529 plans vs. prepaid 529 plans

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Saving for college is daunting enough, but as any parent of college-age kids can tell you, you also need to learn a whole new vocabulary -- FAFSA, 529 plans, Coverdell accounts.

It can be a lot to process. One common question is the difference between a 529 plan and a 529 "prepaid" plan. While pre-paid plans aren't nearly as common as they used to be, it's important to know the difference. Here's all that you need to know:

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Creative Ways To Reduce Student-Loan Debt

Each time tuition rises, students become more dependent upon loan programs to pay for school.

But the long-term consequences of those decisions means students and graduates will spend years working to get rid of the financial strain associated with student-loan debt. 

Time.com put it best: "This year, more than two-thirds of college graduates graduated with debt, and their average debt at graduation was about $35,000, tripling in two decades."<

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Review: Goldman Sachs Bank

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Switching banks can be a giant pain, something to schedule in between taxes and a root canal. That's why some of us stick with a bank long after the relationship has stopped working in our favor. In an effort to help you explore and compare banking options, we'll be presenting unbiased reviews in this space as often as we can. You can be part of the conversation, too: Do you love your bank? Hate it? Which bank or credit union should we review next? Let us know in the comments or reach us directly at [email protected].

The name Goldman Sachs isn't usually associated with everyday banking for the 99%, but that may be changing. GE Capital is now Goldman Sachs Bank, also known as GS Bank or GSB. Here's what you need to know:

What is Goldman Sachs Bank?

It is a new consumer online banking initiative from the long-established investment banking behemoth Goldman Sachs & Co. Having acquired the online banking platform of GE Capital, along with that bank's $16 billion in deposits, GSB makes this offer to potential customers: Deposit your money in an FDIC-insured online savings account or certificate of deposit at GS Bank and appreciate the perks of no minimum deposit and no transaction fees.

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Smart ways to save money

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In January, I started a savings experiment. The experiment was designed to save money for my “emergency cushion” account without feeling the loss from my pocket or budget. I figured I could probably save about $30 to $50 per month — not much, but not peanuts either. In six months, I hoped to save about $250, which would be a smart way to save money.

Last week, a month later than I'd originally intended, I deposited the money into my savings account. Before I did, I counted it up to see how much I'd accumulated. I had $723. Wow! And I'd managed to save all of that without even noticing.

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The truth about tax deductions

Tax prep costs - How much will it cost to get your taxes done

Nobody likes to pay taxes. And I think we all get a little kick out of finding ways to save on our tax bill. We smile when we find a deduction we'd been missing. Maybe we think it's a great deal because we're sticking it to the man. Maybe the tax deduction tricks us into thinking we're getting a discount on buying something that we want. Or maybe the tax deduction leads us to believe we're making a smart decision. I know I get a little tingle inside when I find a new tax deduction. Don't you?

Are All Tax Deductions Good?

The problem is that saving on taxes usually amounts to spending cash, or worse, signing up for debt. That's right, we're all trying to get rich slowly, and it seems like saving taxes would go hand in hand with this, but when it comes down to it, many tax deductions are really a drain on our cash flow or emergency fund. Many tax deductions can increase risk and even can put us a little bit further behind the eight ball. All in the name of saving taxes.

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Morningstar ratings: Useful or useless?

The financial industry generally places more emphasis on style than substance. Because of this, when their work is actually evaluated, results tend to be disappointing. Wall Street's earnings forecasts? Overly optimistic. Performance of mutual fund managers? Quite embarrassing. You may be wondering: Do Morningstar ratings also belong in the same category?

You're probably familiar with Morningstar and their one- to five-star mutual fund ratings. Many investors rely on Morningstar for stock and mutual fund research, and mutual fund companies love using Morningstar ratings in their marketing materials. But is there any value in a five-star Morningstar rating? (Disclosure: I use Morningstar software sold to investment advisors almost everyday.)

The Morningstar ratings for one of J.D.'s mutual funds.
The Morningstar ratings for one of the funds J.D. owns.

Fortunately for us, researchers recently looked into these ratings and published their results. They compared Morningstar ratings to fund expense ratios as a predictor of future performance.

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Choosing a target-date fund

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So, you find the lazy way to invest very appealing: You like the simplicity and the long-term results. But you don't want to bother with building your own lazy portfolio of index funds and adjusting it as you get older (same as creating your own target-date fund). At this point in your life, you just want a set-it-and-forget-it solution, at least until you feel more comfortable building your own investment portfolio. Target-date funds seem perfect for the job, but which one is right for you? Let's walk through choosing a target date fund.

Related >> Investing 101: An Introduction to Index Funds and Passive Investing

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How do bonds work and are they worth it?

You probably know how to find and buy stocks, but how do bonds work?

Unfortunately, while online stock brokers have made stock investing child's play over the last 10 years, bond investing has been slow to catch up. In fact, on many online broker sites, online bond platforms don't even exist. That's made the world of individual bond investing pretty murky.

You know that a certain percentage of your portfolio should be allocated to bonds (say 40% if you're in your 40s), but you've probably relied on bond mutual funds to do that. And that's not a bad thing: Bond mutual funds let you own bonds from hundreds of companies with only a small investment. They also have professional managers who can do research into bond investments for you. But bond funds also have one, significant disadvantage to owning individual bonds.

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Know Your Consumer Rights When it Comes to Credit Cards

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Some 3 billion pieces of mail are sent to U.S. consumers each year from credit card companies, according to 2015 statistics highlighted in Business Insider. That's a lot of marketing to wade through. And, as you know, it's simply not enough to pay your balance in full and on time. Credit card companies are looking for ways to penalize you for paying your balance off. They can cancel a card if you are not using it, which can hurt your credit score. Did you know they can raise your APR on one card simply because they found out you were late on a payment to another? Did you also know that the fine print on contracts states they can increase your APR at any time they want, for any reason?

Fighting back doesn't take one borrowed dollar. Here are ten ways to turn the tables on credit card companies.

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Best personal finance podcasts

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Podcasts are a great and free way to learn about saving and investing. Here are some of the very best personal finance podcasts we feel are worthy of your "must-listen" line-up:

Planet Money

Planet Money is perhaps the best all-around podcast about money and economics out there right now. The production values are extremely high -- as you'd expect from any NPR show -- but it stands out for its ability to explain the most complex economic issues in straightforward and innovative ways. Their most famous episode, "Giant Pool of Money" with This American Life, remains one of the best pieces of explanatory journalism on the housing crisis in any medium. If you still aren't certain what caused the housing crisis of 2008 and the global money panic that followed definitely give this episode a listen.

Bad With Money

If you don't know a stock from a bond or an IRA from the IRS, you may want to check out Bad With Money with YouTube comedian and former BuzzFeed writer Gaby Dunn. While primarily geared toward millennials, this podcast is a sonic kick-in-the-pants for anyone who needs to get a handle on their money management (or lack thereof.) One of the better episodes allowed listeners to come along as Gaby unloaded all her financial baggage to a financial psychologist. Yes, your parents' attitudes about money are likely affecting you today. This is not the place for advice on sophisticated financial instruments or advanced savings and investing -- by any means -- but Gaby's voice is fresh and the tone 100 percent non-judgmental.

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