Choosing Home Repair Professionals

April 14th, 2015

wrenchI had to call a plumber a couple weeks ago. That reminded me of one of the luckiest things I’ve ever done.  I’d like to say it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but in truth it was just luck.  I’m sharing it with you, though, in hopes that it may encourage you to do something smart!

I was newly-divorced, new in town, and buying a home.  I’d been a homeowner before, but only as a married person, and I didn’t have much in the way of home repair skills or knowledge.  (I’ve developed some skill since, but it’s still a weak area).  The house I was buying did not have central air conditioning, and I knew I wanted that, so I built a little extra money into the mortgage to cover that cost, and I had the air conditioning installed within the first week of being in the house.

Getting that A/C installed was the luckiest thing I did that year.  Why?  Because a couple months later, when I needed an urgent home repair, I already had a relationship with a plumbing and heating professional and an electrician.  Dealing with home repairs was really stressful, and being able to call someone familiar made it so much easier.

The moral of this story is NOT that you should get central air installed when you move to a new town.  Instead, the moral is that it’s smart to do some research and make some contact with plumbers, electricians and other key professionals before you need them.

When I arranged to install the A/C, I got recommendations from co-workers, and I shopped around a little to decide what type of A/C unit to install and which firm to choose.  I was able to take my time doing advance research and getting suggestions from friends.  Without that experience, then the first time my toilet was clogged I would’ve been in a panic (we only had one toilet). I might have randomly turned to the phone book and called just anyone.

So one benefit was that I felt comfortable knowing I was calling someone I could trust.  There was another benefit too: the professionals I called also knew who I was — they knew they could trust me to pay the bill, and they knew I wouldn’t call them after hours unless it was really important.  Since I was already their customer, they had some loyalty and concern for my well-being.

The next time I move to a new town, I will remember the lucky lesson I  learned, and I will work to develop a relationship with key repair professionals before I have any urgent needs.



How would you change the tax code?

April 9th, 2015

GettyImages_481414909Did you pay someone to prepare your tax return?  Finished gathering information you thought would be useful and learned it was a waste of time? Smiled because you got a refund, but didn’t look at the total tax dollars that you actually paid? Just glad to have it finished for one more year? Did you know that Congress is taking steps to reform the tax code?

The current code was last reformed in 1986, but has been modified with 140 temporary tax provisions. Some temporary fixes have expired, but others are brought back at the last minute, making it sometimes difficult to determine the tax implications of financial decisions. You have an open invitation at this time to share your thoughts, rate proposed changes and suggest new directions.  At  you can read what both the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committees are considering. Several members of the House and Senate are conducting their own tax surveys to contribute to the committee work and ensure that public opinion is strongly represented in the changes.

The goal is to reduce the 13 hours the average American uses to comply with the code and save some of the $165 billion spent paying for preparation.  It’s your opportunity to create a simple one page tax return. Think it can be done?



Consumer Knowledge

Comparison Shopping for Health Care?

April 7th, 2015

health costsSeems strange to think of using ordinary comparison shopping strategies when purchasing health care services, but the time may be coming for savvy shoppers to use data provided by independent agencies and insurance providers to “shop around!” is one such site where you can find the national, state and some regional prices for 70 medical procedures. BCBS of North Carolina offers a search site where individuals can find prices charged by medical service providers.

All these sites declare their purpose is to shed more light on the cost of health care and give individuals an opportunity to control what they will pay out of pocket. If you don’t have health insurance, own a high deductible policy or high copay plan then looking for the best price might be appealing. Unfortunately most of the sites don’t give information about the quality of care.

I recently visited with an individual who was changing jobs and was going to be purchasing their own health insurance plan. One way to lower premiums is to share a greater portion of the costs with the insurance provider. When it comes to choosing cost-sharing for coverage (60/40, 70/30, 80/20, 90/10 options are available from most insurance providers), this access to information would at least be a start in projecting what your out of pocket costs would total yearly for planned medical care. The price information sites offer a way to more realistically compare the costs of plans with a little less guesswork.



Insurance, Smart shopping

Financial Adviser Checkup

April 3rd, 2015

For close to a dozen years, we had utilized the investment services of a company that catered to farmers. In 2008, we leathrned of some questionable practices that became very public through the media.  We did our due diligence before working with this company but never thought to continue checking up on them as the years went by.

