Less is More

Woman holding clothes on a hangerIn December, the calendar may say it is winter, but I am never in the mood to do wintery things (decorate, bake and eat comfort foods, etc.) until there is snow on the ground. The same is true for Spring which officially began March 21…almost 2 months ago. The last of our snow recently left and the grass finally turned green and I am now just finding myself in the mood to do spring cleaning…which includes digging out summer clothes and putting away the sweaters.

As I put winter clothes away, I discovered that most of the items in my closet are worn year round…like a short-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, a black dress, a white long-sleeved blouse, a black blazer and dress slacks.

The CAPSULE wardrobe, a term coined in the 70’s, refers to a collection of a few essential, quality items of clothing that never go out of fashion, do not wear out, and can be paired with seasonal pieces. The key is to make sure your essentials are well-made and fit properly…basics that you can wear daily and from which you can create different looks.

If done correctly, a capsule wardrobe should reduce the number of items in your closet — and thus, reduce the amount of time you spend organizing and cleaning out your closet and donating unused items.

Because it is now okay to wear white after Labor Day, to mix prints, and to wear navy and black together, you will find the items in your capsule can remain in your closet all year, eliminating the time-consuming task of removing, organizing and properly storing out-of-season items.  Reducing the number of pieces in your closet also makes it possible to keep all your clothes in your closet, year round.

If these aren’t reasons enough to create a capsule wardrobe, consider the environmental ramifications of cheap, “disposable” clothing. Poor quality clothes lose shape and look tired after being worn only a dozen times. According to a 2017 report we are wearing pieces fewer times before disposing of them. The study says that more than half of all lesser-quality clothes are disposed of in under a year. It also noted that less than one percent of the materials used are recycled; as a result, “one garbage truck full of textiles is land-filled or burned every second.”

Buying high-quality, well-made pieces of clothing that will last years instead of months is not only far better for the environment, but it’s also better for your pocketbook in the long term. And, the capsule wardrobe has great potential to reduce the amount of time spent organizing, storing and cleaning out your closets.

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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Your Phone Rings Again

Your phone rings and you don’t recognize the number. Sound familiar? At my house, nine out of ten calls are unknown, or out of area calls.  When I have a few “missed call” numbers, I put them in the computer browser to see they are legitimate or a scam.  Most of the calls are scams. Phone scams are common, and they often prey on people’s generosity or fear. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans have lost money to a phone scam in the last 12 months, according to the 2019 U.S. Spam and Scam Report.

They are good at it. Scam artists have perfected their pitch, and they use spoofed numbers to make calls look legitimate on caller ID. However, you’ll know it’s a scam if the person on the other end of the phone demands payments via gift cards or wire transfers. Requesting sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and passwords should also be red flags. Seniors may be more trusting on the phone. Everyone should have a conversation with an older loved one.

Your best defense against these types of calls is just to ignore them. While some people like to waste a scammer’s time by stringing along the conversation, it may not be wise. Some scams use voice-recording software, and the more you talk, the more likely you’ll say something that the crooks can use to make unauthorized transactions in your name. It’s best to hang up immediately. 

Here are the top three scam phone calls:

  • THE IRS AGENT CALLING you on the phone. This call isn’t really from the government.  The IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.  Note: they may call as a follow-up to a letter they have already sent, especially if you gave them a phone number and best time to call as part of responding to their letter. Please report IRS or Treasury-related fraudulent calls to phishing@irs.gov (Subject: IRS Phone Scam).
  • Technical Support Calls.  The caller says they are from a well-known company like Microsoft and have detected an error on a person’s computer. They will then talk the victim through a series of steps to “fix” the problem. A person is unwittingly downloading software that will hijack their system or give the caller remote access. Scammers use it to gather sensitive data or install ransomware, which will then require a payment to unlock a computer’s files.
    Older adults may ripe for this scam because they often lack technical sophistication. Younger people might recognize something fishy about Microsoft calling them, but seniors could be more trusting. These calls are always fake. Microsoft and other tech companies do not make unsolicited technical support calls.
  • Fake Charity Appeals. Charity scams are especially likely after a natural disaster or other tragedy. The crooks count on the good will of people who want to help. To avoid giving money to a criminal, don’t make any donations to unsolicited callers. Instead, do your own research to select a reputable charitable organization.

If you find yourself the victim of a phone scam, it can be difficult to recover money. However, you should file a police report and contact your bank. If your Social Security number has been compromised, contact the three credit-reporting bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to request fraud protections be placed on your credit reports.

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Measles and Money??

global information sourcesThe current widespread measles outbreak results from too many people remaining un-vaccinated. But the underlying cause is deeper – the true cause is misinformation. There are some people who don’t get vaccinated because of an existing health problem. But most people who have not been vaccinated based that choice on information that was inaccurate and/or misleading.

