15898434651_ecac4fa7e2.jpgThere's an episode of "The Simpsons" where Homer builds a website. After filling it with gifs of dancing Jesus, obnoxious talking faces and flying toasters, he sits and watches the hit counter. It doesn't move. "Why isn't anybody looking at my website?!" he wonders.
Lisa explains to him that websites have to give people something that they want or need. But she was missing one important point: Good content means nothing if people can't find it.

According to marketing company Search Engine Watch, studies show that search engines accounts for as much as 64 percent of all website traffic. And this is why search engine optimization (SEO for short) is important.

Yes, SEO sounds boring, and working on it can be tedious. But whether it's a Taylor Swift fanpage or you're promoting your own business, what's the point of putting hard work into a website if no one sees it? And you certainly can't make money through online sales or advertisements without proof that people are seeing your site.

So what does it mean to "search engine optimize" your website?

In Theory
Think about hashtags. If you post a photo on Instagram of a selfie on the beach on vacation in Miami, you might tag it with #selfie #Miami #vacation #photooftheday #summerbreak. Now everyone who browses those hashtags has a better chance of seeing your awesome shot.

Now let's say you had a whole blog about vacationing in Miami. If someone searches for "Miami vacation summer break" on Google, SEO is how you make sure that your blog is on the list of results. Here are a few tips on how you do it:

First off, Lisa Simpson was onto something, because the No. 1 rule of website traffic is to provide good, useful and interesting content.

Google engineer Matt Cutts explains Google and other search engines hate it "when websites try to cheat their way into higher positions in search results." Going back to the example of the Miami vacation blog, you should provide useful content and photos of things to do in Miami, rather than just fill a webpage with a fake link for "FREE MIAMI VACATION DEALS."

In Practice
That said, once you build your content, relevant keywords and links are crucial.
Online marketing company Moz says that in talking with SEO experts, "getting external links is the single most important objective for attaining high rankings." But the links, they add, should be primarily to other websites -- ones that are trusted, popular and relevant.

Similarly, throwing in the words "Miami vacation" in your blog posts doesn't really help your SEO. But putting "A Guide to Vacationing in Miami for Students" in your site's tagline will. This is because search engines are built to "think" like the people who use them, so when someone searches for "Miami vacation summer break," Google sends them the results that most closely match exactly what they’re looking for, rather than just websites that have the words "Miami vacation" on them the most.

For a more in-depth explanation, check out Search Engine Watch's breakdown of how to use keywords. If you want to get really serious about building web traffic, set up Google analytics on your website. This will help you identify how people are finding your site (like through search or social media), what keywords they're searching for that are leading them to you, and what your top webpages are.

And if you have great content, relevant links and useful keywords, you're well on your way to making your website search engine optimized. Just skip the dancing gifs.

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365975805_883533616f.jpgI remember having dinner with my extended family about six months after my husband and I had gotten married. Everyone wanted to know how our jobs were going, how we were adjusting to married life and when we were planning to have a baby. Our response went something like, "Um, not any time soon," and during the car ride back, we both laughed at the fact that we hadn't even gotten our wedding photos yet and already we were being pressured to procreate.

See, here's what we were thinking at the time, and it aligns with many discussions we'd had earlier on in our relationship: Kids are expensive. You have to feed them, clothe them, put a roof over their heads and eventually attempt to send them to college. In fact, the estimated cost of raising a child these days is close to a quarter of a million dollars, and that doesn't even include college tuition. So family pressure aside, my husband and I had specific financial criteria we needed met before we could even think about having children.

Here's what our checklist looked like:

Have an Emergency Fund
Experts say that you should always try to have enough money in your savings account to cover three to six months' worth of expenses. We wanted an even heftier cushion, especially since these are so many unknowns when it comes to child-related expenses. We also stocked away money to cover newborn costs like nursery furniture and our hospital stay.

