Many of us may have heard of the importance of having an emergency fund, but the value it can bring to our lives is often severely understated. Just recently my fiancé and I finalized saving for our very own emergency fund. Less than a week later we realized just how invaluable having a financial cushion can be when we hit a patch of black ice driving, and hit a snowbank.

Spring is often when we start thinking about remodeling projects or buying a new home. Right now interest rates on home equity loans and mortgages are relatively low. If you are thinking about taking out a home loan, you need to be smart about choosing the loan.

You retired. Or changed jobs – maybe several times. So did I. And at many of those jobs, we had a 401(k) or some other type of retirement plan. If your account held less than $5000, you may have been forced to make a quick decision about what to do with the money. Otherwise, you probably did what many of us do so well: procrastinate.

Maybe now is a good time to evaluate your options and make a decision.

There are as many as four things you could do with the money:

A short while back I wrote about a co-worker's quest to pay off their credit card debts (a very worthwhile goal) and how she characterized it as being the "year of suck" because of all the sacrifices they were having to make not using as well as paying down their cards. Several of you wrote with some great advice-especially calling it something more positive like the year of wealth.

Recently the Consumer Economics Team of Educators were discussing the Go Banking Rates Financial Tip Summer Challenge. They wanted to be apart of the contest but were unsure of what their video would be about. It had to be a quick tip to help individuals and families save money. It also had to be creative and funny. They decided that they would call it "Financial Fat Cat" since "Fat Cats" are people who have a lot of money, but it would also feature a very plump cat.

Last month, Americans were dismayed to learn that one of the biggest retailers, Target, had their computers hacked and the financial information of millions of customers was at risk for fraud. According to official releases from www.Target.com , payment cards (debit and credit cards) used only in Target stores, between November 27th and December 15th were the subjects of unauthorized access and that name, address, card information and the security codes were acquired by thieves who then began selling them on the black market.

Katie Bryan works for America Saves, managed by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which seeks to motivate, encourage, and support low- to moderate-income households to save money, reduce debt, and build wealth. Learn more at americasaves.org.

Diversification is the first rule of investing. You knew that, right? But have you thought about tax diversification? Yep. Smart investing isn't just what you own, it's where you own it and how it gets taxed when you take it out. From a tax standpoint, you have three different types of accounts:

Do you have door weatherstripping that has been chewed off by a puppy? Do you have windows that don't seal completely? Perhaps you have holes going from the outside to the inside of your house from old pipes or wiring? If so, money is slipping out of your house!

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating our homes accounts for 42% of our utility bills. If you're heating the outside this winter, you'll be losing money!

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about creating a 2014 Financial Goal and I challenged our readers to write and share their goals with us. At the time of the posting, I deliber

It's happened to every one of us. Whether they were calling for you, your spouse or your neighbor down the street, we've all encountered the dreaded call from a debt collector. In a former life, I was a debt collector. Here are a few tips and tricks of the trade on how to deal with one if you ever encounter that phone call.

What federal laws protect consumers?

The New Year often brings a feeling of renewal and rejuvenation. Most of us talk or even write down our resolutions such as "I want to lose 20 pounds" or "I want to eat healthier." But this year I want to challenge our readers to make a financial goal for 2014. Below are some tips to help you get started:

Goals should be S.M.A.R.T.

This may be the first time you have heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals or maybe you've heard it a million times. Either way, a good goal starts with these steps:

Last month I wrote about Vacation Getaways and one of the options that I discussed was the concept of a "Staycation." So, what is a "Staycation?" A "Staycation" is a vacation in whi

Money is more than dollars and cents. We choose how we manage our money based on our personal values. Values help define who we are and what we do. During the holiday season our values about money are highlighted: how much do we spend on treats; do we use credit; do we give to charities?

Many of us would like to pass along our values to children in our lives. However, it can be a challenge to find a way to start the conversation! One way to begin talking about finances is to read stories together that include money and values in the plot.

Congratulations to all new college graduates! Your accomplishment is significant and wonderful!

Once you've had a chance to celebrate your accomplishment, the next step is to figure out how you plan to repay your student loans. Even if you can't repay now, you need to take steps so that you don't unknowingly default on a loan. Here are some key things to know:

Credit History: Yes, your student loan repayment history will affect your credit report and scores. If you default (fail to repay) on a student loan, this information never leaves your credit report.

While I was in my 30s and 40s, retirement planning meant planning travel to exotic places! Oh sure, I'd need money for food and other basics, but mostly I was saving money so that I could do LOTS of traveling. But now that I'm in my 50s I realize that retirement planning is a little more complex.

As well as considering my future travel budget, I am now thinking more seriously about possible family financial obligations that may exist even when I'm retired. And, this is affecting my retirement planning.

Way back in July I first wrote about cutting the cord on our paid TV. I talked about looking at our options and deciding how we "use" TV and what we watched (what were must watch and what we had on just for background and distraction). Several readers commented on how they too cut the cord and were the better for it.

Before my fiancé and I planned for our honeymoon, we never realized just how much work goes into planning a vacation! Though it may not seem like it, vacation planning can become a time consuming and strenuous task. Whether it is a weeklong vacation, staycation or weekend getaway – without proper planning you can find yourself in a financial bind. Below are a few quick tips to help you plan and enjoy your vacation:

I was talking with a coworker the other day about her family's financial goals and plan for the coming year. "We have decided not to use our credit cards-we want to pay them off." Great plan I said but as she looked glum, I asked what was wrong. She replied that she and her husband were calling this "The Year of Suck".

I come from a long line of habitual expense trackers. Growing up, there was always a legal-sized ledger book in the drawer. A new page was started for each month. Every receipt was entered. There were often a few loose receipts tucked into the book, waiting to be logged.

