Defining Financial Wellbeing: A New Way of Thinking

What comes to mind when you think about your financial wellbeing?  It may be paying bills on time, understanding your credit report, keeping financial accounts in balance, managing investments, or a long list of other financial tasks.  Although these items are important aspects of our financial lives, recent research has found that other key factors may be critical to our financial well-being

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau talked to consumers across the country to learn what financial wellbeing means to them.  Based on those interviews they found that four elements were mentioned:

• Feeling in control

• Capacity to absorb a financial shock

• On track to meet goals

• Flexibility to make choices

Financial wellbeing is not based on income level.  It’s more personal and based on satisfaction with your financial situation. Based on their research the CFPB developed a definition of wellbeing as having financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future.

To measure your financial wellbeing, link to the wellbeing tool. Answer ten questions to get your score. You will not share any personal financial data. Steps to improve financial wellbeing are included.

Guest Blogger Phyllis Zalenski Family Finance Field Specialist…Providing Financial Management education for individuals and families including spending plans, budgeting for your needs, consumer decision-making, dealing with credit and debt, and planning for your future – savings, insurance, and retirement.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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Brushing – Another Scam

I find myself spending more time cleaning and pitching now that I am spending more time at home. In the toss-pile is a large collection of freebies that were handed out at fairs and tradeshow booths…stress balls, pens with weird gizmos attached, whistles, mini Frisbees, etc.  There is even a package or two of wildflower seeds that arrived in the mail promoting the planting of pollinator fields to save the bees.

The latest free thing that is arriving in the mail these days are UNIDENTIFIED seeds from an UNKNOWN source. Seeds that have not been ordered.  They are arriving mostly from China and Uzbekistan. This is of great concern to the USDA and the State Departments of Agriculture.  These seeds could be an invasive plant that does not currently exist in the US or they may contain seed-borne diseases that do not exist in the US. Some packages have an unknown seed treatment that could be dangerous to human health.

Most likely, these packages are part of a BRUSHING scheme….fake orders used in e-commerce to boost a seller’s rating. Because a shipment has to take place to make an order valid, sellers may ship an empty box or some cheap item. These fake orders can boost the seller’s rating, which can make it more likely that their item will appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites.

What the USDA and the State Departments of Ag want you to do is…

– Do not plant the seeds

– Do not open the packets

– Do not eat the seed.

– Retain the packages and contact the IDALS (515.281.5321 – Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship) or USDA (515.251.4083 – US Department of Agriculture) for further instructions.

More information from our ISU agriculture colleagues and from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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ID Theft Protection

Lately I find myself asking my husband if he got the mail because there is not the usual pile waiting for me on the kitchen table. Then I started to wonder if he had already sorted and tossed the junk. Nope! It is not my imagination…there truly is a lot less junk mail these days since COVID 19 began. So much less that it has created a collapse in mail volume. The decline could be as much as 60% by the end of the year, which is bad news for the US Postal Service…considering it has been struggling for about 14 years.

On the other hand,…the supply of junk e-mail continues to grow at a steady pace.  It has even creeped into my text messages. Some emails and text messages look very authentic so, it is important to be alert to scammers. Be wary of messages requesting immediate action. Poor grammar and spelling errors are a good indication the email is fraudulent.

Nearly all e-businesses have a process in place for reporting such emails and texts that are made to look like they are coming from their legitimate company…Facebook, Amazon, etc. You can do a quick search and find how best to notify businesses when you receive messages from scammers; examples include,, You will probably get an auto-reply indicating that your message was received and appreciated but don’t expect the company to personally reply to your email.

If you are concerned about data breaches or identity theft, you may be considering signing up for identity theft protection services. Before you enroll, it is important to weigh the costs and benefits of various types of services. You also can compare them with free and low-cost services. The federal government’s website provides free personal recovery plans and step-by-step guidance to help identity theft victims recover.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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Food Assistance and Increased Options

With job losses skyrocketing because of the coronavirus pandemic, hunger is a growing issue for many Iowans. To help alleviate some of the stress, the Department of Human Services requested an addendum to the state plan for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The addendum has allowed for increased access to food distribution to address food insecurity related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowans who qualify for food assistance can receive increased funds – and in April and May, that total monthly benefit was $646 for a family of four!

Iowans who are in need of food should call 2-1-1 or contact their local food bank to find TEFAP providers in their area. There are also increased options to use food assistance funds to purchase food online. Some retailers like Walmart and Amazon now accept Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) and Amazon is able to deliver to all zip codes in Iowa.

