Gifts for Those Who Have Everything

November 20th, 2014

giftWhat do you give to someone who has everything?  I frequently struggle with that question, and I know I’m not alone.  For these situations I’ve come up with three ideas I have found useful.

The first idea I turn to is to give them something they can use up.  Something consume-able, such as:

  • Wine, or baked goods, or specialty cheeses
  • A nice meat bundle for the oven and grill
  • Restaurant or theater gift cards

Sometimes, though, those ideas have all been used, and I want a new idea.  In recent years, I have tried a different gift-giving approach for people I care about who already have much: instead of giving them something, I’ve given a gift to a charity in their name.

If I know of a charity they really care about, then that has been a good option.  But another fun option has been to buy a certain farm animal for people in a third-world country.  This is an option I’ve found through a reputable religious organization.  They offer a catalog with gifts available at many different price levels:  ten baby chicks are inexpensive; a cow is quite expensive (I’ve never bought a cow).  One year I “gave” my parents a pair of goats.  These goats went to a developing country where they were designed enable a family to improve their economic well-being.  In addition to farm animals, I’ve also seen the option to buy school materials for communities in need, or malaria nets or malaria medicine.  Many options exist.

A third idea that I really like applies to children who have everything.  Sometimes the best gift is a gift of savings – for college or other education after high school.  When you put money aside for a child, you are giving them the gift of a future.  This is especially valuable for children whose parents are unable to save for the child’s future.  When you put money away for education, you are saying to the child “I believe in you.  I believe you will do something excellent when you grow up.”  You might also help the child (depending on his or her age) think about saving some of their own money too.  Helping them learn to plan and dream and save for the future is a great gift to a child.

What gifts do you especially like to give?


Saving, Smart shopping

Health Insurance: Shop Wisely

November 18th, 2014

HClogoThe other day a friend asked me about health insurance.  She said “I’ve been getting all this different advice: ‘Go see Agent X – he’ll fix you up;’ or ‘Agent Y found a really good plan for me.’  I’ve seen a couple different agents and I’m confused.”

Until she talked with me, no one had suggested checking on .

I don’t know what her income is, but I think she may be eligible for premium tax credits to help pay monthly premiums for health insurance.  But before our conversation, she didn’t realize that help was available.  The key point I explained to her was this:  Premium Tax Credits are only available if you buy your health insurance in the official “Marketplace” through

Some insurance agents will help customers enroll in plans offered in the Marketplace.  They only receive a tiny commission for helping clients, but they do it anyway, because they want to serve their customers well.   If your income is below the income guidelines for premium tax credits (over $90,000 for a family of four), make sure your insurance agent shows you the plans available in the Marketplace and explains how the premium tax credits work.

To find a health care navigator or certified application counselor near you, go to

Health Insurance is important.  Even if a cheaper plan is available somewhere else, you may come out ahead by purchasing a plan in the Marketplace, where Premium Tax Credits can help cover the cost of a plan that meets high quality standards.


Insurance , ,

The Lost Pension

November 13th, 2014

imagesMoneyIf you’ve read the state-wide news recently you know that a grocery store in Iowa has filed for bankruptcy. Included in the details is the report that pension benefits have been suspended. I was puzzled by a press statement that an individual had lost a significant sum of retirement money. The wording might have been misleading because individuals don’t contribute to pension plans; they are totally funded by the employer. Unlike a 401K , what you have is a promise of future benefits if the company remains in business and is financially sound. So will the individual lose all those promised payments?  Maybe, maybe not.

Companies who still offer a pension plan can participate in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).  PBGC  is a US government agency created in 1974. PBGC is not funded by general tax revenues; it collects insurance premiums from employers that sponsor insured pension plans. The premiums are invested to earn revenue and PBGC receives any remaining balances in a pension account if a company is dissolved due to bankruptcy.

The benefit for employees  who are eligible for an insured pension is a guarantee they will receive at least part of their benefits if the company fails. The maximum pension benefit guaranteed by PBGC is set by law and adjusted yearly. For plans that end in 2014, the maximum guarantee for workers who retire at age 65 is $59,318.16 yearly ($4,943.18 monthly). The guarantee is lower for those who retire early or when there is a benefit for a survivor. The guarantee is increased for those who retire after age 65.

At the PBGC website you can find out if your company participates; track down a lost pension; and find resources related to retirement.  A search of the site didn’t answer the question about the grocery store, but I did find my husband’s pension fund.



Insurance, Retirement

Food Desert

November 11th, 2014

shopping cartI live in a food desert. That means it’s a place without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.  The USDA defines a food desert in relation to household income and distance to a grocery store. 

