From Thanksgiving to just Giving

I have been excited about Giving Tuesday ever since it was created several years ago. Why? Not because I’ve adopted it as the day when I do all my giving, and not because I have an organization that receives extra giving. I’m excited because Giving Tuesday draws attention to one of the three core uses of our money — the one that gets the least attention.

The core ways in which we use our money are: Spend, Save, and Share. Financial educators (like me) don’t talk about “Sharing” nearly as much as we talk about the other two, and yet we should – it’s important. There is debate whether we humans are inherently altruistic, or whether it is something we learn. None-the-less, people who choose to give typically report that they gain some type of psychological benefit or reward when they give, regardless of whether they can give a lot or a little. It “feels good” to give.

It feels even better to give when we know that our gift is appreciated and/or that it makes a difference. When we give gifts to loved ones, we (hopefully) can see that the gift is appreciated. When we give to organizations or causes, it’s not always so easy to tell. When giving to a local organization whose work you know well, you may see evidence of their good work in your community; you may even know some of their board members personally. With large national organizations, you might want to check them out before giving: tools like CharityNavigator.org or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (Give.org) can help.

You can also do your own research by checking out the organization’s website to find annual reports of their projects and their impact; you may even be able to check financial statements to see what portion of their funds goes for administration rather than direct service. Another useful step might be a web search for the organization along with a word such as “review” or “complaints” or “scams.”

I am one who finds that it “feels good” to give. I can say that it feels even better to give when I know the organization I’m giving to is using my money wisely. For more information, check out this news item from the Iowa Attorney General.

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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Being Thankful

Thanksgiving – this season when we pause to be grateful – can become so much more than a day in which we gather with loved ones to enjoy each other’s company and share a wonderful feast. If we take it further, thanksgiving, or gratitude, can become an underlying attitude that helps us see our options and opportunities all year ‘round. That can have a big impact on our finances.

Feeling gratitude causes us to focus on what we have, rather than what we don’t have. As we deal with our finances and try to make choices about the best uses of our money, being mindful of and grateful for what we already have makes it easier to:

  • Say “no” to impulse or unnecessary purchases
  • Set money aside for future needs (including college, retirement, or other long-term goals)
  • Build an emergency fund
  • Give to worthwhile charities

Pausing and reflecting with gratitude on our possessions, and on the people and experiences in our lives, makes it easier to be satisfied.  Being satisfied makes it easier to put our money toward important uses rather than being distracted by spending opportunities with only short-lived value.

Gratitude helps us see ways in which we have more than a “bare minimum” existence – having freedom to choose how to use our money is definitely something to be grateful for. That includes small freedoms, like being able to add ice cream to our grocery cart, and bigger freedoms, like the ability to travel to see loved ones, or to provide music lessons for our child.

If you’re interested in taking your gratitude to a next level by sharing your abundance with causes important to you, stay tuned for next week’s post related to “Giving Tuesday.”

Note: freedom of choice is an essential element of financial well-being – learn more about financial wellbeing here or take the financial wellbeing quiz.

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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“Forgive My Student Loan? But I just paid it off!”

Graphic from https:studentaid.gov

The announcement by President Biden last month about the new plan to forgive up to $10,000 (or $20,000, in some cases) of student loan debt has been great news for many Americans, but there may be people who are groaning instead of celebrating. If you are one of those people, I may have good news for you!

Here’s the kind of scenario that may have people groaning:
Jane Doe owed $5,500 on her student loans as of March 1, 2020. Even when the COVID-related “student loan pause” kicked in March 13, 2020, she kept making payments of $215/month, because her income stayed steady and she just wanted to be done with the loan. She made her final payment a month ago and celebrated being out of debt!

But then – on August 24 came the announcement that she would be eligible to have up to $10,000 in student loans cancelled! GROAN…. “Oh if only I hadn’t made those payments – I would have been out of debt anyway, and I could’ve saved that $215/month!”

Here’s the good news: Jane Doe can apply to her loan servicer for a refund of the payments she made voluntarily during the student loan pause! And THEN she can apply for up to $10,000 of loan cancellation. In some cases the refund may occur automatically. Note: she will only be eligible for $5,500 loan cancellation because that’s what her balance was when the pandemic hit. The debt cancellation is “up to” $10,000, but if your loan balance is less than $10,000, the cancellation is limited by the amount of your debt.

Did you continue to make payments on your student loans during the student loan pause (administrative forbearance) that began March 13, 2020?  You can apply to get those payments refunded to you, and if you’re eligible for student loan cancellation, you may WISH to request a refund if those payments brought your loan balance below $10,000. Contact your loan servicer to start that process.

