It’s More Than Who You Know

A friend was visiting with a member of her family during a recent gathering.  They told my friend about a job opening at their workplace.  It was a remote job…a work from home opportunity with good pay and benefits. The next day, my friend sent in her resume, and two days later she had an interview.

In the past month I have: referred a couple of friends to job openings I knew about; received a phone call regarding someone who used me as a reference when they applied for a job; and met with a graduate of the Remote Work Certificate Course to help her prepare for an interview.

In the Remote Work Certificate course, offered through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, many strategies are taught to build up your connections, because connections increase your chance of landing a good job. One of those strategies is social media, which can reach a lot of people with little time or effort. The most fruitful connections, however, will most likely be your direct personal connections.  You do not get referred if you do not connect with someone in a way that makes them trust you enough to refer you. Personally, in every job I’ve had except my first job, I had a personal connection that made the interview possible. Connections matter!

Important reminder: while the connections help you find the opportunities, and may help you land the interview, you still have to do your homework and work hard in preparing for the interview.

If you have a thirst for knowledge, know your strengths and want to work on them, and are thinking about getting into the remote workforce, check out the Remote Work Certificate course.  The next class begins January 4…application deadline is December 29.

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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Thanks Giving: Give Wisely and Deduct

The Thanksgiving holiday is a time to stop and really notice how much we have to be thankful for. Many people take that gratitude a step further by sharing from what we have; they take their “thanks” and turn it toward “giving” to worthy charities this time of year. The arrival of “Giving Tuesday” next week also prompts people to give.

An article from the Iowa Attorney General’s office this week (see item 5 in the article) reminds us of steps to ensure we give wisely. Careless gifts may end up in the hands of criminals OR of organizations that do not use funds wisely. One way to make sure your money is used well for the cause you care about is to give to a local organization that has a good reputation. When giving to national organizations, you can make sure they are well-managed by checking one or more of these reputable charity rating sites: BBB Wise Giving AllianceCharity NavigatorCharityWatch, and GuideStar. The article offers more suggestions as well.

Another way to give wisely is to take the tax deduction for which you are eligible! Some people may say, “I don’t give to charity just for tax purposes – I give because I care!” That’s great. But if you take the tax deduction, and it reduces your tax bill (or increases your refund), then you have MORE money to give! Now that is wise giving!

The tax code allows us to deduct (subtract) our charitable gifts from our income before the tax is calculated. The government created that deduction to encourage us to give. By taking the deduction, and potentially having more to give, we are contributing to the valuable American habit of supporting worthwhile causes. There are two ways to deduct your charitable contributions:

  1. By “Itemizing” your deductions on Schedule A of your tax return. This is great for people who have enough deductions to be higher than the “standard” deduction allowed according to family type. For a single individual, that standard deduction is $12,550; for a married couple, it’s $25,100. Your tax preparer can help you know if this is advantageous for you.
    Good news! Even if you are better off with the standard deduction, a new law lets you deduct some 2021 giving anyway!
  2. Thanks to some of the COVID-relief legislation passed in 2020 and 2021, taxpayers can take a deduction for charitable contributions in 2021 even if they don’t itemize deductions! An individual tax filer can deduct up to $300 of monetary contributions to qualifying charities; for married couples filing jointly, that figure is $600.

In the midst of your Thanksgiving celebration, I encourage you to think about any charitable giving you might want to do, and then when you make the gift(s), be sure to keep the receipt for tax purposes! Plan now for #GivingTuesday and beyond!

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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Money Smart Holiday Shopping

With the approach of the annual event known as Black Friday, guest blogger Carol Ehlers offers tips to help us all be smart about our holiday shopping!

