Personal Improvement 

Learn a second language on the cheap


February 3, 2016
One of my relatives believed the Russians planned to take over the United States in the 1950’s, so she decided to learn their language.

She took all the classes offered and then to further her skill, she volunteered at a local Russian community center.

That worked for her. And she learned to make the best piroshky.

Now, though the fear of another country running our government has diminished, speaking and understanding Spanish, Korean, Japanese or any other language benefits us in many ways.

For me, knowing Spanish helps me communicate with many of my service providers.

When you’re in the market to change careers or better your current one, a second language improves your job prospects.

Studies show that while learning another tongue, you develop better mental health and stave off dementia. The process helps you get comfortable with other cultures. And when you’re fluent, you feel successful.

If you want to learn another language, you don’t have to buy expensive books, audio tapes or take costly classes. Try some or all of these methods instead.

Download a smartphone app

With everything you need installed on your iPhone or Android, you can get started learning whenever you have some down time like when you’re commuting on public transportation or waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

You always have the “class” with you so you can devote as much time as you want to the lessons.

Many, including all of the ones I’m going to discuss here, are free.

Duolingo says spending 34 hours working within their system equals one university semester.

Voted iPhone’s App of the Year and Google’s Best of the Best, both in 2013, Duolingo encourages you to set goals for yourself while playing learning games.

Fun and whimsical, MindSnacks is designed for kids. What better way to tackle another tongue than as a child might. Solve puzzles to become proficient.

Memrise teaches more than 200 different languages as well as other subjects like math, history and geography. You can even join a study group composed of other Memrise users.

Brainscape offers students customizable “smart” flashcards to expedite their learning of a new language. Besides phone apps, you can try different websites.

Learn online

Sites such as Livemocha encourage studying another tongue with native speakers, teachers, language experts and others in a community setting.

You finish a lesson, submit it to the group who reviews it and gives you feedback. After a few practice sessions, you can take part in a conversation with the others, all at no cost.

At Babbel the initial lessons in any language are free. The site teaches by listening and writing and if you want to continue, a three-month subscription runs $26.85.

Open Culture has compiled a list with links of free courses and audio books that teach other languages.

You might also consider listening to podcasts like those in the “Coffee Break” series.

Hearing the language spoken works better for some students than seeing it in print plus you have a better idea of how the words sound. Not everyone wants to spend all their time in front of a screen.

Go offline

Invest in materials by shopping for dictionaries, phrase books and written courses at secondhand bookstores or library book sales. You can also check out what you need from your county or city library system and work at your own pace.

If you feel more at ease in a face-to-face situation, take a language class at a community college.

Look for ones listed as non-credit, community education or continuing education and you may find one for as low as $100 a quarter.
This is a great place to find like-minded individuals to practice your new language with.

Build on your new skills

Once you’ve developed a foundation with your new language, add to your knowledge by doing the following:

  • Watch movies in this language.
  • Volunteer where your new tongue is spoken.
  • Find someone to converse with.
  • Ask a native speaker to tutor you (try high school students, they always need a little extra cash).
  • Read newspapers online.
  • Listen to international stations on TuneIn Radio.
  • Peruse blogs and newsgroups to learn the language’s slang and colloquialisms.
  • Adopt a pen pal in the country where the language is spoken.

Remember not all tongues are equal. Anyone will have a harder time conquering Arabic than Spanish.

You might want to choose an easier language for your first foray and then graduate to something a little more difficult. Select a language you will use in some way to make it worth your while.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

When I was young my family took a trip to Mexico. My mother, who taught Spanish, made sure she had her sentences constructed perfectly before speaking to a native so she didn’t say much.

My father talked frequently, but only in verb infinitives. Even so, the Mexican people understood him and he was able to get exactly what he wanted.

 Bank Deals 

Whether you’re a novice saver or seasoned investor, here’s where to find winter’s best CD rates

January 24, 2016
Ever since the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates in 2008 to lessen the blow of the Great Recession, it’s been hard to earn much on your savings.

The Fed finally began raising rates last month. But since banks are slow to react, and more substantial hikes by the Fed will be rolled out slowly over the next several years, better yields are still ahead of us.

So where should you put your hard-earned cash in the meantime?

With the typical savings account paying a pathetic 0.10% APY, it’s definitely worth your time to find higher-paying options, such as certificates of deposit.

Nationally available bank CDs are paying as much as 2.30% APY this winter, while credit unions and community banks are offering local deals that pay nearly 3% APY.

There are also a number of strategies for smart CD investing, like starting out with small, regular investments or choosing a CD that allows you to earn a higher return if rates go up.

Let’s begin with the banks offering the best nationally available deals on three of the most popular CD terms: 1 year, 2 years and 5 years.
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New calculator helps answer a big question:

When should you start collecting Social Security?

January 14, 2016
Quick. At what age should you start collecting Social Security?

It’s not an easy question to answer, right?

Fortunately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently put out a calculator that helps you decide.

