Surviving a Crisis

The container flew from my hand and crashed on the ground of the farm lot. My husband stood and watched as I unloaded my frustration and anger. My job that day, while my husband was at his off-farm job, had been to visit with the agriculture lender. It had not gone well. A banker’s pen had drawn lines through our spending plan. The lender, the third in a revolving door of employees, had edited our Cash Flow statement to reflect his view of our potential for success. Our hard work and determination not to default on loans had not been acknowledged. There was no sign of a continued partnership, and our communications with the previous loan officer were not in our file. We were expendable as loan clients during the 80’s farm crisis.

Personal finance is not just about numbers – balancing a checkbook or keeping good records. It reflects our values, priorities, and goals. It’s personal. We define who we are as we provide for our families and participate in the communities where we live. This personal investment makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that we have no control over certain outside events – events that sometimes send a wrecking ball through it all.  COVID-19 will have this impact on families, just like the Farm Crisis of the 80’s did in rural Iowa.

We survived that unpleasant time. We focused on our priorities and recognized that not all financial lenders would be able to support our goals. When rejection seemed likely, we found new partnerships.  When resources became available to reduce our dependence on others, we repaid debts.  It took time. 

Emotional balance is essential if we are to use our minds to identify solutions and put together steps toward resolving financial problems.  Dealing with your feelings is a priority. Communication with family and supportive people can sustain you while you improve your financial situation.

This summer my husband and I will post a Heritage Farm sign on the original 80 acres purchased in 1870 by his Great Great Grandfather.   Life events can be survived! Understanding and taking control of finances is a powerful thing, often requiring assistance. Don’t hesitate to find that trustworthy assistance.

Retirement begins for me at the end of this week and I want to thank you for reading the Money Tips blog. I hope you continue to find this a place for financial news, management advice and resources.

Joyce

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Seek Additional Resources

Audio Blog

In all aspects of life, when we face any kind of shortage (time, money, food, etc) we generally have two choices. We can prioritize and narrow down our goals, which we have discussed in earlier posts. OR we can expand our available resources. In most cases, it’s smart to do a little of both!

The current public health crisis is wreaking havoc with the economy at large and with the economic well-being of many individual households; the widespread nature of the crisis has led to availability of expanded public supports for those whose income is disrupted. Find out if you are eligible for the unemployment relief available during the COVID-19 crisis, and apply. Learn about food pantry options in your community; spending less on food can free up funds for other critical needs and bills.

In addition, consider your personal resources. Do you own something you can sell to help you through this crisis?  If you have a boat or a snowmobile or other item of value, selling it can provide a boost. If you are currently laid off from your regular job, is there temporary work available in your community? Keep an open mind and consider all options for dealing with your current situation.

If you have lost your health insurance, check on the free or subsidized health insurance available through the Affordable Care Act: contact DHS at 855-889-7985 to see if you are eligible for free insurance, OR for subsidized insurance through the marketplace, go to www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596. Through the marketplace, your share of the insurance premium is on a sliding scale depending on your income: people generally pay premiums equivalent to 2% – 8% of their income, and the government pays the remainder.

Seek other public or community assistance as well if you qualify. These resources exist because we live in a society that wants to ensure all can stay safe and healthy. Perhaps you are new to seeking help, but consider that others have needed them in the past and others will need them in the future; now is the time when you need them. If you don’t know much about available resources in your area, dial 211 or go to the website. This free service provides information and referral on a wide range of issues.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Prioritizing when money is tight

Audio Blog
Weighing Priorities

As we focus on what we can control in our personal finances, the most obvious thing we control is our spending. When money is tight, choosing your top priorities is critical. Prioritizing includes expenses like groceries, household supplies and personal needs: think about needs vs. wants and use your limited funds on the things that truly bring value to your family. Prioritizing can be even more important when it comes to paying bills.

Before going to the point of skipping a bill or making a partial payment, start by getting a complete picture of all your bills and debts – total owed, monthly payment, current standing (i.e. are you currently caught up), and interest rate or fees for late payment.