This year, holiday shoppers are planning on spending more money, shopping earlier and trying new retailers. According to TransUnion’s 2021 Consumer Holiday Shopping Report more than 1 in 3 holiday shoppers (36%) plan on spending more this year. Last year’s average American ran up holiday spending debt to $1,381 with almost 8 in 10 unable to pay it off by the end of January. So, for every $5 spent trying to pay off credit card debt, consumers give away $1 to the credit card companies. https://www.consolidatedcredit.org/webinars-and-seminars/holiday-survival-guide-webinar/

Holiday spending is a common way for people to land themselves in debt and financial stress. Some find themselves in trouble by rationalizing big spending and incurring debt during the holidays. This leads to paying for holiday spending well into the next year. Money Smart Holiday Sending can give you confidence to manage your money and resources throughout the season and into the new year. Below are three key tips for being Money Smart during the holiday season:

  • Create a holiday budget. Figure out how much you can afford to spend this holiday season. Financial planners recommend spending less than 1.5 percent of your annual income on holiday expenses. An example: for someone with $35,000 gross income that amounts to a $525 limit for holiday spending. If you haven’t saved that much, look for ways to cut back.
  • Make a List-check it twice. Make a detailed gift list with a set amount to spend, keeping track of what is spent. Research indicates consumers reduce their food expense by 25-30% by using a shopping list and this principle applies to other holiday spending categories.
  • Use Cash-Not Credit.  One way to do this is the envelope method. Make one envelope for each person and only put in what you plan to spend. If credit is necessary, charge only the amount that you can safely repay in a few months. Limit your charges to one card with the lowest interest rate and fees. Keep all receipts.

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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Protect Your Medical Identity

Medical identity theft is a serious business. According to one study, about 1.5 million adults are victims of medical identity theft each year. FDIC Money Smart offers the following information and consumer tips.

Medical ID theft occurs when someone steals personal information and uses the information to get medical treatment, prescription drugs, surgery and/or other services and then bills insurance for it. If the thief’s health information is mixed with yours, your treatment, insurance and payment records, and credit report may be affected. Sometimes people are denied coverage for a service or medical equipment because their records falsely show they already received it.

All types of people, including doctors and medical equipment companies, have been caught stealing people’s medical identities. About one-third of medical identity thieves are family members. Warning signs of a stolen identity include a bill for medical services not received, contacts by a debt collection company for money not owed, insurance company notification of the limit reached on medical benefits, or denial of insurance for a medical condition you do not have.

To avoid medical identity theft

  • Protect your health insurance cards.
  • Review your Explanations of Benefits (EOB) statements and medical bills for suspicious charges. If you find incorrect information in your records, insist it be corrected or removed.
  • Do not give your medical information to someone who calls, emails, or texts you unexpectedly. It could be a scammer trying to steal your information. Instead, log in to your online medical account from a website you know is real. Or contact the company or provider using a phone number you know is real.
  • Shred papers with your medical identity before putting them in the trash. Remove or destroy labels on prescription bottles and packages before you put them in the trash.

If you suspect medical identity theft, ask your health care provider for a copy of your current medical file. If anything seems wrong, write to your health plan or provider and ask for a correction.

Guest blogger, Phyllis Zalenski, Human Sciences Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

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 Decision Time

Once again it is time to make health insurance decisions. If you are insured through your workplace, your deadlines will be determined by your employer. If you are insured through Medicare (including Medicare Advantage plans), you have between now and December 7 to make changes; your best resource for unbiased assistance in Iowa is the Senior Health Insurance Information Program. Similar resources are available in other states, as well.

If you are not yet eligible for Medicare, and do not have affordable insurance available through an employer, then the Health Care Marketplace is the place to turn for quality health insurance plans* that do not consider pre-existing conditions. The base premium for plans in the Marketplace is affected by your location, your age, and use of tobacco. That is because health care costs vary by location, and are higher for people who are older and who use tobacco. Two other factors also affect your cost:

  • Type of plan (bronze, silver, gold, platinum) you choose. All of these plans are quality* plans, but it is valuable to understand the difference. Bronze plans have the lowest premiums, because they have higher deductibles and co-payments. Premiums increase as you go up in metal value. Platinum plans have the highest premiums, but lower deductibles and co-pays. This post from 2014, when the Health Care Marketplace was new, provides more detail.
  • Your income. That’s right. Two people might pay different premiums even if they are both 30-year-old non-smokers who live in the same county and both chose a silver plan. The Marketplace is designed to provide more help in paying for health insurance to people who need it more. So when you enroll in a Marketplace plan, you will estimate what your household’s income will be for 2022. Based on that estimate, the system determines what your share of the premium for a silver plan should be, and the remaining amount will be covered by an Advance Premium Tax Credit, which is an estimate of how much help you are eligible for. All this is based on a baseline silver plan; you will get the same amount of help toward your premiums regardless of what “metal color” plan you choose. At the end of they year, your tax return will show your actual total income for the year. The actual income will be used to determine your final Premium Tax Credit amount. If you received too much or too little in advance, the difference will be taken care of on your tax return, by either increasing or decreasing your tax refund or the amount of tax you owe when you file. The Kaiser Family Foundation offers a useful tool to give you an idea of how much help you may be able to receive.

Open enrollment for 2022 health plans in the Marketplace continues through January 15, but if you want your coverage to begin as early as possible (January 1) then you need to enroll by December 15. Enrolling between December 16 and January 15 will get you coverage that begins February 1. Enroll online at www.healthcare.gov OR call 800-318-2596. A link is also available to find local help. You have the option to choose (filter) whether you wish to find an agent/broker OR would rather get help only from an assister.

*What do I mean by “quality” plans? The biggest factor is that a quality plan covers all ten essential types of health care. By contrast there are plans (sometimes referred to as “junk plans”) that purport to provide health coverage, but exclude certain categories. I’ve heard of situations where people are excited to get health insurance, but then when need arises they discover it doesn’t cover hospitalization, or it only pays $100/day toward hospital care, or has some other substantial limitation. In addition marketplace do not have annual or lifetime limits on what they will pay for an individual’s care. Another key “quality” factor is that the plans have been actuarially evaluated as providing appropriate coverage for an appropriate cost. In other words, they are not set up to make big profits for the company.

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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Confused about recent Federal Student Loan changes? Look no further!

If the Federal Student Loan changes over the past 18 months weren’t confusing enough, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced several more that may leave you wondering how you are affected this time around. The original COVID-19 Emergency Relief measures are tentatively set to expire on January 31, 2022, but the new provisions are either permanent, expire on October 31, 2022, and/or impact a smaller group of borrowers:

  • On August 20, the U.S. Department of Education announced that eligible Servicemembers would automatically, and retroactively, receive a 0% interest-rate benefit if they deployed to areas qualifying for imminent danger or hostile fire pay. This is not a new benefit; however, Servicemembers previously needed to submit a form, with supporting documentation, to find out if their loans and deployment qualified for the 0% interest waiver. 
  • Several updates have been made over the past few months regarding Federal Student Loan Servicers. PHEAA (FedLoan Servicing), Granite State, and Navient will no longer service U.S Dept of Ed-owned loans when their contract expires. Current borrowers will receive numerous notifications throughout the loan transfer process. Watch for those notifications: be sure to save the information or respond as requested.
  • The often-troubled Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program is receiving a giant makeover. Some of the provisions are temporary, while some remain unchanged. Regardless, these changes are significant and remain in effect until October 31, 2022. 

Are you still unsure of how these changes affect you? Contact an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Financial Educator today! 

The information provided is educational in nature to help you make your own informed decisions and is not intended to substitute for professional advice or serve as an endorsement of any financial product or service. Consult with licensed professionals prior to implementing any of the information provided to determine the course of action is best for you. 

Ryan Stuart is a Human Sciences Specialist, Family Wellbeing, with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Ryan will be joining the regular blog team soon, so watch for more posts from him.

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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Getting a Leg Up

 

Next week, it will be 2 years since I took the Remote Work Certificate Course. It was not until I took this class that I realized that I have been working in a REMOTE job for more than 20 years now…meaning that I work from a remote site away from my employer’s headquarter.  As a specialist working for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, I am house in a county office and serve multiple regions, coming to the ISU campus only three or four times a year.  We had been ZOOMing long before COVID hit, working, meeting, teach and hosting educational programs statewide and beyond.

