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    How to protect yourself from tax fraud and scams, according to cybersecurity experts

    Smart Tax Planning

    Last year, there were close to 8 million reports of suspicious activity related to income tax filing and identity theft.
    More than 90% of tax returns were filed online last year and phone, email and text scams always increase during tax season.
    There are several important cybersecurity steps filers should take in advance of using tax prep software or working with an accountant, who are also targets of scammers.

    Constantine Johnny | Moment | Getty Images

    Tax season has begun, and it typically comes with a big uptick in tax-related scams.
    There were nearly 7.8 million reports of suspicious activities in 2022, according to a recent report from the Identity Theft Tax Refund Fraud Information Sharing Mission & Analysis Center, a partnership between the IRS, companies and states.

    The tax scamming is taking place during an environment of rising fraud across the nation. U.S. consumers lost more than $5.8 billion to fraud in 2021, a 70% increase from the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission.  
    With online filing now the norm — the IRS said 92% of tax returns last year were filed electronically — cybersecurity is more important now than ever.

    More from Smart Tax Planning:

    Here’s a look at more tax-planning news.

    Popular tax filing platforms such as TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct invest in security and have to follow regulatory requirements around it. The big tax prep companies in the U.S. have to go through a compliance and audit process to be able to store data, said Nicholas Donarski, chief technology officer and co-founder of blockchain technology firm ORE System. He added this should lead tax filers to make sure they pick a reputable tax platform, and “not just the cheapest one.”
    But just because tax filing platforms implement security measures doesn’t mean its users are off the hook when it comes to personal cybersecurity best practices.
    “The biggest issue isn’t so much on the security program of providers as it is we humans as users of those platforms,” said Lisa Paggemier, executive director at the National Cybersecurity Alliance.

    Here are steps consumers can take to protect themselves.

    Use secure passwords and multi-factor authentication

    Despite all the warnings about using secure passwords (tip: don’t use the name of a pet) and using different passwords for every website, few people actually do this.
    Cybersecurity experts suggest using a password manager that stores account credentials. Despite recent headlines about some big password managers having their customer data hacked, using such an application is “still the most secure, so long as you secure that as well with multi-factor authentication,” Paggemier said.
    Multi-factor authentication requires users to prove their identity in two ways, usually through a password as well as a one-time code sent to their phone or email, or a fingerprint. While TurboTax, TaxAct and H&R Block all offer multi-factor authentication and advise users to layer on this added cyber protection, it’s not required.
    “This is an important step to help secure your online account from identity thieves,” said Kathy Pickering, chief tax officer at H&R Block. “Providing your mobile phone to do this is better than providing your email because it’s more secure and may be faster.”

    File taxes promptly, before someone impersonates you

    It’s understandable to procrastinate when faced with a dreaded task like filing taxes, but Paggemier said being prompt can help ward off potential fraud. The sooner you file, the “less time you give the bad guy to file on your behalf,” she said.
    Tax filing fraud is similar to the many unemployment scams during the pandemic when scammers filed in other people’s names to steal benefits. With tax returns, scammers file a false return with fraudulent data and collect the refund. 
    TaxAct has built in an extra layer of security into its platform around Social Security numbers, which will notify users in case someone has already entered the same number. It also flags mistakes that legitimate users make when entering their Social Security number.
    “It helps to either identify typos in your SSN that could delay your refund or alert you to possible preexisting identity theft,” said Mark Jaeger, vice president of tax development at TaxAct.
    TaxAct said its platform will notify customers in case another return was filed using the same Social Security number, even if the initial filing was through a different software provider. 
    Another layer of protection is to get an identity protection PIN, which prevents someone else from filing a tax return using your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number. 
    The IRS sends a new IP PIN to victims of tax-related theft every year. This year, the agency has opened up the process, allowing anyone with a Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number who can verify their identity to enroll in the program by filling out an application online.

