Housing News

April 24th, 2014

Sold Home For Sale Sign in Front of New HouseHousing sales are trending upward, distressed sales are falling, and the value of homes is equivalent to values from 2005.   This is the news from the Housing Scorecard, which contains unbiased information on trends in housing and is issued monthly by Housing and Urban Development, www.hud.gov.   This is good news for individuals who have a home for sale; it also might make it easier to decide if it is wise to start a home improvement project on a home you plan to sell in the future.

The USDA and Iowa State University Extension & Outreach partnered to develop an online homebuyer education program http://www.extension.iastate.edu/HomeBuyer/ . The course offers much more comprehensive information than we can share in our blog posts (see last month’s posts on buying a home). Completion earns you a certificate required for some USDA loans. The site also maintains a list of publications to help homeowners maintain or improve their homes. http://www.extension.iastate.edu/HomeBuyer/publications.htm

For those having trouble with their mortgage  a valuable source of information and (possibly leading to help with restructuring their loan) is HARP http://www.makinghomeaffordable.gov which is a site for homeowners to find relief for mortgages that are underwater.

We haven’t recovered from the housing bubble, but it’s good to see slow and steady progress. Owning a home is still a step toward personal asset building; keeping it realistic is the key.


Consumer Knowledge

What’s in Your Mailbox?

April 23rd, 2014

mail-box_308x364-7kClever marketers often put the name of a key product or service in an address.  If you need unbiased information you’ll need to look closely to tell if the brochure, webpage, or mail is from a firm or business that has cleverly created a sales document that looks like a source of information.

If you need details about Medicare, for example, the best source is Medicare.gov. Your mail box can contain information sent by Medicare Associates, Medicare Institute, My Medicare, etc. Emails might be My Medicare.com or Medicare Services.org.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report in 2013 analyzing the amount of money spent on providing financial education to consumers and the amount spent trying to influence consumer’s decisions about financial products. The report found that for every dollar spent for unbiased education information, $25 is spent on financial marketing.   This includes the purchase of mailing lists that were created when you were a customer or you answered questions on a form that ended up creating a profile of you and a resulting prospects list that can easily be generated by a computer. It’s a source of income for magazines, manufacturers, stores, etc.  who sell lists.

You can limit some direct marketing (both postal mail and email) by using the services of DMAChoice.org. https://www.dmachoice.org/  They provide the opt out services to stop most junk mail from landing in your mailbox.  Check out their site for more information about marketing and steps you can take to limit the sale of your personal information.


Consumer Knowledge, Smart shopping

Something Phishy About That Text Message

April 16th, 2014

My husbtextand and I received a text message late last night notifying us that our VISA card (with a well-known bank) had been suspended. The interesting thing is, we do not have a credit or debit card with that bank. The fact that we both received a text was very disturbing…someone had put our phone numbers together as being from the same household.  First thing this morning, I called that bank to make sure someone had not taken out a credit card in our name. I then checked our credit report. There was nothing fishy with our credit report but there was definitely something phishy about the text message.

I have seen many attempts at phishing through my email but never through text messages.  A phishing attempt sent via SMS (Short Message Service) or text message to a mobile phone or device is also referred to as smishing, which is a combination of SMS and phishing. The purpose of text message phishing is to convince you to share confidential information.

Never take action on a request for your personal or financial information, including account numbers, passwords, Social Security number or birth date. If you receive a text message expressing an urgent need for you to update your information, activate an account, or verify your identity by calling a phone number or submitting information, on a website, do not respond and delete it. These messages may be part of a phishing scam attempting to capture your confidential account information and may be used to commit fraud.


Credit, Uncategorized

Lesson from Tax Season: Withholdings

April 15th, 2014

IRS logo 2To mark the end of tax-filing season, I want to remind everyone: Make sure you are having enough withheld from your paycheck for federal and state income taxes!

