Packages on the Doorstep

When will it be delivered?  I’m learning that tracking services offered by vendors vary with accuracy and details. Packages I mailed at Halloween took a broom stick ride in the opposite direction of their destination and then circled back for a late delivery.  I have a purchase that has been “out for delivery” for a week and there are no details.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces rules for online and mail order sales. Packages have to arrive within 30 days. If that isn’t possible, you must be notified and have an option to cancel the order.

Where will I find it? I have an inspection routine at my house when I receive confirmation of delivery. Packages have been found in multiple locations: on the front porch; the back porch; the bushes near the doors; and the back of the mailbox.  I’m thankful I don’t have my son’s dog (shredded packages) and I’m not on a busy city street. There are alternatives to consider: work address, neighbor, requiring a signature for delivery (usually involves a separate charge), using the carrier’s designated pickup and delivery location.

I’m not complaining. “Mail-order” shopping has come a long way from the days of the Montgomery Ward catalog.  I remember when you mailed in an order and instead of a package, the vendor’s letter arrived informing you the item was “sold out” or “not in stock”. Sometimes they sent a substitute item, which wasn’t always satisfactory. Inventory control with access from your home computer has reinvented “mail-order” shopping, and it’s definitely on the up swing.

 

 

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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Someone May Be Watching You

Last November, my brother-in-law’s vehicle was broken into at the nearby grocery store parking lot.   He had done some banking prior to pulling into the grocery store to pick up a pizza for the night’s meal. While he was in the store, his money and cell phone were stolen.  There was also damage done to both driver and passenger doors, his console, and the car’s paint. There were surveillance cameras in grocery store’s lot, but it was hard to identify the perpetrator.

When my sister and brother-in-law returned from the holidays, they picked up their held mail at the post office; while they were there, a man had money stolen from his vehicle parked outside the post office, also after a visit to the bank.   Note: Both of these incidents occurred in daylight in a large U.S. city.

Based on his recent experience, my brother-in-law was able to encourage the man to call the police and file a complaint;  this would help him to file a claim with his insurance company. Depending what was taken, he might also want to contact his bank, and/or place a fraud alert on his credit reports.  In addition, he would need to make arrangements to have his vehicle fixed.  These were all steps my brother-in-law had needed to take a few weeks earlier, plus he had to deal with the theft of his phone; fortunately, since my brother-in-law’s information on his phone was backed up in the “cloud,” he was able to be back in business soon after the phone was replaced.

We do not always think about who is watching us, but in both of these cases, someone was watching while they visited their banks. These incidents remind us: don’t let your guard down, and watch your surroundings. That guidance is especially important during the upcoming holiday season when many of us make more purchases than usual and may leave things in our cars.

How many times do we go somewhere feeling we are safe, and therefore do not pay attention to the environment around us?

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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Charitable Giving and Taxes

We’re entering a busy time of year for charitable donations, perhaps because the winter holiday season brings a sense of gratitude followed by a desire to share our abundance. The availability of tax deductions for charitable giving may also contribute to the concentration of donations near year-end.

According to Giving USA, Americans donated a record $410 billion to charities in 2017. What’s more, over 70% of that giving came from individuals, rather than foundations, corporations, or bequests.  However, tax law changes this year mean that for many people there will no longer be an advantage in itemizing deductions; many taxpayers will get better results using a standard deduction. For those households, the tax benefit of charitable donations will be reduced or eliminated.

Will Americans still give?  I have always hoped that the main reason most Americans give is that they care about the organizations they are giving to, and that the tax benefits are just an incidental benefit.

If you are wondering whether you should continue making charitable donations even without the tax deductions, I offer two thoughts:

  • If your standard deduction under the new tax law is larger than your itemized deductions would have been, then you are still coming out ahead. You can give, and still have more available funds than you would have had under the old tax law.
  • There are other strategies that can enable some taxpayers to get tax advantages for charitable donations.
    Clustering donations. Some taxpayers may be able to hold back all their 2018 donations until the beginning of 2019; if they then donate a “normal” amount throughout 2019, they will have twice as many donations as usual to report for the 2019 tax year, which may make itemizing worthwhile in 2019. Following this pattern of no contributions one year and double-contributions the next may enable you to donate the same total amounts as normal, and gain tax benefits by alternating years between itemized and standard deductions.
    Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD) from an IRA.  If you are at least 70-1/2, you can transfer funds directly from your traditional IRA to a charitable organization; the distribution will not be taxable income to you, AND it can satisfy your required minimum distribution. If your RMD for the year is $5,000, and you are interested in donating $5,000 to a particular organization, then making the contribution through a QCD has the same ultimate impact on your taxes as a tax deduction would have had. IRS Publication 590-B provides details.
    Donating as a business expense.  If you are self-employed or own a business, you may be able to make charitable contributions as a business expense.  For example, farmers can give commodities (e.g. 500 bushels of corn) to a charity. This reduces your business income, and therefore has impact similar to the impact of a tax deduction. Consult with your tax adviser for details.

