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RISMEDIA, January 12, 2010—(MCT)—If you’ve weathered this past year’s wallet-squeezing, here’s some how-to advice for keeping more money in your pocket now that the New Year has arrived.

Use, don’t lose, those new gift cards. In California, most gift cards cannot have expiration dates or fees, unless clearly stated on the card itself. But if a store goes bankrupt, or if the card is issued by a mall or a bank, your card could be subject to service fees and expiration dates. Another money-saving tip: If your gift card balance is below $10, you can receive it in cash.

Guard against “free trial” offers that stealthily set you up for automatic debits or credit card charges. According to consumer warnings from the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Visa Inc., some companies offering free trials—on everything from colon cleansers to debt reduction plans—also create automatic deductions for special “services” or subscriptions. Read the fine print before opting for any “free trial” offers.

Calculate how quickly you can pay off credit card debt, especially after holiday spending. Use an online credit card calculator, such as at bankrate.com or credit.com. According to the California Society of CPAs, if you’ve got a $5,000 balance with an 18% interest rate and make only monthly minimum payments, it will take 12.5 years to pay off the card. And you’ll pay $2,916 in interest. If you get a year-end gift or bonus, consider applying it to your January balances.

Reduce your cell-phone bill. Eliminate services you don’t need or want: insurance, roadside service, ring tones, texting. Or if you or your kids are continually hit with too many fees for text messages, switch to an unlimited plan. Don’t use your cell phone much? Consider switching to a prepaid phone.

Sweep up energy savings. Just a few household changes can save hundreds of dollars a year. If you replace 20 household 100-watt light bulbs with 27-watt fluorescent bulbs, you’ll save $277.30 a year, according to SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District). Shorter showers can save, too. A family of three dropping shower times from 17 minutes to 11 can save $100.20 a year, not to mention conserving gallons of water.

Say thanks to all the new federal tax breaks, including those for purchasing a home, buying a car, paying college expenses or adding household energy improvements. “There’ve been a lot of things loosened up for consumers this year,” said John Hogg, who oversees 16 Jackson-Hewitt tax preparation offices in Sacramento. “Many of these credits have never been available before; others, like the new home buyer’s credit and college tuition credits, are worth more this year than last. If people take advantage of these, their tax liability could be significantly less for 2009.”

The first-time home buyer’s credit increased to $8,000 and was extended to April 30, 2010. Existing homeowners who haven’t purchased a home in the last three years can get a maximum $6,500. The tax credit for college students has been extended to a full four years and up to $2,500 annually, including textbooks. The vehicle sales tax deduction applies to any new purchase made by Dec. 31 this year.

For families, there’s also the child-tax credit and the earned income tax credit (EITC) for low- income households. For instance, a married couple with three children and family income of $22,000 could qualify for a federal refund of more than $9,000 through the combined credits. Due to layoffs and furloughs, many families with reduced incomes may qualify for the first time this year, Hogg said.

Stay healthy: That’s one of the surest ways to save. And if you have a flexible spending account through your employer for health care expenses, don’t forget to submit your receipts for reimbursement by Dec. 31 or your company’s deadline. If you fill out the correct paperwork, you’ll get a nice check in the mail.

Ignore unsolicited e-mails, calls or letters asking for personal financial information. Phony messages pretending to be from the IRS, FDIC and your bank can siphon money faster than you can click open their fraudulent online messages.

Laugh: We’ve all made spending bloopers. If you want to share yours or ogle those of others, go to www.spendster.org, the “online confessional for bad spending.” Sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education, it’s a lighthearted look at how we can learn from our mistakes.

(c) 2009, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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