Less is More

Woman holding clothes on a hangerIn December, the calendar may say it is winter, but I am never in the mood to do wintery things (decorate, bake and eat comfort foods, etc.) until there is snow on the ground. The same is true for Spring which officially began March 21…almost 2 months ago. The last of our snow recently left and the grass finally turned green and I am now just finding myself in the mood to do spring cleaning…which includes digging out summer clothes and putting away the sweaters.

As I put winter clothes away, I discovered that most of the items in my closet are worn year round…like a short-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, a black dress, a white long-sleeved blouse, a black blazer and dress slacks.

The CAPSULE wardrobe, a term coined in the 70’s, refers to a collection of a few essential, quality items of clothing that never go out of fashion, do not wear out, and can be paired with seasonal pieces. The key is to make sure your essentials are well-made and fit properly…basics that you can wear daily and from which you can create different looks.

If done correctly, a capsule wardrobe should reduce the number of items in your closet — and thus, reduce the amount of time you spend organizing and cleaning out your closet and donating unused items.

Because it is now okay to wear white after Labor Day, to mix prints, and to wear navy and black together, you will find the items in your capsule can remain in your closet all year, eliminating the time-consuming task of removing, organizing and properly storing out-of-season items.  Reducing the number of pieces in your closet also makes it possible to keep all your clothes in your closet, year round.

If these aren’t reasons enough to create a capsule wardrobe, consider the environmental ramifications of cheap, “disposable” clothing. Poor quality clothes lose shape and look tired after being worn only a dozen times. According to a 2017 report we are wearing pieces fewer times before disposing of them. The study says that more than half of all lesser-quality clothes are disposed of in under a year. It also noted that less than one percent of the materials used are recycled; as a result, “one garbage truck full of textiles is land-filled or burned every second.”

Buying high-quality, well-made pieces of clothing that will last years instead of months is not only far better for the environment, but it’s also better for your pocketbook in the long term. And, the capsule wardrobe has great potential to reduce the amount of time spent organizing, storing and cleaning out your closets.

Brenda Schmitt

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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Shopping for People

It’s a rare person who buys a car or a refrigerator without comparing several different options, probably from several different sellers. Yet we humans have a lot of trouble shopping around and comparing our options before we hire a professional. That doesn’t make sense when you think about it — our professional advisers may have a much greater impact on our well-being than our refrigerator!

I’m guessing that maybe there are two reasons we don’t shop around for professional advisers: a) we didn’t learn how from our parents (who may have taught us how to shop around for products from groceries to vacuum cleaners); and b) we feel awkward asking a lot of questions and interviewing professionals, especially when they are the experts and we may not know very much about the topic for which we are seeking an adviser.  This applies to attorneys, tax preparers, investment advisers and a wide range of other professionals. It probably applies to experts like plumbers and electricians, too.

I’m going to focus here on financial advisers, but the principles are the same for all professionals. Our financial advisers have a huge impact on our lives, so we need to get over our discomfort, and “just do it.” (forgive me for relying on a phrase made famous in commercials back in the 1970’s or 80’s).  Really. This is a time to suck it up and force ourselves to take on something even if we’re nervous about it.

Here’s some good news: reputable financial professionals will understand and support our desire to choose an adviser that fits our needs. They will generally be happy to schedule an appointment (maybe 30 minutes) so we can learn more about them – how they do their work, how they are compensated, what experience they have, and how they stay current in their field. Our job will be to go in prepared with questions we want to ask.  (Don’t worry — some resources are identified below!). And then our job is to finish the interview, thank them, and leave without making any decisions. That allows us to interview other individuals, check references, consider what we have learned, and follow up with additional questions before choosing the professional we trust to guide our financial future.

For ideas on what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask, I suggest you begin with information at the following links: FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority); Investing for Your Future (national Extension system); Investor Bulletin (from the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Add  your ideas here — what are YOU looking for in a financial professional?

 

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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Winter Weather: Time to organize!

