Managing Your Finances Amid Recession Concerns

Economists, policymakers, and news outlets are all at-odds over the U.S. economy heading toward a recession in 2023. For those paying close attention, the same debate took place prior to 2022; however, the economy mostly stayed its course, and recent economic data is pointing to the same…for now. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what the future holds, but there are still steps we can take to manage our finances during periods of uncertainty.

The first step in easing recession concerns is to review your current spending habits. It is very difficult to follow a financial plan, while simultaneously preparing for a potential economic downturn, if you have no idea where your money is going. But the good news…there are plenty of free tools out there to help! Utah State University’s PowerPay, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System’s 50-20-30 Rule Calculator, and the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator are great for analyzing your spending in different ways.

The purpose of this exercise is not only to see where your money is going, but also to free up dollars toward your other goal: building emergency savings for the short and medium-term future. We often think of using emergency savings for an immediate, one-and-done expense; however, a recession can be much more than that for some households. That is why many financial professionals recommend having 3, 6, or even 12 months’ worth of expenses saved, depending on your situation.

On the long-term side of things, having a diversified retirement portfolio, sticking to your asset allocation, and rebalancing when necessary are all key strategies for reducing recession stress. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor.gov website provides a Beginner’s Guide to Asset Allocation, Diversification, and Rebalancing (PDF format). This free publication explains the value of these strategies and how they can be utilized to benefit your savings goals.

If all else fails, please know that Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is here to help!

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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Rising Interest Rates and Your Spending Plan

In its ongoing fight against inflation, the Federal Reserve again hiked interest rates earlier this month to a range of 3.75 – 4.00%. This widely anticipated move continues the year-long trend of rate hikes, and it is important to understand how these moves affect your household spending plan.

The specific rate mentioned above – the Federal Funds rate – technically does not affect consumers directly. When the target range is increased, the costs for banks participating in overnight market activities increases, which will then likely be passed along in the form of higher rates on consumer debt products.

These behind-the-scenes transactions are ultimately responsible for the rising costs of credit cards, mortgages, and other loans. On a positive note, consumers can also take advantage of higher rates on treasuries, money market funds, CDs, and other short-term saving instruments. For the sake of space, I will go over two of the most common consumer rates: credit cards and mortgages.

  1. Credit Cards – most credit cards utilize an adjustable rate, which is more susceptible to immediate changes in the market. Individuals carrying a balance from month-to-month will experience higher borrowing costs, and extend their payoff timeline, especially if they are making the same monthly payment. You can likely find your current rate on a monthly statement.
  2. Mortgages – on the flip side, most mortgages fall under the fixed-rate category. While new homebuyers, and those with adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), are facing higher borrowing costs, those with an existing fixed-rate mortgage are not impacted.

Unfortunately, consumers cannot control effective interest rates; however, you can at least minimize the impact on your spending plan. Forgoing a major purchase, shopping around for the best rates, improving your credit, and making extra debt payments are all potential strategies for protecting your personal finances during a rising interest rate environment. Human Sciences Specialists, with a focus in Financial Health and Wellbeing, are also here to help if you find yourself in a tight spot with your spending plan!

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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Tips for Health Insurance Enrollment Season

It’s health insurance enrollment season for most Americans! Health insurance choices are some of the most important choices we make: they determine what doctors and other providers we can see affordably, what premiums we pay, and how much we’ll pay out of pocket each time we receive care. These choices have a huge impact on our finances – and also on our health! After all, if it’s not affordable to seek care, we will often put off the care we need; the delay can lead to poorer health outcomes.

So take control of your health care options by making informed choices! Two key principles to keep in mind:

  1. Think beyond monthly premiums. Consider how much health care you use in a typical year. Depending how often you need care, and what kind of care you need, you may be better off financially by choosing a higher-premium plan that has a lower deductible and lower co-pays.
  2. Pay attention to the provider network available as you look at your choices. Make sure the insurance plan you choose allows you to see the providers that you prefer, and that are convenient for you to see.

Tips for those not covered through their employer:

Looking for insurance on your own, with no employer plan? Deadline: December 15.
The Health Insurance Marketplace (www.healthcare.gov or 800-318-2596) is the only place to find comprehensive insurance plans that cover all ten essential benefits. These plans may look expensive if you look only at the retail price. However, many Americans, including middle-class Americans, are eligible for assistance in paying the premiums on these plans through a Premium Tax Credit based on your family size and income. That assistance was expanded during the COVID emergency, and that expansion continues through 2025, so it is worth checking out. Find a health care navigator to assist you; if there is a local non-profit community health care center near you, contact them for help. Alternatively, this site can help you find individuals who have agreed to help consumers select health insurance; to avoid commercial bias, look for one labeled as an “assister” rather than one who is an “agent or broker.”

Wondering how much your premiums might be? The Kaiser Family Foundation has a subsidy calculator that can give you a solid estimate.

Any plan you find outside of the Marketplace is technically not even qualified to be called “insurance,” because it excludes certain types of care; it will have some other label, such as a “health plan.” You may have reasons for considering one of those plans, but read carefully to learn what is not covered; anytime something is offered at a lower price than its competition, you know that some tradeoff is involved.

