Aging Safely – Self or Others

While we’re all aging, some of us are further along in the process than others! But even you’re still very young, you probably have people you care about who might be labeled an “older adult.” With age comes certain privileges and freedoms, but we also have to acknowledge that aging also brings cognitive changes as well as physical changes. This is true even for those with no cognitive impairment or dementia – everyone’s brain changes as they age.

This cognitive aging can lead to “diminished financial capacity” – a term used to describe a decline in a person’s ability to manage money and financial assets to serve his or her best interests, including the inability to understand the consequences of investment decisions. Some errors that occur due to diminished financial capacity may be minor, like forgetting to pay a bill, but serious errors that threaten our financial security are possible.

Happily, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves and those we care about. These steps include:

  • keeping important documents organized and easy to find;
  • providing names of “trusted contacts” to your financial professionals;
  • creating (or updating) a power of attorney;
  • and more.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides a practical breakdown of steps that will protect you as you age, and also steps to help you assist an older friend or relative you are concerned about: Planning for diminished capacity and illness. None of us likes to think about possible future problems, but if something happens, we know we’ll be glad we did!

NOTE: People of all ages can be injured in accidents or suffer illness that diminishes ability to manage finances and make decisions. The steps outlined by the CFPB are appropriate for adults of all ages to consider.

For more details about cognitive aging and how it affects different types of mental functioning differently, see a trio of articles from The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, starting with Cognitive Aging: A Primer.

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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College Students and Money: A few more things

This is the fifth and final in a series this week about financial issues faced by students in college and trade school.

The list of financial topics that are important to students and other young adults is potentially endless, so please don’t assume that I’ve covered everything this week. Whether we are age 20 or age 60, we always need to keep learning about finances, because the financial world keeps changing – and our needs keep changing too. I’m wrapping up this series with brief notes about three more issues I see as critical for students.

Organizing Important Documents. Keeping important documents in a safe place where you can find them easily if needed is a critical skill to learn. And it is important for all key documents, whether they are paper documents, or electronic documents. Examples of important documents include:

  • Financial records of all types – financial aid papers, loan papers, receipts for major payments (tuition, rent),
  • Documentation of required educational costs, because you may be eligible for tax benefits,
  • Legal contracts (e.g. lease, cell phone plan contract) and documentation of pre-existing damage in a rental unit or dorm room,
  • Tax documents, including prior-year tax returns and documents, along with current-year W-2 forms and any other income records, as well as other year-end tax forms received.

I will not pretend this is a comprehensive list. General rule: if you think it might be important, keep it, at least until you can ask someone trustworthy about it. And I don’t mean just keeping it all laying around your room. We want these documents in a safe place where you can find them. That means they should be enclosed (in a box, or an envelope, or a designated drawer), and ideally they would be sorted into groups or sections or folders so you don’t need to look through all 500 documents to find the one you need. On your computer, you need a folder for important documents, probably with several sub-folders.

Protecting Personal Information. This means never giving out key personal information (social security number, birthdate, financial account numbers, and more) without making sure the person who is asking has a good legal reason to need the information. You will generally need to give your social security number for financial accounts, formal academic records, and medical records.

Additionally, only give that information to people when you know for sure they are who they say they are. That means if you receive a phone call and the caller says they are from your bank, don’t assume it is safe. When people call you, there is no way for you to know who they really are. Instead, use the number you already have on file for your bank and call them. Make caution your middle name when it comes to key personal information.

More: What to Consider When Sharing Your Data (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

Using Credit Cards Wisely. We could write a whole series on credit cards – and you can search the MoneyTip$ blog for other articles – but I want to focus on three main points:

  • College is an opportunity to build credit. You can do that by getting credit card and using it. College is a time when credit cards want you as a customer – later in your life, it may be more difficult to obtain credit. So go ahead and open one or two credit card accounts, avoiding cards with annual fees. Then use them. It is only by using your credit cards and paying the bills promptly that you create something extremely valuable: a solid credit history.
  • Surprise credit card bills can kick off a downward financial spiral. Therefore, keep tabs on how much you have charged to your card since the last bill. Keep a record on your phone, or on your whiteboard, or in a notebook or your checkbook – it doesn’t matter where you keep the record. Just make sure you’re prepared for the bill when it comes.
  • Credit is generally free if you pay the bill in full each month. Assuming your card has a grace period and no annual fee, you will pay no interest at all on your purchases if you pay the entire balance before the due date each month. Sure, the bill says you only need to pay $25, but as soon as you carry a balance forward to next month, you start accruing interest on every purchase you make.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? These three habits – organizing documents, protecting personal information, and using credit wisely – will dramatically reduce the number of financial “bumps in the road” you’ll experience during college and throughout the rest of your life. You’ll never regret building these helpful financial habits.

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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Funeral Assistance in COVID Deaths: Avoid Scams

If you lost a loved one to COVID-19, you may be eligible for a government program that pays for funeral expenses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay up to $9,000 for funeral expenses for loved ones who died of COVID-19. Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA, toll-free, at 844-684-6333. To find out if you qualify, read FEMA’s Funeral Assistance FAQs.

