“Forgive My Student Loan? But I just paid it off!”

Graphic from https:studentaid.gov

The announcement by President Biden last month about the new plan to forgive up to $10,000 (or $20,000, in some cases) of student loan debt has been great news for many Americans, but there may be people who are groaning instead of celebrating. If you are one of those people, I may have good news for you!

Here’s the kind of scenario that may have people groaning:
Jane Doe owed $5,500 on her student loans as of March 1, 2020. Even when the COVID-related “student loan pause” kicked in March 13, 2020, she kept making payments of $215/month, because her income stayed steady and she just wanted to be done with the loan. She made her final payment a month ago and celebrated being out of debt!

But then – on August 24 came the announcement that she would be eligible to have up to $10,000 in student loans cancelled! GROAN…. “Oh if only I hadn’t made those payments – I would have been out of debt anyway, and I could’ve saved that $215/month!”

Here’s the good news: Jane Doe can apply to her loan servicer for a refund of the payments she made voluntarily during the student loan pause! And THEN she can apply for up to $10,000 of loan cancellation. In some cases the refund may occur automatically. Note: she will only be eligible for $5,500 loan cancellation because that’s what her balance was when the pandemic hit. The debt cancellation is “up to” $10,000, but if your loan balance is less than $10,000, the cancellation is limited by the amount of your debt.

Did you continue to make payments on your student loans during the student loan pause (administrative forbearance) that began March 13, 2020?  You can apply to get those payments refunded to you, and if you’re eligible for student loan cancellation, you may WISH to request a refund if those payments brought your loan balance below $10,000. Contact your loan servicer to start that process.

THEN, stay tuned for information on how to apply for the debt cancellation. The government expects the application to open in early October. To verify that you are eligible for the loan cancellation AND to minimize administrative glitches, check step one and follow step two provided by Federal Student Aid.

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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Just Testing

Today’s tip is directly reprinted from Consumer Action’s Scam Gram.

A major Maryland healthcare system recently warned patients about phone calls asking recipients to schedule tests “ordered by your provider.” The calls are a ruse to gather personal information, as the callers ask for you to “provide or confirm” details such as your name, cell phone number, doctor’s name, Social Security number, insurance information and home address. While this warning came from the University of Maryland Medical System, similar pretexts are occurring elsewhere, like this fraudulent email that made the rounds at the University of California at Berkeley. The warning notes that callers can be very creative in gaining as much information they can, quickly. They even spoof company names to appear as if they’re calling from a lab or with a lab order from your doctor’s office. Hang up. Do not provide or confirm any information the callers ask for.

Consumer Action is a respected consumer education and advocacy non-profit based in California. You can subscribe here to receive their monthly Scam Gram by email.

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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Savings Strategies

Note: this post builds on yesterday’s post about having a meaningful reason to save.

Once you have a reason why you want to save, or save more, the next step is to “find” money to save. That generally means either increasing income or reducing expenses, which means something will need to change. Change can be hard, but most of us can succeed if we have a good enough reason.

To reduce expenses, you can make several small changes; for example, eat out one less time per week, drink one less can of pop each day, or stop buying magazines and read them at the library instead. OR, you could make one big change that saves money; for example, you could find a roommate to share housing expenses or move to a smaller (less expensive) apartment. To increase income, you could ask for more hours at work, get an extra part-time job, collect cans and bottles for the 5-cent deposit, or have a garage sale.

Once you have “found” some money by reducing expenses, increasing income, or both, the next key is to MOVE that money to a savings account or to some location where you are unlikely to touch it.

This seems like an obvious step, but it can be overlooked.

Imagine a scenario where you exercised self-discipline by skipping your morning coffee shop stop, bringing your lunch to work, and stuck to a limit at the grocery store! You’re proud of yourself! But if you don’t actually MOVE the money to your savings account, it will just end up getting spent on something else.

To make sure the money gets moved to savings, one helpful strategy is to treat savings like a bill you pay each month. If you’ve decided you can save $50/month by making some changes in spending, then “pay” that saving bill just like you pay your utility bill and your car payment. That approach increases your chance to be successful with saving. Even if you are saving small amounts, building the habit of saving each month is a way to reach your goals, whatever they may be.

