smart spending

15 money moves for tough times

11. Adjust your withholding allowance. "The average refund is well over $2,000," says Cunningham. And most people "could use an extra $200 every month," she says.

The goal: Pay exactly what you owe. You can use the withholdings calculator at IRS.gov to determine what your withholding amounts should be. Then make the correction with your employer.

"You can do that at any time of year," says Cunningham.

12. Reward yourself. Hold out a little discretionary money that you can use for fun.

If you have an unexpected windfall, like a raise, bonus or tax refund, "Treat yourself with some small part and save the rest," says Cunningham.

Another trick for monthly family treats: At the end of the day everyone in the household puts their pocket change in a big jar. Says Cunningham, "At the end of the month, you'll have $20 or $30, and you'll never miss the money."

And if things get really bad ...
13. Ask for an extension on your car loan. "Typically, they will do this once or twice a year," says Cunningham.

How it works: Instead of making your regular payment this month, the lender would tack an extra month onto the end of your loan period. But you won't get off with a zero payment this month, warns Cunningham. You still have to cover the interest.

14. Get an extension on the mortgage. Some home lenders will let you do something similar for your mortgage, says Cunningham. The downside is, while it will help you if you're trying to make up for a short-term problem, (like a large, unexpected bill), it's not effective if you've got a long-running situation, like regular medical bills, a resetting interest rate you can't handle or a long stretch of unemployment.

To work out such a deal, contact the loss mitigation unit in the mortgage department of the company servicing your loan, says Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for the Consumer Federation of America. Other typical department tags: home preservation or foreclosure avoidance.

15. Talk to a mortgage counselor. Just as you can get debt counseling help, you also can get mortgage counseling. What to look for: a nonprofit service with counselors who are HUD-certified.

They can examine your situation and offer some options like renegotiating your mortgage or getting a rate freeze on your loan that will help you keep your home. They can also negotiate with your lender on your behalf. You can search for counselors on the HUD Web site or call the Department of Housing and Urban Development at (800) 569-4287.

However, not all counselors can be trusted. "Beware of foreclosure rescue companies or organizations that bill themselves as counseling organizations" but are for-profit, says Fishbein.

There is actually some good news for homeowners as a result of the lending crisis, says Fishbein. If you're willing to be pretty candid about your situation, "there may be more options" available than you realize, he says. "Lenders are doing things they traditionally haven't done to keep people in their homes."

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