THEN, stay tuned for information on how to apply for the debt cancellation. The government expects the application to open in early October. To verify that you are eligible for the loan cancellation AND to minimize administrative glitches, check step one and follow step two provided by Federal Student Aid.

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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Some Things Never Change

I have three grown children: each with two kids of their own. They once shared (with an eyeroll) how they always knew when mom was learning a new parenting curriculum because I would implement the strategies and techniques on them. It is now a privilege and a joy to watch my kids as parents and occasionally I will see one of those strategies from their past emerge in their home.

I really liked those parenting programs and the lessons that they reinforced in my kids (showing love while setting limits, using natural consequences, Savings/Spending/Credit, etc.). But as you would expect, there is now an app for SOME of that.  One that caught my eye allows a parent to pay their child an allowance or for extra chores. The money accumulates on a debit card which they can use to purchase the things they want or need.

The latest app being used with a couple of my grandkids is quite amazing. It teaches the Time Value of Money, Smart Spending through Rewards and the power of delayed gratification using Savings Goals.  The free version allows you to assign points to chores the child can earn and points for rewards the child can save for. For example…if a child wants a sleep over, the child will need to earn 1000 points.  Cleaning the toy room (a weekly chore) may be worth 5 points while emptying the dishwasher (a daily chore) may be worth only 1 point. The points can be assigned a dollar value as well.  So, if the child wants a $5 stuffed animal and it takes 10 points to equal $1, the child will need 50 points to buy the stuffed animal….I think there is also a math lesson in there.

What keeps it interesting is the fact that no two kids are alike, so what works for one child may not work for the next. I see that with my grandkids: one is highly motivated by rewards and has a long list of wants, while the other just loves to help and has no wish list.

By searching for “Child Chore Apps” on the web, you will find lists of apps that could be useful to parents trying to raise responsible young people and provide kids an opportunity to experience, practice and apply life skills, including money management.

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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VA Benefits Update and Resources

While the Inflation Reduction Act is currently being signed into law, another (very) recently passed bill also has the potential to impact millions of Americans – the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics – or PACT Act. This bipartisan-supported legislation seeks to expand VA healthcare and disability benefits for Veterans, who served over a period of several decades, and were exposed to a variety of hazardous toxins such as those emitted by burn pits, the use of Agent Orange, and radiation emitted from nuclear weapon testing. This is a long-awaited result for Gulf War/post-9/11 and Vietnam-era Veterans.

The Department of Veteran Affairs created a new webpage, a PACT Act FAQ handout, and a Survivor Benefit handout to help spread the word; Veterans are also encouraged to use the excellent Veteran service resources that already exist:

  1. County Veterans Offices – every county in the state of Iowa has a designated Veteran Service Officer who can assist with VA Healthcare enrollment, disability claims, and many other issues.
  2. VA Resource Webpage – this Dept. of Veteran Affairs webpage is dedicated to providing support on all VA-related topics, including an email subscription request link.
  3. Military OneSource – many Veterans who are serving the remainder of their contract on Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) are still eligible for the many confidential, non-medical support services they received on active duty or active reserve status.
  4. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – programs such as Powerful Tools for Caregivers, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), and 1:1 Financial Consultations are all available to Veterans, regardless of status.

Ryan Stuart is a U.S. Navy Veteran and previously served as a Personal Financial Counselor for the Iowa Army National Guard. You can schedule an appointment with him to discuss the Thrift Savings Plan, Blended Retirement System, VA Benefits, and more!

Ryan Stuart

Ryan is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Wellbeing and an Accredited Financial Counselor®. He focuses on educating and empowering all Iowans to independently make positive financial decisions throughout their life course.

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Surprise Lawsuit? Get help!

Financial stress is high these days, thanks to inflation. Imagine adding to that a notice of a lawsuit seeking you to pay a bill of $10,000 or more that is owed by your relative to a nursing home! That would be enough to tip stress levels over the edge!

Unfortunately that scenario has been increasingly common for siblings, nieces or nephews, children or grandchildren or other relatives and friends of individuals living in long term care facilities, according to a recent article in Kaiser Health News, a reputable source of information on health policy issues.

If this should happen to you, don’t panic! There are steps you can take, and help is available. Seek information. Ask for documentation of the debt, AND ask for documentation of why the facility sees you as liable for the debt. And get help – you do not need to deal with this kind of nightmare on your own.

