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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Thinking About Retiring Early? Things to Consider…Part 1

This is not a new phenomenon, but the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) Movement gained quite a bit of momentum over the past few years. As the pandemic raged on, many people started to question their quality of life, workplace satisfaction, and their connection to family, friends, and the outside world in general. For most of us, this was a normal reaction to an extremely stressful situation; however, a handful throughout society decided they had had enough and hit the road for greener pastures.

Depending on which article you read on the internet (there are hundreds!), this may sound like a reality anyone can achieve, but I noticed quite a few details were either left out or not applicable to the general population. In order to cover this topic in full, I decided to break it up into two posts – one focusing on income, and the other focusing on expenses – so if you are thinking about retiring early…read on!

Income…. Where will it come from now?

News flash – your cash flow will be significantly impacted by retiring early. Gone are the days of receiving a regular paycheck from an employer. So, how do people make it work when we think of the typical “early retirement” age as 59 ½ or 62 (for Social Security purposes)?

  1. For starters, it is a little-known fact that there are MANY ways to retire before the age of 59 ½ without being hit with the dreadful 10% tax penalty, but you must qualify for it.
  2. You may read that some FIRE-achievers received severance packages, inheritances, own rental properties, and/or save upwards of 75% of their income (primarily in taxable brokerage accounts).
  3. And most importantly, many continue to work. Unlike their previous career, however, they typically work part-time through the gig/freelance/app economy, and/or their new work finally enables them to follow a passion.

Come back next month for the discussion on expenses (hint: it has a lot to do with the cost of healthcare!).

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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Make the Most of Financial Literacy Month

April is Financial Literacy Month! This annual event reminds us ALL that we are never “done” with financial literacy. The world changes, financial products change, and our own needs change — that means we always need to keep learning about financial topics.

What do you want to learn more about when it comes to finances?

  • Is buying a home on your radar sometime in the next few years?
  • Do you need a retirement checkup to see if you are on track to meet your goals?
  • Do you want to start saving for your children’s education after high school?
  • Are you having trouble keeping up with your daily-weekly-monthly financial challenges?

Set a goal NOW to take steps toward being the informed consumer and financial manager you want to be! See below for ideas that will help you address the four questions above. And subscribe to MoneyTip$ to make sure you get ongoing reminders and updates on financial topics.

Remember that financial literacy is not just for young people, or for people who don’t know how to manage their money. Financial literacy is an ongoing topic for EVERYONE!

Ideas to help with the questions above:

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 Check Beneficiary Financial Accounts/Retirement

A former colleague shared with me about her experience after retirement. It is crucial to make sure all documents and financial accounts are updated due to changes in life. Like annual medical checkup, a date and time of the year to review documents can reduce stress for everyone involved. Below is what my colleague learned and guide to action to take.

Lesson Learned:  Recently my father died, He had a will regarding his property, In the process of settling his estate, we found two financial accounts that did not have an identified beneficiary.  One account was under $100,000 and the other one account was almost $200,000. Both accounts were in financial institutions.

Now, I knew that his estate needs to go into probate that takes time. (6 months or more to settle.) You need to involve a lawyer to make it happen.

Why it is important to check beneficiaries?  Things Happen. There is change, Divorce, Death, new family members are a few of the examples.

Recently, my retirement account asked me to clarify my beneficiary on the account.  It does not have a lot of funds but, after the experiences mentioned before, save yourself trouble and time by checking your beneficiaries. .

Jeannette Mukayisire

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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Emergency Savings: How Much Do I Need?

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, approximately 30-50% of adults in the United States (depending on the study) would struggle when faced with an unexpected or emergency expense. While the percentage of affected adults improved with the arrival of COVID relief programs, recent data shows that the numbers may be trending back down toward pre-pandemic levels. The aggregate data will continue to show these fluctuations over time depending on the macroeconomy, significant policy changes, etc., so a more immediate question for consumers is:  How much do I need in my emergency savings account? $400…$1,000…3-6 months of expenses? The answer is not concrete and completely depends on your own personal situation, but here are some things to consider:

  1. How large is your household? – the necessary living expenses for a single individual will likely look much different than a household of four.
  2. Do you own a home or rent? – homeowners face the risk of repair costs, which increases their need for emergency savings. The recent derechos are a perfect example.
  3. What are your insurance deductibles? – this is an often-overlooked aspect of emergency savings. Auto insurance deductibles tend to be around $250 or $500, while health insurance and homeowner’s insurance deductibles could be in the thousands. A higher deductible provides lower premium costs, but does increase your need for emergency savings.
  4. How stable is your income? – are you self-employed or an independent contractor? Do you work in a high-turnover industry or face occasional government shutdowns? How likely you are to need those savings to make up for lost income should also factor into the amount saved.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for your emergency savings plan. For the DIY-ers, I encourage you to utilize PowerPay, Utah State University Extension’s free, online, personal finance tool to create your emergency savings plan; otherwise, you can contact your local Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Financial Educator for a free, confidential, 1:1 Financial Consultation!

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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Trials of a New Homeowner: Mail!

My daughter recently bought her first home – very exciting! I was there visiting about a week after she moved in (yes, I did miss all the hard work!), and every day I was there she asked me to look at suspicious-looking items that came in the day’s mail. She was right – they were ALL things she should ignore, even though they had language that made them sound really urgent, like there was something needed for her loan. In one case she was even worried enough that she contacted her loan officer to make sure it wasn’t real.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore mail… that can get us in trouble. But it is always important to read unsolicited mail carefully – even skeptically. And her experience reminded me that when you take a major financial action (such as buying a house, in her case), you may draw the attention of marketers and even scammers.

What did she receive?

  • Several offers of mortgage protection life insurance, which she didn’t need. In fact, extra life insurance to pay off your mortgage if something happens to you is a low or non-priority item for most families. What was especially disconcerting to her was the fact that these marketers knew who her lender was and the amount of the loan. In one case they even had the loan number in their letter.
    How could they do that? Well, property purchases are filed at the courthouse (or in her case, city hall); the new owner is shown, and it also shows that a lender has a lien on the property. That’s how they knew.
  • A more disturbing mailing was simply an “important notice” stating that “we need you to call us about an important matter regarding this loan.” That was the one that caused her to call her lender, just to be safe. She never called the marketer, of course, so we have no way of knowing what they were going to tell her.

Not all the letters she received were actually scams – in fact it’s possible that none of them were scams. But they were certainly marketing unneeded products, and they could cause some consumers to spend money on something of little or no value to them.

I suggest two take-aways from this little story: 

  1. Read your mail but do not assume everything you receive is as important as they want  you to think it is; and
  2. If you take a major financial action like buying a house, be prepared for a deluge of unwanted mail.

What other take-aways would you add?

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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Teachable Moments

I enjoyed a story shared by a gentleman who as a teen loved the challenge of rolling into a gas station with barely a drop of gas left in his tank…despite the warnings of his father, “be sure to keep at least a quarter tank of gas in the car.” Thirty years later, as he passed through a very rural area of Iowa, the gas pump on his car left him stranded for a couple of days while he waited for the delivery of a new one. When he asked the mechanic what he could do to prevent this in the future, he learned that keeping at least a quarter tank of gas in a car prevented the pump from having to work so hard. 

Seventeen years ago, when I first learned to prepare taxes at a VITA site, I was blessed to have two very good mentors…one was retired from the IRS and the other was retired from the department of Social Security. Each year, during the two and a half months we were together preparing returns, there were opportunities for rich discussion where they would share with me, what they would have done differently, regarding finances and investing, had they known what the know now, in retirement. 

Preparing tax returns for others has been a rewarding experience and is an opportunity to share information with individuals at a “teachable moment”; when they are most ready to receive, hear and apply information that can change their lives. Obviously, as an adult, a broken gas pump creates a greater teachable moment compared to his teenage self, listening to a nagging parent. But learning a financial lesson AT THE TIME of retirement doesn’t leave much time to apply and benefit from a lessons learned.

At my free tax sites, I see individuals who make money “on the side” who are paid in cash and want to omit the income from their tax return. One immediate consequence to this action might be a loss of Earned Income Tax Credit. But what they fail to see is the long-term consequence.  While it may feel good to have income that you did NOT pay taxes on, not reporting it is illegal AND affects the amount of your Social Security check in retirement which is based on your 40 highest quarters of income.

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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