    Be alert for scam emails, texts and calls

    Scam emails and texts occur year-round but tend to accelerate during tax season. Scammers may pose as IRS agents, tax preparation companies and other parties, the IRS has warned. 
    “You see an increase in the number of attacks … they use that emotional response, that fear that we call it in the industry FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Donarski said.
    One twist this year: the arrival of ChatGPT, which could make scam messages harder to detect. Poor spelling or grammar and funky fonts or graphics have been common giveaways in past years, but the use of artificial intelligence like ChatGPT can change that factor.
    Cybersecurity experts said the advice is still the same to ward off fraudsters: Don’t click on any links. If there’s any doubt, go to a site you know to be legit to check your tax filing, bank or credit card account, or call the official number listed on the back of a card or the official website.

    You have to be your own champion when it comes to your privacy and your security.

    Nicholas Donarski
    chief technology officer and co-founder of ORE System

    Keatron Evans, principal cybersecurity advisor at Infosec, noted a recent increase in scam calls claiming to be from a tax provider, alerting victims that they’ve noticed a problem and should go to a website to download a plug-in. “People are now desensitized … so they feel like if they’re talking to a person, telling them to go click on a URL or something like that it’s probably more legit, when it absolutely is not.”
    Phone scammers also frequently impersonate IRS agents, scaring victims by demanding immediate payment using prepaid debit cards, gift cards or wire transfer and threatening to bring in local police. The IRS has issued warnings about this scam and recommends that victims report it to the Treasury Department’s Inspector General using an online form or calling the agency, or reporting it to the IRS by email with “IRS Phone Scam” in the subject line.

    Install tax prep software updates

    Just as tax prep platforms need to ensure the security of data while in transit and when storing it, users should too by securing their home network and computer. Computers running on old software are more vulnerable to attacks.
    “A lot of times, these software are vulnerable to attack and exploitation because bad guys know that at this time of year people are going to have these things installed on their computers. So they target them for vulnerabilities,” Evans said. To minimize this risk, install software updates for tax prep software or plug-ins as soon as they are available. That also goes for other software updates, such as the operating system or browser.
    Secure Wi-Fi passwords can also help ensure security of the home network, in addition to making sure antivirus software is installed and up to date. For anyone who needs to use a public network for their taxes or any other sensitive information, cybersecurity experts advise using a virtual private network, or VPN.

    Vet your accountant’s cybersecurity practices

    Not all electronic tax filings are done through well-known tax platforms, with many filers working with accountants or accounting firms. Increasingly, tax professionals are also targeted by scammers. Cybersecurity experts said you should ask some questions about how the accountant is storing and backing up data, how they are securing it or encrypting the data, and how the office is secured.
    “If you’re dropping tax documents into Google Docs or Google Drive or something like that, I would probably question where the storage is,” Donarski said since these files are not encrypted.
    Accountants and accounting firms should be asking clients to upload to a secure platform or to use something like an Adobe- or Microsoft-encrypted file-transfer system. And with home offices more common, don’t hesitate to ask tax preparers about how they’re securing their home Wi-Fi network or if they use a VPN.
    “You have to be your own champion when it comes to your privacy and your security,” Donarski said. More

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    Gautam Adani calls off $2.5 billion equity sale as regulatory concerns grow

    Gautam Adani, one of the world’s richest men, withdrew Adani Enterprises’ $2.5 billion share offering.
    Shares of Adani Enterprise were routed, falling 28% on Wednesday.

    A signage of Adani group is pictured outside the Chatrapati Shivaji Mumbai International Airport in Mumbai on July 28, 2021. (Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP) (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)
    Indranil Mukherjee | Afp | Getty Images

    On Wednesday, Gautam Adani announced he’s scrapping his flagship firm’s $2.5 billion equity sale.
    He withdrew Adani Enterprises’ offering after the company’s share price tanked by nearly 30%.

    Breaking his silence to the media, Adani said, “Today the market has been unprecedented, and our stock price has fluctuated over the course of the day. Given these extraordinary circumstances, the Company’s board felt that going ahead with the issue will not be morally correct.”
    In a Jan. 24 report, short seller Hindenburg Research alleged that “Adani Group has engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme.” The report went on to raise concerns around the debt and valuations of seven Adani companies.
    Speculation is growing that the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) will conduct some type of investigation into Adani’s businesses.
    “My understanding is that a cancellation would mean a mandatory SEBI inquiry,” said Pramit Chaudhuri, Eurasia Group’s head of South Asia practice to CNBC.
    Chaudhuri, like many, said he was “surprised” to see Adani scrap plans after achieving the $2.5 billion target.

