Gift Cards: Know What You are Buying and Giving

Wondering what to buy someone on your gift list? For many shoppers, a gift card is the answer. Gift cards are convenient and found in multiple retail locations as well as through online merchants. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers plan to purchase three or four gift cards this season with an average amount of $47 per card. The most frequently purchased cards are for restaurants, department stores, coffee shops, Visa/Mastercard/American Express/Discover, and entertainment such as movies or music.

Consumer Reports and the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division offer these tips when purchasing gift cards:

  • Buy directly from stable and trusted sources. If a retail business closes, the recipient has a worthless card. Use caution when ordering cards through online gift card resellers.
  • Read the fine print and look for fees (activation or inactivity), costs to purchase the card, as well as any shipping and handling fees if you order the card through a website or by phone.
  • Retailers are not required to replace a lost or stolen card. However, some may with proof of purchase. Include the original receipt with the card.
  • The card’s Personal Identification Number (PIN) should be under a protective sticker and not scratched off. Scammers copy gift card codes then steal money loaded on the card.
  • Remember that a merchant card is valid only at the walk-in or online store of the issuing retailer.
  • Make sure the intended recipient will use the card. A large number of gift cards are unspent. Someone in a different region of the U.S. may have fewer options to use the card. Alert the recipient if the card has an expiration date.

If you have a dispute regarding a retail gift card, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division (www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov or 515-281-5926 or, toll-free at 888-777-4590) or the Federal Trade Commission (https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or toll-free at 877-FTC-HELP)

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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Giving

Today is #GivingTuesday, an annual event begun in 2012 to spark a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world on December 3, 2019 and every day.”

As it follows on the heels of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” and even “Small Business Saturday,” I find “Giving Tuesday” a huge relief – a welcome change of pace, not focused on shopping.

There are three ways we can use our money: Spend, Save, or Share. I don’t think the “sharing” element always gets its due attention. Sharing happens in many ways, including charitable giving and also including gifts to people we care about. It’s true that for many people, Black Friday and Cyber Monday focus on shopping for gifts we want to give to others; that is sharing, after all. But I see the kind of gift-giving I do with family and friends to be a little different. It’s less of a pure kind of sharing, because it’s usually reciprocal: “I need to give them something nice, because I know they’ll be giving me something nice, too.”

What I really like about Giving Tuesday is that it seems to encourage a more selfless sharing, with a main focus is on promoting the good of others, on something bigger than ourselves. If I can buy gifts for people who already have plenty, then surely I can also GIVE selflessly to causes that will help make the world a better place, or to people who have real need.

As you consider your giving options, 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.orgwww.charitywatch.orgwww.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.  

Giving is part of my monthly budget every month all year round. So on Giving Tuesday I am reminded to consider where this month’s gifts will do the most good, and also to reexamine whether I can give a little more…

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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A Missing Link in Your Spending Plan?

checking a box

Making a spending plan is a key to being on top of your finances. When you look at the income you can realistically expect and then decide in advance how you want to spend it, that plan puts you in control; it helps you ensure your money is used where it matters most.

But is a spending plan all you need? The answer is a definite NO. Lots of people make spending plans but still don’t gain control. Why?  Because even the best spending plan is useless if you don’t FOLLOW it. And that doesn’t happen automatically. You need a strategy.

The good news is that for most people, part of their spending plan is easy to follow; fixed expenses like rent and other bills are predictable, and are usually paid just once a month. The tricky part for most people is staying within their planned limits for flexible expenses (groceries, fun, etc).

It comes down to questions like this:
If you plan to spend $320 on groceries for the month, how do you make sure you don’t spend more than that?

The answer? Keeping track. The only way to make sure you follow through with your plan is to have a strategy for checking up on your spending throughout the month. There are “old-fashioned” ways to do that, like writing down spending in each category, using either written ledger charts OR computerized spreadsheets. The “envelope method” also can help you follow your plan; it involves separate envelopes containing cash for each category of spending you wish to monitor (groceries, gas, fun, etc).

There are also “apps” that can help you track. These apps work in a variety of ways: with some, you enter your spending in your mobile device as you go along; with others, your debit card spending is linked to the app, so that, for example, all purchases at the grocery store are automatically added to your running total of food expenses.

