It’s a scenario many of us have faced: A friend comes to you and admits to being short on money, and before you know it, what started out as a venting sessions quickly turns into a plea for a loan. While it’s noble to want to help a friend in need, answer these questions.

What's your friend’s history with money?
Has your friend always been notoriously bad with money? Is this the first time he’s come to you in need of a bailout? Think long and hard about your friend’s spending habits and history before deciding whether you’re comfortable helping out. You may also want to ask mutual friends for their input.

What does your friend needs the money for?
It’s one thing if your friend needs a loan to cover an unexpected bill or make ends meet while job searching. But if you’re being asked to help fund a friend’s month-long vacation or fancy electronics purchase, you may want to politely turn him down. Also consider the reason why your friend needs it. Did he lose a job unexpectedly or encounter an onslaught of medical bills following an injury or illness? Or is his predicament the result of unfiltered spending and sloppy money management?

How will the loan affect on your own financial situation?
Even if you have some money to lend, doing so may put you in an uncomfortable financial position. Make sure you have enough money on hand to address your own needs before parting with any of your hard-earned cash. If, for example, you’ll need to dip into your emergency fund to lend your friend, that could create a stressful situation for you if your circumstances change. Think about your current, upcoming, and potential expenses and keep in mind you may not get repaid for quite some time.

What are the terms of the loan?
Your motivation in lending money to a friend is to help him out or do him a favor; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself in the process. If you do decide to move forward with a loan, make sure to spell out its terms in writing. There are numerous free online sources that can show you how to create a loan document that is legally binding. If you clearly identify the loan amount, repayment schedule, and interest terms (if applicable), both you and your friend will have a solid understanding of what to expect, and you’ll have a degree of protection in the event that your relationship goes sour or your friend fails to pay back the loan as promised.

How will the loan affect your relationship?
As the recipient of the loan, your friend may begin to feel awkward or uncomfortable around you despite the fact that he approached you asking for help in the first place. On the flip side, you may end up feeling resentful or regretting your decision if you observe your friend making luxury purchases before he’s had a chance to repay you in full.

Erica Moore, for example, loaned a close friend $5,000 several years ago to avoid foreclosure on her condo during a period of joblessness. While the two friends signed a loan agreement that included explicit repayment terms, Moore was irked when she saw her friend buying cosmetics and ordering in dinner. Though she recognized that the occasional $10-$20 purchase wasn’t going to make a huge dent given the total principal of the loan, she thought if her friend was desperate enough to ask for money, she should be stocking away every penny rather than treating herself. While Moore's friend eventually repaid the loan, Moore acknowledges there’s still some tension as a result of having loaned that money.

 
Photo by KittyKaht via cc.

Anyone brave enough to invest in stocks should be prepared to endure the rollercoaster ride that is the market. Stocks have always been volatile, particularly in recent years, and even when the market calms down on a whole, it's possible to see individual stocks lose value month over month.

If you're new to the stock market, you may be inclined to panic every time you see your portfolio take a dive, but remember: Even if it dips for a day, or a week, or a month, you don't actually lose money until you sell. That's because the market on a whole has the ability to rebound, and the same holds true for individual stocks.

On the other hand, there are scenarios in which a specific stock may appear to simply be doomed. Poor earnings, weak projections, and news scandals can all spell trouble for an individual company's stock, and if a loss is inevitable, it often pays to get out and sell while you can. The good news, however, is that you can make a loss work to your advantage.

Offset capital gains and reduce your taxes
When you sell a stock at a price that’s higher than what you paid for it, your profit is known as a capital gain. And when you make money on a stock sale, not surprisingly, the government wants a piece of it. Short-term gains, which are gains on stocks held for less than a year plus one day, are taxed as ordinary income (meaning what your regular paycheck is at taxed at). Long-term gains, which are gains on stocks held for longer than one year plus one day, are taxed at 15% if you fall into an average tax bracket. (Your individual rate could be higher or lower depending on your status.) If you sell a stock at a loss, you can offset it against a gain, thereby lowering your overall tax burden. In fact, if the amount you lose in a given year ends up outweighing the amount you’ve gained, you can claim an actual loss on your taxes and deduct up to $3,000 for it.

