Packages on the Doorstep

When will it be delivered?  I’m learning that tracking services offered by vendors vary with accuracy and details. Packages I mailed at Halloween took a broom stick ride in the opposite direction of their destination and then circled back for a late delivery.  I have a purchase that has been “out for delivery” for a week and there are no details.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces rules for online and mail order sales. Packages have to arrive within 30 days. If that isn’t possible, you must be notified and have an option to cancel the order.

Where will I find it? I have an inspection routine at my house when I receive confirmation of delivery. Packages have been found in multiple locations: on the front porch; the back porch; the bushes near the doors; and the back of the mailbox.  I’m thankful I don’t have my son’s dog (shredded packages) and I’m not on a busy city street. There are alternatives to consider: work address, neighbor, requiring a signature for delivery (usually involves a separate charge), using the carrier’s designated pickup and delivery location.

I’m not complaining. “Mail-order” shopping has come a long way from the days of the Montgomery Ward catalog.  I remember when you mailed in an order and instead of a package, the vendor’s letter arrived informing you the item was “sold out” or “not in stock”. Sometimes they sent a substitute item, which wasn’t always satisfactory. Inventory control with access from your home computer has reinvented “mail-order” shopping, and it’s definitely on the up swing.

 

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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A Credit Score Boost

credit score

In the past, the only way to create a credit score for yourself was to borrow money.  This makes borrowing a little tricky for those who have little or no credit history.  How can banks or credit card companies comfortably lend people money if they have no history for determining if they are a good risk?

Payment history – how you have paid your bills in the past — is one of the most important factors in a credit score. Lenders check an individual’s credit score when deciding whether to lend money to him or her.

FICO, the developer of the most widely used credit score, will begin piloting a new score next year (2019) called the UltraFICO score. This new scoring model considers how you manage your checking, savings and money market accounts in addition to how you pay back your credit cards and loans; it could be good news for those who have a strong banking record but have little or no credit history or have negative information on their credit reports. If you manage your checking, savings and/or money market accounts wisely, avoiding overdrafts and usually keep a modest “cushion” of  at least $400 in your checking account, your credit score could receive a much needed boost that can make a difference when applying for a loan.

Use of the UltraFICO score is not automatic. Consumers must opt in before lenders can access their banking records and calculate the alternate score.  Consumers who already qualify for credit on good terms will never need to authorize the UltraFICO score; those whose “regular” FICO scores aren’t quite good enough to qualify are the ones who may benefit from use of the UltraFICO.

FICO has announced the new scoring model as a “pilot” and has not specified how widely it will be in use, so there is no guarantee it will be available through your lenders. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to be aware of the possibility, for two reasons:

  1. If you are turned down for a loan or credit account, you may wish to ask the lender if they can check an alternate scoring model such as the UltraFICO score.
  2. It is a reminder that responsible management of your banking accounts can pay off; if you have a tendency to occasionally get sloppy and incur an overdraft, the existence of UltraFICO may motivate you to manage your accounts more carefully.

FICO is marketing the new score at its website, which includes a link to a short video describing the basics of UltraFICO.

As always, the best way to improve or protect your credit score is to consistently pay your bills on time, reduce the amount of debt you owe as much as possible and apply for credit only when needed.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Someone May Be Watching You

Last November, my brother-in-law’s vehicle was broken into at the nearby grocery store parking lot.   He had done some banking prior to pulling into the grocery store to pick up a pizza for the night’s meal. While he was in the store, his money and cell phone were stolen.  There was also damage done to both driver and passenger doors, his console, and the car’s paint. There were surveillance cameras in grocery store’s lot, but it was hard to identify the perpetrator.

When my sister and brother-in-law returned from the holidays, they picked up their held mail at the post office; while they were there, a man had money stolen from his vehicle parked outside the post office, also after a visit to the bank.   Note: Both of these incidents occurred in daylight in a large U.S. city.