It turns out that more than half of all U.S. job are remote work.  I was surprised to learn that there are more workers over the age of 40 than under 40 working remotely…I thought remote work would mostly appeal to the younger generation. In reality, 86% of the US workforce WANTS to work from home. The bad news is…currently only 3% of NEW job posts are transparently advertised as remote work.  It is for this reason that Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers the Remote Work Certificate Course.  At the end of the month-long course, participants can schedule time with a career coach for assistance in creating goals, identifying jobs, working through a checklist, creating an online presence, and identifying networking opportunities.

There are plenty of reason why someone would want to work from home:

  • Employees can save more than $7000 per year in employment related expenses.  With the rising cost of gas, I predict that number to rise even more.
  • The opportunity for career advancement. Women make up 42% of the leadership in remote companies.
  • Professionals with experience working remotely are 63% more likely to earn $100,000/year than those that have never worked remotely…making it worth your time to learn the skills needed to work remotely.
  • 96% of U.S. employees NEED some flex in their current job because of aging parents or the needs of small children.

For more information about the Remote Work Certificate Course, visit our website. The next class begins the first Monday of next month and registration ends soon, so register now.

~Brenda

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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Buying a Home? Be Informed!

Buying a home is a major decision. In fact, it involves several major decisions. But most of us do it very few times in our lives — perhaps only once. That means that, unlike other consumer decisions (buying groceries, choosing a cell phone plan), we don’t have much opportunity to practice, or to learn from experience.

Without much chance to learn from experience, then we need to look for other ways to learn everything that will help us make well-informed home-buying decisions. Completing “A Home of Your Own,” a self-paced learning option from ISU Extension and Outreach, can help build the knowledge and skill needed to make those big decisions with confidence.

Topics include selecting a home that fits your needs, choosing a lender and understanding loan terms, navigating through the closing process, and more. The final section of the course focuses on being a home owner — including how to maintain your home’s value. After finishing the course, you will receive a certificate of completion which you can show to your prospective lender to meet any home ownership education requirements they may have.

The course costs $45 (per person or per couple), and is available 24/7 so you can use it at your convenience. Learn more!

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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Medicare Open Enrollment – So What?

Medicare’s annual open enrollment period for 2022 coverage began last Friday and continues through December 7. But why does it matter? Most people enroll in Medicare when they turn 65 — doesn’t that take care of it? The answer is: probably not.

NOTE: Even if you are too young for Medicare, this blog post may be worth your attention if there are people you care about who are enrolled in Medicare. I’d encourage you to touch base with them to make sure they understand their options, and the mailings they are receiving, and help them get help if they need it.

During open enrollment each year, consumers have options to make changes. They also may receive a small deluge of marketing mail, email, and perhaps even phone calls. It’s important that they understand what their options are, and that they pay attention to mailings — especially those from Medicare itself (CMS – The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) AND from their current insurance company(ies). There are generally three types of choices consumers make during Open Enrollment:

  • Prescription Drug (Part D) Plan. This may be the most common decision people make during open enrollment. Most Medicare participants also enroll in a separate insurance plan to help cover prescription costs. These plans are offered by CMS in partnership with private insurance companies, and you may literally have dozens of plans to choose from. Some people make the mistake of assuming that if they like their current plan, they should just stay with it. The reason that’s a mistake is that plans can change substantially from one year to the next. Maybe this year, your plan covered your medications nicely, with low co-pays; but next year, they could choose to drop one of your medications or attach a much higher co-pay. So even if your own medications haven’t changed, it is smart to use the Medicare on-line tool to see which plans offered in your area will cover your medications at the lowest cost to you. (SHIIP can help with this — see below)
  • Medicare Advantage Plan. Some consumers choose Medicare Part C (Advantage) plans instead of traditional Medicate Part A and B. These are managed care plans operated by private insurance companies in partnership with CMS; they generally have a defined network of participating hospitals, doctors and other medical providers. They often cover services not covered by traditional Medicare (including vision or dental care), but may also have more restrictive coverage on some services as compared to traditional Medicare. Many Advantage plans also have prescription drug coverage built in. These plans can change from year to year as well, and open enrollment is the time to make a change if you wish to.
  • Medicare Supplement Plans. Many consumers who use traditional Medicare Part A and B also enroll in a supplemental insurance plan, sometimes referred to as Medigap insurance (because it covers gaps – including deductibles and co-pays – that Medicare does not cover). These plans are offered by private insurance companies. Open enrollment is also a time to evaluate your supplement coverage.

