Sales Tax Holiday

July 28th, 2014

shopping cartIt’s coming right up – this coming weekend, August 1 & 2!  “It” is Iowa’s annual sales tax holiday on qualifying clothing and footwear purchases. You’ll find all the details here but the key point is that most purchases of clothing and footwear priced under $100 will be exempt from state and local sales tax during that 48-hour period.

It’s a savings of 7% – not something to sneeze at.  In addition, many retailers will advertise discounts for that weekend to increase consumers’ incentive to shop. I’m writing this post to remind readers of the event, and also to remind you to keep it in perspective.  Savings of 7% is not enough reason to buy things you don’t need and would hardly use.  If there are things you need, though, this weekend is a great time to buy them.

The tax holiday is intentionally placed during back-to-school shopping season to make it helpful to consumers.  Before shopping, especially for growing children, it’s smart to take inventory of what you have, finding out what still fits, and what has been worn out or outgrown.  That will help you make a shopping list and prioritize the items you might want to buy.  And of course as you make that list, keep your budget in mind; decide how much you can afford to spend on clothing this weekend or this month.

Here’s what could happen without a good inventory and list:  you might go shopping, make some good purchases, spend the money you had allocated, but then 2 weeks later discover that you still need two pairs of jeans!  To meet that need, you would exceed your planned spending, leaving you short on funds for something else, such as groceries or gas.

Plan ahead, so you can use the annual Sales Tax Holiday to your advantage! ~ Barb


Retirement: Secure Your Future

July 24th, 2014

money jar - smallHow do I know if I’m saving enough for retirement? Should I accept an  early retirement offer? When should I start taking Social Security distributions? Will I have enough income or will I need to continue working?

To help individuals make informed decisions as they head toward retirement, family finance specialists for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have revised the “Retirement: Secure Your Future” publication series. It is now available for free download from the ISU Extension and Outreach online store. “Retirement: Secure Your Future”  consists of 16 publications designed to inform adults of all ages of key concepts and management decisions related to retirement. The series includes tips for individuals just entering the workplace, worksheets to determine income needs in retirement, estimation exercises to see if you are on track or need to make adjustments in your contributions, housing and legal considerations as you age, and more.

The Retirement Transitions series (PM 1825 a-d) is a new addition for individuals nearing retirement. Four topic areas are covered that explain options for income distributions: Strategies for Retirement Income, Social Security, Required Minimum Distributions, and Income Annuities will explain the pros and cons of the choices retirees must make. Reading will prepare you for the conversations you may have with professionals when it’s time to structure your retirement income flow.

Whether you are 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60, taking time to do some retirement planning results in greater financial security.



Personal Information

July 22nd, 2014

textingThe Federal Trade Commission has been gathering information about “data brokers.”  Data brokers collect personal information about consumers from a wide range of sources — including public records, loyalty cards, websites and social media — and provide information for a wide range of purposes. The FTC  offers an informative 2-minute video with an overview of the industry : Sharing Information: A Day in Your Life  .  Currently there are no individual consumer rights to limit distribution of information contained in a marketer’s data files or to correct false information in those files.

Data brokers use computer programs to combine and analyze data about consumers.  They create lists based on the data collected, often making inferences about consumers and place them in categories. Potentially sensitive categories include those that primarily focus on ethnicity and income-levels, a consumer’s age, or health-related conditions like “Age 65 ,” “Diabetes Interest,” and “Expectant Parent.”

Recommendations have been made to Congress for legislation giving consumers transparency on how and when the information is being gathered, options to “opt-out”, and rights to correct false information.  To read more, visit:


Consumer Knowledge , ,

Community Theater and other Money-Savers

July 15th, 2014

theater-masksI’m involved in local Community Theater.  I’m no actor, but each year I help with music (in the orchestra pit) for the summer musical, and I help with box office and ushering for other shows during the year.  Last weekend was opening weekend for “Guys and Dolls!”  It’s always fun.

When I moved to this small-ish town I was astonished by the quality and quantity of work done by the community theater.  I’d never experienced that before, and was amazed at what could be done by an all-volunteer organization.  In the years since, I’ve discovered that many communities in my area and around the state have active community theaters, as well as community choruses, bands and other arts groups.