Pursue more favorable investments
Once you’ve sold at a loss, you can use the proceeds to invest in a more promising option, be it a different stock, bond, or fund. Let’s say you sell a stock and lose $1,000. If you’re able to take the money you previously had in that stock, invest it elsewhere, and make $1,500, you’ll wind up ahead of the game. The only caveat is that you’ll need to avoid buying the same stock at a lower price, or a similar stock, during the 30-day period after you sell. This is called a wash sale, and unfortunately, the IRS won’t allow you to deduct your loss if you don’t wait till day 31.

Even when you lose money on a stock, there’s a silver lining. All it takes is a bit of strategic thinking and planning.

Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts via cc.
 

With most savings account interest rates barely grazing the 1% mark and short-term CDs not faring much better, those hesitant to embrace the volatility of the stock market have, in recent years, been forced to either step outside their comfort zones or resign themselves to slow financial growth. If you’re tired of measly interest rates but aren’t ready to abandon your risk-averse tendencies, there’s another option to consider: municipal bonds.

Also known as muni bonds, municipal bonds are debt obligations issued by government entities such as states, cities, and counties. They’re often used to fund public projects like roadway construction and utility infrastructure. Similar to corporate bonds, municipal bonds essentially promise to pay the lender—in this case, you—a specified amount of interest over a period of time, and return the principal investment once the bond matures, or comes due. While municipal bonds are a good choice for some investors, they aren’t for everybody. Let’s review.

The pros

  • Municipal bonds are generally tax-free, meaning the interest you earn on them is exempt from federal income taxes and, in some cases, state taxes as well. Interest from a CD or savings account, on the other hand, is not only subject to taxes, but is taxed as ordinary income, which means it’s treated the same way as your regular paycheck.
  • Municipal bonds are a relatively safe investment. Compared to corporate bonds, their default rate (the failure of the issuer to make scheduled payments) is extremely low. Because of this, muni bonds offer a reasonably predictable income stream from interest, with most long-term bonds making semiannual payments.

The cons

  • Compared to other investment options, municipal bonds generally have a lower interest rate. Over the past 10 years, municipal bonds have yielded just over 4% on average, whereas corporate bonds have averaged between 5 and 7%.
  • While municipal bonds are considered low-risk, they aren’t risk-free. Though defaults are rare, they can happen.
  • Municipal bond values are subject to market fluctuation. Let’s say you invest $10,000 in a 10-year muni bond but find that you need to sell it two years after adding it to your portfolio. If the market value at the time is only $9,000, you’ll lose $1,000 of your principal in exchange for immediate cash. You should only count on a full return of your principal if you hold the bond until its maturity date.

Under the right circumstances, municipal bonds are a wise investment. Consider adding muni bonds to your portfolio if you're in a high tax bracket or expect to have a lot of taxable income in a given year, as their interest income won’t increase your tax burden. And if you’re new to investing and want to limit your exposure to risk, municipal bonds are a reasonably safe option. Finally, if you have an emergency fund and aren’t anticipating any imminent purchases requiring a large sum of cash (such as a house), municipal bonds are a great way to diversify your long-term savings plan.

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The day my bank account hit zero, I knew I was in trouble.

I’d been watching its slow decline for weeks, so I knew it was coming. Graduation had caused my savings to take a big hit, and my post-grad move to Florida depleted everything I had left. The worst part was that I couldn’t even claim to be a poor college student--now, I was just poor. After spending the summer counting my pennies, never having more than $100 to my name at any given time, I learned a few things.

There are things of greater value than money. Three of my best friends got married over the summer, and forking out for plane tickets and gifts took up the majority of my weekly paychecks. It was worth it, though. I knew I would rather have the memories than the money.

You don’t need to eat nearly as much as you think you do. I learned to make a box of pasta can last a week and a can of tuna fish can make four sandwiches. We’re used to big portion sizes in the United States, but the truth is your body does just fine with a bit less, and you’ll be surprised how much money you can save by simply cutting your portion sizes.

Nature is the best gym you’ll ever find. I was always the queen of gym memberships, but there was no way I could afford one once I got to Florida. Instead, I started running outside, and I found I really liked it.

There’s an app for everything (and it’s usually free!). Since I missed my gym membership, I found a free app that created personalized workout routines. Whatever you need, chances are there’s a free app for it.

