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Extra Credit

So, what’s going on with your credit?
How do you know if your credit is safe?
What about your identity?
These days, it’s all too easy to get hacked, and in so many ways. 
Credit may seem daunting, but let’s make it simple. 
And once you understand it, you can take control.
Now, that’s a good feeling.

First, let’s understand three important things about credit: 
  • Credit Report:  This is a report of your credit history – both good and bad - which serves to inform lenders of your creditworthiness.  Credit reports come from consumer reporting agencies (companies which gather and sell credit information).  Your credit score is derived from your credit report. 
  • Credit Score:  It’s an overall score of everything credit-related about you.  It covers your borrowing, charging, and repayment activities.  Pay that cell phone bill late?  It may be on there.  Close an account?  It’s on there.  As for the score…the higher the better.  How high?  Generally, scores over 740 are considered excellent.  Most credit scores fall between 600 and 750.  If your score is in the mid to upper 600s, you should consider working to get it higher, but you’re not doing too bad.  620 is often considered the cut-off point for lower interest rates.  Scores below 600 indicate a relatively high risk level for the lender and you will most likely be subjected to high interest rates or denial.  The highest score one can achieve is said to be 850.  I doubt if anyone knows for sure.
  • Credit Agencies:  There are three credit agencies:  Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian.  They all keep information on you, and most often, their information isn’t exactly identical.  It’s important to know what information each has on you, so you know nothing is in error.  Often, a lender will only use one credit agency when determining your eligibility for a loan. 
What is on your credit report? 
  • Personal information:  your name, address, birth date, social security number, etc.
  • Credit information:  accounts with banks, retailers, credit-card issuers, utility companys, and other lenders.
  • Public Record Information:  bankruptcy information, tax liens, or monetary judgements.
  • Recent Inquires:  identifies those who have checked your credit report within the past year.
What makes up the score?
  • Payment history:  Whether or not you pay your bills on time.
  • Debt:  How much debt you have currently.
  • Age of accounts:  How long your credit history is.
  • Types of credit:  the variety of accounts you have.
How long will it stay on there?
Seven years.  Bankruptcy remains for 10 years.

