15 Things You Really Should Know About Money in 2018

Did your economics prof teach you about bitcoin, or side hustles, or phishing emails? If those topics weren't in your curriculum, here's a chance to get up to speed.

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Still hanging on to that Econ 101 textbook from 1989? Whole chapters of it are as outdated as your penny loafers and popped collars from that same era. In fact, the world of money is changing at such a rapid pace that even some advice and tips from as recent as five years ago could be out of date.

Did your economics prof teach you about bitcoin, side hustles or phishing emails? If those topics weren’t in your curriculum, never fear. Read on for a quick primer on modern money facts you need to know now.

1. What is a cryptocurrency? (Hint: Nothing to do with Star Trek)

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You can be forgiven for thinking cryptocurrencies — of which bitcoin is the most famous — sound like something that Captain Kirk might use to buy drinks onboard the USS Enterprise. Really though, they’re digital medium of exchange. Our “Bitcoin for Dummies” post explains them this way:

It might be simplest to think of bitcoins as a digital commodity, like electronic gold. They can be bought and sold, traded and taxed, divided or combined, or squirreled away for a later date.

What are they good for? It depends:

Right now, you can use bitcoins to purchase almost anything, though not necessarily from anywhere. The number of merchants accepting them as payment is small. Depending on where you live, there might not be any local businesses taking them …

So, cryptocurrencies are not supplanting credit cards and cash — not by a long shot — but they are making a huge splash as an investment, with almost daily headlines for wild price swings. Is it too late to jump on the bandwagon? Find out how Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson answers that question.

2. How to deposit a check with your phone

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We all write fewer checks than we used to. But most of us still end up with a check in hand from time to time and need to deposit it. For instance, I was just sent a refund check for a taxi cab class-action settlement. If heading to your local bank or ATM is a nuisance, you should know that it takes only a minute or two to deposit a paper check via your smartphone. Remotely depositing checks has been around since about 2010, and now most banks and credit unions offer this option. Generally you just download your bank’s app, locate the “deposit check” feature, snap photos of both sides of the check and follow the app’s simple instructions. Voila!

3. How to use an e-budget tool

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Some of us look upon the word “budget” with the same dread we do “dentist appointment.” Do I really need one, and just how painful will it be? It really doesn’t have to hurt. Budgeting is like brushing — just a little dedication in advance goes a long way. A program like You Need a Budget ($6.99 a month after a free 34-day trial) helps you give every dollar a job, and ensures that living paycheck-to-paycheck will be a thing of the past. YNAB is our favorite budgeting tool, but there are many others out there tailored to varying needs and styles.

4. How to get cash back if you shop online

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Online shopping can save you from going out in the rain or snow to pick up grocery essentials, and it can help you deliver that last-minute birthday gift when you all but forgot Grandma’s special day. But don’t just spend money while shopping online — be smart about your spending. Cash-back online portals such as Ebates and Swagbucks help you tap into rebates as you shop. It takes about 30 seconds to sign up, and then you’ll have access to cash rebates — some as high as 40 percent — on goods from thousands of merchants. (Here’s how to use Ebates and here’s how to use Swagbucks.) Or load a browser extension such as Honey, which notices when you’re shopping and automatically tries known coupon codes to see if it can save you more.

5. How to hunt for travel bargains online

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Does January’s gloom have you dreaming of a vacation? Travel site Kayak.com recently released its 2018 Travel Hacker Guide, offering up the year’s top destinations according to over 1.5 billion annual searches on its site and app. Not all of the choices are bargains (magnificent Maui is the No. 1 trending destination), but Kayak also breaks down when to travel and when to book to save money. And don’t miss the site’s list of top 10 wallet-friendly trips, which includes affordable Guadalajara, Mexico, where travelers can ride the Tequila Express locomotive to local distilleries in Guadalajara’s home state of Jalisco. In short, if you’re not using the copious websites out there to save money on travel, you are overpaying. Check out this excellent roundup of sites that can save you money on flights, hotels and other accommodation and more.

And if you’re 62 or older, check out this list of seven great travel discounts on everything from trail travel to hotels. Bon voyage!

6. The ABCs of ETFs

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Don’t confuse an ETF with the ATF. The ATF is the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whereas ETF stands for exchange-traded fund, an investment fund traded on stock exchanges. Depending on your age, your business-school prof might not have covered ETFs because they only came to the U.S. in 1993, but now they’re a popular investment vehicle you should know about. Like an index mutual fund, an ETF typically follows the performance of a particular index: the S&P 500 Index, for example, or the Nasdaq-100 Index (though there are some exceptions). “When you buy shares of an ETF, you are buying shares of a portfolio that tracks the yield and return of its native index,” explains Nasdaq.com.

7. Where interest rates are headed

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No one can see the future — if we could, we’d be buying the winning lotto ticket and placing a whopping bet on the NCAA tournament. But financial experts are generally in agreement that interest rates will only continue to head up, not down, in 2018 and likely again in 2019. What does this mean for the average consumer? It’s a good time to pay down debt, since personal loan and credit-card rates might climb. Mortgage rates too have ticked up. On the flip side, rising rates help out those who have some cash to salt away, as CD and savings-account yields should increase. If you’re in the market for a higher paying savings account, compare banking options here in our Solutions Center.