Health insurance is complicated for people of any age. Fortunately, excellent help and information is available through the Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP). SHIIP is an office within the Iowa Insurance Division, so it is completely non-commercial and not sales-oriented. Note: similar agencies are available in other states too. The SHIIP website offers a wealth of information. In addition, they have a helpline during business hours at 800-351-4664 (TTY 800-735-2942). Most valuable of all, however, is the corps of highly-trained volunteers located in counties across the state. Find SHIIP volunteers near you! These SHIIP volunteers kick into high gear during fall open enrollment, typically offering appointments to help consumers understand their options for Part D (Prescription coverage) and other coverage.

If you, or someone you care about, need help during Medicare Open Enrollment, I urge you to connect with your local SHIIP resource today! For general information about Medicare, the annual “Medicare and You” handbook is the best starting point.

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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Be Vigilant – Forever

A friend of mine received a letter recently telling her that her application for a home equity loan was denied. But here’s the thing: she didn’t APPLY for a home equity loan!

Did she just laugh and throw the letter away? NO, thank goodness – she knew this could indicate a serious problem. It didn’t take long to learn more – all she had to do was contact the lender that had sent the letter.  It turns out that someone ELSE had used HER name and social security number to apply for a home equity loan of several thousand dollars. The loan was turned down due to a couple of small inaccuracies on the application. If the imposter had gotten all the details correct, my friend might have been “on the hook” for that loan – a victim of identity theft.

Do you remember the Equifax data breach a while back? My friend’s information was compromised in that data breach, which is likely how these imposters got her information. That breach was FOUR whole years ago!  Many people went “on alert” for months after that breach – but are they still maintaining that vigilance?

There’s a lesson here for all of us: if your information has ever been compromised in any data breach, you must be vigilant forever. Once the information is out there, the “bad guys” can sit on it for years, even decades, and then start to use it. And frankly, even if you are not aware that your information has ever been compromised in a major breach, you should still be fully vigilant, because not all data leaks are exposed, or exposed promptly. This may feel a little discouraging – how can we possibly protect ourselves?

Credit Freeze. The good news is that we DO have options! One of the most effective steps we can take to reduce our identity theft risk is to put in place a security freeze (known as a “credit freeze”) on our files at all three of the major credit reporting agencies. This became a free option for all consumers thanks to a federal law passed after that infamous Equifax breach. With a credit freeze in place, no one can open any kind of credit account in our name. Even WE cannot open an account in our OWN names with a credit freeze in place.  My example: two years ago I bought a new car, and borrowed part of the cost. I got home from completing the loan paperwork, and almost immediately got a call from the lender: “Hey, we can’t process your loan application till you lift the freeze on your credit file.” He told me which credit reporting agency he was using, and I went into my records to find the information I needed to lift the freeze. I was able to lift it temporarily – just 3 days – and then the freeze went back into place, so I was protected once again.

A credit freeze is an incredibly valuable protection against imposters opening accounts in our names. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides information about how to “freeze” your credit file. (https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/free-credit-freezes-are-here/)

Check Your Credit Report. Checking your credit report regularly does not prevent identity theft, but it does help to detect it — and like many other situations, early detection can minimize the damage you experience. The one safe resource for free credit reports is www.annualcreditreport.com, a joint project of all three national credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). In normal times each consumer is eligible for one free report per year from each of the agencies (a total of three per year). However, during the COVID emergency, until April 20, 2022, we can check our credit reports weekly if we wish. When you receive your copy, carefully review it and dispute any errors you discover. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a helpful credit report checklist.

Report ID Theft. If you do discover, as my friend did, that your identity has been used fraudulently, be sure to report the incident at the Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft webpage, www.identitytheft.gov. This site outlines steps you can take to defend yourself, and is a good first stop for identity theft victims.

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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