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Financial Tip

From Aptitude Test to Air Force Colonel
At Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., Debra Rose wasn't happy with the classes she was taking, and wasn't sure what career to pursue. When her grandmother suggested an aptitude test, she went to the counselor's office and took the Strong Interest Inventory®, an assessment tool designed for college students. She answered questions about her interests which were compared to others who were happy and successful in their jobs.

"My general skills showed I had an aptitude for a career in forestry, police work or the military," she says. After further research she went to the Air Force recruitment center in St. Louis, enlisted and earned her commission. Today, 31 years later, she is a colonel serving in cyberspace operations at Fort Meade in Maryland. She and her husband Jerry have two grown children and a 6-year-old grandson.

Would she have considered the military without that aptitude test? "Probably not," she says. "I'm glad I did!"

Car Buying Tips

With the price of gasoline in 2015 significantly lower than it has been in about five years, Americans are buying cars again in a big way. In fact, new car sales surged in January 2015 - which is typically a slower month for the car industry - and are expected to reach over 17 million this year.

If you're one of the millions of Americans planning to buy a car soon - whether it's a new car or a used one - here are some important things to consider:

New Cars
Check out deals online - The best deals aren't necessarily in the showroom today. More car buyers are going online and working with a dealer's internet sales department. Frequently, dealers offer some of their best pricing to these buyers since it is often quicker and easier than working with car shoppers who come into the showroom with plans to "haggle" for a deal.

Be wary of the options - Surprisingly, car dealers don't make much money selling a new vehicle itself. Their profit depends on extras like service and parts, and on options like rust protection, dealer add-ons and extended warranties. According to Consumer Reports, an extended warranty can add an average of $1,214 to the purchase price of your new vehicle, yet it rarely pays off, since extended warranties typically save buyers an average of only $837 on repairs.

Do your homework - Thanks to valuable information available online, you can have a good idea going in to the car-buying process of what make and model you're interested in and the typical "off-the-lot" price others are paying.

For example, some internet-savvy new car buyers are turning to a "middleman" to help them understand car pricing and negotiate a discount. At TrueCar (truecar.com), you can learn what other car buyers have recently paid for the car you want. The more information you have in-hand, the better sale price you're likely to secure.

Used Cars
Determine your budget - Before starting the process of buying a used car, have a budget in mind. Online resource edmunds.com has a "How Much Car Can I Afford?" calculator to help you avoid getting in over your head with a car that strains your finances.

Start your search online - Good online resources for used cars include autotrader.com, cargurus.com, ebaymotors.com and edmunds.com. In most cases you can filter your search by factors like distance, mileage, price and the features you want. CarMax has dealerships in many major cities, and their online search function is also a good resource, as it allows you to review cars across their network.

Save money on a "second-tier car" - "First-tier" cars include popular brands such as Honda and Toyota. What few car buyers realize is that you can often save thousands more by buying a comparable vehicle instead from other reliable manufacturers.

Check the vehicle history report - Once you've gotten serious about a particular used car, it's essential to review its vehicle history report. AutoCheck and CARFAX are two wellknown resources for vehicle history reports. A report typically costs between $30 and $40 per vehicle. The report can reveal vital information about a car, such as if the odometer has been rolled back or if it's ever been declared a total loss by an insurance company. If the report is negative, you have valuable information to use in negotiations or to decide whether you want to pursue that car.

Have the car inspected - After test-driving a car, if you decide you like it, take it to a trusted mechanic to have it inspected. A pre-purchase inspection may save you thousands of dollars in repairs down the road and provide you valuable information to help you negotiate a better deal.

Teachable Moments

If it's time for your family to purchase another vehicle, discuss the type of car that best suits your needs and determine a budget range. Once you've put some parameters around the make, model and price, ask your teenagers to research car options online. Suggest they identify four to five good options and then narrow down the choices to the top two or three. Then, take your teens with you to experience the process of assessing the car, taking it for a test drive and - ultimately - negotiating the purchase.