Misinformation abounds in today’s world, and not just in health care. As a consumer educator, I am constantly reminding people to make sure they base important decisions on sound information. That means:

  • Not relying solely on the opinion or experience of a few friends. Aside: it’s perfectly appropriate to choose a dessert based on recommendations from friends; that’s a situation where there are no costly consequences if you later regret your choice.  Your friends’ insights can be useful, but they should not be the ONLY reason you make an important decision. Examples of important decisions include where and how much to invest your money, whether and where to get a loan, major purchases (house, car, …), college selection, and so on; these are all decisions that could have substantial long-term costs (financial costs and opportunity costs) if an unfortunate choice is made, OR significant long-term benefits (financial or otherwise) if a productive option is chosen.
  • Reading and learning from on-line product reviews, but not assuming they are 100% accurate or unbiased. One source of product reviews that are generally unbiased is Consumer ReportsStaff there purchase products as ordinary consumers and conduct rigorous scientific testing to assess product performance and reliability. Most libraries carry the magazine, and some material is available on-line even to non-subscribers.
  • Considering the possible motives behind the information you receive, whether it be from a website, a salesperson, an advertisement, or any other source. Advertisements clearly have a goal of selling their product, but a sales goal can also be somewhat hidden. An “informational” website or article might actually be owned by a company that sells investments, for example. In general, you can trust information from websites with a “.gov” or “.edu” URL (including Iowa State University Extension and Outreach). When it comes to “.org” sites, it can be more difficult to discern whether the organization is a credible source. A couple of reliable non-profit organizations are:
  • In many cases, commercial sources of information are a necessary part of your information-gathering. This includes articles in commercial magazines and commercial websites, because there is always a possibility that the information provided may be influenced by their advertisers. When using a commercial source, be sure to seek out multiple sources to see if the information is corroborated elsewhere.
  •  Taking enough time to gather information from a variety of sources. Avoid succumbing to sales pressure suggesting that a decision must be made now.

Just as with measles vaccinations, relying on unbiased, accurate and complete information about consumer decisions will have a positive impact on your well-being!

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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Rule Changes for PrePaid Cards

A client at the volunteer income tax site asked if we could load her tax refund on a prepaid card. The free volunteer site doesn’t offer a prepaid card option; refunds are direct deposited or sent by paper check. Some prepaid cards restrict deposits of federal funds. A test of prepaid cards was completed by volunteers a number of years ago. The sites raised concerns about the fees and hidden charges associated with the cards. An example was a $25 fee paid to receive a cash withdrawal from refunds loaded on a card.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau proposed rule changes for the popular cards in 2016. They are used by employers to issue paychecks, government agencies for benefits, and colleges/universities for financial aid.  The new rules took effect on April 1, 2019.

Primary changes include simple upfront details of fees for store purchased cards; expanded access to account activity and balances at no charge; and registration options that afford protections if the cards are used for unauthorized transactions, lost or stolen. These rule changes also apply to electronic wallets.

Employers, government agencies, and colleges/universities must offer an alternative method of funds transfer. If a card option is used there must be access to monthly account transactions and fees.

Consumers should read materials explaining card use; register their cards when the option is available; and become more informed about their rights.  Cards can have high fees that make their convenience questionable.

 

 

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Surviving Tax Season???

It’s April 16 and most of us survived another tax season. Were you happy with your refund or did you have to pay in more than you have in the past? If your refund was too big, or you had to pay in a lot, you may wish to revisit your Form W-4.

Every time you earn income, you’ll most likely owe state and federal income tax.  Your Form W-4 determines how much tax is withheld from your paychecks. Your employer deducts taxes based on the number of allowances you claim on your W-4. This system works well if you’re a “standard” taxpayer who files single, has one job, and claims a standard deduction.  But if you don’t fit into this category—and many of us don’t—it’s likely that you have too much or too little tax withheld.

Workers complete form W-4 when they start a job. For many people, that is the last time they pay attention to it. Has there been a change in your household – did you add a child, get married or have a divorce, change jobs or did your spouse get a job?  Any of these changes may impact your tax status; that means reviewing your form W-4 is a good idea. In addition, changes in tax law may affect your ultimate tax bill; after passage of the most recent federal tax bill in late 2017, some workers consulted with the payroll office of their employer to review their allowances.

When you have too much money withheld from your paychecks, you end up giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan (and getting a tax refund). Ask yourself if there are better ways to use that money. Why not take home more money in your weekly paycheck? Or invest the proceeds and earn interest on it?  On the other hand, having too little withheld from your paycheck could mean an unexpected tax bill or even a penalty for underpayment. Either way, there’s a better way to manage your hard-earned money.