Consumers should make it an annual habit to check the background of their financial advisers. To encourage that habit, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission launched SmartCheck Week, occurring April 6-12, 2015 during Financial Literacy Month. SmartCheck Week is an effort to encourage all consumers to check the background of their financial professional at least once a year.

Why should you check the background of your existing financial professionals? Because, a lot happens in a year. Much like you check the batteries in your smoke alarm on a regular basis, you need to ensure your existing financial professional is registered and has no disciplinary history. You may simply confirm that your financial professional is as solid and trustworthy as always. However, you may discover new information about his or her background that you’ll want to ask your financial professional about.

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) provides you with easy access to several tools to check the background of your financial professional at Visit today and confirm your financial professional is properly registered and incident free.  ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Smart shopping

Tax Return ID Theft

April 1st, 2015

My friend prepared his own taxes this week using an online site. When he transmitted his return, he received a message back indicating he had already filed.  Imagine his surprise to learn that he was receiving a very large refund…considering he is self-employed and knew he would be owing a large amount. Things got even messier when he learned this refund was to be deposited into “his” new checking account, that he did not open.  The IRS told him it will take at least 8 months to resolve this mess.

If you receive a notice from the IRS and you suspect your identity has been used fraudulently, respond immediately by calling the  phone number on the notice.

If you did not receive an IRS notice but believe you’ve been the victim of identity theft, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490 right away so your tax account can be secured and your SSN or ITIN can be matched. Also fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.

You should also:

  • Report incidents of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission at or the FTC Identity Theft hotline at 877-438-4338 or TTY 866-653-4261.
  • File a report with the local police.
  • Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus:
    • Equifax –, 800-525-6285
    • Experian –, 888-397-3742
    • TransUnion –, 800-680-7289
  • Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

More information is available at


Consumer Knowledge

If you are last minute income tax filer….

March 26th, 2015

GettyImages_481414909It’s countdown time to the IRS deadline (April 15). If you miss this date you will incur penalty for late filing, interest on any amount owed, and penalty for late payment; these charges will be  added to your balance due. If you file an extension, but don’t pay all of the balance due by the deadline, you will incur interest on the unpaid amount and penalty for late payment.
NOTE: if you file late, but have a refund coming, there will be no penalty.

Remember: take advantage of tax credits and deductions whenever you’re eligible.
Credits include: Home Energy Improvements; Hybrid/Electric Car; Retirement Saver’s Credit; Education Tax Credits; Earned Income Tax Credit; Child Tax Credit; and Adoption Tax Credit.  And if you might benefit by itemizing deductions, gather complete information on medical expenditures, charitable contributions, unreimbursed business expenses, and more.

File electronically as it is accurate and fast.
Try Free File which is simple, and available to those with incomes below $57,000. Go to the IRS website, www.  and click on the “Free File” icon.  If your income exceeds $57,000 there is a Free File fill-able form.

Choose Direct Deposit for Refunds
You can split the refund up to 3 different accounts if you’d like to make deposits to different savings funds.

Check for Errors and sign using your electronic signature number (or if you mailing a paper copy, be sure to sign your form).


Consumer Knowledge, Goals, Saving

Zombie Debt

March 24th, 2015

GettyImages_538706435 You know about the Zombies craze, but did you know there is Zombie Debt? What is Zombie debt?

Zombie debt is old debt or debt not actually owed by you, but which is somehow haunting the presumed debtor. The debt is more than three years old and long-forgotten, or it belonged to someone else like someone with the same name or a deceased parent.

You may receive a phone call that turns into badgering, harassment, threats to sue and other inappropriate actions. If you ever get a collector asking you to pay up on a debt that has “come back to life,” make sure your rights have not been violated.   Key tips to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t acknowledge the debt. You need to look into your situation – but don’t say anything that would indicated that the debt is yours.
  2. It is illegal to “re-age” a debt – that is, to report an old debt to a credit reporting agency as if it’s new.
  3. Get verification in writing: ask for proof that you owe the debt.
  4. Check the statute of limitations to find out whether you are responsible for the debt anymore. In Iowa, the statute of limitations on a written contract is 10 years; oral contract is 5 years; injury is 2 years and property damage is 5 years.
  5. Write a letter explaining that you are not responsible for the debt, you do NOT acknowledge it, and you demand they stop harassing you or you will take legal action.

Finally- Watch your credit report carefully.