The money management apps for mobile devices are generally provided by commercial organizations, and Extension does not recommend commercial products, but consumers have found many of these apps useful. One caution I suggest, however, relates to internet security when accessing your financial accounts. Choose settings within the app that will prevent the app from connecting to your bank account via open public wi-fi.

Tracking your spending, especially in the categories where you are most at-risk of exceeding your planned amounts, is the best step you can take to make your spending plan work. And that is the way to achieve your financial goals!

For more information, find our free 4-page publication “Tracking Your Spending.”

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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Your Biggest Financial Decision

What’s the biggest financial decision you’ll ever make? Going to college? Buying a house? Maybe, but it may also be true that the biggest financial decision is the decision about when to claim Social Security. And that is a decision where you’ll hear people give opposite advice – some will recommend claiming early, and others encourage you to wait.

Because it’s a big decision, it’s worth exploring your options carefully using readily available online tools. Tool #1 is well-known, but read on to tool #2, as well, because it offers a bonus.

Tool #1: Set up your account at www.socialsecurity.gov and check out your options. Notice how your monthly Social Security income changes depending on your age at claim. You’ll notice that it’s not just what year, but also what month, that matters. For example, if you turn 67 in November, but really don’t have any plans until summer, working an extra 5 or 6 months will give you a higher monthly income.

Tool #2: Check out the Social Security Estimator from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  Although this tool is not personalized to your individual history of work and earnings, it does something the Social Security tool does not. It shows the cumulative impact of your decision about when to claim. 

Here’s how the CFPB tool works: You enter your birthdate, and type in how much has been your highest annual earned income in your career. Based on that, it estimates what your social security retirement benefit would be at your full retirement age, and at other ages between 62 and 70. When you select an age, it shows what your monthly income will be, AND (in the left margin) it shows the total amount you will receive from Social Security if you live to the average life expectancy of 85.

graphic depiction of output described.
Combined graphic showing calculator results at ages 62 and 70

I ran an example for a person born in 1960 whose highest earning level was $50,000/year. If they claimed at age 62 and lived till age 85, they would receive a monthly benefit of $1,112 and would have received a total of $305,800 from Social Security during their life. By contrast, if they claimed at age 70 and lived to age 85, their monthly benefit would be $1,958 and their total by age 85 would be $352,440. Note: all these figures would actually be higher, because of adjustments for inflation.

There is no “right” age to claim Social Security; your choice depends on your situation – your needs, other sources of income, health situation, and more. But using available tools, including the CFPB calculator which enables you to easily see the total impact of your decision at age 85, will help you make a well-informed decision. Find more retirement planning information our retirement resource page.

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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Managing Someone Else’s Money – Being a Financial Caregiver

Today’s guest blogger is Sandra McKinnon, Human Sciences Specialist in family finance serving southwest Iowa.

Are you managing money or property for a loved one who is unable to pay bills or make financial decisions? According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 40% of those over 60 years old have a power of attorney. That amounts to over 26 million people in the U.S. with this responsibility.

Being legally designated as power of attorney is one of 4 different types of financial caregivers, also known as a fiduciary. You must be trustworthy, honest and act in good faith.

Other types of fiduciaries include: a court-appointed guardian of property (known as a conservator); a government fiduciary (such as a Social Security representative payee); and a trustee under a revocable living trust. Each of these is a separate responsibility.

Each has duties, powers and responsibilities. In general, there are 4 basic legal duties of a fiduciary:

  1. Act only in best interest of your family member or friend
  2. Manage their money and property carefully
  3. Keep their money and property separate from your own
  4. Keep good records and report as required

Another role of a financial caregiver is to watch out for financial exploitation and be on guard for consumer scams. If you suspect exploitation of an older adult, call the Eldercare Locator 1-800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.acl.gov. They will assist you in finding the state or local agency that investigate.

For more information, visit https://www.consumerfinance.gov/consumer-tools/managing-someone-elses-money/ or seek guidance of an appropriate legal professional.

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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Currency Exchange Cautions

Last month I took a vacation to Ireland. It had been years since I’d traveled outside the US and Canada, so I did some “homework” before I left.  One key step was to talk with my credit card carriers. Two purposes:

  1. Let them know I was going to be traveling (always a good idea, even when traveling in the U.S.).
  2. Find out what their currency conversion fees are.
Dollars becoming Euros

When exchanging U.S. Dollars for another currency, there is always an exchange rate, because U.S. Dollars and Mexican Pesos and Euros and Indian Rupees are not equivalent. Currently, it takes about $1.10 US to buy one Euro, which is the currency used in Ireland.