The fastest and easiest way to apply for benefits is to complete the online application located at: If you don’t already have Food Assistance benefits, you can apply anytime in June and if you are eligible, you will get the full monthly maximum amount of benefits for your household size.

Food pantries might be another option to make ends meet during this crisis. Food pantries are permanent sites that store and distribute groceries to people in need. They are commonly located at community centers, faith based organizations or other sites. Many food pantries have set distribution hours, so it’s best to call before you visit. You can check the website for local pantries near you.

Many communities in Iowa offer Mobile Pantries. These might be monthly, bimonthly or quarterly food distributions and are often operated by the Food Bank of Iowa. Community partners throughout Iowa set up these farmers market-style distributions. You can check mobile pantry schedule for a list of all our mobile pantries, or find a mobile pantry near you on the food resources map.

The summer food service program (SFSP), administered by the Iowa Department of Education, offers nutritious meals and snacks to school children ages 18 and under during the summer months. You can check the Iowa Department of Education website for local information,

Soup Kitchens and Meal Sites prepare and serve meals to people in need on a regular basis. Most soup kitchens and meal sites have set meal times on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis so again, be sure to call before you visit.

If you are farm family, whose operation has been directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic there is assistance available through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. This program can provide direct relief to producers who have faced price declines and additional marketing costs due to COVID-19. The USDA is accepting applications through August 28, 2020, more information can be found at

Guest Blogger: Mary Weinand
Family Finance Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension
Guest Blogger
Mary Weinand
Family Finance Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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Juggle—Stop—and Slide Expenses

Juggle—Stop—and Slide your personal expenses throughthis COVID-19 global pandemic using tools, actions and strategies to protect your family.

Juggle– Put money you would have normally spent for things (e.g., personal care, commuting costs and child care) toward other essential bills. Rework your budget and reallocate money you are not currently spending.  We shifted money not spent on gas and eating out. Those dollars are now budgeted for extra costs for an unplanned internet upgrade. Consider online budget tools like this one from the University of Wisconsin.

Stop- Take immediate action to stop all excess spending. Ask: “How can we reduce spending?”

  • Substitute a less costly item
  • Conserve resources and avoid waste
  • Cooperate with others by trading or sharing resources
  • Save money if we do it ourselves
  • Do without

These ideas and more are available at the University of Minnesota’s “Strategies for Spending Less” page. You’ll find other resources on ISU Extension’s Finding Answers Now page

Slide- Take advantage of Covid19 Special offers and slide a portion of the bill forward.

Our mobile phone carrier will not charge a late fee or terminate service through June 30. To qualify due to hardship a short online form is required.   Iowa utility providers (i.e. energy and water) may provide relief payment options, assistance programs, and low-cost steps for customers according to the Iowa Utility Board.

Free and confidential consultations with ISU Extension financial educators are available to all Iowa residents. We can provide tools and information to help you revise budgets, prioritize spending and link to community resources. 

Find your local Extension educator or contact Iowa Concern 800-447-1985 for information. Consider our free booklet: “Planning to $tay Ahead”  English and Spanish

Carol Ehlers

Guest Blogger: Carol Ehlers,
Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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An Ounce of Prevention

I shouldn’t be surprised by the increased number of bogus offerings, threats and scare-tactics arriving in my inbox, mailbox and phone. Scammers are offering everything from face masks to toilet paper and expedited deposits of the stimulus payments. Identity theft and related scams often spike during times of crisis. So…desperate times require extra diligence on our part, to protect our identity and our hard earned money.

The three national credit-reporting companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, are offering free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. By requesting a free credit report at, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at  or by calling 866.349.5191, individuals can receive six free credit reports every twelve months from Equifax, through December 2026…that is in addition to the one free report that can be obtained each year from all credit reporting companies at

While checking your credit report is an important habit, there are other things individuals can do to protect their identity and improve their score.