In much of Iowa, our recent winter weeks have held lots of days suitable only for staying indoors. We’ve canceled or postponed many plans, and some of our dogs have missed lots of walks because some days were just too cold or windy.

So what can we do with those snow days?  I have an idea!
No, it’s not binge-watching your favorite shows or movies, nor does it involve baking. You don’t need ME to suggest those!

My idea is less recreational, but much more valuable in the long term: go through your files!

Cleaning and organizing files is a task we tend to procrastinate. But in an emergency, and even in many non-emergency situations, we sure would like to turn to our files and immediately put our hands on the document(s) we need. When need arises, we’ll be glad we invested some time in getting organized.

Here’s the good news: it’s a task that can be broken up into small doses.

  • If you already have a filing system, you can just go through one or two files a day, to pull out old materials that are no longer needed, and make sure the most current information is in front.
  • If you do not have a filing system in place, start with a small stack of papers from wherever you’ve been storing them. Create file folders or envelopes for each category of papers you run across. For example, if the first paper you come to is about your car insurance, then create a car insurance file. Perhaps the next item will be college transcript – if so, create an education file.

Well-organized files have three characteristics:  1) they are clearly labeled; 2) the newest and most important information is in front; and 3) out-of-date and unimportant documents are removed. Determining what is important can be a challenge. Some tips for starters: 

  • Insurance – keep the most recent summary of coverage (declarations page). In addition, keep the full policy booklet if you have one, and any updates you receive about coverage details.
  • Mutual fund accounts – keep your quarterly statements until the year-end statement arrives; that should include all activity for the year, so you can discard the quarterly statements. Keep all year-end statements, with the most recent in front. Keep the most recent prospectus. There is no need to keep annual reports.
  • Monthly bills – once you get the next statement showing that your payment was received, you can safely discard the previous statement, unless you need it for tax purposes.
  • Warranties and purchase records for warrantied items – keep as long as you own the item. Keep the purchase information longer if the item affects your taxes.
  • Taxes – after six years, they can be discarded.

Personally, my biggest filing problem is old folders with labels that have fallen off – I need to go through and re-label files. Which filing task most needs your attention?

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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Auto-Pilot vs Mindlessness

Two cardboard boxes delivered to a residential home wait outside a black metal front door on a brick patio, Midwest, USA

We have frequently talked about strategies for making good financial habits. One strategies is to “make it automatic”. For example, if I want to save 10% of my monthly paycheck, I would have a greater chance of making it happen if I were to set it up with my employer. Each month, a portion of my paycheck could be auto-deposited in a savings account while the remainder of my check would go directly into my checking account. Basically, I made the decision once and it happens monthly without me having to remember to transfer money from my checking account to my savings account.

For the last couple of years, I have done a lot of on-line purchasing, including a large portion of my gifts and a few household consumables. Within the online shopping platform, I have always compared prices, companies, and options. I would also check Consumer Reports to compare brands and quality reviews. I considered myself to be a good shopper. When this online platform first arrived on the scene, I was diligent in comparing prices with our local stores to make sure I am getting the best deal.  In recent months, though, I haven’t done much comparison shopping;  …I just assumed…which I am sure is what online “stores” were counting on.  They hook consumers with the price, convenience & variety, and then later, when the prices rise, we either don’t notice or don’t care because we are hooked on the convenience.

This past week, a new study revealed that when compared to local store chains, this online shopping platform (the one I had gotten used to using) was not always a less expensive way to shop. This is NOT what I wanted to hear! I LOVE the convenience and the speed at which things arrive at my home. I WANT (but I don’t need) more brands to pick from.

So I have a mixed scorecard as an effective consumer. On the plus side, I have been effective in putting my savings account deposits on auto-pilot; but on the minus side, my desire to save money while shopping has slipped as it became a bit mindless. Now the I have to decide if the convenience is worth a slightly higher price.