Free resources are everywhere. From public transportation to public events, take advantage of everything available to you. Love to read? Get a library card.

Ultimately you are in control of your finances. The hardest thing I had to do over the summer was learn to say no to evenings out and fast food runs and anything else I didn’t have the money for. You control your spending. If you can’t afford it, learn to accept that and say no.

There are always ways to make money. Always. Do your neighbors want you to dog need their dogs watched? Children babysat? These might not be the most glamourous things in the world, but they’re ways to make quick cash if you’re truly desperate.

Reward points, reward points, reward points. Not only did my workout app have a rewards system that I could redeem for gift cards, the credit card I eventually got did too. Translation: my daily exercise routine was earning me free groceries.

Creativity is king. Especially when it comes to budgeting. Think outside the box with how to do with less, repurpose items, or discover new ways to save.

Sometimes you have to re-evaluate your life plan. All I wanted to do after college was travel. I had these great romantic visions of me wandering the world with nothing but a backpack and a camera- I didn’t think I would ever get a full-time job or use my degree. After three months of making minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet, nothing seemed more appealing than a full-time job and a steady salary. I realized that if I couldn’t even afford groceries, there was no way I was spending the summer in Greece. A month later, I was able to find a full-time, virtual position that paid a great salary and allowed me to work from home. Goodbye, financial stress. Hello, travel.

With a little resourcefulness and determination, you can succeed living on a budget.

Photo by 401(K) 2012 via cc.

Living on a budget but trying to be healthy? Oatmeal is the way to go. It’s full of antioxidants, it reduces cholesterol, and it can boost your immune system, along with a myriad of other health benefits. Plus, it’s almost obnoxiously cheap, especially if you buy the pre-measured instant packets.

Of course, the instant stuff isn’t nearly as good for you as the old-fashioned kind, but it has benefits of its own: It’s low-priced, it’s (relatively) nutritious, and it keeps you full for a long time. I should know--I lived off of it for one long, broke summer in my twenties.

While oatmeal is economical and good for you, at the end of the day, it’s still…oatmeal. Bland, average consistency, and nothing too special. However, with a little creativity, you can spice up your inexpensive meal without cleaning out your wallet.

Here are five easy and inexpensive ways to make oatmeal taste less like oatmeal.

Milk and honey. These two things are found in just about any kitchen, and you’d be surprised how much flavor they add to plain old oatmeal. Either make the oatmeal with water as usual and add milk after to make it creamier, or make it with milk to begin. Afterward, stir in a little honey.

Peanut butter and bananas. Also staples found in most kitchens, peanut butter and bananas go great with oatmeal. Prepare the oatmeal normally and stir in a tablespoon or two of peanut butter (smooth or crunchy is fine). Peel a banana, chop in slices, and add to the mixture.

Blueberries. Keep it simple and add a handful of blueberries to your oatmeal. They add texture and flavor, and blueberries are also full of antioxidants. Paired with oatmeal, they’re the ultimate breakfast power couple.

A little bit of ice cream. Looking for something sweet? Add a small amount of ice cream to your morning oatmeal. It’s a little more costly (and yes, it removes some of the health benefits), but it taste good and adds diversity to your oatmeal routine.

Chocolate chips. Chocolate chips are another way to sweeten up your oatmeal (but without the added calories of ice cream). They’re a tad more expensive than fruit, but a small bag will last for many delicious bowls. Trying to keep it healthy? Add dark chocolate chips instead.

Also keep in mind all of the different varieties of instant oatmeal on the market. There are fruits with cream, maple and brown sugar, extra protein and fiber, weight-loss options, and dessert varieties. With all the different flavor options available, the combinations are limitless--and the math can’t be beat. A 10-pack of instant oatmeal is less than $3, making all of these options meals under $2 total.

Can you say breakfast for a week and a half?

 Photo by Megan via cc

You’re done with college and trying to make a name for yourself. You’re trying to do all the right things--working hard, paying off student loans, and saving for a future that seems so far off. There are so many financial decisions to make: savings accounts, investment options, and retirement savings. With all you’re juggling, how can you possibly do it all?

The good news is you don’t have to do everything yourself. There are financial advisors trained to help young investors just starting out. The key is finding the right advisor to help your money grow along with you. Follow these tips to find an advisor you trust.