  1. Pay all your bills on time if possible. It may get difficult with layoffs and furloughs, but try to make at least your minimum debt payments by their due date every month to avoid hurting your credit score.
  2. Contact your lenders for help and ask about hardship options as soon as possible—ideally before you miss a payment. Lenders may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or payment amount, or pause your payments for a period of time. Lenders may also be able to place your loans in deferment or forbearance, which would eliminate payments for a time; as a result, there would be no late payments to report to the credit bureaus. Under the CARES Act, when a consumer contacts their creditor before falling behind in payments, and reaches an agreement with the creditor to a modified payment plan (reduced payments or forbearance), then the creditor may not report late or missed payments to the credit reporting company as long as the consumer follows the agreement. That protection for the consumer lasts until the later of July 26, 2020 OR 120 days after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends.
  3. Check your credit regularly and make sure the information is accurate. You can identify any potentially fraudulent activity and respond to it before it damages your credit.
  4. Dispute inaccurate information immediately. Remember that disputes need to be made with each credit bureau where the disputed information appears.
  5. Contact your service providers. If you do not think you can pay your utility, cell phone, cable or other monthly bills, reach out to your providers to see if they offer flexible payment options during this time.
  6. Be extra vigilant about protecting your identity. If you fear identity theft may occur or has occurred in your name, you can also place a free security freeze on your credit file so lenders cannot gain access to it. This prevents people from applying for credit in your name. You can lift the freeze at any time, for free.
  7. Seek financial management help. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800.447.1985) can put you in touch with a financial consultant who will provide confidential information and discussion, free of charge.
  8. For those with investment or retirement accounts, U.S. market fluctuations could cause significant concern. Before you make any rushed decisions with your investments, consult a reputable investment professional who can look at the details of your situation and provide personalized financial guidance on what actions, if any, you should consider at this time. Not sure where to start? The professionals at the firm holding your investments or with your employer’s retirement plan can be a first contact for analysis of your situation.
  9. Make a budget and plan ahead. If you think current conditions may affect your income or finances, consider tightening your budget to help make sure you have enough funds to cover your expenses.

For more information about free help and guidance during these difficult times, check out

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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If You Don’t Need It, Don’t Buy It

As we experience consumers’ hoarding of a few items like toilet paper we might be under the impression that we’ve fallen on “Tough Times.”  Powerful memories exist for my senior parents who lived during World War II, when rationing meant you couldn’t always buy a wide range of the things you wanted. Like many Americans they learned and practiced “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

It might sound like the advice of frugal parents, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT,” but to meet the needs of US soldiers during World War II, commodities in short supply had to be rationed.  So in 1942 Americans back home were given numbered ration books with stamps inside to control people’s consumption of things like coffee, fuel and shoes and provide equal distribution of scarce goods.

A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the store the right ration stamp.  Once a person’s monthly ration stamps were used up, they couldn’t buy any more of that type of product. It was like being on an allowance.  

This meant planning carefully, being creative, not wasting and self-control. My father’s ration book represents just one way in which World War II changed the spending behaviors of families.

So, what of these valuable consumer behaviors can we practice today? Do I have a list and know what is already on hand at home before shopping? Can the “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” ideal give me confidence to wait during a temporary product shortage? How might my kids, family, friends be encouraged by a different perspective than what they are seeing happen?

My grandparents and parents, like many American households, learned and practiced modest family living, to do without and to sacrifice for the common good because “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Being guided by the rule “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” printed on American’s WWII ration book covers could prove to be a life lesson for the historical event that impacts us all these days.  The ration book of my 82-year-old father, a Soil Conservation Contractor and Southeast Kansas farmer, re-appeared this week as he continues to live by the motto “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Guest Blogger: Carol Ehlers, Human Sciences Finance Field Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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How student loan borrowers can benefit from COVID-19 relief

The CARES Act suspends payments on federal student loans. Consumers hit hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can find some help, thanks to new legislation passed by Congress. Those who can benefit include some student loan borrowers.

The federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act suspends payments on federal student loans until Sept. 30. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Iowa College Aid are spreading the word about benefits for borrowers. “The economic pain caused by this pandemic is devastating for many,” Attorney General Tom Miller said. “I want to ensure borrowers and employers are aware of these benefits.” Miller also urges private lenders and creditors not part of the CARES Act to provide a reprieve for distressed borrowers.   “We’re all in this together,” Miller said. “Let’s reach out, be compassionate and treat each other right.”

If you are paying off student loans, here’s what you need to know: Not all loans qualify. The suspension mandated in the CARES Act is only for loans held by the U.S. Department of Education. It does not cover FFELP (Federal Family Education Loan Program) loans or Perkins loans held by private lenders, nor does it cover private loans. However, some private lenders might provide these benefits on a voluntary basis. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, contact your loan servicer. If you don’t know who your loan servicer is, you can look it up at Federal Student Aid,

If your loan does qualify, you don’t need to do anything. Your payments will automatically stop from March 13 through Sept. 30. Interest is suspended, too. No interest will accrue on your loan until Sept. 30, so your outstanding loan balance won’t grow while your payments are suspended. So is collection on defaulted loans.

