cope a little over a year ago if she’d ever be working in an ax-throwing facility, she would have answered with a confused “no.”

That’s because she’d never even heard of the sport.

Last spring, Cope quit her job at a local demonstration kitchen, where she hosted cooking classes and chef demos. She was looking for a new challenge, a new adventure.

[caption id="attachment_62078" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]A coach walks a group of first timers through the rules at Urban Axes on June 24, 2017. A coach walks a group of first timers through the rules at Urban Axes on June 24, 2017. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis[/caption]

That’s when she got a text from a friend that said he’d found her next gig: “I asked what it was, and he texted me back saying ax throwing, and I said to him in return, ‘I think your phone autocorrected. What did you really mean?’”

“And from there… here we are,” she says. “I can tell you this is not how I thought my career path would go.”

Cope threw her first ax last May.

“It sucked,” Cope says of that first throw, which bounced off the wood and hit the ground. She got a bull’s-eye on her second attempt.

“Then I was hooked,” Cope says. “It was this crazy exhilarating feeling.”

With her new passion for ax throwing paired with her background in marketing and business operations, Cope has spent this past year hustling to prepare the 6,000-square-foot space, hire a staff of 34 “axeperts” (and still hiring!) and market the new, unfamiliar sport to American consumers.

[caption id="attachment_62079" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Shimmie Pesis kisses his axe for good luck during his first visit to Urban Axes. Shimmie Pesis kisses his axe for good luck during his first visit to Urban Axes. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis[/caption]

Today, Cope estimates nearly 1,000 people visit Urban Axes a week, which hosts group tournaments, leagues and walk-in sessions.

She says the reception has been “pretty freakin’ positive.”

Urban Axes opened last September, and it has plans to open three other locations in Austin, Texas, Baltimore and Cincinnati by the end of this summer. Other ax-throwing facilities are getting into the game in Chicago, Dallas and Denver.

Cope’s favorite part about her job? “Watching people experience something new, something they've never done and that excitement and joy… it’s like they’re children, you know?”

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s ready for Urban Axes to expand to St. Petersburg, Florida, so she can start relieving some stress.

My grandmother graduated from college 50 years ago and remembers paying $400 per semester in tuition.

Fast forward.

The average amount spent on college this past school year was $23,757, according to a recent Sallie Mae report.

That’s 38% higher than it was just 10 years ago.

How are families and students paying for this? Sallie Mae, a largely known student loan company, took a look by conducting phone interviews with 800 undergraduate students and 800 parents of undergraduate students.

Here’s How Families are Paying for College

We were wondering where that nearly $24,000 was coming from, too.

Here’s the breakdown of how American families paid for it:

  • Students relied on scholarships and grants the most, raking in an average $8,390 to foot the bill.
  • Another chunk of funding comes from the parents’ income and savings: $5,527.
  • Shortly behind that was student borrowing at $4,551 per school year. Think: The $1.4 trillion dollars we currently owe in student debt.

All of that adds up to $23,757.

Have a College-Bound Kid? Here are Some Resources

If you’re wondering how you’re going to afford that hefty bill when your kid heads off to college, we don’t think you’re the only one.

We’ve got a couple of resources:

  • Many students relied on scholarships and grants. Go ahead and send this list of 100 scholarships over to your student. Have them comb through and apply to anything and everything. Seriously.And apply for FAFSA. The student aid form’s completion rate actually continues to rise each year. Last year 85% of families filed. This year, it was 86%. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a guide that walks you through the process. If you qualify, this could be free money.
  • Some parents start saving early. According to the Sallie Mae report, 13% of families use 529 plans. These are the prepaid plans you strike up when your kid is an infant, ideally. The amount amount of money families spent from 529 plans was $10,031 last year. That’s about half of tuition. Don’t worry. We explain 529 plans, too, and how to find the best fit for your kid.
  • On student borrowing… Well, that’s been a popular topic lately, especially since we’re about $1.4 trillion in student debt. Let’s spend a little more time on this one.

Are You a Former Student Already in Debt? Consider This

Students are having to borrow more and more money.

In fact, students borrowed $1,375 more this past year than they did in 2015-16, according to Sallie Mae.

If you’re on the other side of those college gates and have your own stack of student debt, you’re probably cringing a little.

One fairly easy way to cut down that bill is to refinance or consolidate that debt, which will help with those crazy interest rates.

Here’s an example: John DePrato had $65,000 in student debt. He was paying $850 a month until he decided to refinance through a student loan refinancing site called Credible. It works like a online marketplace in that DePrato was able to shop around for the best rate.

He found it.

He cut his monthly payments down from $850 to $400.

More people out there have done the same, too. In fact, the average Credible user has $60,000 of loans and an interest rate of 7%. Once they refinance, they have an average savings of $18,668 over the life of their loans.

If you want to explore all your options to pay off your student loans, here are seven other strategies to consider.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. As a former out-of-stater, she wished she only had to pay $400 in tuition…

Earlier this year, my family dog managed to rack up a $4,000 vet bill.

Bandit had become so sick he wouldn’t eat or drink; he couldn’t even stand up.

“What do you do?” my dad, the (typically) frugal father he is, shrugged. (Bandit is his favorite child, by the way.)

Our dog spent two nights in the animal hospital hooked up to an IV, getting X-rays… being all mopey.

Then he was fine. The vet never figured out what was wrong with him, and my parents were slapped with a $4,000 bill.

Luckily, they could pay it.

Me? A few months ago, I unexpectedly adopted a kitten (found her on the highway). I love her with my whole heart, and if something happened to her, I’d be devastated.

But if I got a $4,000 bill? Quite frankly, I’d be screwed.

