By Jason Alderman

In 1978, Congress passed legislation proclaiming the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day. Presidents since Jimmy Carter have issued proclamations urging citizens to, in the words of President Barack Obama, "honor those who have helped shape the character of our nation, and thank these role models for their immeasurable acts of love, care and understanding."

At a stage in life when many people are already comfortably retired, some 2.7 million grandparents have taken on the responsibility of providing basic needs for their grandchildren, according to data compiled by Generations United. An alarming 21 percent of these vital caregivers live below the poverty line, even though 60 percent are still in the workforce.

All told, an estimated 7.8 million children under 18 live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives, including those whose parents are absent due to death, substance abuse, military deployment or other reasons.

Ironically, even though many of these "grandfamilies" barely scrape by, they save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year by keeping children out of the foster care system. So it only seems fair that many federal, state and local aid programs are available to help these guardian angels provide financial and emotional safety nets for their grandchildren.

Among the many difficulties these families sometimes face:

  • If you become your grandchild's foster parent, you're responsible for day-to-day decisions and care, although the state retains legal custody and pays for the child's care.
  • Unless you establish some form of legal relationship (custody, guardianship or adoption), the parent may be able to take your grandchild from your home at any time.
  • In some states, it's difficult to enroll the child in school or get medical care without some form of legal relationship.
  • Most senior-only housing complexes don't allow child residents - which is legal - so some grandfamilies are forced to move.

However, grandfamilies may be eligible for several federal tax credits:

  • A Child Tax Credit of up to $1,000 for each qualified grandchild, provided they lived with you for more than half the filing year and are under 17 at year's end.
  • If you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, you may be eligible for an additional amount for grandchildren you support.
  • A Child and Dependent Care Credit for childcare expenses incurred so you can work or seek employment.
  • If you adopt your grandchildren, you may be eligible for a nonrefundable Federal Adoption Credit of up to $12,970 per child.

In addition, depending on your income and the health/disability status of your grandchildren, you may also be eligible for benefits from Medicaid, your state's Children's Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and numerous other federal, state and local aid programs.

Helpful resources for grandfamilies include :

  • Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a government-sponsored site at., that provides links to various subject-matter experts.
  • AARP's comprehensive GrandFamilies Guide (at
  • Benefits QuickLINK, an AARP tool to find out whether you or your grandchildren qualify for 15 different public benefits.
  • GrandFacts, a searchable database at, where you can locate key state and local resources, foster care policies and services, public benefits, financial and education assistance, and relevant state laws.
  • Generations United, whose "Grandfamilies" website highlights challenges often faced by these households (

Do something to honor your own grandparents this Grandparents Day. And if you know others who are raising their grandkids, make sure they know about the many available resources.

By Jason Alderman

When budgeting for back-to-school expenses, parents generally include routine fare like clothes, school supplies and maybe a new backpack. But if your kids participate in extracurricular activities, whether it's sports, music lessons or art classes, you could be on the hook for hundreds - or even thousands - of dollars in additional expenses throughout the year if you're not careful.

As parents, we hesitate to stifle our children's athletic and creative urges, especially when it can be so difficult to drag them away from their iPods and Xboxes. But sometimes you've just got to step back, weigh the different options available and decide what you can afford without upsetting your other financial goals and responsibilities.

You'll face tough questions like, "Is it better for my child's future to spend $500 on a soccer day camp he'll really enjoy or to invest the money in a 529 College Savings Plan?"

My wife and I commonly wrestle with these types of questions. For example, last fall our son had outgrown his baseball equipment and was begging us for a new bat that cost $125. A year later, it sits on the sidelines because he prefers to use a friend's bat. (We're not complete pushovers, however: When he recently obsessed over a $200 pair of high-tech gym shoes, we said no.)

Among the best advice I've received from other parents is, when your kids are exploring new activities, don't overcommit your time or money until you know whether they'll stick with it or quickly move on to the next thing.

For example, before you sink a small fortune into private swimming lessons, start small with a summer class at your local Y or recreation center. If your kid shows a genuine aptitude and doesn't balk at long hours of practice, then you can explore more costly alternatives. Just remember who'll be driving to practice and out-of-town swim meets; in other words, make sure you can honor the time commitment before signing on.