As always, the best decisions about how to use your money are based on your personal goals and priorities. As you consider your charitable giving decisions, 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.org, www.charitywatch.org, www.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.

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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Five Minutes to Make Your Home Healthier

With the upcoming time change (from Daylight Savings back to Standard Time), take a few minutes this week to make your home healthier for your family.  Here are six tips:

  1. Test your smoke alarm and replace the battery. Using smoke alarms in your home cuts your risk of dying in a fire in half.
  2. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds – enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Each year about 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated or improperly prepared foods.
  3. Make your home smoke free. Never let anyone smoke anywhere in or near your home. Parents are responsible for 90% of their children’s exposure to smoke.
  4. Program the number for poison control into your cell phone: 1-800-222-1222.  If you use a land line, post the number near the phone.  Each day in the United States over 300 children (ages 0-19) are in emergency rooms for poisonings.
  5. Do a 3-minute “clean sweep” Pick one small area of your home- like your junk drawer or stairs and take 3 minutes to sort the items. Get rid of what you do not need. Clutter can collect dust, mold, and other allergens and gives pests a place to hide.  If clutter is on the floor or stairs, it can cause you to trip and fall.
  6. Check your locks. Make sure locks function correctly and that a child can operate them in an emergency.

 

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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Stocking the Grocery Pantry

I threw a list of Pantry items together in 2004 and went shopping. My goal was to confirm or dispel what participants in my budgeting classes would argue: that it was cheaper to purchase groceries at larger markets, especially those in larger towns where there is more than one grocery store.

What I challenged them to consider was the cost of transportation and the added time it took to make a 1 hour round trip each week for groceries; especially if the sale items were the same price in a local store.  Did they save enough to off-set those costs? Even though the cash register receipt is lower for the same items, it wasn’t enough savings to cover the cost of transportation.

I took my list shopping to the local grocery in 2007 and again today.   Here’s what I’ve learned from the comparison:

  • The cost for store brands, 2004-2018, increased 54.7%, the national brands increased 34.3%.
  • The margin between the cost of buying a store brand and buying a national label continues to erode. In 2004 the difference was 30%, in 2018 the difference is 24%. Store brands still cost less, but not as much.  Quality becomes more important.
  • The changes in package sizes has slowed. I found several items in smaller packages between 2004 and 2007; but only Oat Cereal was found in a smaller package in 2018.
  • Some items are lower priced. Brand name stick margarine is priced lower than the 2004 cost and the store brand is equivalent to the brand name price. Oat Cereal, when broken down into price per ounce, is 27 cents today. In 2004 it was 26 cents an ounce.  Brand name green beans have declined slightly since 2007, with store brands getting close to equivalent price.
  • Items on my pantry list with a larger than average increase in price are: a 2 lb. block of processed cheese food – the national brand increased 100%; a 5 lb. bag of national brand flour increased 61%.

A new player in the pantry shopping list is a local dollar store.  My grocery sack included a combination of store brands and national brands. The sizes were equivalent. Not everything on the list was available. Some items were lower, but others were higher in price. In the end my combination sack cost the same as the store brands at the local grocery.   If you have the time and pay attention to prices you could lower your total grocery costs by shopping at both stores if they are close to each other.

Visit the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website for low cost recipes and other tools to manage your grocery dollars.

 

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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What Are Your Local Resources?

October is always a fun time of year. I grew up near the Spoon River Scenic Drive in western Illinois, where every fall included two fun weekends of visitors checking out the crafts, antiques, and food.

You can experience leaf peeping, apple orchard visits and cider donuts, fall art shows and festivals.  Living now near Wisconsin, I now also enjoy cheese festivals with music!

Bike rides as well as walks can benefit from the good fall weather.   Don’t forget the pumpkin patch and corn maze fun.  Capitalize on the farmer’s market – local produce, jellies and jams.

Many of these opportunities are near where you live.  Take advantage of your local resources and opportunities.  You don’t have to travel hours away to visit theatre, museums, art exhibits and great food. These opportunites are in your backyard – experience the offerings and make family memories.

 

 

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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Confirmation Bias? Dangerous

I heard a speaker yesterday refer to “confirmation bias.” It’s an idea I know well, but it had been a while since I heard the actual phrase, so it caused me to think. The idea behind confirmation bias is that if you believe something to be true (or if you even want something to be true), you will be able to find facts you can interpret in such a way that they will seem to support the belief you want to be true.

For consumers, confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing. Here are some hypothetical (but realistic) examples of how that could work.

  • Several friends have purchased a very-expensive brand of Widgets, and they all swear by the benefits of the brand. Undoubtedly, a search will lead to other positive reviews of the widget that persuade you that your friends are right; this may leave you feeling justified in spending much more money than planned on your new widget.
  • You hear a rumor that now is a great time to invest in Company X. You do an on-line search and you find several articles that support your desire to jump into the investment, so you move forward with the idea.