That sparked slight panic (like everything else), so I started looking into pet insurance.

[caption id="attachment_61827" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler sits with her kitten Josie and her family dog Bandit in St. Petersburg, Fla., on July 20, 2017. Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler sits with her kitten Josie and her family dog Bandit. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

So What’s Pet Insurance?

Americans will spend $16.62 billion on vet care this year, according to the American Pet Products Association.

And individual pet owners shouldn’t be shocked if they incur at least one $2,000 to $4,000 bill for emergency pet care at some point in their pet’s life, according to Louise Murray, D.V.M., a veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.

OK, so we’ve established that vet bills can be expensive, especially the surprise kind.

That’s where pet insurance can help. Typically, these plans cover some part of the bill from any illnesses or injuries.

“If we're going to love a pet and treat them like part of the family, then we should be sure that we're prepared if something happens, because it always does,” says Kristen Lynch, the executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA).

“Life happens, right?”

In fact, her mini poodle, Seamus, used to get sick almost every spring. She couldn’t figure it out. He’d have to go to the vet where they’d give him barium and do X-rays. Then he’d be fine.

Turns out, he was snacking on cherry pits under her deck, and the barium cleared the blockages out.

“The little rat,” Lynch says with a chuckle. “No one’s allowed to eat cherries on my deck anymore.”

Each time this happened, she relied on her pet insurance. She’s had Seamus insured since he was about 12 weeks old. She estimates she’s saved about $5,000 so far.

How Does Pet Insurance Work?

Typically, each plan has an annual deductible, which you have to satisfy before the insurance kicks in. You also pay a monthly premium.

Your annual deductible and monthly premium are based on the plan you choose (more details on that later) — as well as the co-insurance, the percentage you’ll have to pay out of pocket.

At the vet, you still have to pay the bill, but once you file the claim, it’s usually processed within five working days, according to Lynch. So you can charge the bill to your credit card and should be reimbursed by time that payment is due.

Sometimes the vet will work directly with the insurance company if the bill is steep or more complicated.

Here’s an example: A couple of summers ago, Lynch says a pair of dogs attacked Seamus in the park. The total vet bill reached $2,000.

“My deductible was $350 at the time, and co-insurance was 20%, so I got $1,320 back,” Lynch explains.

She put the bill on credit, but received her claim before the next bill was due — which she says has always happened.

[caption id="attachment_61828" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Carson Kohler's dog Bandit is healthy again after a recent medical scare. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

So… How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?

Now that Lynch has some numbers rolling around in my head, I wanted to figure out how much pet insurance typically costs.

The average cost of pet insurance for dogs is $22 a month. For cats, it’s about $16 a month, according to Consumer Reports.

I decided to do my own calculations, too, which might help give you an idea of how much your pet’s insurance could cost. But remember, these premiums will vary depending on the company and coverage you choose, as well as the benefits you want.

“You get what you pay for when it comes to coverage,” Lynch says.

At the most basic level, though, these premiums are calculated based on your location, as well as your pet’s species, breed and age.

Based on reviews from Canine Journal, I decided to compare Pets Best Insurance, Petplan Insurance and Healthy Paws Pet Insurance.

Note: All pet insurance companies offer immediate policy quotes, so you can get an idea of how much insurance will cost you.

Subject No. 1

Meet Bandit. (You already met him, I guess.) We think he’s about 9 years old now. He’s a medium-sized mutt, and other than some allergies and the incident earlier this year, he’s pretty healthy.

Here are the quotes I received for him as of mid-July 2017):

    • $15,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • $5,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • Unlimited annual coverage
    • $750 annual deductible
    • 60% reimbursement

Notice that the monthly premiums will vary.

For example, Petplan and Pets Best have seemingly more expensive monthly plans, but these two also reimburse you a larger percentage of your bill and require lower annual deductibles ($250 versus $750).

Subject No. 2

Now meet Josie. She’s about 12 weeks old. She’s the stray I found in the middle of the highway. She’s young, spry and healthy.

Here are the quotes I received for her as of mid-July 2017:

    • $15,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • $5,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • Unlimited annual coverage
    • $200 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement

In Josie’s case, Healthy Paws requires a higher monthly premium, but the annual coverage and deductible are lower (if only by $50).

You’ll want to do some math here and determine if you’d rather pay more upfront or if you’d rather pay more on a monthly basis. That’ll be up to you.

[caption id="attachment_61829" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Josie makes herself comfortable on her favorite perch. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Here’s What to Consider When Shopping for Pet Insurance

Now that numbers are swimming around in your head, you’ll want to dig into each of these plans a bit to see what each one offers — and which is best for your furbaby.

Here’s what you should look for when shopping around for pet insurance:

1. Know Your Pet’s Needs

Many pet insurance policies cover dogs and cats, though you can find some for other species if you poke around.

Take into consideration any predisposed medical conditions for your pet’s breed. For example, some dog breeds are more likely to develop arthritis or diabetes. How much will it cost to treat those ailments?

Lynch says she asked her vet: “What’s a really common condition for a poodle to have? How much would it cost if that happened?”

That’ll help you determine what level of coverage you’ll need.

2. Understand What’s Covered

It’s important to study an insurance plan’s coverage.

Most plans cover accidents, injuries and illnesses, diagnostic treatments, cancer treatments, surgery and prescription medications, among other expenses.

Pre-existing conditions, anything related to pregnancy or birth, routine or preventative treatments or the price of death (after a certain age) are typically not covered, according to NAPHIA.