Here are a few tips for prioritizing extracurricular events and keeping your costs down:

  • Focus on one sport or activity per kid, per season, especially if they involve multiple practice sessions or games per week.
  • Form carpools with other parents. You'll save gas money and time, especially if your kids are practicing at different locations.
  • Learn how much equipment and instruction the sport requires. Some, like soccer and basketball can be relatively inexpensive; while others, like horseback riding, golf and ice skating involve expensive equipment or facility rental time.
  • Rent or buy used sporting equipment (or musical instruments) until you're sure they'll stick with the activity. Visit Play It Again Sports stores, online ad sites like Craigslist and yard sales.
  • Seek out or form a sports equipment exchange in your community where families can donate outgrown or cast-off equipment and uniforms for others to use.
  • It's probably better to invest in new safety gear, like helmets and masks, than to buy it used - and potentially damaged. The same goes for items like shoes or baseball gloves that become molded to a child's body - unless they were hardly used.

Sometimes the cost of an elective program is worth making sacrifices elsewhere in your budget. Our daughter loves theater arts, so we decided it was worth shaving our vacation budget to send her to theater camp. She'll make new friends and hone her dramatic and social skills in an environment that public school just can't duplicate.

If you feel frustrated or intimidated whenever you take your car in for repairs, you're not alone. According to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau, auto repair fraud consistently ranks among the top consumer complaints they receive.

Although most auto repair shops are legitimate, some unscrupulous operators will rip off inexperienced car owners by performing unnecessary or unauthorized repairs, substituting counterfeit or used replacement parts, or even doing such shoddy work that lives are endangered.

Here are tips for becoming a more informed consumer and a few common scams to avoid:

Try to have a trusted repair shop already lined up before you need one. Ask friends or your auto insurance company for recommendations, or search the Better Business Bureau's website ( for accredited businesses. Also:

  • Ask the state Attorney General's office ( whether any complaints have been filed against prospective mechanics.
  • Look for mechanics currently certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence ( or who belong to your insurer's authorized repair network.
  • If your car's warranty is still in force, you may be required to use only authorized dealerships.

If your car needs major work, gather several estimates for comparison. Once you've chosen a shop, ask for a detailed estimate (with no sections left blank) before you authorize repairs. Specify that you must be called to grant permission before additional repairs. Make sure the work order clearly specifies:

  • Repairs to be done.
  • All fees, including parts, labor, storage, loaner car, etc.
  • Whether new, reconditioned, or used parts will be used.
  • Acceptable payment methods.
  • Completion date.
  • Diagnostic or reassembly charges if you decide to get a second opinion or have the work done elsewhere.

Make sure the final repair bill contains itemizes all work completed and parts used. (Ask them to show you the work done and replaced parts.) Also have the bill spell out any guaranteed items (including exclusions), in case problems occur later and you need contractual proof.

Watch out for these common scams:

  • They give you a verbal estimate then charge a higher price. Always get it in writing.
  • A shop lures you in with low-cost specials (oil change, brake inspection, etc.), then pads the work order with other repairs you don't want or need. If in doubt, have the initial work done and get a second opinion on the rest, unless there's an immediate safety issue.
  • Charging for services that are covered under the car's warranty. (Always read your warranty carefully.)
  • Dishonest mechanics have been known to inflict intentional damage during an inspection in order to boost needed repairs.
  • They don't want to return replaced parts to you, which could mean the work wasn't actually done, or they used inferior parts. (Keep in mind that there could be discarded parts lying around that they could pass off as yours.)
  • Going against your car manufacturer's recommendations. If your manual recommends getting an oil change every 10,000 miles but the mechanic says every 3,000, make sure there's a good reason.
  • Offers to waive the deductible - for example, offering to install a used part and bill your insurance company for a new one. This insurance fraud could land you in a world of hurt.
  • High-pressure sales tactics.

Just because you don't completely understand what goes on under the hood doesn't mean you can't protect yourself against auto repair scams. To learn more, visit the FTC's comprehensive Auto Repair Basics site at

By Jason Alderman

To the millions of college and high school seniors who recently graduated (and to their parents, who weathered the ups and downs of reaching that summit): congratulations on a job well done. After the celebration dies down, you'll no doubt be eager to embark on life's next chapter, whether it's finding a job, preparing for college or enrolling in military or community service.

