Five ways to hang onto your money

First, the good news: Americans are saving more than they have been in months. Unlike a couple of years ago, when we were literally spending every penny we made and then some, we are getting more disciplined when it comes to saving our pennies.

Lending institutions, mortgage brokers and flat-out scammers still want to get their hands on your moolah, though, and they're coming up with ever-more inventive ways to separate you from your hard-earned cash. Website put together a list of major money pitfalls along with some tips on how to avoid them, and good advice for navigating today's tricky financial waters.

Higher credit-card interest rates: The government passed a major credit-card reform bill earlier this year, but since it doesn't go into effect until next year, that gives card issuers plenty of time to sock it to you. While the new rules will prohibit card companies from spiking your rate without warning, interest rates today are on the rise for many consumers. The article also warns that some issuers have also started peddling variable-rate cards to consumers. The catch is that variable-rate cards are exempt from the ban on sudden interest-rate increases, so the companies would much rather you use one of those. What to do? If you don't do so already, start reading the fine print to find out what's happening to your accounts. While the cardholder bill of rights, as it's known, includes some much-needed protections, you can bet your outstanding balance that companies are working overtime to exploit the legislation's loopholes.

Debit card overdraft fees: Just opt out, already! While most banks' default status is to grant you the "privilege" of paying a hefty fee (usually in the $30 ballpark) if you spend more than what's in your account, most will also let you set up your account so if you don't have the funds, the transaction will simply be denied. Yeah, it might be a little embarrassing to not be able to pay for your half-caf, pumpkin-spice latte with extra cinnamon, but do you really want to be the guy who paid $34 for your drink -- $4 for the beverage, $30 to your bank? We didn't think so.

Vague mortgage "origination" fees: Still-low interest rates for mortgages have a lot of people considering refinancing. If you qualify and plan to stay in your home for a while, it can be a great move, but go over the list of closing-cost fees with a fine-toothed comb. While some items, such as title insurance and appraisal fees, are for a specific product or service, fuzzily-defined "origination" fees are often just a cash cow for the lending agency. We're not talking pocket change either. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the average origination fee was $1,692 last year. This doesn't mean you shouldn't refinance if you're otherwise eligible, but do your homework, get an itemized breakdown of the costs early in the process and remember that you're allowed to negotiate.

Reverse-mortgage scams: Reverse mortgages can be a lifesaver for some homeowners, but they're certainly not the best solution for everybody, and you need to make sure you're working with a reputable player. For starters, anyone who wants to charge you money just for information about a reverse mortgage should send up a red flag; all of that info can be accessed for free on the Department of Housing and Urban Development's web site. If you think a reverse mortgage might be for you, make sure you're dealing with an HUD-approved professional.

Car loan cons: Even if you think you'll wind up using a dealer's financing, do your own shopping around for a loan before you even set foot in the showroom. Some unscrupulous auto dealers will jack up the rate you should be paying for your loan, or will try to force you to purchase a pricey extra like an extended-service plan when you sign up for financing. As we said before, always read the fine print, and don't sign anything that's not completely filled out. One more tip: Dealers will always try to get you to focus on the monthly payment so you don't realize how much you're paying altogether. Don't fall for it. You should be paying attention to the total price of the vehicle and the interest rate, in that order.
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