Then consider each bill’s importance. They will all need to be paid eventually, and it is never desirable to leave bills unpaid or partially paid, but in times of real financial shortfall, people sometimes have no choice. So how do you choose among your many bills?

Consider what you have to lose if a bill is unpaid. Losing housing, core utilities or a vehicle is generally the greatest possible loss to a household – therefore those payments may be top priorities for many families. By contrast, getting behind on a credit card account, student loan, or medical bill payment plan may not affect your immediate well-being. Note: it may affect your credit score, and is not something to take lightly, but that is an impact you can recover from.

In addition to prioritizing among your existing bills, it is also wise to consider what bills you will continue to incur. You may have on-going monthly subscriptions – to video services, cable, newspapers, weight-loss programs, wine clubs, (the list is endless). Stop and think about whether to continue them during this time. Those are often things we enjoy, and we don’t like the idea of giving them up, but if you’re worried about paying the car insurance or water bill, then it’s appropriate to include these subscriptions as you consider options.

If your situation has left you unable to pay all your bills, be sure to communicate with those creditors. That is the topic for tomorrow’s post, so stay tuned!

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also offers tips for protecting your finances during this time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Crisis: Focus on what you can control

If you are experiencing financial challenges due to income loss or unexpected expenses during this time of pandemic and shut-down, you’re probably feeling tremendous stress. As always, one key to managing uncertainty and stress is to focus on what you can control. There’s no benefit to expending mental and emotional energy on things outside of your influence, and that energy drain will prevent you from focusing effectively on what you CAN do.

What do you have control over? Perhaps more than you realize. You control what you do, including what bills you pay and what money you spend. You may even control the option to return purchases you haven’t yet used!

You control what you say, including to your family members and to your creditors. You also control your attitude — keeping a positive attitude focused on problem-solving will help you be open to new ideas and opportunities.

What do you NOT have control over? Prices. Your past behavior (such as building up credit card bills). The stock market. Your employer (although you may have influence – if you do, consider how to use that influence in a productive way). Don’t waste time and energy stewing over these things. They are what they are. You have choices about how to respond.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for 3 more posts about managing through a challenging time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Flexible Thinking

We have all had an overload of opportunities to exercise flexible thinking in the past few weeks. Some individuals shifted the workplace from the office to their home. The normal routines are not working. A number of workers lost all income security. School-age children are on an extended holiday in March!

Most of us are comfortable following routines; we don’t like to change our habits. In “normal” times, when nothing else in our life is changing, any suggestions for financial changes tend to be ignored. A time like this, when so much in our lives is being upended, can be an opportunity to make positive changes in our financial habits! Why not take advantage of the chance to change and grow? 

  • Think about others. There are many who don’t have the luxury of working at home or the security of a steady paycheck. If you can, let family and friends know you are willing to help if finances get strained. Sometimes a message of support can lessen stress and prevent someone from feeling they don’t have options.
  • Challenge your current spending habits. If you have survived a week or two without eating out, recreational shopping, or going to the movies; can you feel better about using a part of those funds to repay a debt or add to savings and not feel deprived?
  • Define some of your benefits in a different way. Hard earned vacation pay reserved for “fun”, might be easier to use now if you think of it as “paid time off.” A restricted definition of how available funds should be used can be a deficit when there are essential bills to pay.
  • Measure your workplace adaptability. It’s a great time to be an amateur, many individuals are being thrown into an online work environment or being asked to take on new responsibilities. Some new ways of working may become standard procedures and you can be the expert from all the practice!
  • Share what you are learning, especially if it pertains to alternatives for toilet paper!!!

I wish you all the best during these challenging times, we’ll learn some things about ourselves and have some new skills when it’s over.

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Income Taxes in Retirement

United States tax forms

As a volunteer tax preparer with VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), I frequently wish people understood taxes better. In recent weeks I’ve done three tax returns for people who, in their first year of retirement, cashed out their entire IRA or 401(k) account (ranging from $15,000 to $60,000).