Have a Decent Place to Live
Notice how I said "decent," not "fancy" or "spectacular." You don't need to live in a palace to raise children, but we wanted a living space that could reasonably accommodate a kid or two. In fact, we decided to buy our own house prior to starting a family so that we wouldn't have to worry about having to move as a result of our building being sold or rent getting jacked up.

Have Some Retirement Savings
We figured (correctly) that once kids came into the mix, it would be pretty difficult, especially in the beginning, to put money toward retirement. We also knew the importance of scraping together some retirement savings early on, when the money would have time to grow.

Have a Reliable Mode of Transportation, or the Means to Pay for One
Kids come with a lot of stuff. On any given day, my minivan (yes, I'm a walking cliché) is loaded with spare diapers, an on-the-go changing pad and at least one stroller. In other words, if you think you don't need a car because you live someplace with public transportation, be prepared to change your tune once you have a baby -- and be prepared to pay for it.

Now that we have kids, I can say with certainty that waiting till we were more financially stable was the right decision. These days, we're spending a small fortune on diapers and baby supplies, and just when we think we might have a little extra money to toss into our savings account, something comes up to foil that plan. Had we not saved some money prior to having children, we'd be far more worried and have much less flexibility to indulge in life's little luxuries, like cable TV or the occasional restaurant meal. Having kids is a major drain on your finances, and for us, waiting till we got to a better place financially meant taking one element of stress off the table as we prepared for the craziest, albeit most rewarding, ride of our lives.

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18204334495_2da95e00cd.jpgMy father taught me about money at a young age. By 19 I had already traveled to multiple wealth-building seminars across the country ranging in everything from stock trading, real estate and to making a living as a professional speaker. After meeting multiple millionaires I wanted that lifestyle for myself and trading stocks seemed like the best way for me to get there.

The Fast Rise

At the time the country had an oil shortage and gas prices shot through the roof. While most of my friends were whining about gas prices, I had invested in oil. The price of my stocks shot through the roof, and I made $2000 in a day. I was ecstatic. The next day, another $1000. I'd never been so happy to fill up my gas tank. With investments like this, I wouldn't have to "work," and not working sounded awesome.

I was hungry to make money fast. I'd just returned from paratrooper school and fancied myself a well-educated individual. I thought I was invincible. I'd been reading investing books and was ready to go big. I scrounged every cent I had and put it in the market. By 21 I was making almost $300 a month in dividends from my stock investments, but I wanted more. I borrowed money from my brokerage account, known as margin. This increased my monthly dividend paycheck to $400, just for owning a stock! Life was going to be easy, and I could already picture myself retired on a beach at 25, sporting my banana hammock.

The Faster Fall

The combination of overconfidence and greed would turn out to be my downfall. The day the market crashed was like getting a kick straight to the teeth. My portfolio went from $30,000 to $10,000 overnight. I was in shock. It felt like that moment when you're prancing around in the ocean and you turn your back for one second, and the ocean destroys you, tossing you around like loose change in a washing machine.

During a major market crash the experts say not to panic and ride it out, rather than selling your shares. They say to see it as a buying opportunity to get in at a lower price, but I didn't have any free capital left to invest, so I sat tight and waited to see what the next day would bring.

I awoke early the next morning and logged into my brokerage account just in time to watch as my remaining $10,000 was wiped out, along with my hopes and dreams. I was devastated. I sat there imagining all of the things I could have bought with that money; a brand new car, a trip to anywhere in the world, a better version of literally anything I owned. I questioned my decision to save rather than to be cavalier with my spending like my peers had been.

After a few days of sulking in the corner, I focused my energy towards ways of fixing my finances. I developed a plan to save more money and immediately made massive cuts to my budget. I was determined to rebuild my net worth as fast as possible. This time around I was even more efficient with my money and I put every penny I saved to work in a variety of interest-bearing accounts. My new approach helped me purchase a house at 23, allowed me to graduate from college debt free and landed me a job as a college financial coach where I now teach students how to be better with money. I still trade stocks, but now use other investments to spread out the risk.

