October Dates to Remember

Around this time of the year, I get a surge of individuals wanting me to prepare the previous year’s taxes. Then I remember…October 1 is the first day to file the FAFSA for college financial aid. Some colleges award scholarships and financial assistance on a first-come, first-served basis.

October Dates to Remember

October 15 is the new deadline to file your return if an extension was filed earlier this year.  If you filed for an extension on your taxes, October 15 is also the last day to contribute to a SEP IRA for self-employed people and small business owners.

Sometime in the fall, usually beginning in October or November, most employers hold their open enrollment period so you can change your employee benefits for the upcoming year. Review your health election, 401(k), and other employee benefits like life and disability insurance to see if they’re still meeting your needs. Do you have a flexible spending account (FSA)? Use those funds for qualified medical expenses or child care expenses by the end of the year. That money generally won’t roll over into next year. If you have a health savings account (HSA), that money will roll over and is tax-deferred, so consider maxing it.

November 1 is just around the corner and is the opening day of the federal health insurance marketplace enrollment for 2021 coverage. Iowa State University Extension has online class scheduled to help individuals choose wisely, the kind of health insurance they need.  The Smart Choice Basics class is intended for individuals that are 65 or younger and helps you select the right plan. Smart Choice Actions teaches individuals how to make wise use of the health insurance plan and intended for adults of any age.  Both workshops are 1 hour long at begin at 6:00 PM.  For dates and registration information, go to…

10/26/20  Smart Basics

11/2/20  Smart Use

12/1/20  Smart Basic   

12/8/20  Smart Use

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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Debt? Make A Plan

The financial impact of COVID-19 has many people worrying about paying back borrowed money and wondering where to start. If you’d like help after reviewing the steps below, Iowa State University Extension Family Finance Specialists across the state are available for educational consultations that are free and confidential.

To get started, take 3 steps to manage your debt.

First, understand your debts. Make a chart or a list showing each debt, with who you owe, the amount you owe (including interest), and projected payoff date (if available). Having this clear view of your total debt picture will help you plan your approach.

Second, consider what the consequences are if you do not pay on time. In most cases, late payment or failure to pay will hurt your credit score. But in some cases, the consequences are more serious: for example, you may lose a service, such as water or electricity; or your vehicle may be repossessed. Considering the consequences will help you decide which bills to prioritize. NOTE: eventually it will be important to repay all your debts, but in the short term, it is advisable to prioritize those that are essential to your family’s well-being or to keep your job.

Third, plan a payment strategy that works best for you. After prioritizing the bills that are critical to your family’s well-being, you still may have several other debts to address – which of those should you pay first? You should, of course, keep paying the agreed-upon monthly payments if possible, but if you have extra money to put toward your debts, where should you start? Some people start by attacking the debt with the lowest balance – they are motivated by the idea of completely wiping out a debt so they have fewer bills to think about. You will actually save the most money by first focusing on the bill with the highest interest rate. To explore debt repayment options, check out PowerPay, a free and non-commercial debt calculator sponsored by Utah State University Extension.

Taking control of your debts starts with three steps: understanding it, being aware of consequences of not paying debt, and having a plan to reduce debts. It’s not easy to become debt-free, but for most consumers it can be accomplished with hard work and dedication. Be sure to contact your local ISU Extension financial educator if you’d like some assistance with sorting through your options.

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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National Preparedness Month

Considering all the catastrophes that Iowa is currently facing, it is fitting that the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has named September “National Preparedness Month.”  Between our ongoing struggle with COVID-19 and its associated challenges regarding health and employment, farm prices slumping over the past several years, and now the derecho, Iowa has certainly witnessed the importance of being prepared.  As many of us have learned, sometimes even the best laid plans are insufficient.  However, that caveat shouldn’t prevent any of us from taking steps to cushion ourselves from unexpected events. 

The 2020 theme for Preparedness Month is, “Disasters don’t wait.  Make your plan today.”  We learned this lesson acutely 2 weeks ago when we had only 30-40 minutes notice of our inland hurricane. 

So, what sort of things should we be preparing?  What elements should our plan contain?  DHS recommends taking concrete action steps each week in September.  Week 1 advises making a plan to communicate before, during, and after a disaster.  Week 2 suggests building a kit of emergency supplies to last your family a few days.  Week 3 asks that you know your situation including the types of disaster that may strike your area and checking on your insurance coverage.  For example, if you live in an area that might flood, it is better to find out if you have flood insurance before you are swimming in your basement than after.  Finally, Week 4 requests that you clearly share your plans with your children including strategies for reconnecting or communicating if you become separated in a disaster. 

As always, it is a good idea to have some degree of emergency savings readily available.  The conventional wisdom states that a person should save enough to cover 3-6 months of living expenses, but this can often total in the thousands of dollars.  If this number isn’t realistic for you at the moment, start small by setting a goal of putting aside $25 or $50 a month until you have a few hundred dollars on hand.  Being able to cover some smaller emergencies can help keep you from experiencing the increased stress of cascading troubles. 

If you find yourself struggling with your finances, you can always contact your local Extension office to get in touch with your Family Finance Specialist.  We are here to help and can offer 1-on-1 consultations.

Kalyn Cody photo

Guest Blogger, Kalyn Cody, 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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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 phish@facebook.com, stop-spoofing@amazon.com, spam@uspis.gov. 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 IdentityTheft.gov 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: https://www.dhs.iowa.gov/how-to-apply. 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 FoodPantries.org 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, https://www.educateiowa.gov/pk-12/nutrition-programs/summer-food-service-program

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 https://www.farmers.gov/coronavirus.

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.  https://coronavirus.iowa.gov/pages/faqs#Utilities

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 https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/5523

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 https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/free-credit-reports  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 AnnualCreditReport.com.

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 https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

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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