The tool allows you to explore how your claiming age impacts your retirement benefits. It also offers customized tips and provides next steps – somewhat of a guide for claiming Social Security.

Of course, when to claim Social Security is one of the biggest decisions many of us will make about retirement.

Indeed, claiming benefits is a one-time thing. Once you claim, there’s no turning back. That makes it crucial to carefully, and accurately, weigh your options.

“We want consumers to use our tool to know and understand what it means to claim at their full retirement age vs. several years before and several years after,” Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told USA Today.
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Start the year by getting cash back on your shopping

January 4, 2016
When you’ve grown accustomed to hearing and trusting that free lunches don’t exist, you look at any reward system with a suspicious eye.

The Internet, and most specifically online shopping, has changed that for the better.

Websites offer a multitude of ways to earn money, like taking surveys, linking to a site as an affiliate and offering you cash back or coupons for purchases.

I believe nobody should ever pay full price, so I love the companies that focus on bargains.

Cash-back sites help you save money.

What’s the catch, you ask?

There really isn’t one.

You choose a site and register on it, which should be free.

Then start shopping at your favorite retailer, assuming that store is on their list, or looking for a specific item.

These websites receive a commission for getting customers to merchants’ websites, and that’s where they get the money to give back to you.

Let’s see how each of the following cash-back sites work so you can get started shopping.
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 Personal Improvement 

9 tricks to get a jump on 2016 money resolutions

Most people have some sort of financial resolutions at the start of every New Year, whether it’s to be debt-free or save more.

There’s something about having a clean slate when you flip to a new calendar year that can be quite motivating.

Here are some ways to evaluate your spending and put more cash back in your pocket – and you should start now, while you’re in the throes of holiday shopping.

Trick 1. Create a “fun fund” to cover small outings or extras that come up throughout the year.

You know how you’ve had to pass on that holiday brunch or happy hour because you’re flat broke this time of year?

You can find room in your budget next time if you start socking away as little as $5 a week now.

Physically put it in a jar, or set up an automated contribution to a separate savings account. I used this approach in 2015, and I saved up enough to enjoy a last-minute weekend getaway over the summer.

I’ve since replenished the fund and dip into it here and there for everything from salon appointments to dinner dates with my husband.
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 The Home 

I’ve got to stop watching HGTV … It creates unrealistic expectations that make me hate my home

Want to enjoy your home more? Stop watching HGTV

I’ve been an HGTV addict for years. From House Hunters to Property Virgins and Rehab Addict to Property Brothers, I couldn’t get enough.

For the last few months, though, episodes of what used to be my favorite shows have been piling up on my DVR. When I try to watch an episode, I find myself shutting it off after a few minutes.

What’s happened?

I’ve realized that the shows I thought were light, easy-to-digest morsels that don’t cause me any stress — in contrast to the shows my husband enjoys, like Walking Dead and American Horror Story — are actually making me unhappy.

Every time I see a beautifully designed renovation on Property Brothers, I get depressed that my home doesn’t look like that and probably never will.

When I watch buyers tour turn-of-the-century craftsman homes with exquisite woodwork and coffered ceilings, my mass-produced box home seems so boring.

What’s more, these buyers are usually in their late 20s to early 30s, and they’re already getting their dream homes.
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 The Home 

The ultimate tips for holiday tipping on a budget

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, they say, unless you’re talking about your finances.

From a money perspective, the holidays put a huge strain on family bank accounts, especially when all of those extras – like year-end tips – push your budget past its breaking point.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit of giving, or feel pressured into having to financially reward everyone with whom you’ve come in contact.

But while you want to find a way to thank everyone at holiday time, you shouldn’t have to deplete your limited cash reserves to do so.

January (and its fearsome pile of bills) is right around the corner.

That’s why I’ve learned to set aside extra funds to cover all of the holiday tips I want to give and to be a little stingy about who I reward.

Well, put in a more positive way, I’ve become more selective about who gets end-of-year tips or thank-you gifts, and to place reasonable limits on the presents I bestow.

Here’s how I suggest you do that.
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We’ll spend more celebrating the holidays this year … And our money goes to much more than gifts

If you plan on spending more during the holiday season this year, you’re in good company. But don’t blame it all on gift giving.

According to a new survey by Deloitte, Americans plan to spend $487 on gifts for others this year (up 6% from last year), but that only accounts for about one-third (33%) of what we plan to spend total.

Overall, the corporate consults say Americans plan to shell out $1,462 during the 2015 holidays – up 13% from last year.

So where’s the rest of that cash going?

The biggest ticket item, next to gifts for others, is attending holiday events away from home, which accounts for 24% of that budget, or $348.

Entertaining at home is the next biggest expense — $212 at 15% of the budget.

Purchasing clothing that is not a gift accounts for 12% of the budget at $182, while holiday home furnishings account for 9% at $124. And 8% of the budget goes into the “other” category ($110), which is any other holiday-related spending.
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