    The stunning reversal caps a week in which Adani went on a full mission to ensure his equity sale was successful following immense pressure tied to his falling stock price.
    Adani tapped high-net worth individuals inside India and looked to the Middle East as well. International Holding Co., an Abu Dhabi-based conglomerate, contributed $400 million to the deal. It was widely seen as a vote of confidence. Goldman’s trading desk participated in the deal as well, a source familiar with the matter told CNBC. Adani Enterprises’ stock ended higher on Tuesday following news of the fully subscribed $2.5 billion offering.
    Investors woke up to an ugly picture on Wednesday when Adani Enterprise’s stock plunged, falling by as much as 28% and prompting Adani to cancel his equity sale.
    “We are working with our Book Running Lead Managers (BRLMs) to refund the proceeds received by us in escrow and to also release the amounts blocked in your bank accounts for subscription to this issue,” added Adani.
    The move also raises questions about where else Adani will look for financial support.
    As CNBC reported, Adani has established relationships with a slate of international banks and private equity investors. The tycoon, once the second richest person in the world, has slipped to the 13th position in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index as of Feb. 1.

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    States have $70 billion in unclaimed assets. How to check if any is yours

    About 1 in 7 people have unclaimed property being held by a state.
    The average value of each asset that ends up being claimed is $2,080, although that ranges from a couple of pennies to more than $1 million.
    Here’s how to check if a state is holding an asset that belongs to you.

    Simpleimages | Moment | Getty Images

    How to check if you have unclaimed property

    Each year on Feb. 1, the group holds “Unclaimed Property Day,” when it encourages people to check missingmoney.com — a national clearinghouse for unclaimed assets that most states participate in — or an individual state’s unclaimed property website. It’s worth doing a national search as well as conducting individual state searches based on where you have lived, even briefly.

    The association, which is an affiliate of the National Association of State Treasurers, also offers links to state programs. States do not charge a fee to search their database nor to claim your property.
    So how does property end up with the government? If a company, bank or other entity can’t find you after a certain amount of time — generally three to five years, Murante said — the asset is turned over to the state.

    While each state has its own rules that govern the process of claiming the property, you can count on being required to prove that you are the rightful owner by, for example, providing documents confirming your identity. States often try to locate people as well by, for instance, matching the owner’s information to a tax return.
    Even if you search and discover you aren’t due anything, that shouldn’t dissuade you from regularly checking to see if that changes, Murante said.
    “State treasurers get new unclaimed property turned over to them every single day,” he said.

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    Here’s what the Federal Reserve’s 25 basis point interest rate hike means for your money

    The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter of a point at the end of its two-day policy meeting, citing persistent inflation.
    Everything from mortgages and credit cards to student and car loans will be affected by the latest rate hike.
    Here’s a breakdown of what this means for your savings and monthly expenses.

    The Federal Reserve raised the target federal funds rate for the eighth time in a row on Wednesday, in its continued effort to tame persistent inflation.
    At its latest meeting, the central bank approved a more modest 0.25 percentage point increase after recent signs that inflationary pressures have started to cool.

    “The easing of inflation pressures is evident, but this doesn’t mean the Federal Reserve’s job is done,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “There is still a long way to go to get to 2% inflation.”

    What the federal funds rate means to you

    The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves do affect the borrowing and saving rates consumers see every day.
    This rate hike will correspond with a rise in the prime rate and immediately send financing costs higher for many forms of consumer borrowing — putting more pressure on households already under financial strain.

    “Inflation has shredded household budgets and, in many cases, households have had to lean against credit cards to bridge the gap,” McBride said.
    On the flip side, “with rates still rising and inflation now declining, it is the best of both worlds for savers,” he added.

    How higher interest rates can affect your money

    1. Your credit card rate will rise
    Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. As the federal funds rate rises, the prime rate does, as well, and your credit card rate follows suit within one or two billing cycles.
    “Credit card interest rates are already as high as they’ve been in decades,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree. “While the Fed is taking its foot off the gas a bit when it comes to raising rates, credit card APRs almost certainly will keep climbing for at least the next few months, so it is important that cardholders continue to focus on knocking down their debt.”