Here are a couple of examples of what is and isn’t covered:

All of Petplan Insurance plans, as mentioned above, cover:

  • Accidents and injuries
  • Illnesses
  • Veterinary exam fees
  • Imaging (MRI, cat scan, ultrasound)
  • Diagnostic treatments
  • Prescription medications
  • Cancer treatments
  • Non-dental routine dental treatments
  • Surgery and rehabilitation
  • Alternative therapies
  • Referral and specialist treatment

Pet Best Pet Insurance includes much of the same coverage, if not a little more:

  • Accidents
  • Illnesses
  • Cancer treatments
  • Hereditary and congenital conditions
  • Emergency care, hospitalization and surgery
  • Prescription medications
  • Ongoing and chronic conditions
  • Diagnostics
  • Older pets
  • Full coverage even when not spayed/neutered
  • Behavioral conditions
  • Prosthetic devices and wheelchairs
  • Euthanasia
  • Coverage while traveling (anywhere in the U.S. Canada or Puerto Rico)

3. Consider Other Factors

Here are a few other questions you can ask yourself:

  • What type of specialists are covered? If your dog is predisposed to eye problems, make sure an optometrist will be covered.
  • Is there an age limit? Is there a minimum age?
  • How easy is it to file? Can I just download an app?
  • Is there an incident limit if my pet’s just having a really rough year?

If you’re ever in doubt, have a conversation with a veterinarian.

So Who Needs Pet Insurance?

It just depends, and that decision is up to you. In the meantime, here’s another article that might help you make that decision: Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

For Lynch, it just makes sense.

“It’s most of us who live month to month that pet insurance is designed for,” she says. “I save each month as part of my budget, but I also have coverage because it makes sense. I have so many other plans for my spending money and savings that I’d rather not have the financial surprise.”

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She shares way too many pictures of her cat with the office. If you’d like to see some, too, just find me on Twitter.

What are some major milestones you hope to hit in your lifetime?

Graduate college? Buy a car? Get a job? Find a mate and pop out a baby or two? Own a cute abode? Travel to every state? Retire comfortably… maybe even on an island?

We can all dream, but the reality is many factors can hold you back from achieving these goals — including this virtual thing in cyberspace called your credit report.

“Credit reports have a pretty ubiquitous role in our financial lives today,” says Rod Griffin, the director of public education at Experian.

However, studies have found that many Americans simply disregard their credit reports.

The State of Credit Reports in the U.S.

A 2016 Credit.com survey revealed some insights into the state of credit reports in the U.S. Among those who don’t check theirs:

  • Nearly 40% of millennials say they don’t know where to get a credit report.
  • 34% overall say they’ve never thought about checking their credit report.
  • 29% say they pay their bills on time, so there’s no point in checking their credit report.
  • 26% say they don’t think it’s important.
  • 19% say they already know their credit score, so they don’t need to pull a report.
  • 13% say they’re afraid to even look.

Because we all seem a little lost or scared, let’s start at square one when it comes to credit reports: What the heck are these things?

Here’s Your Credit Report Definition

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently defined it:

“A credit report is a statement that has information about your credit activity and current credit situation, such as loan-paying history and the status of your credit accounts.”

You don’t just have one credit report. Chances are, you have several — including one from each of the Big Three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They snag information from various reporting sources and compile it into your credit report.

What Does a Credit Report Include?

Naturally, you might think a credit report only includes credit information.

That’s false.

“...a credit report isn't just about credit,” Griffin says.

“Everything in your credit report is debt related, aside from things like your identity. We need to know who you are — so, your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, etc. That helps us verify who you are.”

Here’s exactly what a credit report includes, according to Experian:

  • Your personal information: your name, aliases, birthday, Social Security number, current and past addresses, phone numbers, and current and past employers.
  • Your accounts: your credit accounts, including credit cards and installment loans like mortgages or auto loans; creditor names; account numbers; balances; payment history; and account status (i.e. past due).
  • Public records: court judgments (though Griffin says the majority of these are being omitted from credit reports), bankruptcies, tax liens.
  • Recent inquiries: who has pulled your credit report and when.

Each of the three agencies could have different information about you.

What’s not included on your credit report? Surprisingly, your credit score.

Credit Report vs. Credit Score: Nope, They’re Not Synonymous

“The credit report does not include a credit score,” Griffin explains.

He encourages consumers to think of it this way: “The analogy I use is a credit report is like the paper you write in high school, and the credit score is like the grade the teacher gives you.”

The credit score is a three-digit number that represents the information in your credit report.

Why Is Checking a Credit Report Important?

Think only your credit score is important in making big financial decisions?

It is important, but your credit score is the result of whatever’s in your report.

“The risk factors provided with the score describe what information from your credit report had the most effect on the score,” Griffin says.

By combing through your credit report, you can see what you need to do to increase that credit score — whether it’s to pay off a bill in collections or make a credit card payment. (More on all this later.)

Checking a credit report can also help you spot signs of identity theft.

Steve Weisman, professor at Bentley University and author of the fraud and identity theft blog Scamicide, encourages consumers to regularly take a look at each of their three major credit reports.

Comb through to see what’s not yours.

“Credit cards, overdue bills and anything out of the ordinary that is not yours should be disputed with the credit reporting agencies,” Weisman says.

Sometimes, he reminds us, it’s not even identity theft. It might be that the credit reporting agency made a mistake, “which is understandable with the millions of pieces of information they process.”

If you ever spot anything that points to identity theft or a mistake in reporting, visit the agency and file a dispute. You can do this online.

Here’s How a Bad Credit Report Can Affect You

Now that you know what a credit report is and why it’s so important, consider how a bad credit report can affect you.