8. What’s a 529 account?

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Whether your young scholar is dreaming of Harvard or good ol’ State U, parents know all too well that tuition rates have skyrocketed since the days when Mom or Dad fit into that letter jacket. No matter if your child is 4 or 14, the magic number for collegiate savings is 529. A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan operated by states or schools, and its funds grow federal-tax-free. (But make sure to follow the rules when it comes to spending that college cash.) You may want to consult a financial adviser to help you choose a plan, but once it’s set up, making deposits — even small ones — can be done in just seconds online. Now that’s going to the head of the class.

9. How to run a side hustle

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In this era of few cradle-to-grave jobs, employees have to be creative about their careers. Workers seeking flexibility may take on other moneymaking ventures — inventively dubbed “side hustles” — to pad that bank account. One survey shows that 44 million Americans have at least one “side hustle.”

If you want to make some extra cash, there’s an abundance of sites that can help you land different types of gigs. Here are some to start with:

  • Fiverr: For freelance writing, translation, marketing, design, computer programming and similar projects
  • Rover: To find dog-walking, pet-sitting/house-sitting gigs
  • Turo: To make money renting out your car to others.
  • Uber: To make money driving for others.
  • Uber Eats: To make money delivering take-out food to people
  • Airbnb: Make money renting out your home, or part of it, to visitors

The possibilities are endless. But the one tip to memorize, whatever your hustle: Tuck something away from each paycheck for the tax man. Side hustles often aren’t taxed upfront as a full-time employee’s paycheck might be, so set enough aside to cover Uncle Sam.

10. How to keep an eye on your credit score

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How’s your credit? You might not know right up until you apply for a loan or a credit card — and that could be too late. FICO credit scores are used by 90 of the 100 largest U.S. financial institutions to evaluate consumer creditworthiness, and now you can see your own score for free. Start with your credit report — request it from the three biggies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Federal law requires them to give consumers one free copy of their credit reports every 12 months. Scour it for mistakes and weirdness — “Hey, I never owed money to that beef-jerky company! That must be another Bob Smith.” And once you’ve pored over your credit report, find out your credit score, which ranges from 300 to a perfect 850. Here are six ways to get it for free. If you have a score that needs goosing, check out: “Boost Your Credit Score With These 7 Fast Moves” or get professional help to repair your credit.

11. How to keep passwords under control

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Please say you don’t have your important passwords written on a sticky note attached to your computer, as in the photo above. And double-please don’t say any of them are a string of in-order numbers like 1234567 — a password real people actually use for real accounts, and possibly the most hackable password out there.

First off, make sure you’re not using the same password for multiple accounts. If someone breaks into your favorite pizza-ordering website and steals your password there, you don’t want them to be able to turn around and use it at your online bank. In fact, consider using pass phrases rather than passwords: they’re as effective as passwords and easier to remember. Better still, get a “password manager,” like 1Password, which allows you to log into all your different accounts securely while only having to remember one password. (Here’s our recent guide to six of the most well-known.)

12. How to recognize a phishing email

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It’s easy to think that you won’t be fooled by phishing emails, those email scams that try to coax you into revealing your personal financial information so you can be robbed. Even if you know you’re too smart to send a money order to a prince in Nigeria who’s promising you his grandfather’s fortune, there are other, more subtle phishers out there baiting their hooks. A few tips: Don’t click on attachments in emails you didn’t expect. Be especially paranoid about any email claiming to be from your credit-card company or bank. Those places already have your financial information, why would they be demanding you provide it again? Call your bank or credit-card company directly (through the number on your card, not a number provided by an email) if you have questions. Let the phishers go hungry.

13. Know how to identify other common scams

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Email phishing tricks aren’t the only scammers out there trying to bankrupt you. Scams can come at you in a variety of ways, including texts, phone calls and even snail mail. Here we describe 10 recent scams making the rounds, from fake IRS agents to fraudulent job openings that want you to pay them to get hired. A good rule of thumb is that old line journalism schools teach journalists when training them to double-check everything: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out first.

14. How the tax overhaul will affect you

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Yes, the much-talked-about tax changes are coming, but most will not affect the taxes you’re about to file. (Although when the time comes for the 2018 taxes you’ll file in 2019, here are 3 big ways the tax overhaul might change what you pay.) As for 2017, yes, there are some changes, including one that lowers the threshold for tax-deductible medical expenses. If you don’t prepare your own taxes, contact your financial adviser or tax preparer and file as soon as possible. They may be dealing with even more clients this year as folks puzzle over the changes, and you might as well grab a prime appointment.

15. How to stave off social media scams

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From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, social media can offer a relaxing break from work, or a satisfying chance to catch up with everyone from cousins to old co-workers. But don’t let your guard down there either. Fraudsters know that social media is a ripe environment for them to work their scams. Bill Gates isn’t handing $5,000 to everyone who retweets or otherwise promotes a certain message, and your favorite airline or theme park isn’t distributing free tickets willy-nilly to anyone who shares a certain Facebook post. No, it doesn’t matter if your sweet Aunt Millie posted it and tagged you. Share this article with her, and maybe a direct link to snopes.com breaking down whatever urban legend she’s fallen for. Depending on Millie’s level of gullibility, you might need to keep on reminding her.

Are you taking advantage of the money-management and savings tools available in 2018? Share your thoughts with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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