Brenda Schmitt

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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Packages on the Doorstep

When will it be delivered?  I’m learning that tracking services offered by vendors vary with accuracy and details. Packages I mailed at Halloween took a broom stick ride in the opposite direction of their destination and then circled back for a late delivery.  I have a purchase that has been “out for delivery” for a week and there are no details.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces rules for online and mail order sales. Packages have to arrive within 30 days. If that isn’t possible, you must be notified and have an option to cancel the order.

Where will I find it? I have an inspection routine at my house when I receive confirmation of delivery. Packages have been found in multiple locations: on the front porch; the back porch; the bushes near the doors; and the back of the mailbox.  I’m thankful I don’t have my son’s dog (shredded packages) and I’m not on a busy city street. There are alternatives to consider: work address, neighbor, requiring a signature for delivery (usually involves a separate charge), using the carrier’s designated pickup and delivery location.

I’m not complaining. “Mail-order” shopping has come a long way from the days of the Montgomery Ward catalog.  I remember when you mailed in an order and instead of a package, the vendor’s letter arrived informing you the item was “sold out” or “not in stock”. Sometimes they sent a substitute item, which wasn’t always satisfactory. Inventory control with access from your home computer has reinvented “mail-order” shopping, and it’s definitely on the up swing.

 

 

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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Someone May Be Watching You

Last November, my brother-in-law’s vehicle was broken into at the nearby grocery store parking lot.   He had done some banking prior to pulling into the grocery store to pick up a pizza for the night’s meal. While he was in the store, his money and cell phone were stolen.  There was also damage done to both driver and passenger doors, his console, and the car’s paint. There were surveillance cameras in grocery store’s lot, but it was hard to identify the perpetrator.

When my sister and brother-in-law returned from the holidays, they picked up their held mail at the post office; while they were there, a man had money stolen from his vehicle parked outside the post office, also after a visit to the bank.   Note: Both of these incidents occurred in daylight in a large U.S. city.

Based on his recent experience, my brother-in-law was able to encourage the man to call the police and file a complaint;  this would help him to file a claim with his insurance company. Depending what was taken, he might also want to contact his bank, and/or place a fraud alert on his credit reports.  In addition, he would need to make arrangements to have his vehicle fixed.  These were all steps my brother-in-law had needed to take a few weeks earlier, plus he had to deal with the theft of his phone; fortunately, since my brother-in-law’s information on his phone was backed up in the “cloud,” he was able to be back in business soon after the phone was replaced.

We do not always think about who is watching us, but in both of these cases, someone was watching while they visited their banks. These incidents remind us: don’t let your guard down, and watch your surroundings. That guidance is especially important during the upcoming holiday season when many of us make more purchases than usual and may leave things in our cars.

How many times do we go somewhere feeling we are safe, and therefore do not pay attention to the environment around us?

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Charitable Giving and Taxes

We’re entering a busy time of year for charitable donations, perhaps because the winter holiday season brings a sense of gratitude followed by a desire to share our abundance. The availability of tax deductions for charitable giving may also contribute to the concentration of donations near year-end.

According to Giving USA, Americans donated a record $410 billion to charities in 2017. What’s more, over 70% of that giving came from individuals, rather than foundations, corporations, or bequests.  However, tax law changes this year mean that for many people there will no longer be an advantage in itemizing deductions; many taxpayers will get better results using a standard deduction. For those households, the tax benefit of charitable donations will be reduced or eliminated.

Will Americans still give?  I have always hoped that the main reason most Americans give is that they care about the organizations they are giving to, and that the tax benefits are just an incidental benefit.

