Free Children’s Stories about Money

When you have children in your life, you want the best for them, and that includes building the financial skills they will need as adults. Even very young children can learn about money and build values and attitudes related to its use. In fact, they are learning from everything they observe – whether positive or negative. We, as the adults in their world, have the opportunity to provide experiences that contribute to positive learning – information, skills, and attitudes that will help them function effectively in our world.

Stories are a wonderful way to introduce concepts, start discussions, and trigger learning. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has created a set of five stories that introduce financial concepts including Saving, Careers, Borrowing, and more.  Each story is about 8-10 pages; they are available for free download as pdf documents, but they can ALSO be ordered (FREE!) in print – in batches of 25. That’s perfect for classroom teachers and child care providers, but even parents can order 25 copies of each story, and then make sets and give them away to their children’s friends. In addition to “plain” pdf and print versions, each story is available in .ePub format, with animations. Note: I confess I did not download an app for viewing .ePub files, so I cannot share details with you about those, but I have no doubt children would enjoy them!

The stories feature characters known as “money monsters,” who are “a group of creatures who are new to our universe. That means they need to learn about many important things like school, friendship, and financial literacy.” Each character has a name, including Foozil, Gibbins, and Oodle. The stories are probably most suitable for children ages 5-10.

On the “Money Monsters” home page, you’ll find a link to financial education activities – the CFPB has over 200 lesson plans for use in K-12 classrooms. In addition, there is a specific link to “storytime activities,” leading to the eleven lesson plans that connect to the Money Monsters stories. Even if you do not have a classroom, you might find some of these lesson plans interesting – they offer suggestions for how to follow up on the concepts in the story to help your child(ren) expand their learning and thinking.

One final note: if you order printed copies of the stories, you will notice that there are also Money Monster stickers and bookmarks! If you are a teacher or work with youth groups, browsing all the youth financial education publications might be of interest to you!

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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Rising Food Prices – Yikes!

Food prices are rising – it’s more noticeable this year than in other recent years. On top of that, many households who receive food assistance (formerly known as Food Stamps) will very soon stop receiving extra benefits that have been available due to COVID. All this makes it more important than ever to be smart with your food dollars.

Spend Smart. Eat Smart.®” from ISU Extension and Outreach can help! This website and app offers information, tools, recipes, how-to videos, a blog and more, all designed to help people eat healthy while not spending a fortune. It’s very practical, with tools and videos focused on planning your meals so you can plan your shopping, ways to save time and money when shopping, organizing your kitchen to make cooking easier, and so much more.

One of the things I like about the website is that all of their recipes have been tested by average home cooks, to make sure the instructions are easy to understand. Recipes also avoid obscure ingredients that you might buy and never use again, or that you might even have trouble finding in a Midwest grocery store.

An added bonus is a focus on health, including tips and tools for building exercise and activity into your life and even some basic workout and stretching videos for use at home. It’s all very practical for the average individual.

When money is tight, often the first place people look to cut costs is with food. Spend Smart. Eat Smart® can help you cut costs without sacrificing nutrition or flavor, and can make your life easier, as well.  Check it out today!

P.S. Find the Spend Smart. Eat Smart app by searching “spend smart eat smart” in your app store.

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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At Risk of Eviction? Seek Help Now!

Because of COVID-19, an “eviction moratorium” has been in place in the U.S. for over a year. That has meant that renters could NOT be evicted for non-payment of rent. That moratorium ends July 31. If you (or someone you know) have gotten behind on rent OR utilities because of financial hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be eligible for financial assistance to protect your family.  Applications will end when the available funds are used up; NOW is the time to apply! NOTE: Des Moines and Polk County residents apply through a separate portal.

Eligibility. To be eligible, all of these qualifications must be met:

  • You have past-due rent or utility bills that were incurred after March 13, 2020.
  • You are below income guidelines. These guidelines vary from county to county, and are based on family size as well. Example – for families of two, the income limit ranges from $46,000 to $63,800 depending on the county you live in. Use the Adjusted Gross Income figure from your tax return to check your eligibility.
  • Someone in your household has been unemployed OR you have had reduction in income or other financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • You are at risk of homelessness or housing instability. You can use a past-due rent or utility notice or an eviction notice to show this.

Tips. As part of an application for rent assistance, your landlord must certify that you are behind on rent and must agree to the terms of the program. Be prepared to contact your landlord and explain that you are applying for help to get caught up with rent. Reminder: most landlords will be happy to help, because it means they will get paid – the payments will go directly to them.

The Housing Recovery Helpline is available to answer questions about the program or the application at 855-300-5885 or  515-348-8813.

If you are threatened with eviction, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau outlines steps to take. In addition, Iowa Legal Aid may be able to help you. Information about applying for Legal Aid assistance is found here. The Iowa Concern Hotline from ISU Extension and Outreach is another source of legal information – they do not represent clients, but they can help you identify steps you can take to protect your rights. Call them at 800-447-1985.

Not a Renter, but need help? Assistance for homeowners who are at imminent risk of foreclosure is also available through the Iowa Finance Authority, with the same income guidelines.

Please consider sharing this information with others who might need it.

