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Seven Free Services to Help You Achieve Financial Freedom

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As you get ready for your Independence Day picnic or barbeque and prepare to watch the spectacular fireworks this weekend, take a minute to think over one more thing: Your financial independence.

Sure, it’s a cliché we’ve all heard so often, you’re probably yawning and heading back to marinating those pork chops right about now. Give us a few minutes, though, and you won’t regret it. Below is a list of seven free services in four categories (get it? 07/04) that, with very little effort on your part, will help you stay on top of your finances and, ultimately, achieve the oh-so elusive financial freedom.

1. Know your credit health with free credit reports and credit scores

You know how important your credit history is to your finances: your credit score determines the interest rates on your credit cards and other loans and even affects your insurance premiums. Employers check job applicants’ credit reports. So make sure you know where you stand, credit-wise. Get your freecredit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com.

The site doesn’t offer free credit scores, but fear not: other services do. At Credit Sesame, you can get your free Experian Equivalency credit score, which is very close to your FICO score and is commercially available to lenders.

At Quizzle, you get a free “Consumer Equivalency” score calculated using the information on your Experian credit report.

Neither of the services mentioned above will ask for your credit card number – you can get those reports and scores free, no strings attached.

2. Take control of your spending with free online budgeting

Chances are, you’ve heard of Mint.com – and if you’re really into monitoring your spending, you’re probably already using it. No? Here’s how it works: once you register, add all your credit card and bank accounts, brokerage and other investment accounts. The software will ask for your respective username and password for each account. It will then automatically keep track of and categorize every single transaction for you – all in one place. You can set budgets (for all kinds of spending categories, from Restaurants and Alcohol & Bars to Gas) and even set goals (such as Retirement, Education or Buy a Home) and Mint.com will track your progress for each goal.

3. Get automatic savings at places where you already shop

The one downside to popular group-buying services like Groupon and LivingSocial: you buy the coupons upfront and, let’s face it, not always end up using them. For all your 50% savings, one unused $40 Groupon will set you back quite a bit, right?

Offermatic has come up with an interesting alternative: you sign up for the service in a way very similar to Mint.com, by authorizing your login credentials for your credit and debit card accounts. Offermatic then downloads your transactions, and based on where you shop, offers you coupons (ranging from 50% off in-store to 2% to 10% off online). Activate the coupons and the savings are automatically applied to your credit card as long as you end up shopping at the respective retailer. You could be saving $5 off a $10 purchase at Target, for example, or $25 off a $50 purchase at Nordstrom. But you don’t have to spend any money upfront.

4. Boost your (or your child’s) college savings or pay off your student loans faster

Upromise has been around for years, so you probably know how it works. You register your grocery and drugstore cards (Stop & Shop, CVS, RiteAid, etc.) and, when you buy certain items the merchants rebate a small percentage (typically 1% to 3%) to your Upromise account. That was the original focus of the service. In recent years, it’s migratied towards the “online shopping rebate” model: use Upromise as a click-through portal to get rebates on your online purchases from hundreds of merchants. You can also activate eCoupons, whose value will be contributed to your account rather than automatically deducted from your shopping bill. (You can combine them with regular coupons, of course.)

Link your Upromise account to a 529 Plan or a student loan so that your savings are transferred four times a year, or even request to receive checks. (If you do that, you’re free to go out and spend the cash immediately – but try to use it wisely.)

Happy (Financial) Independence Day!

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