This is great news for people concerned with saving money.  For two reasons:

  1. Attending plays and concerts is low-cost local entertainment (sometimes free - I went to a terrific free concert a couple weeks ago)
  2. Being involved in these activities is also free recreation – a fun social activity at absolutely no cost. Participation is the best of both worlds – spending time with other great people while at the same time contributing to your community!

If you’re thinking this doesn’t apply to you because you’re not an actor, artist or musician, think again.  I can tell you that all kinds of skills are valued.  Some people make the printed programs and distribute posters. Others build or paint sets. Some people help keep the place clean and make sure important props are where they need to be.

In my experience, anyone who wants to be involved is welcome to help out.  If you’re looking for free social activities, getting involved in a community group, whether theater or music or some other group, is a great place to start!


Goals, Smart shopping, Spending plans ,

Your Financial Family Portrait – Part 2

July 10th, 2014

Health Care is the new leading area for identity theft. It can be costly in terms of money but it can also be fatal if your medical records are changed regarding issues such as medication allergies or life threatening conditions.

Medical Information Bureau – has coded listings of your reported medical conditions and tests. Call 866-692-6901 or go online: Also, check with your insurance company for an annual statement of your health claims and treatments if you do not already have access to this online.

Milliman IntelliScript - call 877-211-4816 or go to: for prescription histories in your name.

Optum MedPoint-call 888-206-0335 for prescription histories in your name.id_theft2 financial family portrait

Insurance Claims:

Verisk A-Plus Report –call 800-627-3487 or online at and type “order free report” in the search box

Rental History:

CoreLogic – Call 888-333-2413 or

This seems like a lot of work and time spent. Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The average time and cost of repairing identity theft is 500 hours and $2000-$3000. Spending a couple of hours on the phone or online requesting reports is well worth it!

~ Susan



Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Insurance

Your Financial Family Portrait – Part 1

July 8th, 2014

I encourage people to get a current copy of their credit bureau report on a regular basis. It is a good way to look at your credit accounts and payment history and a method to catch identity theft before it gets totally out of hand. You should get a free credit report every 4 months or so. The government requires each of the three credit reporting companies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to allow people one free credit report each 12 months. If you space them out – one every 4 months – you have continuous looks into your credit history.  If corrections are needed in the report, you can make them and be on your way to the “850” credit score.  Access your free credit bureau reports at financial family portrait

Like your family, there are other “members” of your financial history family that you can check. A regular check of different reporting agencies is necessary to make sure the information that people gather about you is accurate.  And it’s one way to look out for identity thieves. The Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a master list of 40 specialty reports. Find this list at .

Here are the most useful tools for detecting identity theft:

Lexis Nexis Personal Reports details public records and other information filed under your name including, property ownership, criminal history, liens, insurance claims, and bankruptcy. Get a mail-in request form at or call 866-312-8102.

Check writing history:

ChexSystems- Call 800-428-9623 or online:

Certgy Check Systems-Call 866-543-6315 or go to:

Telecheck/FirstData-Call 800-366-2425

Watch for more information in the next post! ~ Susan



Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Insurance

Is Your Health Insurance Right for You?

July 3rd, 2014

SmartChoiceLogo1Last week it was announced that people who signed up for health insurance through the official Marketplace ( will automatically be re-enrolled in the same plan for next year, unless they log in to make a change.

I see that as good news, because it guarantees that no one will just forget to sign up again next year.  Hopefully it will also reduce the “traffic” on the website.

But is re-enrolling in the same plan the best choice for you? 

That will be the key question. Paying attention now will help you be ready when next fall’s enrollment period comes around.  Here are some questions to keep in mind throughout the year:

  1. Am I happy with the doctors and other health providers available in my plan’s network?
  2. How much am I using health care services? (it’s smart to keep track of visits and costs for each family member)
  3. Am I taking advantage of the preventive care which, under most health plans, is available with no co-payments or deductibles?
  4. Have I met my plan’s deductible?
  5. How much have I spent in co-payments or co-insurance?
  6. Have your health care needs changed during the year?

Knowing how much care you needed in 2014 will help you make a smart health insurance choice for 2015.  When choosing between platinum, gold, silver, and bronze plans, you need to balance the costs and benefits:  higher premiums in exchange for lower deductibles and co-pays?  Or will you be better off paying lower premiums, even if the deductible and other out-of-pocket costs are higher?

To help you understand how to use your health insurance, ten helpful new videos, each lasting just one or two minutes, are available at .  They’re available in both English and Spanish!