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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Trying to Save? Ask Why?

As we approach the end of summer, it is time, for many families, to shift back to regular schedules and regular habits. We may think of summer as a break, and when summer is over we go “back to reality.”

If the end of summer has you thinking about launching positive habits, consider regular saving as a useful habit to establish (or re-establish). Saving money may feel difficult or impossible to many people, but for most Iowans it is possible.

One key to saving is to have a meaningful reason you want to save. Hint: if you’re trying to save just because I suggested it, it probably won’t work.

Ask yourself WHY you want to save money? How will your life be better when you save? There are no right or wrong answers – only answers that mean something to you. Some people save for a specific purchase (new tires, new furniture, a vacation, …). Some may save to reduce stress – having a financial cushion helps them sleep better at night and worry less. Some save for retirement, after seeing friends and family members struggle to get by on Social Security alone.

If you truly WANT to save, you will be more motivated, and less likely to give up when obstacles arise. So start by thinking about WHY you will save, and make sure it’s a reason that is important to you.

Tune in tomorrow for additional ideas on how to succeed with saving money!

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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Surprise Lawsuit? Get help!

Financial stress is high these days, thanks to inflation. Imagine adding to that a notice of a lawsuit seeking you to pay a bill of $10,000 or more that is owed by your relative to a nursing home! That would be enough to tip stress levels over the edge!

Unfortunately that scenario has been increasingly common for siblings, nieces or nephews, children or grandchildren or other relatives and friends of individuals living in long term care facilities, according to a recent article in Kaiser Health News, a reputable source of information on health policy issues.

If this should happen to you, don’t panic! There are steps you can take, and help is available. Seek information. Ask for documentation of the debt, AND ask for documentation of why the facility sees you as liable for the debt. And get help – you do not need to deal with this kind of nightmare on your own.

This is a good time to offer a couple of key reminders:

  1. Never pay debts belonging to someone else without exploring whether you are actually liable to pay the debt. As I wrote earlier this summer, you may not even be responsible to pay debts owed by your spouse after he/she dies.
  2. Be careful what you sign. In some cases, nursing homes have produced a document signed by the child (or sibling, niece or other person) in which they actually did accept responsibility for payment. 
    How could this happen? When a person is admitted to a long-term care facility, there is a mountain of paperwork. Amidst all that paper there could be a form by which the signer agrees to pay any unpaid bills. Be sure to read documents before signing them.
    Note: federal regulations prohibit facilities from requiring such forms before admitting a patient.
    Even if you did unknowingly sign such a document, it may be possible to fight back on the grounds that you did not knowingly accept that responsibility.

According to Kaiser Health News, in many cases lawsuits demanding payment are based on fraudulent grounds. Respondents should be sure to consult an attorney. In Iowa, the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans is a resource available to everyone over age 60, regardless of income; contact them at 800-992-8161.

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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Financial Independence? Or Interdependence?

It’s my turn to write a financial blog post the week of Independence Day, and the obvious topic is to write about Financial Independence – which, for the average person, equates to retirement – the time when you have accumulated enough assets so that you can live on those assets rather than working. 

But when I think about it, I’m not convinced there IS such a thing as financial independence. I’m getting pretty close to a point where I might have enough assets to retire, but will that make me independent? I’ll still want to drive on roads that are paid for by my community, or county, or some other larger group of people. I’ll still want to use electricity, but I can’t pay for the electric grid on my own… I need everyone else to pay in too, or the whole system will fall apart.  

If I ever had a fire, I’d be grateful that the Red Cross showed up to help; likewise I’m grateful for the volunteers who make community beautification happen, and those whose volunteer work supports my public library, and those whose time and talents make community theater productions possible. An even less tangible example: my neighbors who have beautiful flower gardens that add beauty to my life. You get the point: even if we have more money than we need for ourselves, we still depend on others. And others depend on us. 