Beyond that, however, there MAY be another cost: the bank that is converting the money may charge a fee for converting the funds. When I called my credit card companies, I got good news: two of my cards charged no conversion fees! My third card did charge a fee (3%), so I didn’t use it at all.

So far it sounds like I did a great job, right? But no – not completely. My mistake came in a situation I hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes when I was paying for a purchase in Ireland, the store gave me a choice: would I like to have the transaction charged to my credit card in US dollars or in Euros? A few times, caught by surprise, I said “US Dollars.”

Unfortunately, that was the wrong answer, as I learned when I looked closer at my receipts. Because when the store or restaurant ran the transaction in US Dollars, then they charged me a conversion fee (3.5% in one case). The right answer to the question would’ve been to have them go ahead and process the transaction as Euros, since I knew my credit card wasn’t going to charge me a fee.

Was this the end of the world? Absolutely not. It was a small expense, since I only did that a few times before I noticed the fee, and luckily not on any large purchases. But I was still a little disappointed in myself. After preparing to be a smart traveler, I undid the benefit by making a poorly-informed decision on the spot.

I’ll do better next time. And maybe YOU will have a chance to benefit from the lesson I learned!

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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Sports Betting Tips

Today’s guest blogger is Kalyn Cody, ISU Extension Human Sciences Specialist serving the DesMoines metro region. Kalyn Cody photo

Last week, I, like many Iowans, walked into my local casino to set up a profile for online sports betting. 

After a law passed in May and final rules were approved in July, sports betting began on August 15th at many casinos in Iowa.  The law allows for both in-person and online bets, but everyone must first check in at a casino to verify their age and identity. With this new opportunity to gamble in Iowa, it is important that we remember some key tips to bet responsibly and not get in over our heads. 

First, always gamble with a plan.  Pick an amount you are comfortable losing.  Does this amount fit into your budget?  Will you have to sacrifice things you need if you lose?  Additionally, pick an amount you are comfortable winning.  Set a dollar amount at which you will walk away.  It is very common to see a stack of chips or winning tickets and continue playing, only to look down again a bit later with nothing left.  Whether you are winning or losing, have an exit strategy.

Second, never borrow money to make a bet.  Think of sports betting as entertainment.  Would you take a loan to watch the headliner at the State Fair?  To go out to a 4-star dinner?  Every gambler has a bad beat story—probably many—and taking a loss on borrowed money can easily spiral out of control. 

Finally, if you do find yourself struggling with a gambling problem, be aware of resources that are available to help.  The Iowa Department of Public Health has set up a website with a risk assessment, hotline, live chat, and more.  You can also call the ISU Extension Iowa Concern Line at 800-447-1985. 

Enjoy your new options, but remember to stay in control of your bets.

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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Who needs an emergency fund?

jar of coins

If you’ve gotten along for years without any money in the bank, you might scoff when people suggest that establishing an emergency fund should be a priority. Perhaps you respond with: “I always find a way to deal with emergencies, even without money in the bank!” You are not alone. A recent survey found that 4 in 10 Americans could not cover an unexpected expense of $400; that might be the cost of replacing an appliance that died or an unexpected car repair.

If you’re one of those 4 in 10 Americans, you’ve probably paid a price for your lack of savings. 

  • Perhaps your landlord or the utility company has lost patience with you, and will no longer give you any leeway; they may even threaten to evict you or disconnect your services. 
  • Perhaps family members avoid your calls because they’re tired of you asking for money. 
  • Perhaps you pay tens (or hundreds) of dollars a month in late fees and interest because of unexpected expenses have put you behind on bills.

Here’s the hard truth: living with no savings creates real problems for individuals and families. Savings is essential for financial stability. It can also reduce family arguments and help you sleep better at night.

So the question is this: HOW does a person build up savings? There are lots of “tricks” people use to save money. For example, they may save all their change, or every $5 bill they receive in change; or they may have a “frugal week” each month, in which they give up extras like coffee, soda or eating out, and then save the money they would’ve spent on those things. I love hearing about the variety of strategies people use!