If you’re in default, your wages will not be garnished until Sept. 30. You can still pay if you want to. If you choose to continue paying off your loans during the suspension, your monthly payments will be the same as before the suspension. You won’t lose eligibility for loan forgiveness.

If you’re in a public service loan forgiveness program or an income-driven plan that requires a certain number of consecutive payments, this period of suspension will not count as an interruption. You will still be responsible for your loan. After Sept. 30, you will be responsible for paying on your loan once again. The amount will not be reduced. If you’re an employer, you can contribute up to $5,250 toward each worker’s student debt through Dec. 31 on a tax-free basis.

Keep in mind that guidance on student loan suspension is subject to change. You can find recent news and current updates at Federal Student Aid,
Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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Managing Personal Finances in Tough Times

Audio Blog

Concerned about your finances during these uncertain times, but not sure where to start? ISU Extension and Outreach invites you to get in touch with one of our Human Sciences financial educators. They can help walk through ideas and options to revise a budget, prioritize bills, pay down debt, connect with community resources to stretch reduced incomes, and other personal finance topics—totally free of charge.

Our 11 financial educators are listed below with the counties they serve and are available to talk with anyone in Iowa. Because Extension and Outreach staff are currently working from home, please send an email. They will get back to you during regular business hours within 48 hours. You also can leave a phone message at Extension and Outreach’s toll-free Iowa Concern Hotline (800-447-1985) to have someone get back to you.

Contact an ISU Extension and Outreach Financial Educator

Central Iowa – Kalyn Cody  [Dallas, Madison, Polk, Warren]

North Central Iowa – Barb Wollan  [Boone, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Marshall, Story, Webster, Wright]

Northern Iowa – Brenda Schmitt  [Cerro Gordo, Emmet, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Kossuth, Mitchell, Palo Alto, Winnebago, Worth]

Northwest Iowa – Jan Monahan   [Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Plymouth, Sioux, Woodbury]

West Central Iowa – Carol Ehlers  [Audubon, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford, Greene, Guthrie, Ida, Pocahontas, Sac, Shelby]

Southwest Iowa – Sandra McKinnon  [Adams, Adair, Cass, Clarke, Decatur, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Pottawattamie, Ringgold, Taylor, Union]

Southern Iowa – Joyce Lash  [Appanoose, Davis, Jasper, Jefferson, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello, Wayne]

Southeast Iowa – Mary Weinand  [Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Washington]

East Central Iowa – Phyllis Zalenski  [Benton, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson, Jones, Linn]

Eastern Iowa – Casey Codner  [Cedar, Clinton, Muscatine, Scott]

Northeast Iowa – Jeannette Mukayisire  [Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Tama, Winneshiek]

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.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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COVID-19 and Unemployment Insurance Benefits

This is a stressful time for individuals and communities across Iowa and we are dealing with many unknowns. Communities are impacted by the temporary closure of businesses, schools and other public facilities or events, and in some cases, quarantines. While these actions are necessary steps to help reduce exposures, it may bring financial uncertainty for many people who could experience a loss of income due to illness or workplace closures.

If you do experience unemployment, remember there are supports in place for you and your family. Iowa unemployment benefits are available to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If your employer needed to shut down operations and no work is available, you would be eligible to for unemployment benefits. Unemployment claims that are filed as a result of COVID-19 will not be charged to employers.

Many people wonder if they can receive unemployment benefits if they need to stay home from work to care for a dependent, family member or if their child has school cancellations. The answer is, “It depends”. A good approach is to contact your employer regarding potential telecommuting, sick leave, PTO, FMLA, Disability and other options they may be offering.  If those options are not available, you may file for unemployment insurance benefits to determine your eligibility.

Also note, an employer can require an employee to stay at home for the fourteen day isolation period if they have traveled out of state or had contact with someone who visited an area affected by COVID -19. Your employer should attempt to provide paid leave but if that is not available, employees might be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

To learn more about filing an unemployment claim, contact your local Iowa Workforce Development Center or apply online at:

Mary Weinand

Guest Blogger: Mary Weinand, Iowa State University Extension Family Finance Field Specialist.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

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

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