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Great Ideas for $500 or Less

When a little bit of money is all you've got, you want to make sure you get the biggest bang for those bucks. We recently featured 47 creative ideas of what to do with $1,000, but we know that not everyone has a spare grand sitting around. So we came up with a dozen great ways to spend or invest less than $500. There's something here for everyone -- we even tossed in a couple of smart ideas that you can do for free.

And even if you're short on cash, don't overlook our $1,000 ideas completely. Some of them, such as paying down credit card debt, starting a college fund and sprucing up your front yard, are moves you can pull off on varying budgets, proving that you don't have to be rolling in the dough to make smart choices -- or have some fun -- with your money.

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When you've got $0

Give yourself a raise. If you're itching to try one our other great ideas for your spare cash, but you have no spare cash, simply boost your take-home pay. No, you don't have to muster the courage to ask your boss for a raise. Rather, you should take a look at your W-4 form that you filled out with your human resources department on your first day of work. On this piece of paper, you told the government how much money to withhold from your paycheck for taxes. It all comes down to how many "allowances" you claim. The more allowances you claim on your W-4, the less income tax will be withheld. If you claim zero allowances, you will have the most tax taken out.

Most of us give Uncle Sam too much money, which is why we get tax refunds in April. But that's like giving the government an interest-free loan. Instead, get your money as you earn it throughout the year by filing a new W-4 with your employer. Try our easy withholding calculator to get an idea of how many allowances you should be claiming. Then, get more ideas of ways you can give yourself a raise and tips for breaking away from living paycheck to paycheck.

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Another way to give yourself a raise is to spend less throughout the month to free up more cash in your budget. Check out our Ultimate Savings Guide for 89 specific ideas of how to save on just about everything, from insurance to cable TV to energy bills.

Check up on your credit. Do you know what your credit history is saying about you? The information on this document can influence your ability to buy a home, take out a car loan, get a low rate on your credit card, secure insurance coverage or even land a job. It also can help you find out if you've been a victim of identity theft. You used to have to pay to check your reports from the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. But thanks to a new law you can do it for free once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can pull all three reports at once or spread out your requests over 12 months. Either way, it's a wise financial move that won't cost you a dime. In as little as five minutes, you can have your report in hand to check for errors and look for other ways to improve your credit. That's time well spent.


When you've got $100

Prepare for an emergency. As recent disasters have demonstrated, there may come a time when you have to leave your home quickly. Creating a grab-and-go survival kit with food, water and supplies to last at least three days will help hold you over until your situation stabilizes. You can buy a basic, pre-made 72-hour kit for two people at The Red Cross Shop for $55. Use your remaining $45 to add personalized items to your kit, such as a spare set of house and car keys, medications and special items for babies, pets and elderly members of the family. Learn more about how to craft a common-sense emergency plan for your family.

Bring your home movies into the 21st century. Whether you want to edit and e-mail movies or simply preserve your precious memories for posterity, going digital makes a lot of sense for your home movies on VHS tapes. And pulling it off is cheaper than you might think. Most new computers already come with a DVD burner. (Or you can add one for about $50.) Then, you'll need a device that can convert your VCR or camcorder's analog signals to digital and some editing software. Several manufacturers bundle the hardware and software together for about $100, including ADS's DVD XPress and Pinnacle's Studio 500-USB. You simply connect your VCR or camcorder to the converter box, which you then connect to your PC through a USB jack. Then you can upload your home movies to your computer, edit them, add music and effects, and then save them on a DVD. For half the price, you can go with AverMedia's DVD EZMaker ($50), named a "best buy" by PCWorld magazine. But the device relies on your computer to do the analog-to-digital conversion, so you'll need a fairly new PC to handle the job.


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