Here are just a few ways:

1. Job Opportunities

Did you know employers can review a limited version of your credit report? They need your written permission, of course.

(This is when you can be thankful your credit score doesn’t show up on your credit report, right?)

“The credit report could affect job opportunities, especially if you're going to manage a company's money, or it's a security-sensitive role,” Griffin says.

For example, if you’re going to be the director of public education at a major credit bureau (cough, Griffin, cough), your employer will check your credit report.

“I can tell you that from experience, which makes perfect sense,” he says. “If I'm going to talk about credit reports, I need to take care of my credit report.”

An employer might also check your report if you’re going to work at, say, a chemical factory. They’re going to want to confirm your identity.

2. Your Ability to Get a Loan or Open a Credit Card

If you have poor credit history, lenders might not want to help you out, and your application could be denied.

Or, perhaps, your interest rates increase, causing you to pay more over time.

“When you apply for credit, including credit cards, student loans, auto loans and mortgage loans, lenders check your credit report to make decisions about whether or not to grant you credit and about the rates and terms you qualify for,” Experian says.

3. Your Insurance Rates

Applying for any type of insurance?

Insurance companies might check your credit report and credit scores.

“The report and scores help determine that you will be able to pay your monthly premiums and the risk that you may make a claim, which helps them set fair rates based on risk,” Griffin says.

4. Your Ability to Rent

Just like a potential employer might pull your credit report, a potential landlord can do the same. They’ll use the information to determine whether you’ll be able to pay your rent on time.

5. Your Utility Deposits — and Even Cell Phone Plans

When you open an account with a utility company, it checks your credit report as part of your application, looking in particular at your credit history.

If you have bad credit, these companies might be more apt to charge you a security deposit.

Things are no different for cell phone providers — your plan might be affected by your credit history, as well.

Here’s How to Get Your Free Credit Report

You should never have to pay to access your credit report.

And no, it won’t hurt your credit — no matter how many times you check it.

“People are often afraid to check their credit report,” Griffin says. “I don't know why. It's usually not as bad as you think. You might be surprised — probably will be surprised.”

Try using a site like Free Credit Report, a product of Experian.

Enter your basic information, including the last four digits of your Social Security number. Don’t worry — this is just used to verify your identity. You’ll also create a username and secure password, so you can check in when your report is updated every 30 days.

The nicest part is it’s actually free. You don’t have to enter a credit card number, so you don’t risk a surprise charge in the future.

On the first page of your credit report, you’ll find your accounts summary and debt summary.

Under “accounts,” you’ll find your open accounts as well as their balances, credit limits, usage and year opened.

Click over to “collections”… gasp… and see what’s in there.

Click over to “inquiries” to see which businesses have requested hard inquiries, which remain on your credit report for 25 months.

Take some time to look through these tabs. Read the summaries Free Credit Report offers at the top of each page. For example, under collections, it reads:

Collections are accounts that are seriously overdue and may have been turned over to a collection agency. Collection accounts are deleted from your credit history seven years from the original delinquency date of the original account that you failed to pay as agreed. Having a collection account on your Credit Report can have a negative impact to your Credit Score.

This will help you shape up your credit report and, in turn, your credit score.

You’ll also be able to spot any fishy activity or misinformation, as Weisman suggested.

This platform will make you pay to see your credit score, but there are plenty of other sites to get that for free. We recommend you try Credit Sesame for a free credit score and report card.

So, go ahead and take a deep breath. Now you know why it’s important to pull your credit report — and how to do so.

No more excuses!

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s embarrassed to admit she never checked her credit report until less than a year ago… But she feels oh-so relieved by checking it regularly now.

Little Jack just popped out of the womb, and you’re probably worried about him sleeping through the night — and also paying for his college.

Or it could be that Jack is about to start kindergarten, and you’re thinking about saving for college.

We can’t blame you. The state of student loan debt is crazy, and you want to prepare your precious offspring — maybe because you’re still trying to pay your own student debt off.

It might be time you look into college savings plans.

One of the most popular college savings plans is the 529 plan.

Already feeling puzzled? We’ve gotcha covered.

What’s a 529 College Savings Plan?

A 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account, so it can grow tax free and you can take money out tax free.

Legally, they’re deemed “qualified tuition plans,” which are sponsored by state governments — in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

Each state offers at least one plan, and there are no income restrictions or annual contribution limits, though each state has a lifetime contribution limit, which ranges anywhere from $235,000 to $511,000.

Does that amount of money sound daunting? (I agree.) But 529 college savings plans aim to make it a little less so.

You can start a 529 plan for your kid at any time, so it’s never too late — unless they’re headed to college, like, tomorrow.

Finding the Best 529 Plan for Saving for College

There are two main types of 529 savings plans: prepaid plans and investment plans.

1. Prepaid 529 Plan

A prepaid plan allows you to lock in the price of tuition.

For example, here in Florida we have the Florida Prepaid College Plan. If you strike up a 529 savings plan this year, you’ll lock in paying the 2017 tuition rate — even when it’s 2035. However, your child must go to an in-state public school.

How to Find The Best Fit: To find the best prepaid plan, search for them by state.

Try visiting FinAid. Click the state you live in, and explore your plan options.

2. Investment College Plans

Then there are investment plans, which The Wall Street Journal recommends, especially for those with younger kids.

“With investment plans, you choose how you want to invest your funds and then you can use that money (and the earnings it generated) for a variety of educational costs at a variety of institutions,” the Journal writes.

How to Find The Best Fit: Finding an investment plan that works for you proves to be more tricky than a simple Google search. Lots of online tools can help, though.

Try using a site like CollegeBacker. The online tool allows you to set up a 529 investment savings plan — and makes it easy for family and friends to contribute.