When it comes right down to it, though, there are two core elements of any savings plan:

  1. You must treat your savings like a bill, and pay yourself FIRST. If you wait, planning to save “whatever is left,” the saving probably won’t happen. Make your spending plan for the month (or the week), figure out how much you can save, and do it first. That is the best way to succeed with saving.
  2. You MUST be saving because it is important to YOU. If you try to save just because I told you that you should, it won’t work. You have to want to save in order to be willing to make the changes required for saving. So think about WHY you want to have some savings built up. Maybe you’ll think back to the stress and drama you experienced the last time an unexpected expense occurred; avoiding that stress might be your reason. Setting an example for your children might be your reason. Keeping the utility company happy might be your reason. Note: It helps if your partner and family also agree that saving is important.

How much should you have in your emergency fund? That’s up to you, but I encourage you to set a realistic goal for the short term. If money is tight, it might take a couple of years to get to $1,000. You need some success sooner than that, so a goal of $100 might be a good place to start. When you reach that goal, you can celebrate! (And then start toward $200).

How have you succeeded with saving? We’d love to hear your stories!

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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Medical Bill Mysteries: New Tool

Stethoscope with a $100 bill

For the past year-and-a-half I have joined others in being surprised, frustrated and horrified by the “Bill-of-the-Month” news stories presented cooperatively by National Public Radio (NPR) and Kaiser Health News (KHN). The NPR/KHN team receives real bills from real people across the U.S., for treatments ranging from a cat bite and a knee brace to spinal surgery and stroke.

In every case, the consumer submitted the bill because it either seemed outrageously high or it just didn’t make sense. The investigative reporters dug into the issues, usually gathering information from the medical provider and the insurance company as well as the consumer. Sometimes they found errors that could be corrected to reduce the bill; more often, they uncovered prices that were simply inexplicably high. Sometimes, but not always, shining the light of publicity on the situation led to a reduction or elimination of the bill.

Last month Kaiser Health News launched “Your Go-To Guide to Decode Medical Bills.” This new tool includes three components: 1) Pro Tips for Navigating Surprise Medical Bills; 2) a helpful Glossary; and 3) an example of a medical bill and corresponding insurance documents, with notes highlighting key items to pay attention to. The guide is not a magic wand – it doesn’t make navigating difficult medical bills easy. But it does point consumers in the right direction, so we can get started advocating for ourselves and our loved ones.

The guide reminds us that our consumer options begin even before we seek medical treatment – with a set of items to check on before going in or making an appointment. If, despite advance preparation, you end up with a surprising medical bill, a key step is to request an itemized bill. Medical providers are required by law to provide this if consumers request it. Along with other tips, the guide identifies two websites that can help you compare the price you were charged with prices of other providers: Health Care Blue Book and Fair Health Consumer.

As consumers we need to be our own advocates. It helps to have some guidance on how to do that effectively!

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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Retirement: Longevity vs Life Expectancy

When planning for retirement, we often look up our life expectancy. One good source of life expectancy information is the Social Security Administration.   Among the many tools they offer is a life expectancy estimator. I looked up my own life expectancy.  Assuming I live to retirement age (67), the average life expectancy for a woman my age is 87. So that means I should plan for retirement to last till 87, right? Not so much. Remember: life expectancy information gives the average.  (I might not be average – what about you?)

I recently discovered a tool called the Longevity Illustrator, offered by the Society of Actuaries.  Why is this different than a life expectancy estimator? Because longevity is not the same as life expectancy! Longevity is broader — it addresses the likelihood that a person will live to various ages.

The Longevity Illustrator provides insight into possibilities — what are the “odds” that a person will live to extremely advanced age, for example? Again, I used myself as an example; remember that my life expectancy, assuming I live to age 67, is about 87. The longevity illustrator points out that there is nearly a 50-50 chance I’ll live to age 90, a 28% chance I’ll live to age 95, and a 10% chance I’ll live to age 100!!

What does that mean for our retirement planning? The longevity illustrator explains that each of us needs to decide what level of certainty is important to us. For me, they pointed out that:

  • If I am comfortable with a 25% chance that I might run out of money, then I might plan for a 28-year retirement.
  • If I want more security — perhaps only a 10% risk that I would outlive my funds, then I should plan for a 33-year retirement.

Anytime our decisions involve unknowns, like retirement does, we need to prepare for some complex thinking. We need to consider a variety of possibilities, and recognize that there will be no certainty; instead, we need to think in terms of probability. We also need to be prepared to be flexible. It’s a challenge, but having good tools can help.

Check out the Longevity Illustrator from the Society of Actuaries and see how it can inform your retirement planning decisions!

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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