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18868014616_8cae68832c.jpgWith the cost of food rising, many people are looking for ways to save money on their meals. Coupons may seem like a good idea, but there are two fundamental flaws: They take time to collect and clip (or cost you money since you're printing -- that printer ink is expensive!), and you don't really save money unless you use the coupon on something you'd normally buy anyway. Since we rarely see coupons for staples like milk, produce and meats, it's hard to count on those saving us anything substantial. So, what can you do?

Plan Meals Ahead of Time

When you know what you're going to eat, it's a lot easier to make your shopping list and stick to it. It's a good idea to plan your meals from payday to payday, so you're not stuck at the end of the pay period with no idea what to eat and little cash flow to work with.

Sit down with a calendar and your local grocery store's sales paper. Considering the items you already have on hand, the items you need to restock, and what the store has on special this week, come up with meals you'd like to prepare. If you need some inspiration, search for recipes online. Make your grocery list recipe by recipe. Add other items you know you need.

Buy in Bulk

Buying in bulk is always a great way to save, but when you consider the fact that warehouse clubs like Sam's Club and Costco have annual membership fees, it's not always the most practical way to go. If you can't accompany a member as a guest, you can still apply the bulk principle to many things in your local grocery store.

Go back to your store sales paper. See an item you use often on sale this week? Buy as much as you can afford while it's on sale. This is a great way to stock up on essentials like canned goods.

Look for Hidden Discounts

While most of your grocery store's specials will be advertised in the weekly sales paper, there are often unadvertised discounts hiding throughout the store. This is particularly important in the meat and produce departments, as food could be on the verge of spoiling. These items are reduced in an effort to sell them quickly. As long as you cook or freeze the meat soon after you buy it, you'll be fine. The key with quick-sale produce is to only buy what you'll be able to use within a day or two.

Check Discount Grocery Stores

Discount grocery chains like Aldi or Winco can help you save money because they offer unadvertised brands. Other discount stores may offer brand name foods at a deep discount because the box is bent, or the can is dented. Some things you find may be past their "best by" date, but it's not always necessary to worry about that.

Food expiration dates are a general guideline. Use these guidelines to shop smart.

  • Sell By: This date tells the store when to stop displaying it. It refers to freshness, rather than spoilage. Grab from the back to ensure you get the freshest products, or opt for one close to the date to get savings.
  • Best By (or Before): This date refers to product quality, not safety. Sour cream, for example, is already sour when you buy it, but tastes best when it's freshly soured.
  • Guaranteed Fresh: Typically used for baked goods, these items will still be safe to eat after the date on the package, but won't be as fresh.
  • Use By: This date is determined by the manufacturer as the last possible date for peak quality. Most products are still safe to eat after this date.

Don't be afraid to shop multiple stores to get the best deals. If the stores are too far apart, though, you risk spending more money on gas to get there and back than it is worth. If there are other stores near your work or school that are on the way home, check those out when they're not out of the way instead of making a special trip just to shop.

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18088542974_b64728ace0.jpgKeeping up with an industry is difficult. An industry can be a myriad of things -- but mostly it's a group of businesses that provide a particular product or service. For example, IT and tech are both industries. Certainly a few targeted Google searches or social media connections can get you an "ear to the streets," so to say, but it's difficult to tell which companies are truly doing the things they say they are. In order to dig deeper into an industry, I attend their major trade shows (an exhibition organized so companies can showcase their latest products), where I can meet with everyone from budding entrepreneurs and start-ups to reps from major corporations.

Who Attends Trade Shows

Aside from media analysts like me, trade shows are events where you can network with industry professionals. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (otherwise known as E3, a closed-to-the-public video game industry show that originated at the Consumer Electronics Show), the Entertainment Software Association partners with major console companies (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) to spend major dollars renting the LA Convention Center and various clubs and venues in downtown LA for three days of hands-on demos with unreleased games from both major and indie developers.