Before you jump in feet first, however, let me share a few financial lessons I learned the hard way when I was just starting out. They might save you a lot of money in the long run and help you get closer to your life goals, whether it's buying a house, starting a family or even retiring early - as far off as that may sound.

First, pretend you're still a starving student. After landing your first full-time job, the urge to go on a spending spree for new clothes, a better apartment and a car from this decade will be irresistible after surviving on ramen noodles for four years. But unless you had generous scholarships or a rich aunt, you're probably already saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

(Note to entering freshmen: Tread carefully around student loan debt. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a great guide for making informed decisions about paying for college at

After you've factored in rent, car payments, renter's and car insurance, credit card charges, student loan balances and other monthly bills (not to mention payroll taxes such as Social Security tax, which went up 2 percent this year), your new salary probably won't go as far as you'd like, especially if you're trying to save for one of those life events.

That's where a budget can help. Numerous free budgeting tools, including interactive calculators, are available at such sites as the government-sponsored (, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (, ( and Practical Money Skills for Life (, a free personal financial management program run by Visa Inc.

Next, know the score, credit-wise. Many people don't realize until it's too late that a poor credit score can trash your financial future. After you've missed a few loan payments, bounced some checks or exceeded your credit limits, you'll probably be charged higher loan and credit card interest rates and offered lower credit limits (if not denied credit altogether), unless and until you can raise your credit score. You may even have to pay higher insurance rates and harm your ability to rent an apartment or get a cell phone.

To know where you stand, review your credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to find out whether any negative actions have been reported and to look for errors or possible fraudulent activity on your accounts. You can order one free report per year from each bureau if you order them through; otherwise you'll pay a small fee.

To learn more about credit reports and scores, visit the CFPB's "Ask CFPB." Another good resource is What's My Score (, a financial literacy program for young adults run by Visa, which features a free, downloadable workbook called, "Money 101: A Crash Course in Better Money Management," and other free tools.

You worked hard to graduate. Just make sure you don't sabotage your efforts by starting out on the wrong financial footing.

Weddings have always been big business, but I was shocked to see how expensive they've become in the 17 years since my wife and I got married. According to the annual Real Weddings Study, the average wedding in the U.S. now costs $28,427, and that doesn't even count the honeymoon.

Wait, it gets worse.

Among the more than 17,500 surveyed brides who got married in 2012, the average amount paid for a wedding dress was $1,211. On average they also spent $204 per wedding guest and dropped $12,905 for the reception venue.

There are many ways to rein in wedding-related costs while still having a memorable event. Here are a few suggestions:

Create a budget. Unless you're a professional wedding planner, you'll probably be floored by how many expenses weddings can amass, including: wedding and engagement rings, invitations, postage, marriage license, clergy and location fees, flowers, bridal gown and groom's tuxedo, rehearsal dinner and reception, photography, catering, DJ or band, limousine, parking attendants, tips, gifts for wedding participants and honeymoon expenses.

Shop around. Bridal expos are a good way to meet a lot of vendors and gather ideas. Just don't get caught up in the excitement and commit to anything before you've done follow-up research. Some tips:

  • Bring along someone from the wedding party as well as a trustworthy friend who isn't emotionally and financially connected to the wedding.
  • You may feel pressured by vendors to sign contracts or put down deposits, but it's probably wiser to take their contact information and research them first.
  • Create a separate email account for wedding vendor communications. Once you sign up for one offer or contest, believe me, your inbox will be swamped.

After you've settled on vendors, get signed contracts that specify dates, products, prices, deposit and payment terms, cancellation policies, liability insurance and whether tax and gratuities are included.