How can I improve my score?  That’s a great question.
  • Start at the bottom of the ladder and climb up slowly.  Life’s never as simple or easy as we’d like it to be, and bad credit can happen to good people.  But you can improve your credit slowly. 
  • Pay bills on time.  Automatic payments, smartphone reminders, online banking – take advantage of today’s technology to help make life easier.  Most people know they must pay their credit card bills on time, but they often overlook the smaller bills like their cell phone, gas company, water bill, etc.  Those count, too.
  • Keep your credit limit high and your balances low.  This not only affects each card individually, but all of your debt.  It is a good idea to only owe 25% of what your overall credit limit is.
  • Don’t close old unused cards.  That old Visa in your desk drawer that you never use may be doing your credit history a great deal of good.  Credit reports take into account how long you’ve had credit history.  So, even if you have a department store account card since you were sixteen, don’t close it.  If you don’t want to use it, just cut the actual card up and throw it away.
  • Don’t open new accounts just for a one-time discount or for a better interest rate.  This one’s kind of a no-brainer.  Having too many accounts is just bad
  • Don’t have too many accounts of the same kind.  Do have accounts of different kinds.  While it’s not good to have ten credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, etc.), it is good to have different types of credit – credit cards, department store cards, an auto loan, a home mortgage.  Having too many of one or missing one or two types can work against you.
  • Try a secured credit card.  Credit cards are needed to do all sorts of things, even if you plan to pay cash.  If you think your credit is too bad to get a credit card, consider a “secured credit card”.  This is a credit card which requires a cash collateral deposit that becomes the credit line for that account.  For example, if you put $500 in when you open the account, you can charge up to $500.  Over time, paying your bills to this card will improve your score, and you will begin to notice regular credit card offers appearing in the mail.
  • Are you an impulse buyer?  Your freezer is your new best friend.  For this trick you will need a large gallon freezer bag, some water, and your credit card.  Put the card in the bag, fill it with water, zip it up, and put it in the back of your freezer.  From now on, any time you try to buy anything on impulse, you’ll have to take the time to thaw out the card first.  That should give you ample time to determine if you really need that fourth Snuggie.  Tip:  Don’t write down the credit card number anywhere, that’s cheating.  Extra Tip:  Don’t thaw out the card in the microwave.
  • Only charge it if you have the cash to pay for it.  This is a good mantra, and I stick by it.  Amazon is great – but you have to use that credit card.  Credit card companies offer benefits and insurances which cover purchases made by the card.  You feel safer carrying less money.  There’s lots of reasons to use a credit card.  But it’s best to try to pay your balance off in full each month if you can.  Not only will you be building your credit (provided you pay the bill on time each month), but you’ll be saving on interest fees too.
  • Soft vs. hard inquiries.  Credit inquiries DO go on your credit report.  Inquires like ordering a credit report for your own use usually don’t affect the score.  Don’t do it more than once a year, though.  Similar inquiries from existing lenders, potential employers, or solicitors also don’t affect the score.  The inquiries which affect your score come from lenders to whom you give your social security number along with authorization to check your credit.  Multiple inquiries from auto, home, or student loans (aka rate shopping) usually occur within a short time period and are typically treated as a single inquiry.  They will have little impact on your score.
Ok, now, how to take control.  Errors in credit reports DO happen.  Even the smallest error could cause a big problem.
  • Review your credit report and score:  It’s best to check your credit score and view your credit report once a year.  Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act, you’re entitled to a free look at your credit report once a year.  Organized by the three credit reporting agencies, you can get it at  Make sure that not only things like your name, address, employer, etc., are correct, but that any and all activity in your report was in fact done by you, and not someone else.  What if you find an error?  Call the place who reported it (store, lender, credit agency immediately.  They are then responsible for investigating the issue.  You can also write a brief statement clarifying the inaccuracy to the credit bureau to attach to your credit file.
  • Communicate and negotiate:  You fell and broke your leg.  You either don’t have insurance or your insurance is pretty thin.  You end up owing a lot of money.  Don’t stress, there is a way.  Call the responsible party of each bill and explain to them that you don’t have the full amount but you can pay $XX each and every month and will continue to do so until the debt is paid off.  This happened to me in college.  I think I paid $25 on four bills every month for two years, but they were fine with that as long as I paid on time.
  • Pay someone to watch it for you.  There are companies which provide quarterly credit report/score reviews for a low monthly fee, usually around $11-15 per month.  While not the cheapest option, this does provide you with year-round knowledge that your identity and credit are safe.  Some may provide additional services like immediate notification of any changes to your report, credit report dispute forms, and credit advice/counseling.
I hope this has been of some help in simplifying the credit haze.  Everyone has their own opinions on the subject and I don’t boast to know any more than the next person.  But I'm always happy to answer any questions.

AppFind: HeyTell

If you have an iPhone with iOS5, you know how cool iMessage can be. 
What can be cooler than free text messages between iPhones or iPads? 
Free VOICE messages between ANY phone!
Ever hop in the car and want to send a quick text to a loved one or friend to say you’re on your way?  Grab the phone, find their name, type in the text, hit “send” and then get going.  Then, if they happen to text you back, you’ve got to somehow read it without the cop down the street seeing the light of the phone glaring in your face in the dark of night. 

There’s a better way.  Check out HeyTell on the iPhone App Store or Android Market.  Available for Apple and Android phones, this FREE app uses data (wifi or cellular) to send a voice message to anyone on either of these platforms.  Just select a friend, push the big record button, and speak a short message.  The voice message is sent right to them, and they can set up notifications to be notified just like they would if they received a text message.  It’s quicker and easier than texting, and helps conserve your number of texts.  If you’ve got a limited data plan, you can combine using this along with your texting to help save on both.