This is a good time to offer a couple of key reminders:

  1. Never pay debts belonging to someone else without exploring whether you are actually liable to pay the debt. As I wrote earlier this summer, you may not even be responsible to pay debts owed by your spouse after he/she dies.
  2. Be careful what you sign. In some cases, nursing homes have produced a document signed by the child (or sibling, niece or other person) in which they actually did accept responsibility for payment. 
    How could this happen? When a person is admitted to a long-term care facility, there is a mountain of paperwork. Amidst all that paper there could be a form by which the signer agrees to pay any unpaid bills. Be sure to read documents before signing them.
    Note: federal regulations prohibit facilities from requiring such forms before admitting a patient.
    Even if you did unknowingly sign such a document, it may be possible to fight back on the grounds that you did not knowingly accept that responsibility.

According to Kaiser Health News, in many cases lawsuits demanding payment are based on fraudulent grounds. Respondents should be sure to consult an attorney. In Iowa, the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans is a resource available to everyone over age 60, regardless of income; contact them at 800-992-8161.

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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Financial Independence? Or Interdependence?

It’s my turn to write a financial blog post the week of Independence Day, and the obvious topic is to write about Financial Independence – which, for the average person, equates to retirement – the time when you have accumulated enough assets so that you can live on those assets rather than working. 

But when I think about it, I’m not convinced there IS such a thing as financial independence. I’m getting pretty close to a point where I might have enough assets to retire, but will that make me independent? I’ll still want to drive on roads that are paid for by my community, or county, or some other larger group of people. I’ll still want to use electricity, but I can’t pay for the electric grid on my own… I need everyone else to pay in too, or the whole system will fall apart.  

If I ever had a fire, I’d be grateful that the Red Cross showed up to help; likewise I’m grateful for the volunteers who make community beautification happen, and those whose volunteer work supports my public library, and those whose time and talents make community theater productions possible. An even less tangible example: my neighbors who have beautiful flower gardens that add beauty to my life. You get the point: even if we have more money than we need for ourselves, we still depend on others. And others depend on us. 

We value our independence as Americans. But I suggest perhaps we should give just as much attention to the importance of our INTER-dependence.  It’s worth remembering to appreciate all the services, amenities and intangible benefits we gain from being part of a larger community. It’s also worth supporting them. We support them financially in several ways: with our shopping (have you ever willingly paid a higher price in order to shop local?); with our tax payments; and/or with our charitable gifts. We may also support them with our time and skills, and just by being a good neighbor. That INTER-dependence is essential to keeping our communities and our country strong.  

Nearly all of us have had times when, if someone was “keeping score,” it would be clear that we RECEIVED more than we GAVE to this interdependent system. The nearly-universal example is when we were students in K-12 schools or at a college or university, especially if we received grants or scholarships. Many of us may encounter similar situations as we age. And certainly, when we have a serious crisis (like that home fire I mentioned above), we will likely receive more than we give or deserve.  

Thankfully, there’s no need to “keep score.” Instead, we’re better off simply celebrating the give and take that is central to the wellbeing of our communities and of our nation.  What INTER-dependence will you celebrate this week? 

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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Death of a Spouse: Finances amid grief

Nearly 1.5 million Americans faced the death of a their spouse in 2019 – that figure likely increased dramatically in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. The majority of those surviving spouses faced genuine financial challenges, while also dealing with grief and loss. For those who were over age 60 (about 1.2 million in 2019), recently widowed older adults face higher poverty rates, greater housing cost burdens, as well as other critical financial challenges. 

A new guide, “Help for Surviving Spouses,” available from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, alerts newly-widowed individuals to key steps that will help them find a new financial equilibrium. The 24-page guide provides user-friendly information, checklists, and places to make notes, serving as the all-purpose workbook that can get the new widow(er) through the financial tasks and adjustments that are needed.

The first weeks and months after a death are often overwhelming, with grief making it difficult to stay organized or even remember what needs to be done. Having a workbook can help individuals keep track of what has been done and what remains to be done. If you know a new widow(er) or frequently come in contact with people in this situation, consider printing the workbook for them; if you can, offer to help them get started.

Dealing with a deceased spouse’s debts. One key tip for surviving spouses is to be cautious about paying debts belonging to your loved one. In many cases, survivors are not legally responsible for debts belonging solely to a deceased individual. Learn more, and consider seeking professional guidance if you are unsure. Even if you feel a moral obligation to pay the debt, consider first how that will impact your financial situation going forward. If paying that debt leaves you in a financially precarious situation, it may not actually be “the right thing to do.”

Another reason for caution, with debt collection and all other mail, phone calls, and emails, is that families of newly-deceased individuals can be easy targets for fraud. Before even considering any debt, ask for evidence to prove it is a legitimate debt that has not already been paid.