    Credit card annual percentage rates are now near 20%, on average, up from 16.3% a year ago, according to Bankrate. At the same time, more cardholders carry debt from month to month while paying sky-high interest charges — “that’s a bad combination,” McBride said.

    At more than 19%, if you made minimum payments toward the average credit card balance — which is $5,474, according to TransUnion — it would take you almost 17 years to pay off the debt and cost you more than $7,528 in interest, Bankrate calculated.

    Altogether, this rate hike will cost credit card users at least an additional $1.6 billion in interest charges in 2023, according to a separate analysis by WalletHub.
    “A 0% balance transfer credit card remains one of the best weapons Americans have in the battle against credit card debt,” Schulz advised.
    Otherwise, consumers should consolidate and pay off high-interest credit cards with a lower-interest personal loan, he said. “The rates on new personal loan offers have climbed recently as well, but if you have good credit, you may be able to find options that feature lower rates that what you currently have on your credit card.”
    2. Mortgage rates will stay higher
    Rates on 15-year and 30-year mortgages are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the economy. As economic growth has slowed, these rates have started to come down but are still at a 10-year high, according to Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree.
    The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now around 6.4% — up almost 3 full percentage points from 3.55% a year ago.
    “Relatively high rates, combined with persistently high home prices, mean that buying a home is still a challenge for many,” Channel said.

    This rate hike has increased the cost of new mortgages by around 10 basis points, which translates to roughly $9,360 over the lifetime of a 30-year loan, assuming the average home loan of $401,300, WalletHub found. A basis point is equal to 0.01 of a percentage point.

    “We’re still a ways away from the housing market being truly affordable, even if it has recently become a bit less expensive,” Channel said.
    Other home loans are more closely tied to the Fed’s actions. Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, are pegged to the prime rate. Most ARMs adjust once a year, but a HELOC adjusts right away. Already, the average rate for a HELOC is up to 7.65% from 4.11% a year ago.
    More from Personal Finance:64% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheckWhat is a ‘rolling recession’ and how does it impact you?Almost half of Americans think we’re already in a recession
    3. Auto loans will get more expensive
    Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because the price for all cars is rising along with the interest rates on new loans, so if you are planning to buy a car, you’ll shell out more in the months ahead.
    The average interest rate on a five-year new car loan is currently 6.18%, up from 3.96% last year.
    The Fed’s latest move could push up the average interest rate even higher, although consumers with higher credit scores may be able to secure better loan terms or look to some used car models for better deals.

    Paying an annual percentage rate of 6% instead of 4% would cost consumers $2,672 more in interest over the course of a $40,000, 72-month car loan, according to data from Edmunds.

    “The ever-increasing costs of financing remain a challenge,” said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights.
    4. Some student loans will get pricier
    Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers won’t be affected immediately. But if you are about to borrow money for college, the interest rate on federal student loans taken out for the 2022-23 academic year already rose to 4.99%, up from 3.73% last year and any loans disbursed after July 1 will likely be even higher.
    If you have a private loan, those loans may be fixed or have a variable rate tied to the Libor, prime or T-bill rates, which means that as the central bank raises rates, borrowers will likely pay more in interest, although how much more will vary by the benchmark.

    Currently, average private student loan fixed rates can range from just under 4% to almost 15%, according to Bankrate. As with auto loans, they also vary widely based on your credit score.

    For now, anyone with existing federal education debt will benefit from rates at 0% until the payment pause ends, which the Education Department expects to happen sometime this year.

    What savers should know about higher interest rates

    The good news is that interest rates on savings accounts are finally higher after the recent run of rate hikes.
    While the Fed has no direct influence on deposit rates, they tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate, and the savings account rates at some of the largest retail banks, which have been near rock bottom during most of the Covid pandemic, are currently up to 0.33%, on average.
    Also, thanks, in part, to lower overhead expenses, top-yielding online savings account rates are as high as 4.35%, much higher than the average rate from a traditional, brick-and-mortar bank.