Where to look
Referrals. Ask family and friends for two or three referrals. These referrals are usually the result of a positive experience with an advisor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will have the same experience. Choose someone you connect with and who will listen to your ideas, values, and financial goals.

Objective, third-party periodicals. If you don’t have reliable sources for referrals or if you don’t think any of the referrals are a good fit for you, check out periodicals offered by reputable organizations like Barrons, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, or J.D. Power and Associates. These objective, third-party resources rank advisors each year.

Check credentials
Once you’ve selected two or three advisors to interview, check their history through finra.org, the organization that regulates financial service firms, and use their BrokerCheck feature. It’s a free tool that will tell you an advisor or firm’s licensing status and history, employment history, and any regulatory, customer or criminal disputes. Your state may also offer resources to confirm an advisor’s license status. Check your state attorney general’s website and the department of financial institutions.

Not all investment firms will require an advisor to have a college education, but the more reputable ones do. Though firms will conduct their own training and advisors must have a Series 7 license, a business education is also helpful, specifically an MBA or a BA or BS in economics, finance, or accounting.

Interview finalists
Narrow your choices down to advisors you want to interview, virtually or in person, and ask these questions:

  •  What experience and education do you have?
  • What credentials do you have? The Certified Financial Planner is the preferred designation among financial advisors, but only about 20% of advisors have this designation. Additional designations include Chartered Financial Analyst, Chartered Financial Consultant, and Chartered Life Underwriter.
  • How long have you been in business?
  • What products and services do you offer?
  • What is the size of the asset portfolio you manage?
  • Does your firm clear its own trades? To buy or sell an investment, and clear a trade, a firm must be a member or associated with a member of FINRA and the New York Stock Exchange. Firms who members are able to provide better service at a lower cost than non-member firms.
  • Have you received any complaints? These are public record and available at FINRA.
  • Do your clients have online access to view their accounts?
  • What investments do you focus on?

Making the decision

In addition to this information, consider what type of a rapport you had with each candidate. Choose the advisor with the credentials and background you want and who respects your values. This is the right advisor for you!

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Simplifying my life and taking control of my budget was difficult, but it enabled me to travel all over the country, seeing the sights, tasting the local delicacies, and truly living life the way I wanted. If you have a dream you're saving for, check your budget for these dos and don'ts to save money.

Do cut your cable. Cable-cutting is the best decision you'll ever make. There's nothing on paid cable you can't watch over-the-air or online, completely free. Streaming news services like HuffPost Live, RT, and The Young Turks provide the same news that's on television, and both lag behind Twitter and RSS feeds. Live sports can be streamed via SopCast or Ace Player (or watched in a restaurant if you're not afraid to go out in public). There are too many entertainment options available to spend $50+ per month for cable.

Don't cut your car/home insurance. The financial impact of health insurance is still debatable, but if you have a bank lien on your home or automobile, you need to keep up with insurance payments. If you don't, the contract you signed for your loan allows the loan servicer to saddle you with an expensive force-placed insurance policy, which can cost up to 10 times as much.

Do stop purchasing music. I love music, and I wholeheartedly support musicians. I also understand the point system provides an artist with 5¬-12 cents from the $10 you spend on their album. Musicians make more money from touring, sponsorship deals, and licensing their work in video games, and movies than they'll ever make from consumer album purchases. Ignore the industry hype and only listen to free music using sites like Pandora or Spotify.

Don't ignore maintenance. How many appliances and pieces of furniture in your home are broken? When was the last time you serviced your vehicle? Keeping your home, vehicle, and gadgets running smoothly saves you money in the long run. If you let an issue linger, it'll only become more expensive. Fix problems as they come up, and proactively prevent them by treating your property with respect.

Do evaluate your food budget. Food is where people tend to overspend the most. It's OK to stockpile food, but make sure you're stockpiling food you actually use--otherwise you're wasting money. Also stop eating at restaurants and fast food joints regularly. Once a week is the most you should be eating out if you’re living lean, and even then, choose places you actually enjoy.

Don't starve yourself. On the flip side, it's important to remember you are what you eat--literally. Many money-saving sites will tell you to eat nothing but oats, honey, and peanut butter. I may live in a van on the road, but I'm a foodie, and nutrition is important.