For more information:
~ Susan

Consumer Knowledge, Credit ,

Renters Insurance – Not just for young adults

March 19th, 2015

insuranceUsually when I talk about the importance of renters insurance, I’m thinking of young adults – college students, those just getting started in life.  Young adults may not be aware renters insurance even exists.  However, people of all ages may need a reminder that renter’s insurance is important!

Even though 96% of homeowners have homeowners insurance, only 37% of renters have renters insurance, according to a 2013 poll by the Insurance Information Institute.  That’s frightening, when you think about it. If any of those households was hit with a fire or tornado, they could be financially devastated.

Yet, as I was recently reminded, even people who have had homeowners insurance for years might forget to immediately obtain renters insurance when they make a change.  Perhaps they’re downsizing from a house to an apartment.  Or they may be in transition – moving to a new city and testing it out before deciding whether to purchase a home.

You definitely do not want to be “between” insurance plans when disaster strikes.  If you know someone who may be making a housing transition, remind them to obtain renters insurance coverage without delay!


Consumer Knowledge, Insurance

Buying a Car? Tips about auto loans

March 17th, 2015

car moneyMy daughter will be buying a car for the first time in the next few months.  Choosing a reliable, affordable vehicle is an important decision, and she is researching it carefully.

She faces a second major decision, as well – one she may not yet have thought about:  a car loan.  Even though she has accumulated enough savings to make a sizeable down payment, she will still borrow a portion of the cost. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to put a lot of energy into choosing the right car and negotiating the best possible purchase price, and then simply take whatever loan comes their way.  Note: the same thing happens with houses and home loans, too. 

Before you choose your car:

  • Check your credit report (do it free at weeks or months before you plan to buy.  Why? If you find any inaccurate information on your report, you’ll have time to get that information removed.
  • Work with a local lender to get pre-approved financing for a car loan.  You might start with your own bank or credit union, but it can also be wise to shop around with several different financial institutions to see where you can get the best terms.  Getting pre-approved does not mean you have to borrow the money from that lender, but it gives you a reference point for comparison.

While you are car-shopping:

  • If you’re working with a seller (such as a car dealership) who can help arrange financing, don’t mention the interest rate you’ve been offered for your car loan until after you have seen what is the best rate they can offer you.  This allows you to choose the option that is best for you.
  • Some experts recommend not even mentioning that you have been pre-approved for financing elsewhere until after you have definitely negotiated the vehicle’s purchase price.  Why? Some dealers might reduce their selling price on the car, thinking they’ll make it up with a little extra profit through the financing.  Settling the purchase price before even discussing financing may enable you to negotiate a better price.

Check this FDIC article for more tips!   ~Barb

NOTE: The FDIC publishes a quarterly on-line magazine, FDIC Consumer News.  It’s a terrific source of unbiased information.  You can subscribe to receive an email notification of topics with easy-to-use links.   c

Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Smart shopping

Yard Sale Savvy

March 12th, 2015

ydsaleA friend got herself in a pickle. A small health emergency created a desperate need for cash. My typical response is: Sell what you do not need, do not use, or cannot afford. My second response is: decrease your expenses AND increase your income. If an unexpected expense throws your finances into a tailspin, then it is probably going to require more than an immediate infusion of cash to keep your head above water through the next 6 months.

My friend did not own a single large item that she could sell to bring her the cash she needed, so she decided to do a garage sale. Spring is the perfect time.  A two day sale maximizes profits for the time and energy needed to prepare for a sale. You can open and close your sale any time you want but, early shoppers are usually the best ones.

Take the time to clean and dust the items you’re selling. Fold clothing to ensure it looks presentable and is free from wrinkles and stains. These tasks won’t take up too much of your time and will make a huge difference, since people are more likely to buy things in good shape. Make the shopping experience easy by grouping like items together. Sort clothing by size and gender.

The resale value of used items and clothing is typically only a small percentage of what they cost new. Nicer items might go for a premium, but you risk annoying your shoppers if you price items too high. If you’re worried about overpricing or underpricing your items, consider what you’d be willing to pay if you bought the item secondhand.

There are free and cheap ways to get the word out. Put a free ad on Craigslist and your personal Facebook page. Many communities have their own “garage sale” Facebook pages.  Create and hang outdoor signs that will help guide people to your yard.

Big items such as tables, sofas and dressers tend to lure people out of their cars.  If people can’t see them, they might just drive on by. Place big items outside and on full display, instead of tucked away in your garage.

A garage sale is hard work, but it almost always pays off by freeing up extra room in your home and putting cash in your hand.  ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Goals, Saving, Smart shopping