    Rates on one-year certificates of deposit at online banks are even higher, now around 4.75%, according to DepositAccounts.com.
    As the Fed continues its rate-hiking cycle, these yields will continue to rise, as well. However, you have to shop around to take advantage of them, according to Yiming Ma, an assistant finance professor at Columbia University Business School.
    “If you haven’t already, it’s really important to benefit from the high interest environment by getting a higher return,” she said.
    Still, because the inflation rate is now higher than all of these rates, any money in savings loses purchasing power over time. 
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    3 key things to know before opening a home equity line of credit

    Home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, may be more appealing than a cash-out mortgage refinance or other sources of borrowed money.
    Last year, HELOC use ticked up as refinancing lost its luster due to quickly rising mortgage rates.
    However, there are aspects of HELOCs that borrowers should consider before tapping their home equity.

    HELOC use rose as cash-out refis dropped

    Last year, as mortgage rates climbed higher, accessing home equity by taking cash against it during refinancing — a so-called cash-out refi — became less appealing.
    Rates on mortgages went from close to 3% at the beginning of 2022 to a peak of above 7% in the fall. Right now, the average on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is 6.21%, according to Mortgage News Daily.

    As cash-out refis fell, HELOC use began to climb. Last year through September, lenders originated HELOCs totaling $214 billion, up from $159.5 billion during the same period in 2021, according to CoreLogic.

    “In a low-rate environment, people were looking at cash-out refis,” Bellas said. “Now … a lot of people have a mortgage with a very low rate, so to do a cash-out refi, they’d be paying [a higher rate] on their full mortgage.”
    “We’ve had quite a few people over the past 12 months … elect to go with the HELOC because of that,” Bellas said.

    How HELOCs compare with other borrowing options

    Generally, HELOCs come with low closing costs compared with mortgages or home equity loans, which operate like other fixed-rate loans, with a set length of time to pay back. And if you have good credit, the rate you can get may be lower than what you’d pay for a personal loan or credit card balance.
    Right now, rates on HELOCs are 7.75%, according to Bankrate. That compares with personal loan rates of above 10%, for consumers with high credit scores, and about 20% for credit cards, according to CreditCards.com.

    I would not use a HELOC to buy frivolous things or things you can’t afford.

    David Demming
    President of Demming Financial Services

    However, like your mortgage, a HELOC is a lien against your house — meaning that if you don’t repay as promised, the lender would have the right to foreclose on your house.
    “I would not use a HELOC to buy frivolous things or things you can’t afford,” said certified financial planner David Demming, president of Demming Financial Services in Aurora, Ohio.
    “It should be a short-term bill that you’re going to pay off within a finite period of time,” Demming said.
    Here are three key things to consider before signing on the dotted line.

    1. Variable interest rates make it tricky to budget

    The interest rate on HELOCs is typically variable, meaning it moves up and down based on the so-called prime rate, which banks use as a basis to set rates on a variety of loans. While the Federal Reserve doesn’t control the prime rate, the one it does influence — the overnight lending rate among banks — ends up following suit. 
    “Because it’s variable, it can be tough to budget from month to month,” Bellas said.
    Right now, the U.S. is in a rising rate environment, although that is expected to shift as time passes. The Fed’s rate-setting committee is meeting this week and is expected to raise that overnight lending rate by a quarter percentage point, which means the prime rate will generally tick higher — and so will HELOC rates.

    2. It may be difficult to pay off the principal

    HELOCs typically only come with monthly interest payments — meaning none of your minimum payment goes toward the principal.
    “If you don’t have a lot of excess funds and are making interest-only payments, it can be difficult to find the cash and discipline to pay down that balance,” Bellas said.
    “I’ve seen people with a $50,000 balance and five years later it’s still close to that [amount],” he said.

    HELOCs generally have a “draw” period when you can take money out that often lasts 10 years and then a repayment period of, say, 10 or 20 years, when you start paying both interest and principal. And because of that, your payments will jump if you have only been paying interest.
    For instance, a $50,000 balance would yield interest-only payments of $312.50 and then jump to $593.51 during a repayment period of 10 years, according to InvestorsBank.com’s HELOC calculator.
    If your HELOC has a balance when you sell the home, it must be paid off along with the primary mortgage on the house.

    3. Beware of transferring debt to a HELOC

    Sometimes, homeowners turn to a HELOC to pay off higher-interest debt, such as credit card balances.
    On the face of it, shifting high-rate balances to a HELOC could make sense. However, if you don’t have a plan to pay off the HELOC, you’re just delaying the inevitable, Bellas said.
    “The danger is really that you’re recategorizing the debt and kicking it down the road,” Bellas said. “There’s probably a bigger thing that needs to be addressed.”