If you're just breaking into the industry, it can be difficult (and expensive) to obtain tickets for trade shows. Still, showing up to any events in your region (even without a ticket) can be a worthwhile investment for a bootstrapped entrepreneur looking to get their name out there. Although you won't be allowed in the main exhibit area, plenty of people go outside to grab some fresh air and are open to conversations.

Find the Right Trade Show

Industry trade shows are easy enough to find -- Trade Show News Network offers an online database of thousands of trade shows in any industry, listing event dates, venues and a short description. You can filter the search by industry, city, date range or venue. Las Vegas is by far the most popular venue, but convention centers exist in every major city, and each hosts a variety of trade shows.

For example, the Trade Show News Network's list of upcoming trade shows includes conventions on agriculture, consumer technology, home furnishings, specialty equipment and business aviation. There's something for everybody.

Attend a Trade Show

Registration for trade shows typically opens about three months prior to the show. Different attendees often pay different prices for tickets. Sponsors can spend $150,000 to upwards of $2,000,000 to hang banners, build crowd-pleasing exhibits, hire models, host extravagant after-parties and arrange meetings for their reps to negotiate sales.

Vendors pay $500–$500,000 on booths within the exhibit hall, giving them a listing in all brochures and a place to meet with potential customers and prospective buyers. Buyers (such as brick-and-mortar stores at the Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Market in Salt Lake City) can expect to pay between $150 and $2,500 for a ticket, while media and analysts typically get a free pass.

On top of the ticket price, consider travel expenses, hotels and parking. In cities like Las Vegas, where CES and the Collision Conference are held, parking is typically free, but a parking lot in LA can be $15 when you pass it the first time and $50 the second, and cities like Seattle and anywhere on the East Coast charge premium prices for parking near convention centers.

Regardless of what industry you're in, there's a trade show where professionals are meeting and networking on at least an annual basis. Appearing at these shows gives your company a chance to be seen by taste-makers, prospective buyers, and members of the media who help build a brand's buzz. If you want to keep your ear to the street, you can't simply depend on Internet searches -- the real grind happens at industry trade shows.

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18061805444_ccfb781bce.jpgTalk to people nearing retirement and they will say they wish they had saved more. According to TIAA-CREF's Ready to Retire Survey, 52 percent of Americans approaching retirement say they wish they had started saving for the future sooner. Then they will try and convince you that you should save and invest and do all sorts of wonderful things with your money. Your money will compound, they say, at six percent a year. Maybe even eight! You'll make millions, they say. Just a dollar a day, they say.

Investing has everything to do with goals, but not every goal has to be about crunching serious numbers. Think about why we invest. We invest for short-term goals, like saving money for college and graduate school. Then there are our longer-term goals, like raising kids (a piddling $245,000 per child, according to CNNMoney), to planning for retirement. It is hard to imagine life so far down the line, so know this: Not all of your investment goals need to be about the numbers.

Take the following three examples and you will see how just the practice of investing can lead to a better understanding of the future, and a better future for you.

Understand the Trends

Trends are big ideas, the movements in the economy that shape world markets and affect individual consumers. Some are technology-based, like the prominence of wearable tech, and some are more social, like the rise of organic food. If you invest in a fund that deals mainly in renewable energy, like those mentioned on Renewable Energy World, then you'll understand the impact of Tesla's new battery, new fuel cell options and countries being completely independent of fossil fuels. You'll understand that it's part of a broader trend shifting away from oil. I know we're not talking about money, but if you've invested in that trend, then you'll be pretty happy.

Becoming Bold

As Psychology Today explains, "there are many psychological benefits to being high on the openness dimension of personality," and investing can fulfill many of the six facets of openness, including openness to ideas (thinking about the future success of certain companies is a great way to keep your mind active), openness to action (making investments, in any amount, is a definite step forward) and openness to fantasy (imagining what the world will be like, and engaging with those possibilities).