As a volunteer  with VITA (the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program), I saw several people this year who needed to make large payments with their tax return.  In one case, an employer had restructured, and the employee hadn’t noticed that her payroll withholdings changed.  In other cases they got a new job and didn’t filled out their paperwork properly.  Or their income had gone up, but they didn’t increase withholdings accordingly.

Owing a little money with your tax return isn’t a problem.  In fact, many people see it as the ideal scenario.
But you’ll face real problems if you owe substantial amounts:

  • You need to come up with the money (one couple owed nearly $3,000 for state and federal).  That may create debt – it can even start a downward spiral where you’re behind on your bills and building credit card debt too.
  • You’ll probably be charged a penalty and interest for not paying as you go — the law requires that we pay our income taxes throughout the year, not just at the end of the year.

Even if tax season is over, that doesn’t mean you should stop paying attention to your tax situation.  It’s a year-round task, especially when your family or income changes.



Do Adults Need An Allowance?

April 10th, 2014

imagesVD4IXD5M allowance

Parents use an allowance as a tool to teach their children about money and responsibility.  Do the adults need one too?

An allowance is a pre-set small sum of money a child receives regularly to spend on toys, clothes, books, games, or whatever.  The parent sets up payments, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly depending on the age of the child.

The concepts of saving and planning for purchases are valuable life skills to be learned by children and also needed by adults.  A survey found that over 40% of American families spend more than they earn and nearly 50% have less than $ 10,000 in retirement savings. Your six year old may be better at saving money than you are.

To balance your spending plan is to do one of two things – spend less or make more.

Unfortunately, when people make more money, they sometimes spend more to maintain or increase their standard of living.  They increase their debts rather than using the extra income to increase their savings/investments. This is not a recipe for financial well-being.

An allowance can be a tool to help you limit your discretionary spending.  Give yourself an allowance (weekly, monthly or per pay period) and keep your spending within that allowance.  You’ll find that it helps you reach your savings goals and build financial security.  Children need limits so they can learn to make choices among a variety of spending options; we adults can also benefit from that same type of limit.


Goals, Saving, Spending plans

It’s Money Smart Week – April 5-12, 2014

April 8th, 2014

images msw 2014

Money Smart Week, started 12 years ago by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, is designed as a public awareness campaign to help consumers better manage their personal finances. Here in Iowa, more than 200 partner organizations have joined in the fun to promote financial education and a chance to learn too.  All Money Smart Week programs are free, and strictly educational (no marketing allowed).

ISU Extension and Outreach has been a MSW partner for many years.  Programs are offered for audiences from preschoolers to seniors.  From scout nights to shred days, essay contests, poster contests and chances to win a prize makes the learning fun.  Educational program topics include: establishing a budget, protecting financial information, raising money-smart kids, and more.

Here is the website www.MoneySmartWeek.org for more details about activities in your communities.  Check out your local libraries for a display as well as programming.  Spread the knowledge!


Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Insurance, Retirement, Saving, Spending plans

Money Under 30

April 1st, 2014

86521018When you’re in your 20′s, money can be challenging:  student loans to pay off, acquiring furniture and all the “stuff” of living, building up an emergency fund so you can deal with car repairs and other special expenses — in addition to possibly getting married and starting a family.

In the midst of all those potential expenses, however, is this reality: the actions you take in your 20′s will have a HUGE impact on your financial well-being for the rest of your life.  If you can avoid or minimize debt AND get a head start on long-term investing, you’ll reap the benefits for decades.

Money Under 30 is a respected resource focused on the unique challenges and important opportunities faced by younger adults.  It is a commercial site — it comes with advertisements, and as a result it may not be completely non-commercial.  Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out — just take the commercials with a grain of salt.