Here are a few suggestions for trimming costs:

  • Date flexibility. You'll get more bang for your buck offseason - a June wedding might cost 20 to 30 percent more than one in April or October.
  • Have your florist use in-season flowers.
  • Daytime weddings are often cheaper than evening events.
  • Instead of a hotel, consider less-costly alternative reception venues like community centers, museums, city park clubhouses or other public facilities looking to earn extra income. Ask whether they have their own tables, chairs, sound and lighting systems; if not, add equipment rental costs into the equation.
  • A buffet dinner reception could save you $15 or more per guest compared to a plated dinner, because you're not paying for table service. Save even more by hosting an afternoon reception and serving lunch or hors d'oeuvres.
  • If you're hosting a large reception, have a smaller display cake for the cutting ceremony, with a sheet cake stored in the kitchen.
  • Serve wine, beer and one signature cocktail, instead of offering a full bar.
  • Consider renting or buying a second-hand wedding dress from a consignment shop, or an online specialty site. The same goes for grooms wear.
  • Hiring a disc jockey instead of a live band will save hundreds of dollars; plus you get a broader selection of music and a built-in emcee to move things along.

One last budgeting tip: Limit the number of guests to ensure you can have a meaningful interaction with each. Remember, spending just one minute apiece with 300 guests would take five hours.

By Jason Alderman

Benjamin Franklin once declared, "Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Although I don't have any updates on the former, where taxes are concerned I do have news:

As it does every year, the Internal Revenue Service announced 2013 cost-of-living adjustments to many of the amounts you and your employer can contribute toward your retirement accounts. These new limits mean most people will be able to contribute more money in tax-advantaged accounts for their retirement savings.

Here are highlights of what will and won't change in 2013:

Defined contribution plans. The maximum allowable annual contribution you can make to workplace 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and federal Thrift Savings plans increases by $500 to $17,500. Keep in mind these additional factors:

  • People over 50 can also make an additional $5,500 in catch-up contributions (unchanged from 2012).
  • The annual limit for combined employee and employer contributions increased by $1,000 to $51,000.
  • Because your plan may limit the percentage of pay you can contribute, your maximum contribution may actually be less. (For example, if the maximum contribution is 10 percent of pay and you earn $50,000, you could only contribute $5,000.)

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). The maximum annual contribution to IRAs increases by $500 to $5,500 (plus an additional $1,000 if 50 or older - unchanged from 2012). Maximum contributions to traditional IRAs are not impacted by personal income, but if your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds certain limits, the maximum amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA gradually phases out:

  • For singles/heads of households the phase-out range is $112,000 to $127,000 (increased from $110,000 to $125,000 in 2012). Above $127,000, you cannot contribute to a Roth.
  • For married couples filing jointly, the range is $178,000 to $188,000 (up from $173,000 to $183,000 in 2012).

Keep in mind these rules for deducting traditional IRA contributions on your federal tax return:

  • If you're single, a head of household, a qualifying widow(er) or married and neither spouse is covered by an employer-provided retirement plan you can deduct the full IRA contribution, regardless of income.
  • If you are covered by an employer plan and are single or a head of household, the tax deduction phases out for AGI between $59,000 and $69,000 (up from $58,000 to $68,000 in 2012); if married and filing jointly, the phase-out range is $95,000 to $115,000 (up from $92,000 to $112,000 in 2012).
  • If you're married and aren't covered by an employer plan but your spouse is, the IRA deduction is phased out if your combined AGI is between $178,000 and $188,000 (up from $173,000 to $183,000 in 2012).
  • For more details, read IRS Publication 590 at

Retirement Saver' Tax Credit: As an incentive to help low- and moderate-income workers save for retirement through an IRA or company-sponsored plan, many are eligible for a Retirement Savers' Tax Credit of up to $1,000 ($2,000 if filing jointly). This credit lowers your tax bill, dollar for dollar, in addition to any other tax deduction you already receive for your contribution.

Qualifying income ceiling limits for the Retirement Savers' Tax Credit increased in 2012 to $59,000 for joint filers, $44,250 for heads of household, and $29,500 for singles or married persons filing separately. Consult IRS Form 8880 for more information.

By Jason Alderman

My wife recently enrolled in graduate school, so like millions of other Americans we've paid close attention to news about student loan programs. One recent example: A key component of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act will result in several significant modifications to the how federal student loans are offered and processed.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the changes will save approximately $61 billion over the next 10 years - money that will partially be used to expand the Pell Grant program for low-income students, beef up community college funding and eventually lower monthly loan repayment amounts for lower-income earners participating in the Income-Based Repayment Plan.

Here's an overview of key changes:

As of July 1, all new federally backed student loans are now issued directly through the Department of Education's Direct Loan program, thereby eliminating the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which had allowed banks and other private lenders to offer federally guaranteed loans. The government is essentially eliminating banks as the middleman for these loans.

