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Internet shopping by cell phone - concept illustrationWhen I heard last month that AT&T was dropping prices for its wireless plans, I thought our family could save a little money. I was startled to find we can save a whopping $60 a month and get a plan with twice as much data.

AT&T cut its prices to compete with T-Mobile and the pay-as-you-go companies that have been offering a lot more data for a lot less. But AT&T isn’t going to foist the savings on you–you have to seek them out. Fortunately, that’s as easy as going online to check your account (a savings offer should show up on your screen) or you can just call the carrier from your phone and ask how you can save.

I try to make it a point to call our communications providers once or twice a year to see if we can get a better deal. I wished I’d called this one a little earlier, because I was only able to backdate the changes to the beginning of last week (the start of our current billing cycle).

Changing plans does not extend your service term or add any additional termination fees, an AT&T rep assured me. So if you’re under contract to AT&T, go save some money!

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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: Getting your credit score ready for a mortgage. Also in the news: The effectiveness of spending apps, the pros and cons of companion tickets, and how to protect yourself from tax identity theft.

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Majestic Vista of the Grand Canyon at DuskMy daughter and I just got back from a 1,300-plus mile road trip so I could attend a business conference in Phoenix. Along the way we checked out Joshua Tree, Prescott, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Montezuma’s Castle and the Tuzigoot National Monument. The trip back included stops at the Salton Sea and the amazing Living Desert zoo and botanical gardens near Palm Springs.

Her dad and I took several road trips before she was born, exploring the West and Southwest. They were among our most memorable (and cheap) vacations.

I was pleased to find road trips can still be a frugal way to travel. Our motel rooms typically cost less than $100 a night; even at the Grand Canyon’s comfortable Yavapai Lodge, we paid just $140 to sleep in two queen beds not far from the South Rim. Meals were rarely more than $20 for the two of us, and we spent less than $150 on gas thanks to my 36-mpg-plus Chevy Volt.

So here are my best tips for a memorable road trip that won’t cost a fortune:

Bring the right supplies. Snacks, breakfast makings and a cooler can save you a lot of money on the road. I bring oatmeal (which you can make in a mug, adding water heated by the motel coffee maker), peanut butter for the kiddo, fruit, milk and crackers.

Spring beats summer. At least in the West, the crowds tend to be thinner and the weather less scorching. Since schools schedule their spring breaks at different times, you’re not traveling at the same time as every other family in the freakin’ universe.

Use Yelp. Or TripAdvisor. I found good, affordable places to stay and eat thanks to user reviews. The best find was The Views Inn in Sedona, a clean, comfortable spot with a nice breakfast and an eager-to-please manager. Being willing to stay on the outskirts of town rather than in the center can save you $100 or more a night (or $200, when it comes to Palm Springs in high season).

Ask the locals. Yelp is also good for finding great cheap eats, but asking locals for their recommendations is a great way to start a conversation.

Give the kid a camera. We figured out years ago that our daughter stays much more engaged when she can capture what she’s seeing. Yes, she winds up with 16 pictures of lizards scuttling through the desert, but so what? I have many, many more of her grinning in front of various national monuments.

Catch the ranger talks. I didn’t think “Men, Mules & Mining” at the Grand Canyon would be particularly riveting, but I was so wrong. The stories and accompanying slides were fascinating. So was the geology talk the next day at the Yavapai Museum of Geology. Most of the rangers we encountered were good story-tellers and great about keeping kids engaged.

Set limits on your driving time. When our daughter was an infant or a toddler, driving four hours a day was a lot. Now she can tolerate more, but I found myself pretty weary at the end of an 8-hour travel day. Which may explain why I blearily clipped a dead elk some other unfortunate driver had previously killed on the road to the Grand Canyon. No damage to us or the car; wish I could say the same for the poor elk. In any case, next time I’ll probably limit drives to four hours, tops.

Download an audio book. There are only so many rounds of 20 Questions an adult can, or should, play. Fortunately, we had the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy to keep our minds occupied for much of the trip home. Your local library has tons of audio books you can borrow (in CD version or via digital downloads).

Bring emergency supplies and tools. We never needed the water or trail mix I always pack in the trunk, but I always feel better knowing they’re there.

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Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in a few months. I am 77 and we both work full time. Can she collect her spousal Social Security benefit while still working and take her full benefit at 70?

Answer: That option is available to her only if she waits until her full retirement age (currently 66) to apply for spousal benefits. If she applies for spousal benefits before age 66, she won’t be able to switch to her own benefit later. Also, applying early means that her benefit would be reduced by $1 for every $2 she earns above an annual limit, which is $15,480 in 2014.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I am 70 and my wife is 59. My pension covers us for both our lifetimes. We have no debt. My wife and I do not need the required minimum distributions I will soon have to start taking from my 457 deferred compensation plan, which is currently worth $1 million. I planned to invest these distributions in an index fund to leave to our son. My accountant recommends instead that I buy a joint whole life insurance policy for me and my wife because it will be tax free when our son inherits our estate years from now. Does it make sense to buy insurance as an estate planning tool?

Answer: Does your accountant sell insurance on the side, by any chance?

Because a tax pro should know that the money in that index fund would get a so-called step up in tax basis when you die and your son inherits the account. If he promptly sold the investments, he wouldn’t owe any taxes on the growth in the account (the capital gains) that happened while you were alive. Even if he hangs on to the investments for a while, he would owe capital gains tax only on the growth in value since your death. That’s a pretty awesome deal.

If you buy life insurance, by contrast, you’d have to weigh any tax benefit against the not-insubstantial amount you’d pay the insurer for coverage. At your ages, such a policy would be far from cheap.

Any time someone suggests that you buy life insurance when you don’t actually need life insurance, you would be smart to run the proposed policy past a fee-only advisor — one who doesn’t receive commissions or other incentives to sell insurance.

There’s an outside chance that your accountant recommended a permanent life insurance policy for estate tax purposes. These taxes will be an issue only if the combined estate of you and your wife is worth more than $10 million. If that’s the case, you should consult an estate planning attorney about your options.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Dear Liz: How can I get a clear and complete picture of the debts that are hurting my credit score? I have my credit report already. I’m a bit lost and I need to get my credit cleared up to buy a home.

Answer: You actually have three credit reports, one at each of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your mortgage lender is likely to request FICO credit scores from each of the three, so you need to check all three reports.

You get your reports for free at one site: http://www.annualcreditreport.com. There are many sites masquerading as this free, federally mandated site, so make sure that you enter the URL correctly. You may be pitched credit scores or other products by the credit bureaus while you’re on this site, but you won’t be required to give a credit card number to get your free reports. (If the site is demanding that you give your credit card number, you’re at the wrong site.)

You should understand that old, unpaid bills may be depressing your scores, but paying them off may not improve those scores. In other words, the damage has been done. You may be able to reduce the impact if you can persuade the collectors to remove the accounts from your reports in exchange for payment, something known in the collections industry as “pay for delete.” But you probably can’t erase the late payments and charge-offs reported by the original creditor before the accounts were turned over to collections, and those earlier marks against you are even more negative than the collection accounts.

That’s not to say you should despair. Over time, your credit scores will improve as you handle credit responsibly. But you shouldn’t expect overnight miracles.

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images (2)Today’s top story: The importance of having your affairs in order. Also in the news: Why you should save more for retirement, when it’s time to take over your parents’ finances, and when to smash the piggy bank containing your emergency fund.

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