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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Improve Retirement Readiness by Being Realistic About Social Security

We already know that the average American is financially under-prepared for retirement, putting them at risk for lifestyle cutbacks and even hardships in retirement. A recent study (University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center) showed:

  • that having unrealistically high expectations for Social Security benefits contributes to inadequate retirement savings; and
  • that the majority of workers over-estimate what they will receive in Social Security retirement income.

Those two findings combine to suggest trouble ahead. And it doesn’t take TOO much thought to reach the conclusion that everyone needs realistic expectations about Social Security income in retirement. The good news? It’s pretty easy to obtain a reasonable estimate of your Social Security income!

The Social Security Administration offers two excellent tools we can use to obtain a good estimate of what our Social Security retirement benefit will be. Both involve entering personal data, so be sure to use a secure internet connection. The Retirement Estimator provides a personalized estimate of your benefit at three ages: 62; your full retirement age (which is between age 66 and 67); and age 70. By logging into your “My Social Security” account on-line, you can see even more: you can pick a precise age at which you wish to claim social security, rather than being limited to just three options, AND you can review the earnings record shown there to make sure that all your earnings are included. Note: about a month ago I talked with a woman whose record was missing her earnings for 2018 and 2019! It’s a good thing she checked! Without those figures, her Social Security income would have been lower than what she was supposed to receive.

Suppose you discover that your Social Security income is projected to be about $2,000/month (in today’s dollars). Then you can consider: do you want to live on $2,000/month after you retire? If you’d rather have more income to live on in retirement, that’s motivation to save and invest now! To get started, learn about retirement saving options available through your employer: if a 401(k) or other tax-advantaged plan is available to you, that can be a great option. If your employer will match your contributions to a retirement account, then be sure to take advantage of that match, as well.

For those who do not have a retirement savings option available through their job, be sure to check out your Individual Retirement Account (IRA) options. The IRS Publication 590A explains the rules associated with contributing to an IRA account. You may choose to consult with a financial adviser in deciding how to invest those funds – an IRA can be invested in any type of financial account, including mutual funds, a stock and/or bond portfolio, and money market accounts. Your choice of investments, along with your decisions about how much to save, will have a huge impact on your retirement well-being. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) offers great learning materials for learning to invest and for choosing financial professionals.

Sources: Squared Away Blog: Workers Overestimate their Social Security, 6-17-21, from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College; and
Prados, María J., and Arie Kapteyn. 2019. Subjective Expectations, Social Security Benefits, and the Optimal Path to Retirement, University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center.

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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Child Tax Credit Update: Non-Filers Tool

Over the next few weeks we expect to see several updates about how to access the special 2021 Child Tax Credit described in last week’s post. Reminder of what makes the 2021 credit “special:” 1) it is bigger; 2) part of it is payable in monthly advance payments beginning in mid-July; and 3) it’s available even to people who don’t file taxes and/or who don’t have income!

Today the IRS announced a new “Non-Filer Sign-Up Tool” for those who did not and will not file in 2019 or 2020.

For most households, the IRS will base the monthly advance payments on information from 2019 or 2020 tax returns. But what about people who did not file and do not NEED to file for either 2019 or 2020? Today the IRS announced a new “Non-Filer Sign-Up Tool” to help make sure those folks receive their payments. This allows parents/guardians to enter information about the people in their household, AND to enter direct deposit information so they receive their tax credit payments speedily.

Please share this information with those who need it!!

A couple of notes:

  • If you filed a 2019 or 2020 tax return, you don’t need to take any action.
  • If you used the “non-filers tool” LAST year (2020) to receive your Economic Stimulus Payment, you don’t need to take any action.
  • In the coming weeks the IRS will be adding two more tools: 1) an interactive tool to help you find out if you are eligible for the expanded Child Tax Credit; and 2) a Child Tax Credit Update Portal, where you can add children born in 2021 or make updates that matter, including changes to your address or bank information.
  • A non-profit organization has launched a consumer-friendly informational website that may be useful at https://www.getctc.org/en. I recommend sharing it widely!

Source: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/irs-unveils-online-tool-to-help-low-income-families-register-for-monthly-child-tax-credit-payments
For more information: https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/advance-child-tax-credit-payments-in-2021

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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Attention Parents! New Child Tax Credit Features

The American Rescue Plan Act, a huge federal COVID recovery bill passed in March, did more than provide for $1400 stimulus payments. One of its provisions will soon begin impacting millions of American families with children: advance payment of the expanded child tax credit. Those affected should:

  • Plan now for best use of extra funds.
  • Make a point to pay attention to IRS updates on this topic over the next several weeks.
  • Watch their mail – the IRS has begun this week to mail a general information letter to all families it believes to be eligible. In July, they will mail individualized letters specific to each household, telling what to expect.

Expanded Credit. The Child Tax Credit was formerly $2,000 per child; it was unavailable to families with no income, and the amount was limited for families with very low income. For 2021 only:

  • Families with children who will still be under age 18 at the end of the year (born after December 31 2003) are eligible for the full amount of the credit, even if they had no or low income.
  • The amount of the annual credit is increased to $3,000 for most children, and to $3,600 for children under 6 (born after Dec 31 2015).