The reality of what it means to live in a food desert has been driven home in the last month, as our one grocery store in the county seat began a move to a new location. In anticipation of the move the inventory was allowed to diminish. During the past two weeks it was getting harder to find items I usually purchase; I needed to substitute or scratch items off my list.

I travel extensively and can easily dovetail a work day in a location 25 or more miles away with a stop in a community with 3 or more grocery stores. For me, a solution is easy, but it’s not so easy for the elderly or the low income who must balance food costs with the expense of a 50 mile round trip. Several years ago I compared the cost of buying food locally to the cost if bought in the other communities. If you factor in travel, the lower prices in bigger towns don’t make up for the transportation expenses. The local store doesn’t compare in square footage to the super stores, but it is part of a larger chain with advertised specials that are available statewide. If I utilize those specials, I can make it even smarter to shop in my home town.

Today is the grand opening of the new store. I’m looking forward to not feeling the food desert impact so clearly.


Saving, Smart shopping ,

Holiday Air Travel

November 6th, 2014

I aplanem really looking forward to the holidays. I have a new grandson to meet and the two granddaughters I will get to spend time with, are at a fun age to engage with. I have started to compare ticket prices for flying.

Having a little flexibility in possible travel dates can save me a lot of money, especially during the holidays. Many sites have tools that help with comparing offers…Priceline’s Inside Track, Expedia’s Trend Tracker, Hotwire’s Trip Watcher, Travelocity’s flexible-dates search and the Calendar Matrix Displays used by Orbitz and CheapTickets are a few of my favorites. When flying to Boise, I always check Southwest’s web site too, because their tickets can only be bought on their own webpage.

When hunting for the best deal, I always check what the price would be if I shifted my travel days by a day or two. Usually I will find better fares if I fly on a Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. Prices also fluctuate depending on the time of day you fly. I don’t mind early in the morning or late at night, which tend to be when I find the best deals. I rarely fly direct because that costs more than flights that have a layover somewhere.

I have three major airports to choose from when flying. One is easier to get to with cheaper parking but more expensive tickets. The other is a hassle to get to with more expensive parking but cheaper tickets and the third rarely has the best of anything to offer. Traveling in the winter to any of them can be a challenge. There is a small airport near my home that I am going to look into this time. They offer flights to the major airport that has the expensive parking. The flight from there may be cheaper than the parking costs at the major airport and would be less hassle than the winter weather drive.

What tips do you have for long-distance holiday travel? ~Brenda

Saving, Smart shopping ,

Money Transfers

November 4th, 2014


I recently met someone who regularly sends money to family members in another country. Money transfers come with high costs. Prepaid cards have emerged as a less expensive option since they recently began to add features that allow for funds to be sent to family and friends abroad.

There are a couple of different models for accomplishing this task. The Card-to-cash cards allow the recipient to have access to cash. This is sometimes difficult because there is a lack of reliable disbursement networks in the receiving countries.

The Dual-card method issues 2 cards to the same account, so the recipient can access the funds deposited by the card owner. A variation of this uses a sub-account where two cards are issued and primary cardholders can transfer funds to sub-accounts.

Using the third method, Recipient-only card, the sender purchases a prepaid debit card in the U.S. which is sent directly to the recipient or is issued in the recipient’s country. The sender can reload funds onto the card account.

The new availability of pre-paid cards for transfers abroad helps eliminate the high transaction fees of wiring money, but there are still obstacles.  Many banks and credit unions do not yet offer these products.  In addition, clear industry standards are lacking and consumer protections may be weak or inconsistent. Financial institutions require a Social Security number or Tax Identification Number in order to issue a card, which may cause a problem for some; wire transfers do not carry that requirement. There may be a learning curve for those on the receiving end of funds if they have never used bank cards or have a general distrust for banks.

Can you think of other instances where prepaid cards could come in handy? ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Credit , ,

Halloween Spending – 2014

October 30th, 2014

Tomorrow is Halloween. It is one of the more affordable holidayshalloween-11101702. It is estimated that 162 million people will celebrate this holiday.  You may see  costumes from Frozen to Super Heroes – the options are numerous.  Many people will purchase a costume, some will make them and others will visit the local Goodwill store to create their costume.  Don’t forget your pets – it is estimated that 23 million pets will be dressing up for 10-31-14.  Costume sales will total 2.8 billion dollars – with 1.7 billion for adult costumes.

The average young adult will spend $87 on Halloween festivities.   If you are planning on visiting the local Haunted House – you are one in 33 million.  Two billion dollars will be spent on decorations for this holiday.*

Let’s not forget the candy, as 2.2 billion dollars will be spent this year. What are you handing out?