Do renegotiate debt. From student loans to credit cards, by the time you hit 25, odds are you're buried in debt. Whatever bills you have, call the company to renegotiate the debt terms. Ask for lower interest rates, lower payments, and even a low payoff balance. If you let yourself go delinquent long enough, they'll sell your debt to a collection agency for 20 cents on the dollar. Offer to pay half, and everyone wins.

Don't borrow money. Whatever you do, avoid borrowing money, whether from a financial institution, collateral loan business (i.e. pawn shops and auto title loans), or even friends and family. When you borrow money, you're simply rearranging your debt, which makes you feel better about having the same amount of debt (or more).

When I analyzed my budget, I was amazed at how many unnecessary bills I managed to accumulate. From cell phone insurance I've never used to multiple content streaming subscriptions, I would've been better off just burning my paycheck and flushing the ashes. I'm far from rich--I earn below the poverty line--but I can still afford to live the life I want thanks to an honest budget assessment and some savvy savings decisions.

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Remember your first piggy bank? Maybe it was an actual piggy, or maybe it was one of those “change” organizers that stacked and separated your coins. Maybe it was something modern that motivates your savings into different categories like the Money Savvy Pig. Whatever it was, the idea was simple: Keep dumping cash in and someday you’ll have a pile of it.

Anyone with a piggy bank, savings account or an IRA knows savings is probably a good thing. But let’s face it: It’s not that exciting. We save simply because we’re supposed to.

But why is this one aspect of our financial plan often so narrowly focused? In an age of diversity, a similar, targeted, active, involved effort to save in specific categories with specific goals not only makes saving more effective but more useful--with plenty of gratification built in. Turns out the Money Savvy Pig makers were on to something. Here are some categories you should consider as you diversify your savings.

Save it and forget it. Right off the top each month, the first bill you should pay is your obligation savings. Sign up at work for the retirements that are offered and/or put a payment into long-term steady growers that will provide for you much later in life, be they 401Ks, IRAs, or mutual funds. Rip it off the top each month and forget you have it.

Save it and USE it. Once the obligation is out of the way, your savings diversification can get to work. Start savings for things you want, like a new house or a vacation. Put specified money into each account, even if it’s all in one account but different line items on your ledger. For example, use all the round-up change for the new house, or pay yourself to stay in one night a month and put the money in the vacation fund. Put off buying a new car for one year but start making the payments to yourself.

Save it and grow it. Figure out what you can afford to lose each month and invest it in more aggressive savings that could bring high rewards. Invest it, risk it, and have fun with it. Get engaged with online resources that will help you make your decisions like, Online Trading Academy, and Trading Markets or the mainstays like Etrade and Ameritrade. If money gets tight, spend less. If you have some extra, invest a bit more. Your interest and involvement will make it enjoyable as well as profitable.

Save it and rely on it. The biggest financial plan killer is adversity. When bad things happen like losing a job or facing an illness or a blown engine, we often have to rely on credit to survive, which delays the pain and hinders our ability to bounce back quickly. Most financial advisers recommend an emergency fund of three to six month of total expenditures. Once it’s in place, leave it until it’s needed and then use it with peace of mind.

Savings doesn’t have to be the drudgery of simply sliding cash into a place where we “can’t touch it” as the old saying goes. Instead put your fingerprints all over it to grow it, use it, forget it, and rely on it, all of which will collectively become the foundation for your financial success. Even if the amounts are small at first, the practice will build over time.

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If someone told you that for the cost of a new car, you could buy a house, would you believe them? Not only is this true, but it’s actually a growing trend. The catch? Your house will only be slightly larger than the size of that new car.

Tiny homes are sprouting up around the world. Whether you’d like to reduce your carbon footprint, save money on mortgage and energy, or take your home along on adventures, the tiny home movement can be an unconventional--yet satisfying--solution to your needs.

The nitty gritty: How much does it cost to build?
It depends. Your building materials and if you outsource the labor to someone else both affect costs. Tiny homes can cost as little as $2,000 and as much as $30,000 or more. To cut costs, can build your home with recycled materials found at the ReStore Habitat for Humanity store, local thrift stores, salvage yards, or on Craigslist.