Take advantage of available resources. When one spouse dies, household income typically drops; as a result the surviving spouse may be newly-eligible for various forms of assistance that can make a real difference in their financial well-being.

  • In Iowa, Lifelong Links, a resource provided by the Iowa Department on Aging and the Area Agencies on Aging, is an excellent first stop for those who want to learn about available options. You can search online or call 866-468-7887; if you call, you will be connected with representatives in your part of the state.
  • BenefitsCheckUp.org is a nationwide search tool that can also help you screen for resources that could be of help to you; it is provided by the National Council on Aging.

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which also provides more data about recently widowed adults.

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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Thinking About Retiring Early? Things to Consider…Part 2

Welcome back for the second part of “Thinking About Retiring Early? Things to Consider”. Last month’s post focused on what happens to your income when retiring prior to the more common retirement ages of 55, 59 ½, 62, etc. This month will focus on how expenses are impacted when you decide to retire before you reach one of the ages mentioned above.

Historically speaking, “average” retirees may need approximately 80% of their pre-retirement income to maintain their current standard of living. The rationale behind this theory is that you will no longer have to pay for things like commuting, work attire, payroll taxes, certain employer-sponsored benefits, etc. While this may seem like a plus, things get a little tricky when you are looking to retire decades earlier than normal. Many retirees already have a difficult time stretching their funds over the course of a 20-year retirement (depending on your anticipated life expectancy) and tacking on another 20 years will only add to the complexity. This is primarily due to the additional estimation required in the retirement planning process, but also because of healthcare.

Managing the cost of healthcare

According to recent statistics from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, National Health Expenditures grew nearly 10%, or approximately $12,500 per person, in 2020 (partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic), and are projected to grow at an average annual rate of 5.4%, which outpaces inflation in most years. The problem for early retirees is that some of those costs are currently subsidized through their employer and/or the federal government; they will likely lose that subsidy with an early retirement. One option is the Healthcare Marketplace; however, eligibility for subsidies is impacted by income. The Health Insurance Marketplace Subsidy Calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation can help to estimate your premium costs.

Whether you want to retire early or not, please remember that the decision is very personal, specific to your individual needs, and should not be based upon general guidance or the decisions of others. To learn more about the basics, visit our website at https://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/money.

Ryan Stuart

Ryan is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Wellbeing and an Accredited Financial Counselor®. He focuses on educating and empowering all Iowans to independently make positive financial decisions throughout their life course.

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Shrinkflation: How to Shop Proactively

Today’s guest blogger is Carol Ehlers, ISU Extension specialist in NW Iowa.

We’re used to our favorite cereal costing $3.50 per box so when the price goes up to $4 it’s something we notice. But do we notice when the box contains only 15 ounces instead of the 18 ounces it used to hold? From fewer toilet paper sheets to less toothpaste ounces, consumers are reporting ‘Shrinkflation’ – reduced product amounts for regular purchases due to inflation.

Understand How Shrinkflation Works- Because we pay more attention to price when we shop, we don’t notice subtle changes in packaging or read details about the size or weight of a product. During periods of high inflation, companies may downsize products so they can keep prices unchanged. This strategy is known as shrinkflation.

With US inflation figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing prices increased 8.5% in the last 12 months, consumers may still not realize they’re paying more for most regular purchases than in 2021 and now they may have less product in the package as well.

Shop proactively using Unit Pricing; Unit pricing is a way to compare similar products to find the best value.

For example, carrots are available in different forms: full-sized and baby carrots. They are also available in different sized bags. Figuring the unit price can help you determine which carrots are the best value.

  • One pound baby carrots, $0.99 ($0.99 per pound)
  • Two pounds baby carrots, $1.89 ($0.94 per pound)
  • One pound full-sized carrots, $0.68 ($0.68 per pound)*

*The full-sized carrots are the best buy. Consider whether you have the time to get the carrots peeled and cut up this week. If so, save money by buying the full-sized carrots.

Check out Iowa State University ‘Spend Smart, Eat Smart’s’ Unit Pricing help at: https://spendsmart.extension.iastate.edu/shop/compare-unit-prices-best-buy/

Shrinkflation will have less impact when making decisions that include unit pricing.  Save money on groceries downloading the ISU ‘Spend Smart Eat Smart’  comparison calculator to find the best bargains – https://spendsmart.wpengine.com/shop/spend-smart-eat-smart-app/

Free financial counseling is also available to all Iowa residents through ISU Extension and Outreach’s Human Sciences Specialists in Family Finance. We can help revise budgets, prioritize spending and link you to community resources. To do so, contact Iowa Concern at 800-447-1985 and ask for free financial counseling, OR find your local specialist and contact them directly.

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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