*Statistics are from the National Retail Federation.


Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

October 28th, 2014

It makes sense to borrow… but on the other hand, lots of times it doesn’t.  download

As we head into holiday shopping season, remember…

We would all love to live debt-free but there are several types of purchases – like our home, vehicle, or our children’s college education - for which we may incur debt. The key issue is to make sure our debt does not get out of hand.

Experts recommend that total monthly long-term debt payments, including mortgage and credit cards should not exceed 36% of your gross monthly income. This is a tool that mortgage bankers consider when assessing the creditworthiness of a potential borrower.

Credit cards make it easy to pay, but they also make it easy to overspend. The average U.S. household with at least one credit card with a balance carries nearly $8,200 balance according to Experian survey March 2013.

Avoiding debt at any cost may also be a mistake if it means depleting your cash reserves for emergencies. Clearly then, decisions about borrowing require skill.  We all need to learn how to judge which debt makes sense and which does not, and then to wisely managing the money we do borrow.

Good debt includes anything you truly need, but can’t afford to pay for up front without wiping out cash reserves. Even then, debt only makes sense if you can realistically afford the monthly payments.

Bad debt includes debt you’ve taken on for things you don’t need and can’t afford.  Credit-card debt is generally considered the worst form of debt,  since it usually carries the highest interest rates.

Now, as the holiday season approaches, is a good time to stop and think; avoiding bad debt during the holidays will make the new year much happier.



The Shock of Opening the Bill

October 28th, 2014

Bill-shockOne of my southwestern Iowa colleagues shared this situation with me. Her daughter, who was finishing up an internship to complete college and still looking for her first job, had persistent abdominal pain that would not go away. After several hours at home, they went to the local hospital emergency room for tests and learned she needed an emergency appendectomy. The local surgeon was out of town which resulted in an ambulance ride to a larger hospital 45 miles away. The surgery went well and she was released within 24 hours and is now doing well .

Last week, the bills started arriving. First came the ambulance bill for $1,500+, then came the larger hospital bill for $14,000+. The local hospital bill has yet to come. The bills have all been addressed to the daughter so you can imagine the shock and disbelief when a young adult has opened these bills.

Thank goodness the daughter was still carried on her mother’s insurance as a dependent, since she was a full-time college student and under 26 years of age. So the lesson learned was not as much of a shock.

Remember many private insurance companies now have open enrollment as well, and the open enrollment for Health will be open from Nov 15 until Feb. 15, 2015. Even a minor surgery can be very costly and my colleague’s story is a terrific illustration of the importance of health care coverage.


Consumer Knowledge, Insurance, Spending plans

Are You Fooling Yourself?

October 24th, 2014

jackolanternThe appearance of Halloween candy on store shelves reminds me that the expensive holiday season is upon us. It’s no coincidence that the holiday season is the most profitable season for many retail segments – they make high profits because consumers do some high-powered spending.

In a past life I worked one-on-one with families on financial issues, and I remember hearing people say things like this: “Everything was fine until the property taxes were due;” or “It was going smoothly up until the holidays.” When that happened a couple times in the same week, it struck me that they were fooling themselves.  They thought everything was fine up until the property taxes (or holidays, or car registration, or….) arose.  But if they weren’t ready for those expenses (which should not have been a surprise) then things were not fine.

Expenses which are predictable, but don’t come every month, are known as “periodic” or “occasional” expenses. Your finances simply cannot be considered “under control” unless you have a plan in place to deal with these expenses.  That includes holiday spending, which many families will experience in the next couple of months, and it also includes back-to-school season and birthdays, as well as bills like 6-month car insurance premiums, annual subscriptions or memberships, and more.

The most systematic way to be prepared is to make a list or chart of the periodic expenses that are due each month throughout the year. Total up your entire annual cost for these expenses, and divide by 12.  The result is a monthly average.  For example, if your periodic expenses for the year total $2400, that equals $200/month.  Saving $200/month toward those expenses is a systematic way to be ready.

The benefits of being prepared when these expenses arrive are many, including: less stress and drama in your life; reduced cost for late fees and interest; greater family stability. If you’re not prepared, that one extra expense has a ripple effect on all your other bills and expenses – you may end up being late (and paying a fee) on other bills, and borrowing money from friends, and putting groceries on a credit card.  In other words, the expense you weren’t prepared for can put you into a hole that can be tough to get out of.

Ask yourself: Am I well prepared for the periodic expenses I’ll face throughout the year?  If not, take steps to become prepared.  You’ll find a chart and spreadsheet for Periodic Expenses, along with other financial management tools, within the free ISU Extension and Outreach web course “Take Control of Your Money,” at


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