Teresa McUsic

Ring in the new year with some savvy financial moves

Older computers are either repaired or disassembled for recycling at Goodwill Industries.
Older computers are either repaired or disassembled for recycling at Goodwill Industries. Star-Telegram archives

The end of 2016 is here, but there are still some savvy financial moves you can make. Check this list and see what else you can do now and into the New Year.

1. Check out your electric plan for free. You have one more day to use the new online tool that compares electric plans based on your individual household usage at no cost at www.GeekYourRate.com. In the New Year the site will be $9.95 for a 48-hour usage, which is still cheaper than other independent sites.

Developed by Fort Worth retired engineer Mark Trimarchi, the online tool first asks that you plug in your house’s monthly usage for the year to find you the cheapest plan. Those numbers can be found on your bill, or by going to www.SmartMeterTexas.com.

2. Use those gift cards now. The Texas Comptroller says there are around 250,000 gift cards totaling more than $15 million in its unclaimed property vault.

While fees, expiration dates and other gotchas have largely left the gift card industry, it makes sense to use them now. Overall, between $500 million and $700 million in cards went unused last year, according to the Tower Group.

To check if you have a gift card, or any other property in the $4 billion sitting with the comptroller, check for free by name at www.ClaimItTexas.org. To sell gift cards you don’t want, go to sites like www.Raise.com or www.GiftCardGranny.com.

3. Contribute to your favorite charities for a tax deduction. Today is the last day to contribute to a charity and be able to deduct it from your 2015 taxes. For cash donations, consider donating online at the nonprofit’s website or texting a donation.

If you are donating goods, check their fair market values with online guides from the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Be sure to keep all records of a donation in case the IRS questions you.

4. Pay off credit card debt with Christmas money/bonus. The average U.S. household with credit card debt had a balance totaling $16,061, according to an analysis by NerdWallet.

That same average household pays $1,292 in interest on that credit card debt, assuming the average interest rate of 18 percent. Now may be the time to pay off some of that debt if you have extra cash, and make a plan to pay it all off in 2017.

5. Shop for auto/home insurance. Research from Consumer Federation of America suggests that loyalty with your insurer actually will cost you more. It’s not hard to switch, especially with online quotes.

Consider getting away from the major insurers and checking out companies like Amica, USAA and AAA in your search. The savings could be considerable. Try online tool www.TheZebra.com for auto insurance.

6. Get your free credit score/reports. Some credit-card companies are offering a free look at your credit score with each monthly bill. This year, Discover began offering your FICO score from TransUnion for free, even if you don’t have one of their cards. Check it out at www.creditscorecard.com.

Registered users can see a number of factors to their score, including available credit use, number of missed payments and length of their credit history. For a more in-depth look at your credit reports from all three bureaus for free, go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call toll-free 877-322-8228.

7. Free recycle of electronics. If Santa wired you up well this year, be sure to drop your old electronics at Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth, which will take all brands of electronics and either refurbish them for sale in their stores or recycle the parts.

This includes computers, monitors, printers, televisions, cellphones and many other electronics, working or not. Drop off at one of the 17 sites in Tarrant County or at designated drop-off stations for the cities of Fort Worth, Arlington, Denton and Grand Prairie.

For questions and a listing of Goodwill sites go to www.goodwillfortworth.org

8. Free tax prep help coming. There are a bunch of free online forms and places for free face-to-face help in filling out those forms.

AARP will do anyone’s taxes for free regardless of age at 40 sites throughout the area. Walk-ins are welcome, but you can also make an appointment and find a location by dialing 211.

Another program that will start up soon is the Catholic Charities VITA program for those earning less than $64,000. For a list of sites, go to www.MyMoneyDFW.com. (Note: VITA programs are looking for volunteers now.)

If you want to do your own taxes, TaxAct, offers free online tax software to all incomes for all tax forms at www.TaxAct.com. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, software provider also provides free e-filing and tax help via email.

9. Toll tag discounts. Toll tags cut your toll fees up to 50 percent and with almost 1,000 miles of toll lanes, including the Chisholm Trail Parkway, open or under construction in DFW, now is the time to apply.

The tag is also good for toll roads in Oklahoma.

Apply online at www.ntta.org or in person at area grocery stores, libraries or city offices. Cost to set up is free and the account is tied to a credit card, check or cash.

10. Free legal advice. The Tarrant County Bar Association (TCBA) offers several programs with free legal advice. One is Legal Line, a free call-in service 6-8 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month. The number is 817-335-1239.

TCBA also has a lawyer referral service where you receive 30 minutes of consultation for $20. The referral service can be reached at 817-336-4101, 8:30 a.m.to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or email at LRIS@tarrantbar.org.

Stay tuned in 2017 for more money-saving ideas.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net