Insurance, Smart shopping , ,

Disappointing Motel

July 1st, 2014

VacancyAfter about 10 hours on the road my husband and I decided to find supper and a room for the night.  I hopped online to find a listing of motels and, of the three motels listed, called the one with a 4-star rating…the highest of the three. They had a very reasonable rate and a room available which I reserved with my credit card.  Just as I was about to hang up, the gentleman informed me that it would be nonrefundable. That made sense to me because it seems like standard operating procedures to have a penalty for a last-minute cancellation …though in retrospect there was something odd about the way he said it and his timing in giving me that piece of information.  But I didn’t think too much about it.

We arrived at a motel that from the outside looked nothing like a 4-star motel. As I walked up to the office to check into our room, a police officer was letting a young man out of the back of his cruiser.  “Humm, interesting.” As I checked in, I was asked if I want to pay by cash, voucher or credit card.  Voucher?  Yes, they allow people down on their luck to stay here with vouchers they receive from churches, agencies or the police department. “Humm…How nice of them.”   As I walked out of the office to head to our room, the officer was lifting a clothes basket filled with more than clothes and a couple of sacks out of the trunk of his car for the gentleman that had been riding in the back of his car.  I walked across the parking lot to our room and the half-dozen cars in the parking lot had a variety of signs of abuse: a cracked windshield, a missing rear window, missing bumpers, dents on the hood that looked like an encounter with a baseball bat. “Oh, my!”

The room was clean and the bed allowed us to sleep.  The same could not be said for the people that came and went in the night that were loud and obviously intoxicated. At 1:00 AM, a family with young kids arrived in the room above us and they had lots of pent-up energy to burn before settling down to sleep.  Two trains passed by loudly somewhere very near.  In the morning, much to our surprise, the parking lot was full of nice, well-cared-for cars, and ours was still sitting outside our room, in one piece with no damage.

Where do you go to find unbiased ratings of motels and restaurants?  ~Brenda

Smart shopping , ,

Summer Savings for Working Parents

June 26th, 2014

baseballHere at the Extension Office summer camps are in full swing. If you have registered your child to participate in summer camps while you are working and paid a fee for the program, keep the canceled check or registration form in your papers for tax filing season. Day-camp fees can be included with dependent care expenses when you are working. The maximum expense that can be claimed is $3000 per child on the federal return ($6,000 per family). Depending upon your income, you may qualify for up to 35% of these expenses as a tax credit. The child must be claimed as a dependent on your tax return. If the parents are divorced, the working parent who has the child living with them for over half the year is allowed to claim the credit.

If you are an Iowa parent, don’t forget to keep receipts for tuition to summer school; activity fees for school-sponsored summer sports paid for the child; the cost of  non-street wearable gear for school sports ; drivers education costs if offered by the school; membership dues  for school organizations;  or bus fees for summer school trips. These costs can be claimed on the Iowa return for the K-12 Tuition Credit. You can’t use private tutoring costs;  cost of meals;  your transportation costs for travel to all those away ball games; or any cost associated with overnight stays. The same is true of any overnight camping trips or extended conferences or camps.  The amount you can report is a maximum of $1000 per child. The tax credit per child will be 25% of the amount claimed.



Consumer Knowledge, Saving

The Problem with Routines and Habits

June 24th, 2014

Woman with Shopping BagsI routinely work with young moms who are part of a group home. When I visited with the staff about topics to cover during our regular classes, the staff expressed concern that the moms would spend all their money at the beginning of the month and not have sufficient funds near the end for basic needs. I’ve covered the usual learning activities, tracking spending and setting up a spending plan. The group home has asked them to complete a spending report. All good strategies, but not getting immediate results.

During our last visit I used a lesson from “Small Steps to Health and Wealth” - Commit to Making a Change.  We brain stormed the typical events that occur when the group makes their weekly shopping trip to a large chain store for groceries and personal supplies. We defined the problem of spending too much and then explored what strategies would make the biggest change.  The simplest solution turned out to be the amount of time they were allowed to do their shopping. The group home currently allows them 3 hours. Some of the individuals are taking a shopping list, but the young shoppers came to the conclusion that cutting the time would force greater use of the list, less time randomly walking down aisles and buying snacks while waiting on the last shopper.  The plan was to visit with the staff and modify the shopping trips to see if it would help with random spending.

Changes in routines and habits – worth looking into!


Saving, Smart shopping