Check it out!

iRecommend: DIY Gym Mat

If you’re an avid home exerciser, or even someone who just likes to get a little fitness in once in a while, here are two great low-cost solutions for a home gym mat.  Lowe’s Home Improvement is often overlooked for home décor, but they do have great deals in their rug department.  They offer a grey exercise mat which comes in four 2-foot pieces (totaling a 4’x4’ mat) for $20.  It can be taken apart for easy storage.  There is also the “Surfaces 3’x5’ Gray Anti-Fatigue Mat” also for $20 which is an amazing mat to work out on.  Think “Tempur-Pedic” for your feet!  It’s thin enough for aerobics and comforts your feet with every step.  If you don’t like the size, they also have it on a roll – you can get any length custom-cut.  And even on a slippery laminate wood floor, it won’t budge.  Sweet!

iRecommend: is a great place for just about everything customizable on the planet. 
In addition to the usual items like custom photo mousepads, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and sneakers are more unique items such as customizable cases for mobile devices and tablets, postage stamps, even mini speakers!
Most noteworthy is their customer service.  If it’s not right, they will take it back, no questions asked.  They’ll work with you until your 100% happy.  They even send you a follow-up email to make sure you’ve received everything in good order.

TechTalk: AirPlay

AirPlay is an Apple protocol which allows wireless streaming of audio, video, and photos between devices such as computers, smartphones, speakers, etc. over your home network.  Only a limited number of products are currently AirPlay-compatible, however, by the time you brush your teeth tonight, there will probably be one or two more added to that list.
What can you do with AirPlay?  AirPlay works with any newer MacBook Air/Pro laptop, an iPhone 4 or 4s, an AirPlay compatible speaker, an AirPort Express, or an Apple TV.   

The Apple AirPort Express:  This is a nifty little gadget, available for $99, which allows you to stream music wirelessly to an existing wired audio system.  All you do is plug the AirPort Express into a wall plug next to the wired audio system and connect it to the stereo with a standard 1/8” audio cable.  Once you’ve set up the AirPort Express to be on your home network, you can now stream anything in iTunes from your Mac or iPhone to the AirPort Express, which will play it out of the wired audio system.

The Apple TV:  Also for $99, is this super-nifty slightly larger gadget, which not only works just like the AirPort Express, it also lets you stream movies and photos from your computer to your TV.  Via HDMI, you can connect the Apple TV to your television to watch movies and listen to music there.  You can also use the optical audio connection on the Apple TV to connect to your wired stereo system for music listening.  Added bonus:  you can also rent movies and tv shows and purchase tv shows directly from the Apple TV, and download them later to any of your Apple devices for no extra cost.

The AirPlay Wireless Speaker:  If you happen to have one of the new AirPlay wireless speakers available these days, you don’t need any kind of adapter.  The speaker connects directly to your home network, and you can stream from any Mac or iPhone directly to the speaker.  You can have multiple AirPlay speakers throughout the home for whole-home audio.  There is one caveat to this though, while iTunes will support streaming to multiple AirPlay destinations, the iPhone will only stream to one.
One noteworthy item is the iW1 wireless speaker by iHome. Priced at $300, this is a great all-in-one speaker which provides decent sound to any room in the home via its wireless connection.  It has a remote which controls not only the volume of the speaker, but a few controls in iTunes on your Mac or iPhone as well.  It even does “next song” in Pandora (iPhone only).

TechTalk: Wireless Everything

The whole wireless thing has really been blowing up lately and more and more products are coming to the market.  Prices are dropping and options are growing.  There's wireless internet, wireless printers, wireless speakers, and even cell phones which backup to computers wirelessly.  If you don't quite understand it all, hopefully you'll have a better idea of everything in just a few minutes. 

MODEM:  This brings the internet into the home.  It enables a computer to transmit and receive data over a cable or telephone line and is most often provided by your internet provider.  With just a modem, you can connect one computer to the network.  You must use a cable, called an ETHERNET CABLE, to connect the computer to the network. 

ROUTER:  If you have multiple computers in the home as a lot of us do, you will also need a ROUTER.  This will allow you to split the internet off for multiple computers to use.

