Managing Personal Finances in Tough Times

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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

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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Communicating with creditors

When a tight financial situation leaves you truly unable to pay all your bills according to the prescribed schedule, then difficult choices must be made, as discussed in my previous post. After evaluating your situation and figuring out the best strategy you can come up with, the next step is to make some phone calls. Note: in some cases emails or on-line communication may be the company’s only option, but I encourage you to first attempt to reach creditors by phone.

As much as you might dread the phone call, communicating with creditors is essential if you cannot pay on time. The fact that you called and explained your situation will make a huge difference in their willingness to work with you. This is especially true if you have previously been a reliable customer; creditors recognize the losses people are facing during this unprecedented crisis. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Be prompt – call them before your payment is due.
  2. Be honest with them – tell the truth without embellishment or exaggeration.
  3. Ask if they have any “hardship plan” that would reduce or eliminate the fees or interest that come with late payments.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Example: sometimes people are so nervous that when the creditor says “Will you be able to pay the remaining balance by next Wednesday,” the customer just says yes, even though it is not realistic. If they want a promise that you are not sure you can live up to, consider this option: you can promise that you will make another payment by next Wednesday, although you can’t guarantee it will be the full amount.
  5. Keep a record of what phone number you called, who you talked with, the date and time of the conversation, and what exactly was agreed.

Need help with all this?  In many communities a non-profit credit counseling service is available to help you negotiate the process.  To find a reputable credit counselor near you, check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling; either by phone or on-line, they can do a zip code search to find the member agency nearest you.

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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Time to refinance?

cartoon house

The uncertainty (almost chaos) that we are experiencing due to the current pandemic is hurting the economy, and is a pointed reminder of the need to plan for short- and long-term financial security. Because the Federal Reserve Board has lowered interest rates, however, there is one group who might be able to benefit from the situation: those who have a mortgage at an interest rate higher than they wish.

            How do you know if refinancing is a wise choice for you? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer for that question, but I can give you a few tips on how to evaluate the decision. First, two generalizations. Consumers who are most likely to benefit are those who:

  1. Have the highest interest rates on their current mortgages; and/or
  2. Have many years left to pay on their current mortgages.

Why? Because the main benefit of refinancing is to pay less interest on your mortgage over the long term. The total interest you pay depends on the interest rate and the length of time on the loan, along with (of course) how much you owe.

            If it were free, everyone would benefit from refinancing when interest rates drop, as long as they did not lengthen the remaining term on the mortgage. However, refinancing is not free. Lenders will charge closing costs that will include a loan origination fee, along with appraisal fees and other fees. Note: fees may be lower if you stay with the same lender that holds your current mortgage, but will generally be equivalent to 1-3% of the amount of the loan. If your refinance will cost $2,000, then it is only worthwhile if you will save noticeably more than $2,000 in the long run.

            Imagine that you took out a 25-year mortgage several years ago at 4.25%, with a monthly payment of $560 plus taxes and insurance. The current balance on the loan is $78,000; it will be 16 years and 1 month till it is paid off, and you will pay $29,686 in interest during those 16 years. 

  • What if you could refinance at 3.5%?  If closing costs were $2,000 and you borrowed the money to pay those costs, then you would be borrowing $2,000. You could get a 15-year mortgage with a payment of $572 (plus T&I); the total interest you would pay would be $22,938; that would save you over $5,500 in interest! Of course your payment and savings would be lower if you paid the closing costs in cash.
  • Even better, refinancing at a 3.0% rate (15 years) would lower your payment on an $80,000 loan to $553 (plus T&I), and reduce total interest to $19,419, for a total savings over $10,000.

A caution: Refinancing only makes sense if there is no penalty for pre-paying your existing mortgage. Iowa law prohibits pre-payment penalties, so for Iowa-based loans it’s not an issue, but it is an issue to be aware of in other states. For more information, explore the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau web page on mortgages.

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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Lending Money in Tough Times

Man handing out money.

Times are tough when money is tight. When you are in need of money NOW, you may find banks unwilling to loan money, especially if your credit score is poor. For some, the only option is to borrow from family or friends, especially if you need the money fast.

If you are the lender, it will be hard to say no. You want to help a friend in need and if you say no, you will feel guilty if they lose everything. If you lend the money and they still lose everything, there may be hard feelings because the debt goes unpaid. If the loan is made to a family member, family gatherings will be uncomfortable. The lender may make mental inventories of anything purchased (while the debt is unpaid) especially if purchases are viewed as WANTS instead of a NEEDS.