Based on his recent experience, my brother-in-law was able to encourage the man to call the police and file a complaint;  this would help him to file a claim with his insurance company. Depending what was taken, he might also want to contact his bank, and/or place a fraud alert on his credit reports.  In addition, he would need to make arrangements to have his vehicle fixed.  These were all steps my brother-in-law had needed to take a few weeks earlier, plus he had to deal with the theft of his phone; fortunately, since my brother-in-law’s information on his phone was backed up in the “cloud,” he was able to be back in business soon after the phone was replaced.

We do not always think about who is watching us, but in both of these cases, someone was watching while they visited their banks. These incidents remind us: don’t let your guard down, and watch your surroundings. That guidance is especially important during the upcoming holiday season when many of us make more purchases than usual and may leave things in our cars.

How many times do we go somewhere feeling we are safe, and therefore do not pay attention to the environment around us?

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Charitable Giving and Taxes

We’re entering a busy time of year for charitable donations, perhaps because the winter holiday season brings a sense of gratitude followed by a desire to share our abundance. The availability of tax deductions for charitable giving may also contribute to the concentration of donations near year-end.

According to Giving USA, Americans donated a record $410 billion to charities in 2017. What’s more, over 70% of that giving came from individuals, rather than foundations, corporations, or bequests.  However, tax law changes this year mean that for many people there will no longer be an advantage in itemizing deductions; many taxpayers will get better results using a standard deduction. For those households, the tax benefit of charitable donations will be reduced or eliminated.

Will Americans still give?  I have always hoped that the main reason most Americans give is that they care about the organizations they are giving to, and that the tax benefits are just an incidental benefit.

If you are wondering whether you should continue making charitable donations even without the tax deductions, I offer two thoughts:

  • If your standard deduction under the new tax law is larger than your itemized deductions would have been, then you are still coming out ahead. You can give, and still have more available funds than you would have had under the old tax law.
  • There are other strategies that can enable some taxpayers to get tax advantages for charitable donations.
    Clustering donations. Some taxpayers may be able to hold back all their 2018 donations until the beginning of 2019; if they then donate a “normal” amount throughout 2019, they will have twice as many donations as usual to report for the 2019 tax year, which may make itemizing worthwhile in 2019. Following this pattern of no contributions one year and double-contributions the next may enable you to donate the same total amounts as normal, and gain tax benefits by alternating years between itemized and standard deductions.
    Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD) from an IRA.  If you are at least 70-1/2, you can transfer funds directly from your traditional IRA to a charitable organization; the distribution will not be taxable income to you, AND it can satisfy your required minimum distribution. If your RMD for the year is $5,000, and you are interested in donating $5,000 to a particular organization, then making the contribution through a QCD has the same ultimate impact on your taxes as a tax deduction would have had. IRS Publication 590-B provides details.
    Donating as a business expense.  If you are self-employed or own a business, you may be able to make charitable contributions as a business expense.  For example, farmers can give commodities (e.g. 500 bushels of corn) to a charity. This reduces your business income, and therefore has impact similar to the impact of a tax deduction. Consult with your tax adviser for details.

As always, the best decisions about how to use your money are based on your personal goals and priorities. As you consider your charitable giving decisions, focus on why you want to give when deciding whether and where to make donations. Giving to organizations you know (often local organizations) can ensure that your gifts are used well; when considering larger national charities, check them out with organizations that evaluate charities, such as  www.give.org, www.charitywatch.org, www.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Health Insurance: Time to Decide

Making a decision about health insurance coverage is not easy. Most of us rely on our employer to wade through the details of policy coverage and negotiation of rates. We gladly accept what is offered, choosing between 2-3 options that personalize the coverage.  HR sends a letter or hosts a meeting for questions and answers. If we don’t do anything, the policy we have continues into the new year.