WIRELESS ROUTER:  This not only splits the internet off for multiple computers, it creates a wireless access point to which any computer with a wireless card can connect.  Most computers these days have wireless cards in them, but if you have an older desktop computer, you can still connect to the wireless router with an Ethernet cable.  You can, however, purchase a wireless card for it.  Pick it up while you're out purchasing your wireless router, as you may not get one from your internet provider.  Some internet providers have an all-in-one unit (modem + wireless router) which is super easy to set up, and some will provide you with the modem.

IP ADDRESS:  Just like each of us has a home address, each computer in your home will have an internet address (called an IP address) at which they access the internet.  A typical address would look something like

WIRELESS NAME AND PASSWORD:  You can give your network a name.  It will default to whatever the router calls it, like "2Wire225", but it is best (and more secure) to name it.  You should also set up a password for your home wireless network, so the neighbor (or anyone else for that matter) cannot access your home network (and also your computers).  Your computers will remember this automatically, and if you have a friend who brings their laptop over and wants to connect to the internet, all you need to do is give them your network name and the password.

WIRELESS PRINTERS:  A lot, if not all, of the printers sold today come with wireless networking capabilities.  They aren't any more expensive than their wired counterparts of a few years back.  They enable you to print from any room in the house, from laptops without having to use a cable, and even from a smartphone.  Setup is simpler than ever:  through the on-screen display on the printer, you choose your home network and enter your network password.  Done.  Simple as that.  The printer will remember your network and password every time you turn it on.  A number of printer manufacturers have applications (apps) for smartphones allowing them to print directly from the phone.

WIRELESS SPEAKERS:  One of the coolest wireless products is the wireless speaker.  Usually an all-in-one speaker (stereo - tweeters & woofers in one speaker), they connect to the home network just like a wireless printer does, and allows you to stream music from your smartphone or computer directly to the speaker with no cables.  Some of those speakers are even wireless themselves, sitting on a charger when not in use, and able to be carried all over the house when listening to music.  More on this later. 

Hopefully things make a little more sense now.

Keep It Simple, Keep It Clean

There’s little objection to having a clean house, it’s the actual cleaning (and finding the time to do it) that’s the problem.  Here are a few ideas to help “keep it simple, keep it clean”.

Size:  With regard to décor, having a lot of clutter and small décor items around a room make it daunting, difficult, and time-consuming to clean.  Do you ever look around and think, “I need to clean.  But ugh, it takes forever.  There’s so much”?  Keeping décor to larger items, and less of them, helps make cleaning simpler.  Need to clean the mantle?  Moving one large photo frame and two candles is much easier than moving ten small figurines, some fake ivy and three small photo frames. 

Texture:  Furniture with clean lines with legs allows you to easily sweep or vacuum underneath.  Items which are smooth – like glass and ceramic – have less texture and tend to collect less dust – and are easy to clean. 

Color:  Dark items also tend to show more dust.  That’s another reason to opt for lighter furniture.  In a comparison between medium brown and dark brown hardwood floors, the dark brown floors showed dust faster than the medium brown floors. 

Make It Brighter – Adding Light

“Light, Bright, and Airy” – this catchphrase has been around the block a few times lately, describing a fresh, light feel in the home.  I remember holidays at my uncle’s house when I was a kid…he had these tall ceilings and tons of windows.  The home had such a peaceful feel to it.  Unfortunately there are a lot of homes which are really lacking in the natural light department.  Some have windows only on one side, some have small windows, buildings are built too close together – there are many causes, but fortunately, there are also a few fixes to help add light to your home!