In both of these examples, the fact that you knew in advance what answer you wanted to find made you much more likely to find it.

There has been much discussion in recent months about facts and what to believe. Sadly, the abundance of information available on the internet includes “sources” that claim opposing facts: one source shows how “Fact A” is definitely true, while another source cites information which “prove” the false-ness of “Fact A.”

This simply reminds me how critical it is for consumers to protect against confirmation bias, as well as against unreliable information in any situation. The best decisions are based on research conducted by well-respected scientists. Three tips to protect yourself:

  • Always shop around (at least 3 sellers) before making any significant purchase or consumer decision.
  • Always seek information from multiple sources; ideally, those multiple sources would not be connected to each other. (For example, if you read an article in 3 different publications, but all those publications are operated by the same umbrella company, it’s really not equal to three different sources).
  • The most reliable on-line sources on most topics are sites whose URLs carry a “.gov” or a “.edu” extension. Some “.org” sites are reliable, but use caution because they may have an agenda. Two reliable “.org” sites are www.consumerreports.org and www.nefe.org.
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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Plan for Change

The wife of a dear friend has lived in a care center for about 10 years now. I frequently cross paths with him and can see how much he misses her. I called him, excited to hear the details, when I saw on Facebook that she had moved back home. He explained that as her condition deteriorated over time, the cost of care in the nursing home had increased…so much so that they could no longer afford for her to live there.

That sounds like bad news, but it is truly turning into good news for them. You see, my friend has now retired from farming, and he can provide some of the care in their home. They have found it much more cost effective to hire a nurse to come at scheduled times to provide care and guidance for my friend, who wants only the best for his wife and is eager and able to be her caregiver. This solution has brought much joy to their home, as they are together again under the same roof.

As we plan for the future in retirement, we often think about three stages: early retirement when we do more traveling or activities that cost more…the middle years which cost less, when we are still healthy but do less because our goals have been met…and the later years when our health care cost rise. For my friend, the thought of bringing his wife home was not part of the original plan. Once he retired from farming and was more available to provide care, it made sense. It is important to make a plan but to also revisit that plan and see if it is still the best solution even after it has been implemented. Plans can always be revised.

The Finances of Caregiving is a series of five 2-hour workshops to expand your understanding of possible solutions for providing care for a loved one and help families plan together for the care receiver’s care. Understanding your choices means knowing your current situation. This program guides you through finding and collecting that information; it also provides information about communication strategies and options for care. To find a location of a program being offered near you, check out www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/finances-caregiving

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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Where Are Your Digital Assets?

First, what is a Digital Asset?  It is personal information that is stored electronically on either a computer or an online “cloud” server account.  If you use a computer, a password protected cell phone, social media, OR if you make online purchases, pay bills or do banking online – you have digital assets to consider.

Generally required is a user name and a password and/or PIN to access.  If a family member or friend becomes incapacitated or passes away, it is almost impossible to retrieve information without the user name and log in information.

Take time to record all of your digital assets in a safe place.  Share the information with the person to whom you have granted power of attorney, with your executor, and with other trusted people who would need to have it.

Need help identifying the potential digital assets? Consider the following:

Electronic Devices; Benefit Accounts; E-mail accounts; Financial accounts; online merchant accounts  – Amazon or Zappos.; Organization Accounts; Photography and Music Accounts; Publication Accounts; Social Media Accounts; Video Account; Virtual Currency Accounts with Cash Value; and Web Site Accounts.

So how do you plan for your digital assets? 

Use specific language in estate planning documents (will, trusts, and power of attorney) that authorizes your representative to handle digital assets as well as tangible assets.  Make a list of your digital assets in your will as you would for untitled personal property.  Don’t include private information (e.g. passwords) in your will, however, as it becomes a public document after someone dies.

 

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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Rechargables Make Cents

In a kitchen cupboard, we have a box full of rechargeable batteries of every size. My husband uses them in the sound-cancelling ear protection he wears in the barns. I have several small, battery-operated motion-sensitive lights I use in the rooms where grand kids sleep. I also have a digital camera, Christmas lights, a battery operated pencil sharpener and other electronics, keeping our battery charger busy.

If I were to buy a four-pack of Duracell AA batteries each week (which sells for $6) to keep my husband’s hearing protection working, I would easily spend $312 a year. For $10, I can buy a four pack of rechargeable batteries. These batteries will last between 2 and 3 years. By using rechargeable batteries, we are keeping between 400 to 600 batteries out of a landfill…and that is just for the AA batteries my husband is using.

It used to be that rechargeable didn’t work well with some technology.  Today,  I do not find any difference and I greatly appreciate the savings. What has been your experience with rechargeable batteries?

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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