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    Silvergate Capital shares jump after BlackRock reports increased stake in the crypto bank

    BlackRock raised its holding in Silvergate Capital, a crypto-focused bank, according to a Jan. 31 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
    Silvergate shares jumped on Tuesday afternoon.
    Crypto has enjoyed a solid rebound in January, but shares of Silvergate have had a rocky start to the year.

    Cryptocurrencies have been under immense pressure after the collapse of a so-called stablecoin called terraUSD.
    Umit Turhan Coskun | Nurphoto via Getty Images

    Silvergate Capital jumped on Tuesday afternoon after BlackRock reported a 7% stake in the crypto bank. 
    Shares of Silvergate rose 9.96% after a Jan. 31 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission became public. BlackRock increased its holding in Silvergate to 7.2%, an increase from the 5.9% it previously reported, according to the filing. 

    More than 70% of Silvergate Capital shares that are freely available to trade are sold short, according to FactSet data.
    While cryptocurrencies and related stocks have enjoyed a strong January rally this year, Silvergate has been struggling in the aftermath of the FTX blowup. Shares of the bank slid sharply November, when the crypto exchange FTX, a Silvergate customer, collapsed in scandal.
    Silvergate shares are now down about 20% in 2023. They are off by about 87% over the past year.
    Earlier this month, shares of Silvergate tanked more than 40% after the bank reported massive withdrawals in the fourth quarter in light of the FTX collapse. Despite the rise in cryptocurrencies and stocks this month, investor confidence is still shaken.
    BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, has maintained a positive stance toward crypto and blockchain technology. In addition to being an investor in FTX, late last summer the firm launched a private trust to give clients exposure to spot bitcoin.

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    64% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck — here’s how to keep your budget in check

    As the cost of living surged in 2022, the number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck jumped to 64% as of December, according to a recent report.
    Compared to 2021, 9.3 million more Americans said they are stretched too thin.
    A few key money moves can keep your budget in check going forward.

    Shoppers in San Francisco on Dec. 21, 2022.
    David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

    Months of high inflation have weighed heavily on households.
    As of December, 64% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, according to a recent LendingClub report — up from 61% a year earlier and in line with the historic high first hit in March 2020.

    For the first time, more than half of all six-figure earners also said they were stretched too thin, a jump from 42% a year ago. 
    “The effects of inflation are eating into every American’s wallet and as the Fed’s efforts to curb inflation drive up the cost of debt, we are seeing near record numbers of Americans living paycheck to paycheck,” said Anuj Nayar, LendingClub’s financial health officer.
    More from Personal Finance:What is a ‘rolling recession’ and how does it impact you?Almost half of Americans think we’re already in a recessionIf you want higher pay, your chances may be better now
    For its part, the Federal Reserve is widely expected to announce its eighth consecutive rate hike at this week’s policy meeting. 
    Even though wage growth is high by historical standards, it isn’t keeping up with the increased cost of living, which in December was up 6.5% from the prior year.

    That leaves many Americans in a bind as inflation and higher prices force more people to dip into their cash reserves or lean on credit just when interest rates rise at the fastest pace in decades.
    Other reports also show financial well-being is deteriorating overall.

    How to get your budget back on track

    Certified financial planner Ted Jenkin, CEO and founder of oXYGen Financial in Atlanta and a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council, offers his best advice for spending less and finding a better return on your savings.

    1. Cut spending

    Jenkin said some simple financial hacks can help, such as going to the grocery store less and cutting back on online shopping.
    “Grocery stores are just like Las Vegas; they are there to separate you from your wallet.” Meal planning is one way to edit down your shopping list to weekly essentials and save money.

    Disabling one-click ordering or deleting stored credit card information can also help. “Anyone that shops on Amazon and has a stored credit card, you are basically pouring lighter fluid on your budget,” Jenkin said.
    Jenkin recommends waiting 24 hours before making an online purchase and then using a price-tracking browser extension such as CamelCamelCamel or Keepa to find the best price.
    Finally, tap a savings tool like Cently, which automatically applies a coupon code to your online order, and pay with a cash-back card such as the Citi Double Cash Card, which will earn you 2%.
    “You really have to get disciplined or you’re going to outspend your income,” he said.