(Does your 1-year-old really need more toys? Ask Grandma to contribute to college instead.)

You’ll start by setting up your plan. Here, you can play around with some numbers, sans calculator or Excel sheet.

For example, I type in my child’s name, Josie (OK, it’s actually my cat), who is 4 months old. I say I want to save for a public in-state (cat) university. Other options include public out-of-state university or a private university.

CollegeBacker then recommends how much I should save — $73,700 by 2035. I can choose how much I want to contribute per month. It looks like $150 a month will cover 92% of my goal.

It’s also interesting to see that my $150 a month (which will equate to $34,200) can grow to $67,500.

Once you calculate your goal, go ahead and set up your future college graduate’s profile and build your team of friends and family.

You can always check your progress on CollegeBacker and even change your contribution rate.

Watch your 529 savings plan — and your child — grow.

Determining which college savings plan is best for you and your spawn will be up to you, but if you want to dig a little deeper into 529 plans, here’s your guide.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She works hard so she can give her cat a good life.

I feel like you’re all getting to know way too much about me.

So why stop now?

Here’s yet another confession: I’ve never really been to Disney.

I say “really” because my parents took me once when I was 2. They said it rained the whole time, and I cried. I asked my mom to describe it in one word.

“Washout,” she said.

However, I wasn’t completely deprived -- I loved The Disney Store. The store had a big tree in the center of all of the magical toys and costumes, and “The Bear Necessities” from “The Jungle Book” seemed to always be playing on the big screen in the back. To this day, the store hooks me in.

But it’s not just me; the store is always crowded. That’s probably why The Disney Store is hiring part-time, work-from-home guest services representatives -- or “cast members.”

Yes, you can work for Disney -- from home, and without wearing a sweaty costume!

What It Takes to Work for The Disney Store

Let’s get the logistics aside. This is a part-time, non-exempt, work-from-home job.

Positions are available in Texas, Georgia, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Your primary responsibility?

“Create magical moments for guests of all ages,” the listing states. This means you’ll answer inbound calls and emails from customers. Sometimes your supervisor will have you make an outbound call, but there’s no note of cold-calling.

You’ll help these customers find solutions to issues, all while offering up a fun and entertaining experience. We’re not saying you need to break out your Donald Duck voice, but it doesn’t sound like it’d be frowned upon.

In order to handle all of this, you need to be able to effectively communicate via phone and email, juggle multiple tasks and work part as a part of your guest services team. And because this is a work-from-home job, you’ll also need access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection.

You should be open to working evenings, weekends and holidays. The Disney Store also wants someone who has previous customer service or retail experience and a high school diploma or equivalent.

Interested? You can apply to become a guest services representative on Disney’s career page. Note: You’ll have to make an account to apply.

Not into working for Disney? You can find more work-from-home jobs on our Facebook jobs page.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. After recently completing graduate school, she focuses on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents.

Where do you keep your money?

You’ve got options — from a shoebox under your bed to some fancy stocks.

But chances are, it’s probably in a checking account.

At least that’s what a recent USA Today analysis found. The headline reads, “Americans are hoarding money in checking accounts.”

It’s great that Americans have money to hoard.

In fact, Mike Moebs, CEO of Moebs Services, told USA Today that the average U.S. checking account deposit is $3,600 — up significantly from the 2007 average of $1,000.

In total, checking accounts hold about $2 trillion, the report says.

But is hoarding your money in a checking account really a smart money move?

It depends. Is your checking account earning your interest?

Because if Americans stash their money in a high-yield checking account, they could collectively be earning a whopping $20 BILLION in interest a year.

A Few Reasons Americans Love Checking Accounts

Up until this past year, I kept all my money in a generic checking account.

Apparently I wasn’t alone.

According to USA Today, many of us opt for checking accounts because we love liquidity — the ability to easily grab cash. We’re also less apt to invest these days.

Plus, interest rates for savings accounts kind of suck.

These were all my reasons for opting for a checking account, plus it proved to be easy on so many levels:

  • I kept tabs on all my assets by simply checking one app.
  • It’s safe; my money isn’t going to disappear at anytime.
  • I didn’t have to remember to pay anything off.
  • The account was free.
  • It required no minimum balance.

The only thing I was missing was some interest. I had money sitting around doing nothing for me and after I wrote “make your money work for you” one too many times, I wanted to change that.

…So I Found a Checking Account With Interest

Until I started working at The Penny Hoarder, I had no idea checking accounts could rake in interest.

I assumed that was only possible with a savings account, which proved to be a hassle and a half for me in the past.

My co-worker Dana Sitar genuinely gushed about her checking account, which I’d never even heard of: Aspiration’s Summit Checking Account.

I liked the name.

As I dug into it a little more, I realized I could earn 1% interest, which might not seem like a lot, but at that time I was earning a fat goose egg of zero interest.

So this would be 100% more.

(Additionally, other checking accounts weren’t offering much, either; the national average hovers around 0.04%, according to the most recent FDIC report. Savings accounts only offer 0.06% in interest, according to the same report.)

It was all free, too, unless I wanted to add a monthly tip, but I didn’t feel pressured to do so. Plus, there was no need to keep a minimum balance.

Additionally, it was all online, which made everything convenient. If I needed cash, I could stop by nearly any ATM and be reimbursed if there were any fees.

Signing up for the card proved to be low-hassle, too. I added my name to a waitlist and heard back within about three days. Then I got my card in the mail.

Perhaps the best part of all of this is when I check my bank account now, I don’t have to dread only seeing my list of monthly expenses.