We value our independence as Americans. But I suggest perhaps we should give just as much attention to the importance of our INTER-dependence.  It’s worth remembering to appreciate all the services, amenities and intangible benefits we gain from being part of a larger community. It’s also worth supporting them. We support them financially in several ways: with our shopping (have you ever willingly paid a higher price in order to shop local?); with our tax payments; and/or with our charitable gifts. We may also support them with our time and skills, and just by being a good neighbor. That INTER-dependence is essential to keeping our communities and our country strong.  

Nearly all of us have had times when, if someone was “keeping score,” it would be clear that we RECEIVED more than we GAVE to this interdependent system. The nearly-universal example is when we were students in K-12 schools or at a college or university, especially if we received grants or scholarships. Many of us may encounter similar situations as we age. And certainly, when we have a serious crisis (like that home fire I mentioned above), we will likely receive more than we give or deserve.  

Thankfully, there’s no need to “keep score.” Instead, we’re better off simply celebrating the give and take that is central to the wellbeing of our communities and of our nation.  What INTER-dependence will you celebrate this week? 

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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Buy Now, Pay Later?

Recently I was in the store, and while walking in the aisle, I saw a sign saying “ Buy now and pay later – see the associate for details.” I might expect to see signs like that during winter holiday shopping, but not in the spring!

First, what is Buy Now Pay Later? Basically it’s an option that lets consumers finance their purchase by making small payments each month, without paying any interest. Example: purchase an air fryer for $125 by paying $25 at the time of purchase and promising four future payments of $25 (perhaps monthly or bi-weekly).

According to a 2021 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, people chose Buy Now, Pay Later for five main reasons, listed below in order of preference.

  1. The largest group (78%) stated that it was more convenient for them.
  2. The second reason given was that the consumers did not want use their credit card. Even though they could have purchased the product with a credit card, they feel they were better off without charging it to their credit card.
  3. The next reason was that it was the only way they could afford the product. This is certainly understandable for consumers who are living paycheck to paycheck on a tight budget. Any large purchase would constrain their budget; small payments make the purchase possible.
  4. Some people did some analysis to compare payment options, and concluded that “buy now, pay later” was the least-costly payment option available to them.
  5. Lastly, for some consumers “buy now, pay later” was the only payment method they had – they did not have checking accounts or credit cards available, and worked strictly with cash.  

It is important to point out that even though “Buy Now, Pay Later” does not charge a fee to the consumer, it is not truly free. The retailer offers it in cooperation with an outside finance company, which charges the retailer a fee for the service. Some retailers expect to see increased sales that will make up for the added cost; other retailers may pass the cost on to the consumer in the form of higher prices.

Budgeting for large purchases requires some planning. For those who do not have savings or credit available to cover the cost of a large purchase, Buy Now Pay Later may prove to be a very helpful option, enabling them to acquire higher-cost items they would not otherwise have been able to afford.

A caution: what if I buy an air fryer today (needing $25 payments), and a bike next week (with payments of $40) and a chainsaw the next week ($20 payments)?  Next month I’ll have a bunch of unusual payments to make. If it seems “easy” to make large purchases, consumers may make several purchases within a few weeks and find themselves overcommitted. Like all tools, “Buy Now, Pay Later” can be useful, as long as we use them carefully!

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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Death of a Spouse: Finances amid grief

Nearly 1.5 million Americans faced the death of a their spouse in 2019 – that figure likely increased dramatically in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. The majority of those surviving spouses faced genuine financial challenges, while also dealing with grief and loss. For those who were over age 60 (about 1.2 million in 2019), recently widowed older adults face higher poverty rates, greater housing cost burdens, as well as other critical financial challenges. 

A new guide, “Help for Surviving Spouses,” available from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, alerts newly-widowed individuals to key steps that will help them find a new financial equilibrium. The 24-page guide provides user-friendly information, checklists, and places to make notes, serving as the all-purpose workbook that can get the new widow(er) through the financial tasks and adjustments that are needed.

The first weeks and months after a death are often overwhelming, with grief making it difficult to stay organized or even remember what needs to be done. Having a workbook can help individuals keep track of what has been done and what remains to be done. If you know a new widow(er) or frequently come in contact with people in this situation, consider printing the workbook for them; if you can, offer to help them get started.