Engage with the World

By being an active investor, you invest in the world and its outcomes. That applies just as much to those who invest passively through regular contributions to a retirement fund or to an index fund. You can buy into companies you believe in through stock. Be a part of Facebook. Be a part of Chipotle (well, maybe not anymore). If there is an idea, company or person you want to support, you can show that support by investing. Though "skin in the game" is generally for executives within a company, it is also a way for you to say "this is risky, but I believe in it and I'm doing something about it." That personal stake can drive attention and motivate you to stay involved, monitoring the company, understanding what they're attempting to do in their market and seeing how they will impact the future.

By investing in any amount, over any period of time, you become bolder and more confident as you extend yourself into the future.

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5858030702_42cd3f4a51.jpgAs millennials, we all know how hard it is to save money. Between student loans, ever-rising living costs and salaries that are most likely mediocre at best, our savings goals are apt to get shoved on the back burner as we attempt to navigate the challenges of adulthood in all their money-sucking glory. But there's a difference between not saving a lot of money and pretty much not saving any at all. Recent data confirms that almost 52 percent of millennials have less than $1,000 saved.

Now of course the term "millennial" encompasses a pretty wide age gap -- specifically, today's 20 to 35-year-olds. But while it's not so crazy for a fresh-out-of-college 22-year-old to have a pathetically low savings account balance, those of us in our late-20s to mid-30s, who conceivably have a number of working years under our belts, need to be doing better. And when it comes to saving, even younger millennials -- those 25 and under -- shouldn't be let completely off the hook. While it's true that full-time college students, for example, don't have much of a chance to save (many, in fact, technically have negative savings thanks to their student loans), a failure to amass even a tiny amount of savings points to misplaced priorities more so than missing opportunities.

Why It's Important to Save
Most financial experts agree that everyone, regardless of age or circumstance, should have an emergency fund to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses. Say you lose your job but still have bills to pay (because that's kind of the way the world works). Without an emergency fund, you may have to resort to taking on debt, which also means racking up ridiculously high interest charges along the way. Even if you're among the lucky folks (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) who get to live with their parents rent-free, you never know when you might face an unexpected car repair, injury or other random occurrence that winds up costing you money. To not even have reached the $1,000 mark in your savings account means you're really taking chances and putting your financial future at risk.

How to Ramp Up
If you're among the many people with a miserably low savings account balance, fear not. You can find ways to save, even on an entry-level paycheck. For starters, examine your expenses and commit to three small changes that'll shave a few dollars off your bills each month. You don't need to do anything drastic, like give up your cell phone entirely, but you can, for instance, lower your data plan, do your own nails in place of a manicure or cancel Netflix and borrow books and movies from your local library for free. Finding just three separate ways to save $10 each month means that over the course of a year, you can put aside an extra $360 in total.

Additionally, be mindful of major budget-busters like dining out or ordering in. You can prepare your own meals for a fraction of what it costs to have someone else do the work for you. Eliminating just one restaurant meal each month can save you $20 -- or $240 over the course of a year. Add that to the $360 you just saved, and there's a cool $600 right off the bat.

Saving money is really all about making choices and getting our priorities straight. It's not always easy, and it's not always fun, but like it or not, we owe it to ourselves to be financially responsible -- because, at least in theory, that's what adults are supposed to do.

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16825349671_8b20e59ed4.jpgLet's talk about taxes. You've knowingly allowed a little bit of your paycheck to go toward your taxes each month, but up until now you’ve blissfully avoided dealing with them, and definitely haven’t learned anything about filing them. This year, however, is different. This year you've decided you're old enough to handle the real world and your real money.

It's time to learn how to file your taxes.

The W Forms

Figuring out where to start when preparing to file your taxes can be one of the biggest challenges of the entire process -- after all, the tax code has a reputation for being extremely convoluted. Because of this, completely understanding the tax code is nearly impossible, but there are a few important aspects to try to wrap your head around, like which forms you'll need.

