Financial Help from UncleSam.Gov
A smart way to get a return on your taxes: Check out these websites
(MONEY Magazine) – The U.S. government as personal financial adviser--somehow the image does not compute. But, in fact, many of the websites maintained by federal agencies, departments and other government entities are crammed full of useful money tips, from how to protect yourself against onerous bank and credit-card fees to how to tell if your broker is on the up-and-up. Check out these five government sites, the best of a surprisingly good bunch.
Best Soup-to-Nuts Site for Consumers
FirstGov: Money consumer.gov/yourmoney.htm
• WHY GO If you're looking for the lowdown on a particular subject, you'll likely find it through this portal, which handily pulls together money tips from various government agencies in a single place--a kind of one-stop shop for consumer info and advice.
• WHAT YOU GET The site is organized by broad topic (banking, credit, taxes and so forth), then by subtopic (online banking, credit repair, tax-refund pitfalls), with links to the Web page providing the information. A scam alert details the latest cons, and the In the Spotlight section outlines recent government initiatives to help consumers.
• DON'T MISS Been wronged by a business or broker? Click on the link to government complaint centers to file an online grievance.
Best for Energy Savings Tips
Department of Energy energy.gov/forconsumers.htm
• WHY GO You can cross your fingers and hope for a return to the days of $30-a-barrel oil (good luck). Or you can visit this site for money-saving tips and tricks galore.
• WHAT YOU GET You can assess your home's energy efficiency with an "energy audit," among other tools. It'll walk you through such steps as checking insulation and looking for gaps in plumbing fixtures that can allow air to leak in and out of your house. Need a new car? Check out the Fuel-Cost Calculator to see how much a variation in miles per gallon can mean to your pocketbook. To wit: A car that gets 28 mpg will cost $857 less a year to drive than one that gets 20 mpg (assuming 20,000 miles driven and $3 gas).
• DON'T MISS There's a whole section on the federal tax credits you can claim if you buy a hybrid car, say, or switch to more energy-efficient windows. Did you know that you're eligible for a $300 tax credit for installing central air?
Best for Checking Out Your Financial Adviser
Securities and Exchange Commission sec.gov/investor/brokers.htm
• WHY GO It's your hard-earned money; before you give an adviser access to it, you want to make sure he or she is legit.
• WHAT YOU GET Any adviser who manages more than $25 million in assets must register with the SEC. Download a prospective adviser's Form ADV (which he is required to file each year) to find out if he's ever been disciplined by the SEC or other regulators, the nature of the misconduct, and how the matter was resolved. Also get background info on his education and business.
• DON'T MISS Once you've established that your guy is a straight arrow, head to the Ask Questions page for tips on evaluating his investment philosophy.
Best for Foiling Identity Thieves
Federal Trade Commission consumer.gov/idtheft
• WHY GO You won't find any scare-mongering here--just accurate, up-to-date information on how to protect yourself from ID theft, and what you need to do if you become a victim.
• WHAT YOU GET This site offers dozens of tips to help you steer clear of ID thieves. One example: Stay alert for missing bills. It could mean that someone has hijacked your account and diverted the bill to a new mailing address. Also: When getting rid of an old computer, don't simply erase documents. Tech-savvy thieves can reconstruct deleted files. Instead, use a wipe utility to overwrite the entire hard drive.
• BOOKMARK THIS Suspect your digits have already been stolen? Follow the four-step guide on the Immediate Steps page to minimize the damage.
Best for Teaching Kids About Money
Kids.Gov: Money kids.gov/k_money.htm
• WHY GO Research has shown that it's best to start financial education when children are young. This site provides links to dozens of educational games and quizzes perfect for ages five to 13.
• WHAT YOU GET Games like Design Your Own Bill at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing are ideal for younger children, as are the coin cartoons at the U.S Mint. Older kids can learn what it takes to start and grow their own business at the Small Business Administration's website for teens.
• DON'T MISS Grandparents love to give savings bonds, but kids rarely appreciate them. At publicdebt.treas.gov/sav/savkids.htm, kids can learn how bonds work and calculate how much theirs are worth. They probably still won't put Series EEs on their birthday wish list, but at least when they get one and say thank you, they may actually mean it.