NOTE: the expanded credit is available to families with incomes below $75,000 (single); $112,500 (head of household); or $150,000 (married-joint). Families with higher incomes will still receive the $2,000 child tax credit under the previously-existing rules.

Advance Payment. Instead of waiting until tax time next February, eligible families will begin receiving monthly advance payments for part of the Child Tax Credit. This means that beginning about July 15 through December, families will receive monthly payments from the IRS equal to $250 per child. The amount will be $300 for younger children eligible for the $3,600 credit. These advance payments will equate to half of the total tax credit; the remainder will be paid as part of the household’s tax refund next spring.

Consider focusing on family stability. Before making special purchases, families may wish to use the funds to get current and/or stay current on all household expenses (rent, utilities, child care, etc). Building a savings cushion also promotes stability: 1) providing funds in case of unexpected expenses such as car repair or appliance replacement; AND/OR 2) covering upcoming expected costs such as back-to-school, holidays, or property taxes. A savings cushion to cover extra expenses can prevent financial setbacks, promote family stability, and reduce financial stress.

Paying off debt is also a good use of extra funds, especially debts with high interest rates. HOWEVER, it is often wise to build a savings cushion even before all debt is paid off. Without that savings, every unexpected expense simply creates more debt and more stress.

Watch for Updates! The IRS will base payments on information from 2020 tax returns. If your situation changes, you will be able to let them know of changes through one or more on-line portals they will create in the near future (similar to the “Check Your Refund” portal, or the “Get My Payment” portal used for stimulus payments). The portal(s) will allow families to enter information such as: bank information for direct deposit; a new child in your household; updated mailing address. The portal will also allow you to decline the advance payments and choose to receive the entire amount with your tax refund after the year is over.

The IRS reference page for the advance child tax credit is here.

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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Get Help Paying the Internet Bill

In a new program from the Federal Communications Commission, qualifying households are eligible for a temporary monthly discount on their broadband internet service; in most cases, the discount is $50/month. The income guidelines are low, so only a fraction of Americans will qualify, but if someone you know is eligible, that $50/month could make a huge difference to their family.

You may qualify if any one of the following applies to you:

  • People with incomes below 135% of the poverty level. That’s about $17,000/year for a single person, or $35,000/year for a family of four.
  • You are eligible for Food Assistance, Medicaid, Free or Reduced School Lunch, or Lifeline benefits.
  • You participate in certain tribal programs, including BIA General Assistance, Tribal Head Start, Tribal TANF, or emergency food distribution.
  • You are a student receiving a Pell Grant.
  • Your household has lost significant amount of income due to pandemic-related job loss. NOTE: this qualification includes people with incomes well above the 135% poverty threshold.

The funding is temporary, and will end when the program runs out of money OR six months after the US Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID public health emergency. Apply now in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

To Apply: Go to https://getemergencybroadband.org/ where you will find all the details and the on-line application form.

Source: Consumer Action, which offers this information in Spanish.
The Federal Communications Commission offers pdf fact sheets in Arabic, Amharic, Burmese, Chinese-Traditional, Chinese-Simplified, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Tagalog, and Vietnamese as part of their outreach toolkit.

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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Garden Season: Invest wisely

I had a garden last year like I have most of the past 20-plus years. I’ve never been a GREAT gardener, but I’ve enjoyed having some fresh produce that I grew myself. Last year was extremely disappointing, however — very little to harvest. Somewhere along the line I realized that I had skipped the step of adding fertilizer to the soil. I knew better too – I had learned that lesson early on.

I was disappointed to have so little produce, of course, but mostly I was disgusted with myself for investing the time, energy and money (for plants/seeds and for watering) without taking the simple extra step that would have made my efforts pay off. One careless oversight made most of my investment go to waste.

You can bet I’m going to be smarter this year. I will make sure to fertilize as recommended. For those of us who are not already gardening experts, good information is the key to having our investments pay off. There are many sources of information – some provide trustworthy information while others are just passing on rumors or trying to sell a product. Evaluate the source of any information you use as you plan, plant, and tend your garden this summer. One source of information you know you can trust is Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Check out our Horticulture and Home Pest News site for a wealth of information to meet your needs. It includes an encyclopedia, with topics alphabetically, along with a “browse by topic” section, a search function and more.

Happy gardening!

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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Funeral Assistance in COVID Deaths: Avoid Scams

If you lost a loved one to COVID-19, you may be eligible for a government program that pays for funeral expenses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay up to $9,000 for funeral expenses for loved ones who died of COVID-19. Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA, toll-free, at 844-684-6333. To find out if you qualify, read FEMA’s Funeral Assistance FAQs.

Unfortunately, FEMA reports that scammers are contacting people and pretending to offer to register them for assistance. To avoid those scams, here are some tips:

  • FEMA will not contact you until you call or apply for assistance.
  • The government won’t ask you to pay anything to get this benefit. 
  • Don’t give your own or your deceased loved one’s personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you out of the blue.

If you think you got a scam call, hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Source: Reprinted from CFPB news. They also provide information about other scams, including general scams as well as other COVID-related scams.

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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