Now, I get a little excited when I see how much interest I’ve earned!

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Do you bank with Aspiration? She’d love to hear about your experience!

Would you consider yourself financially confident?

Could you ever consider yourself financially confident?

Those seem like tough questions to answer positively because you never know what kind of surprise bills life will slap you with.

Credit Sesame dug into this question and found some interesting factors that correlate with financial confidence.

High Credit Scores Don’t Mean Financial Confidence

But it helps.

Check your credit score. Seriously. It’s free, so you have no excuse.

Now, see where you fall into these categories.

Credit Sesame asked: How confident do you feel that you are saving enough for a stable future?

Here’s how 1,028 respondents answered:

financial confidence

These numbers seem obvious. Those with a higher credit score are more financially confident. Duh.

However, Credit Sesame found an even stronger indicator of financial confidence: savings.

Credit Scores Don’t Seem to Entirely Dictate Financial Confidence

Credit Sesame continued to breakdown this concept of financial confidence.

It asked its customers what they’re saving for and then compared that to how confident they felt about their financial future.

Here are some more numbers for you:

financial confidence

Through this breakdown, it seems as though those excellent credit scores don’t matter as much and that financial confidence largely hinges on the respondent's ability to save.

“Members who are not currently saving toward retirement, college, an emergency fund or a vacation fund have the lowest confidence of all,” Credit Sesame deducts.

“Avoiding debt, funding an emergency account, and saving toward known future financial needs are behaviors that clearly lead to financial peace and freedom.”

How to Build Financial Confidence

Although credit scores don’t necessarily seem to be the answer to financial confidence, they can help you begin taking steps in the right direction.

Your credit score is determined by factors on your credit report, so pull a free one and take a look. You’ll be able to see if any bills are in collections or if you have an unpaid credit card bill, for example.

Once you start taking steps to pay off your debt, you can begin thinking about saving money. This doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop. You can take your time establishing a savings.

Read this month-by-month guide to saving $1,000 to get started.

Breaking down savings by category can help the process seem more digestible and less intimidating.

For retirement, first figure out the best place to stash your money. Penny Hoarder Dana Sitar analyzed some of your options — from under a mattress to high-yield savings accounts to a Roth IRA.

For college, look into 529 savings plans in your state. But first, understand what a 529 savings plan is and if it’s the right move for you.

For emergency savings, which seems to be the largest indicator of financial confidence, your first step will be to establish a separate, “do not touch” account that incurs interest, like the Aspiration Summit Checking Account. You can earn up to 1% interest, about 100 times more than the average interest rate.

Here’s your guide to starting an emergency fund — and figuring out just how much you need to save.

For vacation savings, well, we can’t say this is the most important account to fund. But if you want to mindlessly save for your next trip, try using an app like Qapital. It’ll save money based on various tasks. For example, hit 10,000 steps in a day and save $5. See how it works here.

Now… are you feeling more financially confident yet?

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She can’t say she feels totally financially confident — but she’s working on it.

Sales jobs suck sometimes, but you might feel more in control of how much money you make.

Plus, sometimes you find companies that offer a wealth of bonuses -- like Hertz.

Right now, Hertz is hiring a work-from-home sales specialist. Per the job listing, Hertz promises a $150 sign-on bonus, plus a $500 guaranteed bonus in your first month of bonus eligibility.

You can also get paid up to $1,100 in bonuses your first year.

Another “bonus”? You’re working from home!

Hertz is Filling Work-From-Home Sales Jobs

As an Express Rent sales specialist you’ll work 40 hours a week.

Hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. all week, so that’ll be the window you need to make yourself available. Overtime is possible, too.

You’ll receive a “competitive” base hourly pay, as well as all those bonuses. (I reached out about base pay and will update this article as soon as I hear back.)

As noted, you’ll be working with the Express Rent sector of Hertz. This allows customers to walk up to a kiosk at any number of locations -- airport or otherwise -- and select a rental car through a live video chat with a representative.

And surprise! That’s your face on the video.

Hertz is looking for someone driven by sales, as you’ll hustle to sell additional products like extended coverages, upgrades and fuel options.

You’re Qualified to Work in Sales at Hertz If…

Hertz is looking for someone who has at least a year in sales and customer service. You should be able to operate a computer and type at a decent speed.
Because you’ll be on video, you should also be able to “project a professional appearance,” as well as engage with a variety of customers.

You should understand maps and driving directions, too.

Training is approximately five weeks long and all virtual.

If you’re interested in this work-from-home opportunity, here’s the complete job listing. You can apply right online, too.

If you’re not into video chat or sales, our Facebook jobs page shares a ton of other opportunities.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

Honestly, I’ve always hated receipts.

They usually roll around like tumbleweeds in the backseat of my car.

Or, after a night out, my purse is stuffed with ’em.

The worst mess occurs in my inbox after a night of impulse shopping on Zappos.

They’ve always reminded me of money I’ve spent, which I don’t love thinking about. And just when I do need them — for a return or a warranty — they disappear. Just like that.

But recently, I discovered I need to treat receipts with more care. That’s because I could be earning money back with them.

Do I sound crazy? Probably, per usual. But here’s what I’m talking about.

1. Take a Picture of Your Receipt Using Ibotta

Ibotta is an easy-to-use cash-back app that’s partnered with more than 50 retailers, just about anywhere you’d do any kind of shopping.

Before heading out on a grocery run, I find items on my shopping list within the app. Strawberries? Check. An ear of corn? Check. I add each cash-back opportunity to my rebate list within the app.

Then I shop.

When I get home and am unloading my groceries, I take a photo of my receipt then scan the items’ barcodes.