Unfortunately, FEMA reports that scammers are contacting people and pretending to offer to register them for assistance. To avoid those scams, here are some tips:

  • FEMA will not contact you until you call or apply for assistance.
  • The government won’t ask you to pay anything to get this benefit. 
  • Don’t give your own or your deceased loved one’s personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you out of the blue.

If you think you got a scam call, hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Source: Reprinted from CFPB news. They also provide information about other scams, including general scams as well as other COVID-related scams.

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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Another Fraud-fighting Tool

I recently learned about the USPS service called Informed Delivery. If you choose to sign up, you will then receive notifications when mail and packages arrive, but they’re not just blank notifications; you actually get a picture of the letter(s). That means I can see who my letter is from. Note: it does not provide an image of items that are not “letter-sized,” such as magazines or advertising. Depending on the security of your personal mailbox, this could be a great reassurance that no one has taken any of your mail. OR if an important piece of mail is scheduled to be delivered, it may allow you to plan ahead and make sure someone is there to pick up the item immediately.  

Informed Delivery also confirms package delivery, so it could protect you against “porch pirates” who might steal your packages. It also allows you to leave specific delivery instructions if you won’t be home to receive a package on a certain day.

Preventing mail theft is valuable — if certain pieces of mail end up in the wrong hands, they could leave you susceptible to identity theft and other types of fraud. I see it as a nice convenience too. I’m thinking about my adult children, both of whom live in housing complexes where they have to walk outside to get to their mailboxes. This service would let them know whether it’s worth going after the mail on any given day! 

The notifications arrive by email; additionally an app is available for either I-phones or Android devices. Learn more!
A big thanks to my friend Janel, who has family connections in the postal service, for sharing this tip!

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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Reduced Income in 2020? Check on the EITC

Today is EITC Awareness Day — a great day to remind people about the benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit. This credit is an “add-on” to your tax refund if you qualify — it is designed to provide a financial boost to working people with low and moderate incomes. This one-minute video gives a great overview!

Even if you’ve never been eligible for the EITC in the past, there’s a chance you might be eligible for it in 2020 if your income was lower, and within the income guidelines. Two figures affect the amount you receive: your total income (Adjusted Gross Income) AND your earned income — income that was payment for work. The maximum income guidelines depend on family size; the highest limit ($56,844) applies to married-filing-jointly households with three or more children. Other eligibility rules apply as well; check out the details and/or use the IRS screening tool.

P.S. Maybe you never guessed the IRS had a YouTube channel! Their videos do a great job explaining lots of tax topics!

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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Beware: Vaccine Scams

Like anything else that is new, the COVID vaccine is likely to be followed quickly by vaccine-related scams as well as misinformation. Likely scams to watch for:

  • Opportunities to “move higher on the list” by paying a fee. Truth: the vaccine roll-out is being carefully monitored, and there will be no way to get the vaccine quicker.
  • Any contact or news suggesting you pay a fee to receive the vaccine. Truth: due to the need to get as many people vaccinated as possible, you are likely to have no out-of-pocket cost when getting the vaccine.
  • Any contact asking for your social security number, bank account information or credit card number in order to schedule a vaccination. Truth: it is NEVER wise to give out personal or financial information when you did not initiate the contact.
  • Alternative “cures,” treatments,” or “preventives” for sale while you wait your turn for the vaccine. Truth: it is never wise to accept health advice or purchase health products from anyone other than a reputable health provider. Contact your own provider before purchasing any product or service.

Along with the potential for scams, the arrival of a vaccine creates opportunity for misinformation. Rely on trustworthy sources. For health information related to COVID-19, consult www.coronavirus.gov or www.coronavirus.iowa.gov. Both of these sites draw information directly from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other reputable sources.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

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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Brushing – Another Scam

I find myself spending more time cleaning and pitching now that I am spending more time at home. In the toss-pile is a large collection of freebies that were handed out at fairs and tradeshow booths…stress balls, pens with weird gizmos attached, whistles, mini Frisbees, etc.  There is even a package or two of wildflower seeds that arrived in the mail promoting the planting of pollinator fields to save the bees.

The latest free thing that is arriving in the mail these days are UNIDENTIFIED seeds from an UNKNOWN source. Seeds that have not been ordered.  They are arriving mostly from China and Uzbekistan. This is of great concern to the USDA and the State Departments of Agriculture.  These seeds could be an invasive plant that does not currently exist in the US or they may contain seed-borne diseases that do not exist in the US. Some packages have an unknown seed treatment that could be dangerous to human health.

Most likely, these packages are part of a BRUSHING scheme….fake orders used in e-commerce to boost a seller’s rating. Because a shipment has to take place to make an order valid, sellers may ship an empty box or some cheap item. These fake orders can boost the seller’s rating, which can make it more likely that their item will appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites.

What the USDA and the State Departments of Ag want you to do is…

– Do not plant the seeds

– Do not open the packets

– Do not eat the seed.