When my mom passed away and I became the keeper of my grandfather’s papers, they included his ledger from 75 years ago, listing out what he paid for the necessities of life on a small farm.

Dear 17 Year Old Me,

I am writing to you in 2014 and we are now 27 years old. A decade has gone by since I was in your shoes and I have some financial advice just for you. Although you may not understand it now, please believe me – I have your best interest in mind!

Save Every Penny You Make

A recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) indicates some of the business practices of large student loan lenders may be making it particularly difficult for borrowers to repay their loans. In the last year, the CFPB handled approximately 5,300 private student loan complaints.

The holidays can be wonderful with fun activities and time with family and friends. The holidays also can be a time when you feel tired and overwhelmed from too much to do. Also, when overwhelmed and time is running out, it’s easy to spend more money than planned. This year, take time to make choices about activities and plan your time wisely so that you can enjoy the holidays.

You answer the phone. Or open a letter that came in the mail. It's from a collection agency. A medical bill that you never knew existed has been turned over to collections. What goes through your mind? "My credit score just went down the tubes."

I may have some good news for you.

Working families may get a larger tax refund this year because of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), but to get it, you must claim it. Today, January 31, marks the 8th National EITC Awareness Day, a nationwide effort to increase awareness about EITC and free tax preparation sites.

Recently, I have been receiving requests from many of my friends about what they can do to work on paying down their dastardly debt. Whether it is student loans, that amazing vacation you splurged on or that new 70 inch TV complete with Blu-ray and surround sound you financed via credit card, most of us have some sort of debt we would like to take out of the picture. The problem many face is that they don't know what they need to do to begin their journey of effective repayment. Below are some tips and tools that I use to help me pay down my own Dastardly Debt:

We're wrapping up the end of our 7th year of blogging here at Plan Well, Retire Well Blog. We aim to post about once a week and in 2014 we did pretty well with 54 blog posts. On average, a blog post in 2014 had about 340 page views.

So, just what have we been writing about in 2014? And, what was popular? Let's take a look at the posts with the most page views!

America Saves Week, February 24-March 1st, is a time to review your finances, decide what you want to save for, and set up a system that will allow you to save automatically. That's why the America Saves Week theme is Set a Goal. Make a Plan. Save Automatically.

I love Money Smart Week! As Karen Chan mentioned in her blog post on March 12th, Money Smart Week is the best time of year

When I faced a major life decision two years ago, looking at my financial situation was a big factor in the decision. I estimated what my future expenses would be, and compared those against my expected income. I did a net worth statement, which forced me to total up my assets and liabilities. I even guesstimated how much I could pull from those savings and investments each year, and still have a good chance of having enough to live on until a very old age.

This year's tax season will soon come and go, and you may be unsure of what you need to do with this year's tax forms. Below are some questions you may have on what you should do with this year's 2013 – filed 1040 tax return.

What should I keep?

People invest a lot of amount of time, energy and money to earn a college degree. The financial cost of attending college is much larger today than it was a generation ago. It's reasonable to ask, "Is it still worth it to get a college degree?"

Summertime! It's a wonderful time of year to slow down and relax after a busy school year of homework, events, and bustling to be on time. Summer is also a chance for children to practice life skills including money management.

Activities and conversations that involve our daily lives can help make money real to children. While you're shopping at the grocery store, paying the monthly bills, or planning a family trip be creative on ways to involve your children in age-appropriate ways.

What do young people do? They move: from home to college dorm, from one apartment to the next apartment, to the summer job, home again, to the next rental duplex, and so it goes! And in the process, stuff accumulates and stuff gets lost.

One of the best financial tools I ever gave my sons is a simple, plastic file box. I gave them each one at the end of high school. It's a place to keep financial papers that they may need to find -- like their social security card when it's time to start a new job. The file box stores other essential items like:

With Mother Nature being so brutal to all in Illinois and the Midwest last winter, I wanted to get a head start on winterizing my home the last few weekends. Though it would seem as if old man winter might already be here, that doesn't have to stop you from adjusting your home to get it ready for when winter officially comes. Below are some things you can do to your home to prepare it for this upcoming winter:

I have been pushing people to get a current copy of their credit bureau report on a regular basis for a while now. It is a good way to have a snapshot of your credit accounts and payment history and a method to catch identity theft before it gets totally out of hand. To do this you should get a free credit report every 4 months or so. The government requires that each of the three credit reporting companies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to allow people one free credit report each 12 months.

It's a scary to think of someone stealing our money. When we hear about millions of accounts being hacked, we wonder "What can we do to protect our identity and our money?"

1) Look at your financial account statements frequently and report anything that looks odd to your financial institution immediately.

2) Sign up for text alerts for your financial accounts. You can be notified of withdrawals to your account as well as low balances.

My husband is contributing to a Health Savings Account (HSA), so of course I wanted to learn all the in's and out's of this relatively new animal. If this is new to you, check out the benefits and who qualifies in last month's post.

If you take a few moments to learn the rules, you can reap significant benefits for you and your family members while avoiding the miss-steps that would incur taxes and perhaps penalties.

It's been a year since Kathy Sweedler and I started our series of posts about losing someone close to us. For

Money Smart Week is coming, April 5 to 12, 2014. It's the best time of year to learn anything you want about managing your finances. Why is it the best time?

It's all free.

There will likely workshops near you. Over 1025 programs will take place in 24 different counties around Illinois. There are also programs in about 45 other states. And some events are offered online, so they're accessible anywhere.

If you like avoiding taxes, you'll want to learn about Health Saving Accounts.

Odds are, someone in your family has a high deductible health plan (HDHP). That makes them eligible to have a health savings account, commonly called an HSA. High deductible health plans have become more common as employers look for ways to reduce the cost of health insurance. And many of the bronze level plans on the insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are HDHPs.

Tax-Free