Bam. Cash back.

Some cash-back opportunities I’ve recently taken advantage of include:

  • 25 cents back for any item
  • 25 cents back on strawberries
  • 50 cents back on frozen fruit snacks
  • $1 back on a box of tea
  • $5 back on a case of Shiner Bock beer

The app works the same for stores like Walmart and Target, too. Even drugstores like CVS.

The app is free to download. Plus, you’ll get a $10 sign-up bonus after your first rebate. 

2. Don’t Delete Your Amazon Receipt

That’s my first inclination.

*Delete.*

I don’t really want evidence of my online shopping binge to linger, but I found a free tool that makes me reconsider. Paribus gets you money back for your online purchases when an item’s price drops.

For example, I buy a pack of cat toys on Amazon. (This, unfortunately, is not abnormal.)

Next week, the price drops $1. Paribus registers that change and contacts Amazon to get me a refund. I’ll get 75% of that difference; Paribus takes a 25% service fee.

Paribus is partnered with more than 25 online retailers, so chances are, you’ll get some money back.

Signing up is free.

Bonus: Read about seven other ways to save money each time you buy something online.

3. Use Your Receipt to Earn Cash After Eating Out

If you’re a fan of eating out, there are a bunch of ways to save money — without even planning your night out ahead of time.

Subtotal is an app that allows you to earn money back — just by looking at your receipt’s subtotal.

When your server brings you the bill, open the app. Find the restaurant you’re dining at, and enter the bill’s total. Subtotal then generates a barcode, which your server will scan to pay — like a gift card.

You can score up to 10% back, which automatically appears in your credit or debit card account within a week.

Some of our favorite restaurants featured on the app include 8.1% cash back at Applebee’s, 5.25% cash back at BJs Restaurants and 7.5% cash back at California Pizza Kitchen.

There’s also 8.1% cash back at Krispy Kreme and 6.75% back at Papa John’s.

Check out the full list of eateries, and download the app for free for Apple devices and Android devices.

4. Take Those Silly Surveys… Seriously

You know that 4-foot long CVS receipt I mentioned?

There’s, of course, a link to a survey at the end of it. Sure, you think you’ll never win anything for telling CVS you had a positive experience and that your cashier was a delight.

But you actually can.

Penny Hoarder Lisa Rowan has won money from CVS because she took the time to hop online.

I have to say, I treasure my Chick-fil-A receipts. More times than not, I have a survey offer. I answer a few quick questions and get a free chicken sandwich.

Yum.

5. Check For Coupons or Specials

I’ve been complaining about that long CVS receipt, but it actually contains some pretty sweet deals, including $5 back on my next purchase.

It’s also tailored to the items I typically purchase, so I often receive coupons for stuff like packs of gum and boxes of razors, which I’m always stocking up on.

Now, my only issue is keeping track of that receipt and remembering it the next time I venture into the store…

6. Don’t Forget Those Tax Deductions

Here’s your taxes 101 refresher: Tax deductions are expenses you can subtract from your taxable income, so they lower your tax bill.

Don’t forget to keep track of tax deductions (yup, keep those receipts) because they’ll add up.

Here are a few examples of deductions:

  • Charitable contributions (anything you donate to Goodwill!)
  • Home office equipment
  • Payments you make to your traditional IRA
  • Some higher education tuition and fees
  • Mileage if you use your personal vehicle for work purposes
  • Relocation expenses (if you moved for a job)
  • Student loan interest you’ve paid

Want to know more about deductions? Here ya go.

7. Remember: You Might Have a Warranty on That Product

If your favorite pair of socks gets a hole or your backpack’s zipper gets all janky, remember to check into the product’s warranty.

Many companies offer lifetime warranties — including these 43. Oftentimes, you’ll have to hold onto your receipt to nab these perks.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’ll never look at receipts the same way again.

Hide your PINs; hide your SSNs.

We know, we know. Identity theft is a big issue.

Last year, billions of identities were exposed and millions were stolen.

Don’t throw your hands up in imminent defeat. You can start protecting yourself by keeping tabs on your credit score.

But there’s one preventive tool out there that’ll protect you from the start — one that you’re probably not utilizing.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

It’s called a credit freeze.

Credit Freeze, Defined

According to a recent Credit Sesame analysis of nearly 4 million consumers, less than 1% of adults have credit freezes on their credit files.

Why? Credit Sesame hypothesized, “most people don’t know how fast and simple it is to protect their credit with credit freezes.”

And perhaps many aren’t even familiar with the tool.

So let’s start.

Credit Sesame defines a credit freeze most eloquently: “a process which locks down your credit file and prevents identity thieves and cyber criminals from opening credit in your name.”

In short, the tool freezes your credit file, so no one can gain access to that information — except you.

In order to access your credit later — which you’ll need to do to open a bank account, sign up for a credit card or take out a mortgage, for example — you’ll have to unfreeze, or thaw, it.

And no, it won’t negatively affect your score.

When You Should Freeze Your Credit, According to an Expert

Many people freeze their credit after their identities have been stolen.

That’s an OK start.

However, you’re basically in a race against the criminal. Who can get to the credit report first?

Steven Weisman, a Bentley University professor and author of fraud and identity theft blog Scamicide, suggests freezing your credit now — and always.

He thinks of the tool as a “preventative medicine.”

“This is the single best thing someone can do to protect themselves from being a victim of identity theft,” he says. “Even if your Social Security number was in the hands of an identity thief, you’d still be protected.”

A credit freeze is different than any sort of fraud alert, which a credit bureau might suggest using after your identity has already been compromised.