Electrical:  The first thing that comes to mind when considering adding light is to literally – add light.  Having the proper lighting around the home not only provides light to see and function, but adds atmosphere and affects mood.  A small table lamp can provide light to a dark corner without taking up much real estate in the room, and for an even lighter feel, try one with a glass or crystal base – it adds light without adding much bulk.  Floor lamps come in all sizes shapes and colors, and ones with a small footprint or those on tripod legs help reduce visual weight.  Hanging pendants provide good light and take up zero space on the floor.  Without much effort, a simple plug-in pendant can be plugged directly to a wall outlet, and then hung on a hook (called swagging) on the ceiling exactly where you want it.  Another option is LED lighting, which is being used for under-counter lighting in kitchens and offices.  These types of lights are typically cooler in color (more bluish) than halogen or incandescent bulbs, but the newer versions are getting warmer.  They never burn out, use minimal electricity, and provide good lighting over a kitchen counter or work surface.

Mirrors:  Adding mirrors to a room helps reflect light (both natural and artificial) around the room and adds a feeling of depth and space.      There are all sorts of mirrors and art using mirrors that can be used in the home.  Placing a mirror behind a lamp or across or near a window will help reflect that light around.

Furniture, Rugs, Window Treatments, Etc.:  It may not seem that obvious, but everything in a room has visual weight and color.  Put a lot of big, bulky, dark furniture in a dark room and you’re not helping it any if you want that light and bright feeling.  Furniture which is light in color and has clean lines has less visual weight in the room.  Pieces which have reflective surfaces (like mirrors or glossy laminate) function like mirrors and reflect some of the light around.  Furniture which is up and off the ground on legs lets air and light circle around the room and visually feels more crisp, not to mention is easier to clean under.  Lighter color rugs and window treatments don’t weight down the room as well.  Sheer curtains are great for letting light in but retaining privacy.  Layering is fine to add texture and depth, just keep it light in color.  If you do desire a darker curtain, keep those to the sides, and use sheers in the center to let light in.  To let your windows seem larger and let more light in, extend the curtain rod past the sides of the window a bit – maybe a foot on each side – and let the curtains hang from the ends just covering the outer sides of the window, with sheer panels in the center.

Simple Ways to Refresh Your Home

Take a minute to look around your home…when is the last time you’ve really looked at the art on your walls or paid attention to the accessories on your shelves?  Do things feel dingy and old?  Seen them all before?  You can make your home feel refreshed and new by making a few small, inexpensive changes.

Paint:  One of the largest impacts on a room is paint color.  If it’s been a while since you’ve last painted, consider putting a new color on those walls.  Painting can seem daunting, but each job is as simple as we make it.  Water-based enamel in an eggshell or satin finish is great – it can be cleaned lightly with a sponge and a little water, and reflects a little light, adding depth to a room.  Flat enamel is another popular choice.  Popular colors today are earth tones – in particular grey.  A light, warm grey can make a room feel modern yet warm, and help the walls disappear.  It can also go country-chic – it is very versatile.  “Swiss Coffee” is a super easy choice for a white.  It is the standard creamy white that is used as a base to mix colors, so there’s no mixing or matching needed.  You can add color into the mix in different ways such as drapery, pillows, and rugs to keep it from looking too generic.  If the room isn’t the main room in the house, you can experiment with a bold color choice, but sometimes a bright color in a main room can get old fast. 

:  Pillows, curtains, throws, and rugs can add texture and warm up a room.  Fun prints or patterns can add personality, and textures can add sophistication.  Light colors help a room feel airy, and darker colors add warmth and coziness, and can make a room feel more formal.  It’s best to take into account the amount of light your room gets on a daily basis to help guide you in the direction of drapery color.  Be sure to see the blog entry on furniture stores for recommendations on places to find inexpensive accessories.

Reorganize and Reuse:  Another idea to help revamp a room is to reorganize and reuse furniture.  Perhaps arrange the existing furniture in the room in a different way.  Are there items in other rooms which can be used in this room?  Can you switch out a thing or two?  Reusing different furniture, art, and textiles from other rooms in the house can help the whole home feel like a new place without any shopping!  A small drafting stool from a desk no longer used can make a great side table to a living room chair.   Two or three small end tables put together in a group can make an interesting coffee table.

The fun in all of this is being creative and trying to reinvent with minimal spending, and ending up with a whole new look.  Good luck!