Affected loans include subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans for undergraduate and graduate students, PLUS Loans for parents and PLUS Loans for graduate and professional degree students. Under Direct Loan, the latter two actually have lower interest rates than they did under FFELP (7.9 percent vs. 8.5 percent); and, the approval rate for parent loans tends to be higher.

Private lenders will continue servicing student loans already on their books and may continue offering student and parental loans that are not federally guaranteed, just as they always have. Such uninsured loans typically have higher interest rates but may allow larger loan amounts.

Another feature: For federal loans granted beginning in 2014, lower-income graduates with outstanding Stafford or Grad PLUS loans who opt for an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan will see their monthly repayment amount capped at 10 percent of income, compared to the current 15 percent, provided their loan debt qualifies as high relative to income and family size. Go to and search "IBR" to read about eligibility requirements.

These changes do not impact the process of applying for federal grants, loans or work-study programs or change the amount of federal aid that students are eligible to receive. The first step for students interested in receiving federal aid is still to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is available online at, from the school's guidance counselor or financial aid office, or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Most of the savings reaped by eliminating the FFELP will be applied toward the Federal Pell Grant program. (Pell Grants are scholarships given to students from lower-income families that needn't be repaid.)

Beginning with the 2010-2011 academic year (July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011), the maximum Pell Grant amount increases by $200 to $5,550, where it will remain until 2013-2014. In addition, from the 2013-2014 through 2017-2018 academic years, the amount will be indexed for inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers), capping out at $5,975.

For more details on the budgetary impacts of this Act, visit the Congressional Committee on Education and Labor's website, and search "SAFRA" (Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act).

In this challenging economy, many people have curbed discretionary expenses like vacations, entertainment and shopping excursions. Unfortunately, many folks - even those with medical insurance - are also cutting back on healthcare services they can no longer afford, including preventive care, check-ups and medications for chronic conditions.

This short-term budgetary fix could have disastrous long-term effects, as easily treated or preventable conditions morph into much more serious - and expensive - illnesses.

While our government wrestles with solving the national healthcare crisis, here are a few suggestions for stretching your healthcare dollars and ensuring your family receives proper care:

Use your plan wisely. Most health insurers supply educational materials on preventive care such as quitting smoking, weight loss and chronic disease management (like diabetes and high cholesterol). Many even provide financial incentives for completing treatment programs, getting immunizations and using generic drugs, since these practices save money in the long run.

Check your carrier's website for details, or visit the HHS's "Prevention" site ( for information and web links on such topics as fitness, nutrition, risky behavior modification and much more.

Free screenings. Many pharmacies, clinics and health organizations such the National Kidney Foundation ( and the American Academy of Dermatology ( provide free screenings for illnesses such as kidney disease, skin cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Search "free screenings" at for nearby screenings.

Bargain with providers. Before going without needed care, speak to your doctor, dentist or hospital about your financial difficulties and see if they'll work with you to reduce fees or allow installment payments. They may also be able to suggest alternate treatments or connect you with programs that will help pay for your care.

For example, most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) that provide uninsured and low-income people access to drugs they couldn't otherwise afford. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or clinic how to proceed, or visit Partnership for Prescription Assistance (, which has enrollment information on over 475 public and private PAPs, including links to Medicaid programs.

Laid off? File for COBRA. Under the 2009 economic stimulus plan, the government will pay 65 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage for up to nine months for employees laid off between September 1, 2008, and December 31, 2009. Granted, coverage is still expensive, but far less so than if you were uninsured and incurred a serious accident or illness.

Use public resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps fund over 7,000 community health centers serving millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans. Patients pay based on what they can afford for services such as routine checkups, maternity care, immunizations, prescription drugs, and dental, mental health and substance abuse care.

To learn more about this program and find the closest HHS-supported center, visit In addition, many university teaching hospitals and dental schools operate clinics on a sliding payment scale.

Medicaid. Many uninsured people not yet eligible for Medicare can obtain medical coverage through state-administered Medicaid programs. To learn more, visit

Don't let financial worries cause you to ignore your family's health needs. Resources are available; you just need to seek them out.