It’s not quite as easy when you are purchasing insurance on your own: some parts of Medicare, the Marketplace, and plans offered from private insurance agencies can be more confusing. The options for coverage have experienced a period of volatility.  Assistance with enrollment varies. Here is an overview of the open enrollment time frame, who can help you sort through the options, and major changes to be aware of in 2019:

Medicare:  Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug coverage (Medicare D) began on October 15th and closes on December 7th.  SHIIP volunteers are excellent resources to help sort coverage and find plans that will meet your needs. Medicare is also providing assistance through an online education program, Medicare Plan Finder.  Advantage plans are increasing in numbers and are being heavily marketed this season.  Individuals enrolled in supplemental coverage (Medigap) and prescription drug (Medicare D) plans should open and read any notices they received in the past 30-60  days.  Your coverage may have changed.

Marketplace Coverage:  Open enrollment began on November 1 and closes on December 15th. Iowans may call 1-800-318-2596 or visit healthcare.gov for information. Independent insurance agents may be able to assist. If you received assistance last year, try contacting the agency that sponsored the service. Medica and Wellmark will be offering ACA-compliant individual health insurance plans to Iowans statewide for plan year 2019. If you currently have coverage through the exchange and do not choose a plan for 2019 by the end of open enrollment, you will be re-enrolled into the same plan offered by Medica. Reminder: if you want to use Premium Tax Credits to help cover the cost of your insurance, you must purchase it in the marketplace.

Private Plan Coverage: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time for most policies. The Iowa Insurance Division provides a listing of licensed agents.  New this year for individuals who do not qualify for premium tax credits are association benefits plans.

Children’s’ Health insurance Plans (known in Iowa as HAWK-I): Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time. Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.

Medicaid: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time.  Individuals may qualify based on income or specific health issues.  Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has available education programs that can help with understanding choices and coverage.  Contact your local extension office to request delivery for your community.

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Five Minutes to Make Your Home Healthier

With the upcoming time change (from Daylight Savings back to Standard Time), take a few minutes this week to make your home healthier for your family.  Here are six tips:

  1. Test your smoke alarm and replace the battery. Using smoke alarms in your home cuts your risk of dying in a fire in half.
  2. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds – enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Each year about 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated or improperly prepared foods.
  3. Make your home smoke free. Never let anyone smoke anywhere in or near your home. Parents are responsible for 90% of their children’s exposure to smoke.
  4. Program the number for poison control into your cell phone: 1-800-222-1222.  If you use a land line, post the number near the phone.  Each day in the United States over 300 children (ages 0-19) are in emergency rooms for poisonings.
  5. Do a 3-minute “clean sweep” Pick one small area of your home- like your junk drawer or stairs and take 3 minutes to sort the items. Get rid of what you do not need. Clutter can collect dust, mold, and other allergens and gives pests a place to hide.  If clutter is on the floor or stairs, it can cause you to trip and fall.
  6. Check your locks. Make sure locks function correctly and that a child can operate them in an emergency.

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Cost-Cutting vs. Saving: Not the same thing!

Most of us have dozens of ways we “save money:”

  • We “save” by using coupons and shopping sales.
  • We “save” by saying NO to ourselves and others when temptation arises.
  • We “save” by cooking at home instead of eating out.

Are you wondering why I put the word “save” in quotation marks in all those examples? Here’s why: even if we did all those things every single week, there is no certainty that our savings account balance will increase.

All those steps are ways we reduce costs, but do they automatically lead to deposits to savings accounts? No. Take me, for example: I have never once taken the money I did not spend at a restaurant or grocery store and deposited it into a savings account as a direct result of the decision not to spend. Instead, the money I “saved” would usually just get spent on something else!

A decision not to spend is a key step in saving. But by itself, that decision is not enough; it only turns into saving when we actually move the money into a savings account (or to a dedicated savings location such as a piggy bank).  When I come to a coffee shop or an ice cream store and I go on by without stopping because I want to save that money, I should probably just stop right there and transfer money from one account to another. Or I could carry a “saving” envelope in my purse and move cash into the envelope every time I resist temptation. That would be the way to make sure the actual saving occurred.

Saving is a two-step process. It involves deciding not to spend and  putting money in a designated location. Either step can come first. I can decide not to buy something and then save the money; OR I can put the money away first and then (out of necessity) spend less than I otherwise would have spent.
Note: many of us do better if we put the money in savings first!.When there’s no money in your billfold or your account, it’s easier to resist temptation to spend! 