Qualifying for Cost Reductions and Your HSA

March 27th, 2014

SmartChoiceLogo1Consumers who are enrolled in a High Deductible Health Insurance Plan (HDHP) can open Health Savings Accounts (HSA) which can be used to save money tax free for medical expenses. An HDHP meets federal standards if it has an annual deductible of not less than $1,250 for self-only coverage or a family deductible of at least $2,500. If an individual or family qualifies for the new cost-sharing subsidies available through the Health Insurance Marketplace, they should find out if it reduces the deductible to below the minimum for HSA-qualified plans.  If the deductible is below the $1,250/$2,500 threshhold, then the consumers generally won’t be able to contribute to an HSA.

Even If the “cost-sharing subsidies” (special plans with lower deductibles and co-payments) make you ineligibile to contribute to your HSA in 2014, the HSA account balance from previous years can still be used for qualified medical expenses and will continue to grow tax free. Loss of eligibility to contribute does not require liquidation of the savings account.

Individuals who have High-Deductible Health Plans that meet the federal standards can contribute up to $3,300 in 2014 to the HSA account and deduct the amount from their taxable income. A family will be able to contribute up to $6,550. Some employers pay the contribution to their employees’ HSA plan; in these cases the contribution is not deductible, because the amount is not included in employee income to begin with.



Bacon, Hamburger and Chicken Wings

March 25th, 2014

CheeseburgerBacon hit an all-time high price of $5.70 a pound just a few months ago. Some of us can remember when hamburger cost less than $2.00 a pound. A chef dumped hot sauce on a chicken wing in the 80’s and they haven’t been used to make chicken stock since.

These are all examples of the economic concept known as supply and demand. When supply is stable and demand increases, prices will rise. When supply is limited and demand is steady prices will also rise.

Personally, I can “pass” on the chicken wings, though I envy the person who turned a bite into a profitable dish. You can’t beat a BLT for a summer meal.  Hamburger is just easy to use and versatile.  For these products, the demand remains steady or even rising, but supply is going down. The cattle herd inventory is at a low and PEDV will reduce the supply of pork during the coming months. Therefore, it’s not likely these prices will fall soon. What’s a BLT-lover to do?

My solution is to look at how I use these products and take steps to make the most of what I buy.  Since chicken wings aren’t in demand at my house, I’ll collect them when I buy whole chickens on sale and cut them into serving pieces. They will be used for soups and stews. When buying hamburger and bacon I buy during sales, repackage, and freeze in recipe or serving size packages. I plan for left-overs or freeze them for later use.  Reducing the serving sizes saves money and doesn’t hurt the waistline either.  For other ways to save, visit the ISU Extension & Outreach site Spend Smart, Eat Smart.


Saving, Smart shopping

Purchase Garden Seeds with SNAP

March 20th, 2014

I am fortunate to know a very kind and generous elderly woman who has been a ‘grandmother’ to a young disabled friend of mine. Her door was open to others in need, and she never asked for anything in return.

Recently, she was finding it difficult toEBT make ends meet: she had recently finished cancer treatments, her insulin costs just went up and food costs are rising. She wasn’t aware of the SNAP program that would provide addition income to put toward food, freeing up resources to meet her rising medical costs.

SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits) are accessed through an EBT card (Electronic Benefit Transfer) which looks very similar to a credit or debit card.  Each month, the allotted money is automatically transferred to the card. The EBT card can be used anywhere groceries and fresh fruits and vegetables are sold.  For the past 10 years, SNAP recipients have been able to use their cards at farmers markets that display the sign that looks like the EBT card.  SNAP EBT benefits can be used to also buy seeds that bear food – such as peas, corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  You can also use the card to buy vegetable plants such as herbs, peppers, and tomatoes. The card cannot be used to purchase prepared foods and hot drinks that may be served at the Farmers Markets.

I am excited that my friend’s ‘grandmother’ can now afford to purchase quality fruits and vegetables. Eating better will improve her health and decrease her medical expenses. Do you know of someone who may qualify for SNAP, but may not be aware of the program and its benefits?  ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Smart shopping