When making the decision to lend money, it is important to keep emotions out of it. You should not lend money that you can’t afford to lose. If you do expect it to be paid back, don’t expect it to be paid back quickly. You may want to consider the money as a gift instead of thinking of it as a loan.  Then if you get the money back, it will be a pleasant surprise…instead of a disappointment when it isn’t paid back.

Another thing I have done in the past is to buy groceries or to offer to fill up the gas tank for a friend or family member.  This would free up money for the emergency that would have been set aside for gas or groceries. I have also offered to pay for a service, like painting a bedroom which helped the family member make ends meet, without having to ask for a loan. Make sure your spouse is in on the decision to lend money.

As of the 2019 tax year, the IRS has a $15,000 gift tax rule. A small loan will not make a difference, but if you do not charge interest on a loan of that amount or more, it may be considered a gift. If you do not charge interest, the IRS can say the interest you should have charged was a gift . In that case, the interest money goes toward your annual gift giving limit of $15,000 per individual. If you give more than $15,000 to one individual, you are required to file a gift tax form.  The rate of interest on the loan must be at least as high as the minimum interest rates set by the IRS.

These are tough times, especially for the farming community. Be sure to share information, phone numbers and links from the Iowa Concern Hotline.

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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What Is a Soft Credit Check?

Your credit history has a great deal of impact on your life. This means you should take full advantage of the fact that the three major credit bureaus-Experian, TransUnion and Equifax-offer one free credit report each year for consumers.

Who else is checking your credit? When you check your credit report, you will find out – and you may be surprised. Have you ever received a credit card offer in the mail? Did you wonder how those credit card companies knew that you qualify for a certain credit card with a specific credit limit? It is likely that the credit card company checked your credit history before sending that offer. When someone looks at your credit history for informational or promotional purposes, this is a soft credit check, and it will appear on your credit report for your information.

Why a Soft Credit Check?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the major consumer credit reporting bureaus to keep a record of all the businesses that look at your credit score.  A soft credit check is when your credit is pulled for any reason other than you applying for a loan or new credit. Examples of  soft inquiries include:

  • Reviews of your credit score or history by an existing lender with whom you have an existing line of credit
  • Reviews by potential landlords
  • Reviews of your credit for insurance purposes
  • Pre-approved credit offers
  • When you check your own credit report or score

Typically, soft inquiries remain on your credit reports for two years to give you a clearer picture of all the institutions that have checked your credit. These soft credit checks don’t affect your credit.

What Is the Difference Between a Soft Check and a Hard Check?

A hard credit check occurs after you apply for any type of credit, such as a credit card, a mortgage, personal loan or an auto loan.  Once the credit application has been submitted, the potential lender makes an inquiry into your credit score and history to see whether you qualify for the account.

If your credit report shows a large number of hard inquiries, that may negatively impact your credit score. This is because numerous hard inquiries indicate high credit risk to lenders; lenders assume that frequent applications for credit indicate that you’re having a hard time managing your finances.

No matter how many soft inquiries appear on your credit report, your credit score will not suffer in any way. The more hard inquiries you make, the more your credit score will be negatively affected by those inquiries.

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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A Credit Score Boost

credit score

In the past, the only way to create a credit score for yourself was to borrow money.  This makes borrowing a little tricky for those who have little or no credit history.  How can banks or credit card companies comfortably lend people money if they have no history for determining if they are a good risk?

Payment history – how you have paid your bills in the past — is one of the most important factors in a credit score. Lenders check an individual’s credit score when deciding whether to lend money to him or her.

FICO, the developer of the most widely used credit score, will begin piloting a new score next year (2019) called the UltraFICO score. This new scoring model considers how you manage your checking, savings and money market accounts in addition to how you pay back your credit cards and loans; it could be good news for those who have a strong banking record but have little or no credit history or have negative information on their credit reports. If you manage your checking, savings and/or money market accounts wisely, avoiding overdrafts and usually keep a modest “cushion” of  at least $400 in your checking account, your credit score could receive a much needed boost that can make a difference when applying for a loan.

Use of the UltraFICO score is not automatic. Consumers must opt in before lenders can access their banking records and calculate the alternate score.  Consumers who already qualify for credit on good terms will never need to authorize the UltraFICO score; those whose “regular” FICO scores aren’t quite good enough to qualify are the ones who may benefit from use of the UltraFICO.