The key to having the right amount of tax withheld is to update your W-4 regularly.  Do this whenever you have a major personal life change. For people who wish to avoid providing that interest free loan to the government, the goal is to file a tax return with zero refund and zero owed. While it is rare to get an actual zero as a result, these folks are generally happy if they either owe a small tax bill or receive a small tax refund. If you count on a big tax refund every year, you should also pay attention to your withholding, because how much you have withheld directly impacts your refund.

Is it time to call your employer’s payroll office?

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Shopping for People

It’s a rare person who buys a car or a refrigerator without comparing several different options, probably from several different sellers. Yet we humans have a lot of trouble shopping around and comparing our options before we hire a professional. That doesn’t make sense when you think about it — our professional advisers may have a much greater impact on our well-being than our refrigerator!

I’m guessing that maybe there are two reasons we don’t shop around for professional advisers: a) we didn’t learn how from our parents (who may have taught us how to shop around for products from groceries to vacuum cleaners); and b) we feel awkward asking a lot of questions and interviewing professionals, especially when they are the experts and we may not know very much about the topic for which we are seeking an adviser.  This applies to attorneys, tax preparers, investment advisers and a wide range of other professionals. It probably applies to experts like plumbers and electricians, too.

I’m going to focus here on financial advisers, but the principles are the same for all professionals. Our financial advisers have a huge impact on our lives, so we need to get over our discomfort, and “just do it.” (forgive me for relying on a phrase made famous in commercials back in the 1970’s or 80’s).  Really. This is a time to suck it up and force ourselves to take on something even if we’re nervous about it.

Here’s some good news: reputable financial professionals will understand and support our desire to choose an adviser that fits our needs. They will generally be happy to schedule an appointment (maybe 30 minutes) so we can learn more about them – how they do their work, how they are compensated, what experience they have, and how they stay current in their field. Our job will be to go in prepared with questions we want to ask.  (Don’t worry — some resources are identified below!). And then our job is to finish the interview, thank them, and leave without making any decisions. That allows us to interview other individuals, check references, consider what we have learned, and follow up with additional questions before choosing the professional we trust to guide our financial future.

For ideas on what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask, I suggest you begin with information at the following links: FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority); Investing for Your Future (national Extension system); Investor Bulletin (from the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Add  your ideas here — what are YOU looking for in a financial 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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Care Co-op For Aging Parent

Financing Aging

A couple of years ago, I shared about my experiences as an adult child with an aging parent who came to live with me. One of the first things I did when I received word that dad would be coming was to look for support or companionship for him. Early on, he was able to be left home alone during the day (as my husband and I both worked) but I didn’t want his life in my home to be a lonely existence. My neighbor was on a similar journey; her father had also come to live with her. Dad and the neighbor became friends and most days, would walk downtown together for coffee. I appreciated the fact that the neighbor could make sure Dad found his way home. How lucky I was to know of my neighbor’s similar situation and their willingness to work together in providing quality of life for our parents.

My daughter, who lives in Boise, is very tech savvy. I enjoy hearing about her use of technology to solve problems or streamline tasks. To coordinate volunteers or donations of food for school celebrations, they use an online app called SignUpGenius.com. Accounts are free and reminders can be sent from the online app. Her close-knit group of friends uses another online app called MealTrain.com. When someone from their group has a baby, surgery, death in the family or other cause for support, the delivery of meals is organized utilizing this app.

While each of these apps was designed for a specific task, creative minds have found other ways to use them.  For example, one of my daughter’s friends had a parent going through chemo. The Mealtrain.com app was used to help organize rides and moral support (company during treatments).

Another app that came to my attention was called Komae.com. This app is used for community co-ops…babysitting coops or carpooling or…use your imagination. Membership in these co-ops begins with an application process to ensure new members are a good fit for the group and to clearly communicate the expectations of the group. In the case of childcare, the app records “deposits” of time you provide caring for the children of others, and makes “withdrawals” of time when your children are cared for by others. This ensures there is a balance of give and take.

What instantly came to mind for me was the growing number of adult-children-with-aging-parents in Iowa. What if adult children caring for aging parents formed a co-op where adult care could be provided for the members by the members in the co-op. Considering the huge expense associated with care for the aging, and the fact that there is a shortage of service providers, especially in rural parts of the state, this app would be very useful. Near the end of Dad’s stay with me, this app would have come in handy as I struggled finding care providers that were willing to come to my house and sit with dad. What solutions have you found addressing the issues of caring for an aging parent?

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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E-cigarettes

It’s strange to hear marketing promoting the use of e-cigarettes. Legislation has restricted  campaigns promoting tobacco products for many years.  A frequently-used e-cig marketing approach targets smokers who feel their habit has forced them into self-imposed  isolation to hide their habit or protect others from second hand exposure.  Web sites declare the product is for individuals who already smoke, offering them a safer alternative.