In most cases, these new retirees used the funds for their long-term benefit – major home improvements and other purchases that will help them in the long run. I think they probably thought about the fact that spending the money now means they’ll live on more limited income for the rest of their lives, and they decided that was okay with them.

But I do NOT think they understood the tax implications of their decision, and I found myself wishing I would’ve had the chance to explain it all before they decided to withdraw the whole amount at once. Here are some things retirees should know:

  1. Withdrawals from “traditional” IRA, 401(k), and similar retirement plans will generally be included in your taxable income. Large withdrawals can easily move you into a higher tax bracket, meaning that you pay a higher tax rate on some of that income. For a single person, income above about $53,000 is typically subject to a 22% tax rate, rather than the lower 10% or 12% rate.
  2. The first year of retirement is especially tricky for income tax purposes, because usually the person also had employment income for part of the year, which may contribute to bumping them into a higher tax bracket.
  3. Social Security income is only partly taxable (at most 85% of it is subject to tax). How much is taxable depends on how much other income you have that year. When a person has very low income, none of their Social Security income will be taxable; as their income increases, the portion of Social Security subject to tax also increases. That means that large withdrawals from retirement accounts can create a double-whammy by increasing the taxable amount of Social Security as well has increasing total income.

I know that some of the clients I served paid at least $5,000 more in income tax than they would have if they had spread their retirement plan withdrawals over five years, or even over two or three years. I’m also pretty confident that they did not really understand the tax impact when they made the decision to withdraw it all at once.

Bottom line? Before making decisions about withdrawing from retirement plans, consider various options and get information from someone who is knowledgeable about taxes. If you don’t have a tax expert to ask, try using IRS form 1040-ES (estimated taxes) OR the IRS online withholding estimator to compare different options. Note: remember to consider state income taxes, as well.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Goals That Work

As we wrap up 2019, are you thinking of ways to try to “do better” or “be better” in the new year?  The idea of a fresh start is appealing, but if you’re like me, you may be hesitant to set goals, based on a track record of not following through in the past.

That leads me to one key to success: we should only set goals that are truly important to us. We have to really want the goal. To put it another way: there’s no point in setting a goal because you think you should. If you’re going to set a goal, only do it because the result matters to you.

Once you have a goal you can fully commit to, a next step is to plan how you will get the money – how much will you save each week or month? That will mean reducing some of your other expenses so that you can put money toward your goal. Think specifically about what changes you will make in order to save; deciding in advance that you will not go to the coffee shop, or not buy any clothing, or… (whatever) will make it easier to steer clear of tempting situations.

My final tip for now is to keep your goal on your radar. For example, if your goal is a new computer, then keep a picture of the type of computer you want in a location where you’ll see it regularly – on your refrigerator, at your computer desk, and/or in the section of your wallet where you keep your money and credit/debit cards. That will help you stay motivated; it’s easier to say no to extra purchases when you have a reminder in front of you of why you are making a sacrifice.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Giving

Today is #GivingTuesday, an annual event begun in 2012 to spark a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world on December 3, 2019 and every day.”

As it follows on the heels of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” and even “Small Business Saturday,” I find “Giving Tuesday” a huge relief – a welcome change of pace, not focused on shopping.

There are three ways we can use our money: Spend, Save, or Share. I don’t think the “sharing” element always gets its due attention. Sharing happens in many ways, including charitable giving and also including gifts to people we care about. It’s true that for many people, Black Friday and Cyber Monday focus on shopping for gifts we want to give to others; that is sharing, after all. But I see the kind of gift-giving I do with family and friends to be a little different. It’s less of a pure kind of sharing, because it’s usually reciprocal: “I need to give them something nice, because I know they’ll be giving me something nice, too.”

What I really like about Giving Tuesday is that it seems to encourage a more selfless sharing, with a main focus is on promoting the good of others, on something bigger than ourselves. If I can buy gifts for people who already have plenty, then surely I can also GIVE selflessly to causes that will help make the world a better place, or to people who have real need.