Do you sometimes wonder why you aren’t getting ahead, despite your efforts? It may be because you’re skipping one of the steps.  How can you turn your cost-cutting into true savings progress?

 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Stocking the Grocery Pantry

I threw a list of Pantry items together in 2004 and went shopping. My goal was to confirm or dispel what participants in my budgeting classes would argue: that it was cheaper to purchase groceries at larger markets, especially those in larger towns where there is more than one grocery store.

What I challenged them to consider was the cost of transportation and the added time it took to make a 1 hour round trip each week for groceries; especially if the sale items were the same price in a local store.  Did they save enough to off-set those costs? Even though the cash register receipt is lower for the same items, it wasn’t enough savings to cover the cost of transportation.

I took my list shopping to the local grocery in 2007 and again today.   Here’s what I’ve learned from the comparison:

  • The cost for store brands, 2004-2018, increased 54.7%, the national brands increased 34.3%.
  • The margin between the cost of buying a store brand and buying a national label continues to erode. In 2004 the difference was 30%, in 2018 the difference is 24%. Store brands still cost less, but not as much.  Quality becomes more important.
  • The changes in package sizes has slowed. I found several items in smaller packages between 2004 and 2007; but only Oat Cereal was found in a smaller package in 2018.
  • Some items are lower priced. Brand name stick margarine is priced lower than the 2004 cost and the store brand is equivalent to the brand name price. Oat Cereal, when broken down into price per ounce, is 27 cents today. In 2004 it was 26 cents an ounce.  Brand name green beans have declined slightly since 2007, with store brands getting close to equivalent price.
  • Items on my pantry list with a larger than average increase in price are: a 2 lb. block of processed cheese food – the national brand increased 100%; a 5 lb. bag of national brand flour increased 61%.

A new player in the pantry shopping list is a local dollar store.  My grocery sack included a combination of store brands and national brands. The sizes were equivalent. Not everything on the list was available. Some items were lower, but others were higher in price. In the end my combination sack cost the same as the store brands at the local grocery.   If you have the time and pay attention to prices you could lower your total grocery costs by shopping at both stores if they are close to each other.

Visit the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website for low cost recipes and other tools to manage your grocery dollars.

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Downsizing & Organizing

I dug out my winter clothes this week. I had to open and move several boxes and containers to find the tubs containing my clothes. I was amused when I thought about how much time a year I spend opening the wrong tubs, looking for the right tubs. I resolved right then to downsize.

Despite the fact that the average household size has declined to 2.61 persons while the average home has doubled in size since the 1950’s, people still struggle with what to do with all their stuff. In fact, one out of every 11 people rent storage space during any given year.

There are many reasons to down-size: moving to a smaller place; passing treasures on to others; generating a little extra income by selling items; or eliminating the cost of storing stuff. For me the 2 motivating factors are eliminating the time and cost to care for and store stuff; and to not leave my kids, the burden of dealing with all my stuff when it is time to settle my estate.

If you are looking for tips on organizing and downsizing your home, check out Downsizing Your Home: A Guide for Older Adults from Kentucky University Extension.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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What Are Your Local Resources?

October is always a fun time of year. I grew up near the Spoon River Scenic Drive in western Illinois, where every fall included two fun weekends of visitors checking out the crafts, antiques, and food.

You can experience leaf peeping, apple orchard visits and cider donuts, fall art shows and festivals.  Living now near Wisconsin, I now also enjoy cheese festivals with music!

Bike rides as well as walks can benefit from the good fall weather.   Don’t forget the pumpkin patch and corn maze fun.  Capitalize on the farmer’s market – local produce, jellies and jams.

Many of these opportunities are near where you live.  Take advantage of your local resources and opportunities.  You don’t have to travel hours away to visit theatre, museums, art exhibits and great food. These opportunites are in your backyard – experience the offerings and make family memories.

 

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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