When you set up a fraud alert, “no one is supposed to give credit in your name without checking with you first to make sure that it is you and not an identity thief,” Weisman explains.

However, consumers often ignore these alerts — and even companies will ignore them when checking your credit report and issuing a credit card, for example.

Weisman likens these alerts to getting hit by a truck — then having a passerby say, “Hey, you got hit by a truck.”

At that point, it’s kind of too late.

On the other hand, a credit freeze allows that passerby to say, “Hey! You’re about to get hit! I gotcha!”

You’re protected.

Here’s How to Freeze Your Credit -- and Unfreeze It

Depending on which state you live in, freezing your credit after becoming an identity theft victim is free.

If you just want to freeze your credit as a preventive measure, you’re probably going to have to pay a small fee — but typically nothing over $20.

You’ll have to contact each of the three credit bureaus to make this happen.

Here’s where you can find more information for each bureau:

You can activate a credit freeze online (or by phone or mail) by providing your information. The credit bureau will then give you a special PIN, which you’ll need when you unfreeze — or thaw — your credit.

You’ll have to do that when you need access to your credit report for any number of reasons. That process typically takes a few hours, Weisman says, though the bureaus warn it could take up to three days.

“This will cause delays — but only of a few hours,” he says. “It stops from impulse buying, I guess. But do you impulse buy a mortgage? Not really.”

It’ll also require a small fee, but it’s nothing crazy.

In Weisman’s opinion, credit freezes are “a tremendous tool. The charge is minimal compared to the benefit.”

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She hates winter, but she wouldn’t mind freezing her credit.

I opened my first credit card right before senior year of college.

I didn’t want to -- I suppose I fit the millennial mold -- but my parents told me I needed to build credit or else I’d be screwed.

I used the card mostly for groceries because I earned extra points. Elsewhere, the rewards were weak. Plus I was really, really paranoid about remembering to pay the monthly bill.

Fast forward a few years, and now I have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. I love it because it has a great rewards system, and it’s made of metal, which makes me feel like I have more money than I do.

However, I still hang onto my old card. I talked about shutting down the account, but various people warned me this could affect my credit. To me, it felt like the fewer credit cards to my name, the better and more secure…

…right?

So is it bad to close a credit card?

Does Closing a Credit Card Affect Your Credit Score?

I chatted with John Ganotis, founder of Credit Card Insider, and Rod Griffin, the director of public education at Experian.

I found out that, yes, closing a credit card will impact your credit score.

However, it’s not necessarily anything drastic.

“Closing a credit card will hurt your credit score initially, but typically [it’s] only a small amount and only for a little while,” Griffin says.

The main reason for that initial drop is because you’re wiping away the available credit limit from the card you’ve closed. But your balances don’t change, so it looks like your total balance is a higher chunk of your total available credit.

The technical term for that percentage is utilization rate.

In other words, “[Credit-scoring models] like to see low balances relative to your total available credit,” Ganotis says.

When that utilization rate goes up, credit-scoring agencies see it as a sign of risk, Griffin says, so it’ll hurt your score a little.

But only a little.

“Typically, if everything else is fine in your credit report, after a month or two, those scores will come back up because it will be clear you didn't take on more debt; you just closed an account,” Griffin says.

And what about your credit history?

That’s the main reason my parents encouraged me to open up that credit card, so I could start building my credit history.

Also, that’s what I hear when I contemplate aloud about shutting the card down: Your credit history will be destroyed.

However, when you close a credit card that’s been paid off in full — even your oldest one — the history remains on your credit report for 10 years.

This is a common myth, Griffin says.

“For most people, by the time that 10 year period ends, they've already opened new accounts,” he says. “[They] have new history and so it offsets that being deleted.”

But if you have an unpaid balance or any sort of negative history associated with that credit card, you’ll have to wait seven years from the date of your last payment for that to dissipate.

So When Should I Close a Credit Card?

Ganotis’ rule of thumb is to keep an unused card open unless you’re paying an annual fee.

“My general advice is that if the card is paid off and doesn't have an annual fee, it's probably a good idea to just leave it open and not use it,” he says.

But sometimes your credit card issuer might notice the card hasn’t been used in a hot minute and will close the account.

Don’t panic; that’s OK because Griffin says if you haven’t used the card in a while, its past activity might not even affect your score.

“If you haven't used a card for six months or a year, it's going to be shown on a credit report, in most cases, that it would be inactive,” Griffin says. “Because there's no activity, scores may not be able to use that account for the calculation anyway.”

However, Griffin reminds consumers to always step back and take a look at their financial situation.

For example, if you have plans to take out a mortgage in the next three or six months, you might just want to hold tight. Continue to pay off the bills. If you haven’t touched the account in a while, Griffin says you might even want to make a small purchase then pay it off in full so there’s activity.

“You don’t want to close the account in the middle of a mortgage application process and have your score drop and cause you to have to pay higher interest rates,” Griffin says.

On the other hand, if you already have debt and the temptation of the plastic is just too much, close it. You might see your scores drop initially, but in the long run it’ll help you better manage your debt.

“The score isn't what you should be concerned about,” Griffin says. “It's managing the debts you already have and getting rid of that temptation to take on more debt when you can't finance what you already have.”

If you want to get a big picture view of your credit report, go ahead and pull a free one.

“It's usually not as bad as you think,” Griffin says.

Poke around in there, and see what’s happening. Think about what your next few months will look like financially. If you’re not planning to make any big moves (or take out any big loans), then you should be safe shutting down that old piece of plastic.

Me? I’m staying put for a while, so I think I’ll take the leap, shut down my account and 10 years from now, I probably won’t really care.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She doesn’t like keeping tabs on too many accounts.