    2. Boost savings

    The money you put away should also work to your advantage, he said.
    Although deposit rates are climbing, even a high-yield savings account won’t pay enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.
    Jenkin recommends buying short-term, relatively risk-free Treasury bonds and laddering them to ensure you earn the best rates, a strategy that entails holding bonds to the end of their term.
    “It’s not a huge return but you are not going to lose your money,” he said.

    Another option is to purchase federal I bonds, which are inflation-protected and nearly risk-free assets.
    I bonds are currently paying 6.89% annual interest on new purchases through April, down from the 9.62% yearly rate offered from May through October 2022.
    Still, this will work well as a hedge against inflation for long-term savers. The downside is that you can’t redeem I bonds for one year, and you’ll pay the last three months of interest if cashed in before five years.
    LendingClub’s paycheck-to-paycheck report is based on a survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults in December.
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    Social Security, Medicare should be ‘off the table’ in debt ceiling talks, McCarthy says

    Now that the U.S. has hit the debt ceiling, Republicans and Democrats must negotiate to find a solution.
    Those talks should not include Social Security and Medicare, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in an interview on Sunday.
    Here’s why Democrats and advocates for the programs are still worried.

    Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a news conference in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Thursday, January 12, 2023.
    Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

    What to watch in debt ceiling negotiations

    Earlier this month, the U.S. reached the debt ceiling, which represents the total amount of money the U.S. can borrow to fund its legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare.
    If left unaddressed, experts say that may prompt a delay in benefits as the government scrambles to prioritize payments.
    The government will likely be able to continue to pay its obligations through “extraordinary measures” through early June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said.
    As lawmakers negotiate an agreement to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling, some worry that may include compromises on Social Security and Medicare.

    That may include setting up a budget process or commissions as part of a compromise that could pave the way for changes later, including cuts, according to Dan Adcock, government relations and policy director at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
    Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said in an interview earlier this month that cuts to Social Security and Medicare should not be included in debt ceiling negotiations. However, he has expressed interest in including legislation to create commissions in the debt-limit increase, Adcock noted.
    Manchin also called for raising the cap on payroll taxes that are used to fund Social Security. In 2023, those taxes are applied on up to $160,200 in earnings.
    Republicans have generally opposed tax hikes. However, the House Republican Study Committee budget calls for changes interpreted as benefit cuts, such as raising the retirement age for both Social Security and Medicare, among other changes.

    The Republican plans have yet to be introduced as bills.
    Adcock said he is skeptical of McCarthy’s comments calling for strengthening Social Security and Medicare.
    “Having to go through 15 ballots to be elected speaker, he doesn’t exactly have great control over his caucus,” Adcock said.
    “Even if you were to take him at his word, his caucus may decide to go in another direction, including cuts,” he said.
    Democrats have put forward legislative proposals that call for raising payroll taxes while also making benefits more generous. President Joe Biden called for similar changes to shore up Social Security during his campaign for the White House.

    U.S. President Joe Biden looks toward House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, during a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2022. 
    Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

    Biden, McCarthy set to meet this week

    McCarthy on Sunday called out Biden’s reluctance to address Social Security and Medicare amid the debt ceiling talks.
    “I know the president says he doesn’t want to look at it, but we’ve got to make sure we strengthen those,” McCarthy said.
    The White House, in turn, took issue with the House speaker’s language.
    “For years, congressional Republicans have advocated for slashing earned benefits using Washington code words like ‘strengthen,’ when their policies would privatize Medicare and Social Security, raise the retirement age or cut benefits,” White House spokesman Bates said.
    Biden is scheduled to host McCarthy at the White House on Wednesday as part of a series of meetings with leaders of the new Congress, a second White House spokesperson separately said.
    The meeting will include a discussion on a range of issues, including preventing a national default on the debt and House Republicans’ proposed changes to Social Security and Medicare.
    “He [Biden] will underscore that the economic security of all Americans cannot be held hostage to force unpopular cuts on working families,” the White House spokesperson said.

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