Dealing with a deceased spouse’s debts. One key tip for surviving spouses is to be cautious about paying debts belonging to your loved one. In many cases, survivors are not legally responsible for debts belonging solely to a deceased individual. Learn more, and consider seeking professional guidance if you are unsure. Even if you feel a moral obligation to pay the debt, consider first how that will impact your financial situation going forward. If paying that debt leaves you in a financially precarious situation, it may not actually be “the right thing to do.”

Another reason for caution, with debt collection and all other mail, phone calls, and emails, is that families of newly-deceased individuals can be easy targets for fraud. Before even considering any debt, ask for evidence to prove it is a legitimate debt that has not already been paid.

Take advantage of available resources. When one spouse dies, household income typically drops; as a result the surviving spouse may be newly-eligible for various forms of assistance that can make a real difference in their financial well-being.

  • In Iowa, Lifelong Links, a resource provided by the Iowa Department on Aging and the Area Agencies on Aging, is an excellent first stop for those who want to learn about available options. You can search online or call 866-468-7887; if you call, you will be connected with representatives in your part of the state.
  • BenefitsCheckUp.org is a nationwide search tool that can also help you screen for resources that could be of help to you; it is provided by the National Council on Aging.

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which also provides more data about recently widowed adults.

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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Summer Money Crunch

Summer can cause a financial crunch for families with children. Children who are home all day need to eat, and they want things to do; if they go to day care, the cost of full-day care instead of after school care can really stretch the wallet. This summer, with inflation already straining budgets, may be even worse than normal.

There is, of course, no magic wand that will “uncrunch” summer finances. But there are steps that can help! Not all these ideas work for everyone, but see if some of them fit your situation:

  • Take control of food costs, starting with tools from “Spend Smart. Eat Smart.” You’ll find a grocery budget calculator, meal planning tools (and a video), shopping strategies, and a whole slew of recipes that are easy, low-cost, healthy and tasty – some with video instructions. There is even an app for your phone so you can have tools available while you’re at the grocery store!
  • Ask about discounts for summer pool passes or summer recreation programs. Many communities and rec centers offer discounted rates; in some communities the Community Action Agency can provide help here, as well. 
  • When special events come around (fairs, festivals, etc), decide in advance what your spending limit will be, and stick to that limit. It’s easy to get carried away in the midst of the fun if you don’t set limits in advance. Before the events, do some research (ask around) to identify free or low-cost activities that you and your family will enjoy.
  • If your children’s wants and wishes seem never-ending, parents often get tired of saying no, which means they start saying yes too often and end up spending more than they want to.
    One way to ease that pressure is to give your children a weekly or monthly allowance, be clear about what it is for, and not “give in” when they ask you for more money after their allowance is gone. This puts the kids in control, and when they run out of money it’s because of their own choices (and NOT because you are a “mean parent”).
    Several years ago I shared my own experiences with an allowance for my children. The University of Minnesota offers a helpful fact sheet about allowances (scroll down to find it).

What tips can YOU share for tackling the summer financial crunch?

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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Credit Repair? Avoid scams

Your credit history can determine whether you get a loan, get credit, insurance or a home. Some employers also may look at your credit history. A rule of thumb is if you have a good credit history, you will pay lower interest when borrowing money.

Guest Blogger Sandra McKinnon

If you have negative information in your credit history, most of it will stay on your credit report for seven years, and bankruptcy information will stay on for 10 years. That negative information, if it is true, cannot be removed. It simply takes time for it to go away.

A credit repair company can help you investigate mistakes on your credit report, but they cannot remove negative information. So, be on the lookout for a company that says they can.

If you choose to work with a credit repair company, do not pay before they help you. This could mean a scam. Other ways of knowing you may be dealing with a scam are if they tell you:

  • Not to contact the credit bureaus directly
  • To dispute information in your credit report you know is accurate
  • To lie on your applications for credit or a loan

If you think you may have been scammed by a credit repair company, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and your state attorney general’s office. In Iowa, the Attorney General may be reached toll free 1-888-777-4590 or visit https://www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov/.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers information on how to seek help with problem credit. They also offer additional information on credit repair scams.

Sandra McKinnon is a Human Sciences specialist in Family Wellbeing with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, serving southwest Iowa.

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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