Understanding the difference between a W2 and a W4 form is a good place to start. A W4 form helps your place of employment understand how much money they need to take out of each of your paychecks, and during tax season a copy will be submitted to the IRS as part of the company’s taxes. A W2 is essentially a statement of how much money was withheld by your employer. You'll get a copy every year that you'll need to complete your taxes.

A simple way to remember the difference is that a W4 is for your employer, while a W2 goes to you.

Dependent Versus Independent

Another factor to consider is whether you are being accounted for in your parents' tax forms as a dependent, or if you are going to be filing as independent. If you are under 19 and not in school, or under 24 and still in school, your parents can claim you on their taxes as a dependent. This can help defray some of their costs for supporting you. Before filing your taxes, it will be important to double check with your guardian(s) about what they consider your status to be.

If you're working and paying for over 50 percent of your living expenses (college tuition, food, fuel, rent, etc.) then it might be a good idea to consider filing independently -- especially if you're a full-time student since you'll likely get a substantial return. However, it's important to remember that if you file independently and your parent's also claim you on their taxes, both of your returns will be flagged by the IRS, which could turn into a huge hassle.


There are several ways to get more back on your taxes if you are filing on your own this year. For example, if you are paying interest on student loans, it's likely that you'll get a majority of the interest you paid back in your yearly return. You'll receive a 1098-E form from each of your loan servicers, so make sure you submit your taxes with those forms included.

In addition to education-related refunds, there are a few ways to get additional money back after filing. For example, you can claim any charitable donations you have made over the past year, including items you have dropped off at the thrift store or food bank. You can also get some tax refunds for going green. If you bike to work rather than drive, you are eligible for an extra $20 every month from your employer as part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.

You can always visit irs.gov to find out what forms you'll need to file for your federal taxes. Visit your state's official website to find out what forms you'll need to file state taxes. You can also check out free or low-cost services online to help you file, like TurboTax or H&R Block. Another easy part of learning how to do your own taxes? Electronic filing can be done for federal taxes, and you can file online for most states, too. That means you can have your tax returns deposited directly into your checking or savings accounts without having to worry about paper checks and forms.

Taking your taxes into your own hands is quite the achievement. Learning the tax lingo can be difficult, but well worth it. You may even end up with more money in your pocket than you'd hoped.

Don't forget to file your 2016 taxes before the April 18 filing deadline.

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3824445109_39f5a6e656.jpgFor some people, there's nothing like boarding a massive ship, unpacking once and spending some time at sea. Cruising can be a hassle-free and even economical vacation option. Many itineraries feature numerous ports of call, so you might, for instance, get to explore four or five different islands on a week-long Caribbean cruise.

But while there are those who love nothing more than to take a cruise, it's definitely not for everyone. If you've never gone on a cruise before, here are a few things to consider:

The Seasickness Factor
If the idea of spending seven days and nights swaying to the rhythm of the ocean sounds appealing to you, then by all means, book that cruise. But if the thought of having to eat, sleep and shower while constantly moving is enough to make your stomach churn, you may want to consider a vacation that's not quite as likely to make you vomit. That said, if you're prone to motion sickness but want to give cruising a try, there are several remedies that might help you avoid getting sick while at sea. You can try sea bands, which are little bracelets that use acupressure to provide nausea relief. There's also good old Dramamine, and if that doesn't do it for you, you can ask your doctor to prescribe a more heavy-duty motion sickness patch.

The Claustrophobia Factor
Think about the smallest hotel room you've ever stayed at. Now divide it in half and swap out the windows for a tiny little porthole, because that's what your accommodations will be like if you decide to go on a cruise. Even if you manage to score a cabin with a coveted ocean view, you'll still be staring out a window not much bigger than the size of your average laptop, and while you do have the option to upgrade to a balcony, doing so might cost you an arm and a leg. Before you commit to cruising, think about your tolerance for being trapped not only on a boat out at sea, but in a cabin that makes your college dorm room seem like a palace.