Why tiny houses?
At first blush, tiny homes may seem like a glorified playhouse, but tiny homes can be sophisticated and contribute to your self-sufficiency. Tiny homes have a smaller drain on your wallet--not just for building but for sustaining.

Average electric bills for a tiny home run between $10 to $25 per month. Compare that with a traditional house that can easily costs 10 to 15 times that amount.

Another reason to choose tiny home is the portability. Many tiny homeowners build on wheels, which allows them to move the home around, similar to a trailer. Portable tiny homes are especially convenient if your job requires you to move or travel to different locations. It will be just the same size as a hotel room and much more comfortable to sleep in your own bed.

A third reason for tiny homes is simplicity. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Sometimes living simply can provide the greatest benefits. By necessity, you’ll only buy or use the things that you need or love. There’s simply not enough space to buy extra items you’ll likely never use “just in case.”

Is a tiny home for you?
If you’re a packrat, tiny homes are probably not for you. Tiny homes require fearless purging. Similarly, if you’re prone to claustrophobia, tiny homes may not be your cup of tea. That said, if you can live in the average New York apartment, you can definitely live in a tiny home. Ranging in size from 65 to 400 square feet, tiny homes can actually feel roomy and accommodate a family of four--well, a very close family of four.

If you’ve just graduated from college and have hefty student loans to pay back, a tiny home is the perfect remedy for your living situation. Although it won’t pay back student loans for you, it will allow you to live independently and free up your finances so you can pay back your loans quicker.

What about plumbing and electricity?
Although a home is tiny, it doesn’t mean you won’t have access to all modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing and electricity. Due to the mobile nature of tiny homes, these spaces are generally not connected to electricity grids, but there are plenty of ways to wire your home for electricity from traditional sources. Depending on the size of your home, you may consider solar panels because of their affordability and sustainability.

As for plumbing, you can get plans for tiny homes with plumbing. For these homes, it simply requires that you plug into the sewage line, and you’re in business. However, many tiny homeowners choose to use compost toilets, which are a lot less icky than they sound.

To learn more, visit Tiny House Build, Tiny House Living, and The Tiny House.

Photo by Tammy Strobel via cc.

Are you a diligent saver? Penny pincher? You probably have your own tips and tricks for saving a chunk of cash here or squeezing the last bit out of a dollar there. While saving money is a noble pursuit, the ways you save could cost you. Do you abide by any of these four bad “saving” habits?

Buying more of an item because it’s on sale
Especially at the grocery store, it may be tempting to stock up on an item just because it’s on sale. While you may be taking advantage of the store price, you might be overspending on the amount of items you buy. You may not use the extra items you buy before they expire or become outdated, which means you wasted that extra money you spent, regardless of how much you saved on the individual item. Even if you end up using all of the items in the right amount of time, you may find you’re forcing yourself to use those last items on dishes or for other uses you don’t need or are wasteful.

Always going for the cheapest option
While buying the cheapest option may mean upfront savings, you end up spending more money over time on repairing or replacing those cheaper products. Cheaper usually means lower quality parts, and these products are sometimes more likely to break or be made with harmful chemicals. Plan to invest a little more into a higher quality product if it’s something you’ll use a lot or something that would be more expensive to repair than it would be to just pay more for upfront.

Buying more online to qualify for free shipping
How many times have you gone to check out online only to find that’s you’re just $20 away from free shipping? Chances are, you’ve gone ahead and found an extra item(s) to purchase to save yourself a few bucks on shipping. You may not realize you’re spending more on the extra item and free shipping than you would if you just paid for the shipping outright. Plus, you might be purchasing items you don’t actually need or use.

Signing up for a store credit card or rewards credit card solely for the discount
Signing up for credit cards you don’t need is never a good practice, even if you end up getting a store discount or other rewards for using the card. You end up spending more money at the store or on a particular category of products just to get the discount or rewards points when you may not actually need the items you’re buying. You may benefit from the discount or rewards upfront, but you end up driving up the amount of debt and credit you owe, which could generate interest and waste your money in the long run.

While you may go into saving money with good intentions, some of your saving strategies can cost you more money instead. Beware these four “saving” tactics to ensure you make the most of your hard-earned cash.

Photo by Alan Cleaver via cc.