– Retain the packages and contact the IDALS (515.281.5321 – Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship) or USDA (515.251.4083 – US Department of Agriculture) for further instructions.

More information from our ISU agriculture colleagues and from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

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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Public Health Scam

One of our colleagues received this message from the county public health office where she works. If it could happen in one county, it could happen anywhere… as always, be skeptical of unsolicited calls or emails, especially when they request payment!

The email read:

A local bank just made me aware of a scam going around regarding Public Health. Someone is calling people saying they are with the local Public Health office and telling that person they have been exposed to a positive case. The caller then says the office wants to send a COVID-19 test kit and all they need is a $50 processing fee. Public Health will NEVER ask for your banking or credit card information and we wouldn’t be charging for a COVID test to be done.

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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ID Theft Protection

Lately I find myself asking my husband if he got the mail because there is not the usual pile waiting for me on the kitchen table. Then I started to wonder if he had already sorted and tossed the junk. Nope! It is not my imagination…there truly is a lot less junk mail these days since COVID 19 began. So much less that it has created a collapse in mail volume. The decline could be as much as 60% by the end of the year, which is bad news for the US Postal Service…considering it has been struggling for about 14 years.

On the other hand,…the supply of junk e-mail continues to grow at a steady pace.  It has even creeped into my text messages. Some emails and text messages look very authentic so, it is important to be alert to scammers. Be wary of messages requesting immediate action. Poor grammar and spelling errors are a good indication the email is fraudulent.

Nearly all e-businesses have a process in place for reporting such emails and texts that are made to look like they are coming from their legitimate company…Facebook, Amazon, etc. You can do a quick search and find how best to notify businesses when you receive messages from scammers; examples include phish@facebook.com, stop-spoofing@amazon.com, spam@uspis.gov. You will probably get an auto-reply indicating that your message was received and appreciated but don’t expect the company to personally reply to your email.

If you are concerned about data breaches or identity theft, you may be considering signing up for identity theft protection services. Before you enroll, it is important to weigh the costs and benefits of various types of services. You also can compare them with free and low-cost services. The federal government’s IdentityTheft.gov website provides free personal recovery plans and step-by-step guidance to help identity theft victims recover.

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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An Ounce of Prevention

I shouldn’t be surprised by the increased number of bogus offerings, threats and scare-tactics arriving in my inbox, mailbox and phone. Scammers are offering everything from face masks to toilet paper and expedited deposits of the stimulus payments. Identity theft and related scams often spike during times of crisis. So…desperate times require extra diligence on our part, to protect our identity and our hard earned money.

The three national credit-reporting companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, are offering free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. By requesting a free credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/free-credit-reports  or by calling 866.349.5191, individuals can receive six free credit reports every twelve months from Equifax, through December 2026…that is in addition to the one free report that can be obtained each year from all credit reporting companies at AnnualCreditReport.com.

While checking your credit report is an important habit, there are other things individuals can do to protect their identity and improve their score.

  1. Pay all your bills on time if possible. It may get difficult with layoffs and furloughs, but try to make at least your minimum debt payments by their due date every month to avoid hurting your credit score.
  2. Contact your lenders for help and ask about hardship options as soon as possible—ideally before you miss a payment. Lenders may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or payment amount, or pause your payments for a period of time. Lenders may also be able to place your loans in deferment or forbearance, which would eliminate payments for a time; as a result, there would be no late payments to report to the credit bureaus. Under the CARES Act, when a consumer contacts their creditor before falling behind in payments, and reaches an agreement with the creditor to a modified payment plan (reduced payments or forbearance), then the creditor may not report late or missed payments to the credit reporting company as long as the consumer follows the agreement. That protection for the consumer lasts until the later of July 26, 2020 OR 120 days after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends.
  3. Check your credit regularly and make sure the information is accurate. You can identify any potentially fraudulent activity and respond to it before it damages your credit.
  4. Dispute inaccurate information immediately. Remember that disputes need to be made with each credit bureau where the disputed information appears.
  5. Contact your service providers. If you do not think you can pay your utility, cell phone, cable or other monthly bills, reach out to your providers to see if they offer flexible payment options during this time.
  6. Be extra vigilant about protecting your identity. If you fear identity theft may occur or has occurred in your name, you can also place a free security freeze on your credit file so lenders cannot gain access to it. This prevents people from applying for credit in your name. You can lift the freeze at any time, for free.
  7. Seek financial management help. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800.447.1985) can put you in touch with a financial consultant who will provide confidential information and discussion, free of charge.
  8. For those with investment or retirement accounts, U.S. market fluctuations could cause significant concern. Before you make any rushed decisions with your investments, consult a reputable investment professional who can look at the details of your situation and provide personalized financial guidance on what actions, if any, you should consider at this time. Not sure where to start? The professionals at the firm holding your investments or with your employer’s retirement plan can be a first contact for analysis of your situation.
  9. Make a budget and plan ahead. If you think current conditions may affect your income or finances, consider tightening your budget to help make sure you have enough funds to cover your expenses.

For more information about free help and guidance during these difficult times, check out https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

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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