Signing up for Medicare coverage?  Deadline: December 7.
An increasing number of older Americans are selecting the highly-advertised Medicare Advantage plans; unfortunately, research is showing that some advertising for Medicare Advantage plans is extremely misleading or even fraudulent. This does not mean that all Medicare Advantage plans should be avoided, but rather that you should choose very carefully. Likewise if you choose Traditional Medicare, be sure you have good information about any supplement plans or Part D prescription drug plans you consider. The best source for information and guidance in selecting Medicare plans is SHIIP – the Senior Health Insurance Information Program. Find an Iowa SHIIP office near you OR use this link to seek out SHIIP in other states.

Free Coverage may be available to you! Enrollment is open anytime for eligible households.
In Iowa and the majority of states, Medicaid coverage has been expanded beyond the old limits (which limited coverage to families with children and disabled individuals). Now anyone with income below the threshold is eligible, regardless of family composition. What’s more, the income thresholds have been increased. This year for a family of two, the income limit is $24,352; for a family of four, the limit is  $36,908.  NOTE: those limits are approximate; there are some nuances in calculating income so that in some situations people are eligible even if their income is slightly higher than the standard limit.  In Iowa, this state hotline can help you enroll: 855-889-7985.

Children under 19 may be covered for free even if family income is 2-3 times the normal limit, through the Child Health Insurance Program, known in Iowa as HAWK-I.

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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Savings Strategies

Note: this post builds on yesterday’s post about having a meaningful reason to save.

Once you have a reason why you want to save, or save more, the next step is to “find” money to save. That generally means either increasing income or reducing expenses, which means something will need to change. Change can be hard, but most of us can succeed if we have a good enough reason.

To reduce expenses, you can make several small changes; for example, eat out one less time per week, drink one less can of pop each day, or stop buying magazines and read them at the library instead. OR, you could make one big change that saves money; for example, you could find a roommate to share housing expenses or move to a smaller (less expensive) apartment. To increase income, you could ask for more hours at work, get an extra part-time job, collect cans and bottles for the 5-cent deposit, or have a garage sale.

Once you have “found” some money by reducing expenses, increasing income, or both, the next key is to MOVE that money to a savings account or to some location where you are unlikely to touch it.

This seems like an obvious step, but it can be overlooked.

Imagine a scenario where you exercised self-discipline by skipping your morning coffee shop stop, bringing your lunch to work, and stuck to a limit at the grocery store! You’re proud of yourself! But if you don’t actually MOVE the money to your savings account, it will just end up getting spent on something else.

To make sure the money gets moved to savings, one helpful strategy is to treat savings like a bill you pay each month. If you’ve decided you can save $50/month by making some changes in spending, then “pay” that saving bill just like you pay your utility bill and your car payment. That approach increases your chance to be successful with saving. Even if you are saving small amounts, building the habit of saving each month is a way to reach your goals, whatever they may be.

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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Summer Money Crunch

Summer can cause a financial crunch for families with children. Children who are home all day need to eat, and they want things to do; if they go to day care, the cost of full-day care instead of after school care can really stretch the wallet. This summer, with inflation already straining budgets, may be even worse than normal.

There is, of course, no magic wand that will “uncrunch” summer finances. But there are steps that can help! Not all these ideas work for everyone, but see if some of them fit your situation:

  • Take control of food costs, starting with tools from “Spend Smart. Eat Smart.” You’ll find a grocery budget calculator, meal planning tools (and a video), shopping strategies, and a whole slew of recipes that are easy, low-cost, healthy and tasty – some with video instructions. There is even an app for your phone so you can have tools available while you’re at the grocery store!
  • Ask about discounts for summer pool passes or summer recreation programs. Many communities and rec centers offer discounted rates; in some communities the Community Action Agency can provide help here, as well. 
  • When special events come around (fairs, festivals, etc), decide in advance what your spending limit will be, and stick to that limit. It’s easy to get carried away in the midst of the fun if you don’t set limits in advance. Before the events, do some research (ask around) to identify free or low-cost activities that you and your family will enjoy.
  • If your children’s wants and wishes seem never-ending, parents often get tired of saying no, which means they start saying yes too often and end up spending more than they want to.
    One way to ease that pressure is to give your children a weekly or monthly allowance, be clear about what it is for, and not “give in” when they ask you for more money after their allowance is gone. This puts the kids in control, and when they run out of money it’s because of their own choices (and NOT because you are a “mean parent”).
    Several years ago I shared my own experiences with an allowance for my children. The University of Minnesota offers a helpful fact sheet about allowances (scroll down to find it).

What tips can YOU share for tackling the summer financial crunch?

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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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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New Option on the Advance Child Tax Credit Portal

Families can now easily update their mailing address in the IRS Child Tax Credit portal. This is very important for families who choose to receive their payments in the mail, rather than by direct deposit.

To use the portal, go to the IRS Child Tax Credit page and select “Manage Payments.” The portal now allows users to:

  • Change their mailing address;
  • Switch from receiving a paper check to direct deposit;
  • Change the account where their payment is direct deposited; or
  • Stop monthly payments for the rest of 2021.

If you run into challenges using the portal, our July 12 post offers a few tips. An earlier post explains what is different about the Child Tax Credit in 2021, including who is eligible for the expanded credit. If you previously were eligible, based on your income in prior years, but are no longer eligible now, you might consider opting out of the advance payments, which are being sent monthly on the 15th of each month through the end of 2021.

Log into the portal by midnight (Eastern Time) on August 30 if you want the changes to kick in for the September 15 payment. The IRS expects to add a few more functions to the Child Tax Credit portal in coming months, including the ability to:

  • Add or remove children in most situations;
  • Report a change in marital status; or
  • Report a significant change in income.

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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