FICO has announced the new scoring model as a “pilot” and has not specified how widely it will be in use, so there is no guarantee it will be available through your lenders. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to be aware of the possibility, for two reasons:

  1. If you are turned down for a loan or credit account, you may wish to ask the lender if they can check an alternate scoring model such as the UltraFICO score.
  2. It is a reminder that responsible management of your banking accounts can pay off; if you have a tendency to occasionally get sloppy and incur an overdraft, the existence of UltraFICO may motivate you to manage your accounts more carefully.

FICO is marketing the new score at its website, which includes a link to a short video describing the basics of UltraFICO.

As always, the best way to improve or protect your credit score is to consistently pay your bills on time, reduce the amount of debt you owe as much as possible and apply for credit only when needed.

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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Credit Freeze

Thirty percent of U.S. consumers have been notified of potential compromise of their personal information in a data breach. In 2017, for the first time, more Social Security numbers were exposed than credit account numbers. Research finds that counterfeit use of credit cards is more difficult with the new microchip technology; as a result, criminals are focusing on new account creation. The number tripled in 2017 resulting in $5.1 million in losses. Now the Federal government is joining states to give consumers options to protect their credit history.

New federal legislation supports the right for individuals in all states to apply, free of charge, a credit freeze to their credit reports. The action can be taken after September 21, 2018.  By activating a freeze, you put a block on the creation of any new credit account by preventing prospective lenders from viewing your credit report. If lenders can’t confirm your capacity to repay a potential debt, they are unlikely to open an account in your name.   Iowa’s law went into effect in May.  Note: a freeze requires management; you must lift the freeze when applying for new credit.

If you are denied credit, lenders and agencies are required, by law, to send you documents informing you of your right to obtain your credit report and to dispute errors. The documents are now required to also notify you of your right to freeze your files.

In cases of identity theft, consumers have long had the option to place a fraud alert on their credit reports; the alert is a tip that this individual’s personal information was compromised, and consumers are still encouraged to pursue this action. The time frame for how long an alert is posted has been extended from 90 days to one year.  A fraud alert does not, however, block potential lenders from viewing your information; therefore it does not prevent unauthorized opening of new accounts in your name.

Joyce

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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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

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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Unpaid Debt

What happens if a credit card balance goes unpaid? If you aren’t receiving collection calls, does it mean the debt is no longer a problem?

All states have statute of limitation laws setting a time when a debt can no longer be collected. Credit card debt is considered open account debt because the lender has the option to change the terms of the agreement at any time. Iowa law states open account balances can no longer be collected after 5 years from the last charge, payment, or admission of ownership of the debt in writing.

Once the original lender has exhausted their attempts to collect and elects to discharge the balance, the debt is sold to collection agencies. Timelines vary for when an account is sold, typically at 180 days.  Collection agencies will contact you and attempt to collect a settlement. If the agency is unsuccessful they may bundle the uncollected debts and sell it again to a different agency. Attempts to collect your debt can occur at any time in the five year period and can result in court action. If the debt results in a court judgement to pay, it is valid for 20 years. Iowa allows actions to be taken to renew judgements extending the time when active collection can take place.

Ignoring unpaid debt won’t make it go away. Resources that may help are available through the Iowa Attorney General’s office, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the National Consumer Law Center, and local attorneys.

 

 

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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Upon Graduating – Financial Words of Wisdom

Many students recently marked a big milestone by graduating from school.  Looking back, what words of wisdom regarding personal finance would you like to have received when you left high school?

Personal finance does not have to be boring!  The National Endowment Financial Education – www.nefe.org has a couple resources to help your graduate be an independent young adult.

On Your Own –is a blog with a range from credit score calculated, making better money decisions, and the pros and cons of college?  This is a trustworthy site.

Another option is Smart About Money (SAM) is an in-depth, guided learning experience.  There are five sections with valuable tools, worksheets, calculators and quizzes.  Each course is about 45 minutes.

Cash Course targets college students. Some colleges and universities offer it especially for their students, but any student can enroll independently. It’s free, with no strings attached, but you do need to create a user account.

Forty Money Management Tips Every College Student Should Know – this Cash Course resource helps young people learn how to take control of their money instead of letting their money control them.

 

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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