The Boredom Factor
Though some cruises offer daily stops at different ports of call, your itinerary may include several days at sea. Now if you're the type who enjoys lounging poolside or kicking back with a good book, you'll enjoy the downtime. But if you're the kind of person who demands constant entertainment, you may get bored on and off -- unless, of course, you're willing to take part in a shuffleboard tournament or an afternoon Bingo session. On the plus side, most cruise ships offer decent nighttime entertainment, from comedy shows to concerts.

The Stuff Your Face Factor
Going on a cruise means signing up to quite potentially stuff your face like you've never stuffed it before. Most cruises include unlimited food and non-alcoholic beverages, so if your idea of a good time is indulging, repeatedly, in a wide array of culinary delights, you'll be sure to appreciate those extensive menus and endless buffets. On the other hand, if you're a picky eater or happen to be watching your weight, the limitless supply of food may not hold quite the same appeal.

If you're really unsure if you'll enjoy cruising but want to give it a shot, book a four-day cruise before committing to a week or longer at sea. And also, be open-minded. Even if cruising doesn't turn out to be your thing, there's a good chance you'll still enjoy the luxury and convenience of escaping reality on a giant ship.

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6722570555_2a396cab0b.jpgFor many of us, the start of a new year means more than just a bunch of looming resolutions; it means more money. In fact, recent data indicates that U.S. employees across the board will be celebrating salary increases in 2016, to the tune of 2.7 percent or possibly more. But before you take that raise of yours and use it to upgrade to a larger living space, update your cellphone or treat yourself to a brand-new wardrobe, here's another tactic to consider: Pretend that raise doesn't exist.

Of course, this doesn't mean you ought to take that extra money and throw it away. Instead, you should trick your brain into thinking it's not there and arrange for it to land somewhere it can be put to better use. Here are some options that will serve you well for the long haul:

Your Retirement Account
If you have extra money coming your way, one of the best things you can do with it is allocate it toward retirement. According to Fidelity, by age 30, you should aim to have saved the equivalent of your salary in a retirement account. By 35, you should have twice your salary stored away. If you've got some catching up to do, now's the perfect opportunity to take advantage of a raise. Best of all, if your employer offers a 401(K) matching program, putting that extra money in could translate into additional free money from your company.

Your Emergency Fund
Pretty much every financial expert agrees that it's important to have an emergency fund for situations like job loss or unforeseen medical expenses. Most advise putting aside enough money to cover three to six months' worth of expenses. If your emergency savings is lacking, here's your chance to pad that account by taking whatever extra money is coming your way and sticking it in the bank. You can even set up an automatic savings plan so that you don't need to remember to transfer that money month after month. Incidentally, this will also help you avoid the temptation to spend that money on frivolous things you want but don't actually need.

Your "Let's Pay off These Student Loans" Fund
Are you among the many college grads still carrying a wad of student loans? One of the smartest things you can do with your raise is use the extra money to pay down your debt. Remember, the sooner you pay off your loans, the less they'll end up costing you, as you'll eliminate some of those pesky interest charges by lowering your principal more quickly.

Your Down Payment
Whether it's a car or a house you're saving to buy, coming up with that down payment can be a major challenge. If you're getting a salary increase this year, use it to save for major life milestones like purchasing a vehicle or becoming a homeowner. Even if you're only looking at a few extra thousand dollars, you'd be amazed at how much every little bit helps.

You work hard for your money, and it's natural to be tempted to spend it on things that offer instant gratification. But before you do, think about your future and whether you're on track to meet your long-term goals. Yes, it might be nice to have a larger apartment, or a new TV, but in the grand scheme of things, attaining financial security is far more important. And while you may lose out on the fun factor by going the responsible route, there's something to be said about buying yourself a gift that truly keeps on giving: financial peace of mind.

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