As you consider your giving options, focus on why you want to give when deciding whether and where to make donations. Giving to organizations you know (often local organizations) can ensure that your gifts are used well; when considering larger national charities, check them out with organizations that evaluate charities, such as  www.give.orgwww.charitywatch.orgwww.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.  

Giving is part of my monthly budget every month all year round. So on Giving Tuesday I am reminded to consider where this month’s gifts will do the most good, and also to reexamine whether I can give a little more…

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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A Missing Link in Your Spending Plan?

checking a box

Making a spending plan is a key to being on top of your finances. When you look at the income you can realistically expect and then decide in advance how you want to spend it, that plan puts you in control; it helps you ensure your money is used where it matters most.

But is a spending plan all you need? The answer is a definite NO. Lots of people make spending plans but still don’t gain control. Why?  Because even the best spending plan is useless if you don’t FOLLOW it. And that doesn’t happen automatically. You need a strategy.

The good news is that for most people, part of their spending plan is easy to follow; fixed expenses like rent and other bills are predictable, and are usually paid just once a month. The tricky part for most people is staying within their planned limits for flexible expenses (groceries, fun, etc).

It comes down to questions like this:
If you plan to spend $320 on groceries for the month, how do you make sure you don’t spend more than that?

The answer? Keeping track. The only way to make sure you follow through with your plan is to have a strategy for checking up on your spending throughout the month. There are “old-fashioned” ways to do that, like writing down spending in each category, using either written ledger charts OR computerized spreadsheets. The “envelope method” also can help you follow your plan; it involves separate envelopes containing cash for each category of spending you wish to monitor (groceries, gas, fun, etc).

There are also “apps” that can help you track. These apps work in a variety of ways: with some, you enter your spending in your mobile device as you go along; with others, your debit card spending is linked to the app, so that, for example, all purchases at the grocery store are automatically added to your running total of food expenses.

The money management apps for mobile devices are generally provided by commercial organizations, and Extension does not recommend commercial products, but consumers have found many of these apps useful. One caution I suggest, however, relates to internet security when accessing your financial accounts. Choose settings within the app that will prevent the app from connecting to your bank account via open public wi-fi.

Tracking your spending, especially in the categories where you are most at-risk of exceeding your planned amounts, is the best step you can take to make your spending plan work. And that is the way to achieve your financial goals!

For more information, find our free 4-page publication “Tracking Your Spending.”

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Unretirement

Questions are part of our Writing Your Retirement Paycheck program. The more common questions are about finances, but every now and then, someone will ask, “How am I going to know when to retire and will I like it?” The question of when is sometimes tied to finances, which is fairly straightforward to discuss, but helping someone like retirement is a challenge.   

A number of individuals in the United States practice unretirement. A word being used to describe reentry into the workforce after a formal retirement. In an article published by the National Institute of Health, 80% of near-retirement individuals expect to return to the world of work in some capacity.  After 2 years, 25% are working full time.  Returning to work is less likely to occur if an individual experiences health issues. Interestingly, financial need does not appear to be a common reason for reentry into the workforce.

Retirement plans are highly individual; one size does not fit all. The successful transitions all have individual differences, but three elements are frequently mentioned.

  • A planned trip or activity to create a bridge between the everyday routine of going to work and the freedom of setting your own daily schedule. It creates a distraction and gives a chance for individuals to refocus on a new lifestyle.
  • Setting goals to complete in the early years of retirement. If chosen wisely, these goals help with time management, simulate thinking, and can result in enjoyment of new accomplishments.
  • Developing new relationships with individuals and groups outside of the workplace prior to retirement. New associations can help replace the psychological value individuals gained from their roles in the workplace. 

Planning for the transition to retirement is financial, but also includes mental preparation for a new lifestyle. Without that step, we might find ourselves part of the “unretirement” movement.  

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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