Nicotine is an addictive substance and e-cigarette ads or commercials clearly state its presence. E-cigarette use often leads to use of tobacco products. Among individuals who smoke, nine out of ten started as teens.

A 2016 report by the Surgeon Generals Office pointed to data indicating a rapid increase in the use of e-cigarettes (also known as “vaping”) by teens and young adults.  In research designed to measure whether youth understand the risks, the findings clearly indicate that teens and young adults view e-cigarettes as safe. Flavor options are attractive, and natural curiosity are reasons given to try e-cigarettes.

Tobacco product use in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe for adolescents. Lifelong addiction is costly, not only in health terms, but also in financial terms. E-cigarette pods, equivalent to a pack of cigarettes, cost $4-$5. The device to use the pods is around $35.  When a substance is addictive, as e-cigarettes are, users will typically increase consumption over time. This is a bonus for the companies selling the products. Even with low use (2 pods a week), the habit will cost $500 a year.

Running a calculation of what $500 a year could become if it was saved provides an argument against vaping.  A modest $50 deposited monthly into an account earning 3% a year with annual compounding (I’m being intentionally conservative here…) from the age of 16 until age 65 would result in  cash assets of $65,000.  Unfortunately it’s hard to make this example exotic enough to hook individuals on saving instead of vaping.

 

 

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Winter Weather: Time to organize!

In much of Iowa, our recent winter weeks have held lots of days suitable only for staying indoors. We’ve canceled or postponed many plans, and some of our dogs have missed lots of walks because some days were just too cold or windy.

So what can we do with those snow days?  I have an idea!
No, it’s not binge-watching your favorite shows or movies, nor does it involve baking. You don’t need ME to suggest those!

My idea is less recreational, but much more valuable in the long term: go through your files!

Cleaning and organizing files is a task we tend to procrastinate. But in an emergency, and even in many non-emergency situations, we sure would like to turn to our files and immediately put our hands on the document(s) we need. When need arises, we’ll be glad we invested some time in getting organized.

Here’s the good news: it’s a task that can be broken up into small doses.

  • If you already have a filing system, you can just go through one or two files a day, to pull out old materials that are no longer needed, and make sure the most current information is in front.
  • If you do not have a filing system in place, start with a small stack of papers from wherever you’ve been storing them. Create file folders or envelopes for each category of papers you run across. For example, if the first paper you come to is about your car insurance, then create a car insurance file. Perhaps the next item will be college transcript – if so, create an education file.

Well-organized files have three characteristics:  1) they are clearly labeled; 2) the newest and most important information is in front; and 3) out-of-date and unimportant documents are removed. Determining what is important can be a challenge. Some tips for starters: 

  • Insurance – keep the most recent summary of coverage (declarations page). In addition, keep the full policy booklet if you have one, and any updates you receive about coverage details.
  • Mutual fund accounts – keep your quarterly statements until the year-end statement arrives; that should include all activity for the year, so you can discard the quarterly statements. Keep all year-end statements, with the most recent in front. Keep the most recent prospectus. There is no need to keep annual reports.
  • Monthly bills – once you get the next statement showing that your payment was received, you can safely discard the previous statement, unless you need it for tax purposes.
  • Warranties and purchase records for warrantied items – keep as long as you own the item. Keep the purchase information longer if the item affects your taxes.
  • Taxes – after six years, they can be discarded.

Personally, my biggest filing problem is old folders with labels that have fallen off – I need to go through and re-label files. Which filing task most needs your attention?

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 Book to Read

How’s your New Year’s resolution going?  Maybe I can help. Add a short term goal to read one book about money or personal management by the end of January and use the content to improve your original plan to improve your well being. Here are few I recommend:

The Millionaire Next Door identifies seven common traits that show up again and again among those who have accumulated wealth. If your resolution was to slow down the purchase of stuff, adopt a minimalist approach to life, or start recycling/reusing what you have, the book could give additional reasons to stick with it.  Authors are  Thomas Stanley, PhD and William Danko, PhD

 

 

Loaded by Sarah Newcomb, PhD, introduces you to behavioral finance. The book explains how our experiences with money have a psychological basis and can often run counter to what we’d like to accomplish. She explains that money is just a tool and how we use it is entirely a matter of personal choice.  The book offers advice about overcoming negative behaviors, so if you are concerned that you might fail to follow through with plans to change your use of money in 2019, this book offers tips that could help you change your goal and make it more achievable.

 

Charles Duhigg is a business reporter. The Power of Habit describes why habits exist and how they can be changed. Your resolution might be failing because you haven’t really examined why you are repeating the same behavior loop over and over again. Taking advantage of his tips to find your weak links and embrace change could lead to success.

 

Finally if you use this suggestion and read one book before the end of January, don’t forget to celebrate.   One short term resolution accomplished!!!

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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