If you are wondering whether you should continue making charitable donations even without the tax deductions, I offer two thoughts:

  • If your standard deduction under the new tax law is larger than your itemized deductions would have been, then you are still coming out ahead. You can give, and still have more available funds than you would have had under the old tax law.
  • There are other strategies that can enable some taxpayers to get tax advantages for charitable donations.
    Clustering donations. Some taxpayers may be able to hold back all their 2018 donations until the beginning of 2019; if they then donate a “normal” amount throughout 2019, they will have twice as many donations as usual to report for the 2019 tax year, which may make itemizing worthwhile in 2019. Following this pattern of no contributions one year and double-contributions the next may enable you to donate the same total amounts as normal, and gain tax benefits by alternating years between itemized and standard deductions.
    Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD) from an IRA.  If you are at least 70-1/2, you can transfer funds directly from your traditional IRA to a charitable organization; the distribution will not be taxable income to you, AND it can satisfy your required minimum distribution. If your RMD for the year is $5,000, and you are interested in donating $5,000 to a particular organization, then making the contribution through a QCD has the same ultimate impact on your taxes as a tax deduction would have had. IRS Publication 590-B provides details.
    Donating as a business expense.  If you are self-employed or own a business, you may be able to make charitable contributions as a business expense.  For example, farmers can give commodities (e.g. 500 bushels of corn) to a charity. This reduces your business income, and therefore has impact similar to the impact of a tax deduction. Consult with your tax adviser for details.

As always, the best decisions about how to use your money are based on your personal goals and priorities. As you consider your charitable giving decisions, 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.org, www.charitywatch.org, www.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.

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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Health Insurance: Time to Decide

Making a decision about health insurance coverage is not easy. Most of us rely on our employer to wade through the details of policy coverage and negotiation of rates. We gladly accept what is offered, choosing between 2-3 options that personalize the coverage.  HR sends a letter or hosts a meeting for questions and answers. If we don’t do anything, the policy we have continues into the new year.

It’s not quite as easy when you are purchasing insurance on your own: some parts of Medicare, the Marketplace, and plans offered from private insurance agencies can be more confusing. The options for coverage have experienced a period of volatility.  Assistance with enrollment varies. Here is an overview of the open enrollment time frame, who can help you sort through the options, and major changes to be aware of in 2019:

Medicare:  Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug coverage (Medicare D) began on October 15th and closes on December 7th.  SHIIP volunteers are excellent resources to help sort coverage and find plans that will meet your needs. Medicare is also providing assistance through an online education program, Medicare Plan Finder.  Advantage plans are increasing in numbers and are being heavily marketed this season.  Individuals enrolled in supplemental coverage (Medigap) and prescription drug (Medicare D) plans should open and read any notices they received in the past 30-60  days.  Your coverage may have changed.

Marketplace Coverage:  Open enrollment began on November 1 and closes on December 15th. Iowans may call 1-800-318-2596 or visit healthcare.gov for information. Independent insurance agents may be able to assist. If you received assistance last year, try contacting the agency that sponsored the service. Medica and Wellmark will be offering ACA-compliant individual health insurance plans to Iowans statewide for plan year 2019. If you currently have coverage through the exchange and do not choose a plan for 2019 by the end of open enrollment, you will be re-enrolled into the same plan offered by Medica. Reminder: if you want to use Premium Tax Credits to help cover the cost of your insurance, you must purchase it in the marketplace.

Private Plan Coverage: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time for most policies. The Iowa Insurance Division provides a listing of licensed agents.  New this year for individuals who do not qualify for premium tax credits are association benefits plans.

Children’s’ Health insurance Plans (known in Iowa as HAWK-I): Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time. Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.

Medicaid: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time.  Individuals may qualify based on income or specific health issues.  Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has available education programs that can help with understanding choices and coverage.  Contact your local extension office to request delivery for your community.

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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Cost-Cutting vs. Saving: Not the same thing!

Most of us have dozens of ways we “save money:”

  • We “save” by using coupons and shopping sales.
  • We “save” by saying NO to ourselves and others when temptation arises.
  • We “save” by cooking at home instead of eating out.

Are you wondering why I put the word “save” in quotation marks in all those examples? Here’s why: even if we did all those things every single week, there is no certainty that our savings account balance will increase.

All those steps are ways we reduce costs, but do they automatically lead to deposits to savings accounts? No. Take me, for example: I have never once taken the money I did not spend at a restaurant or grocery store and deposited it into a savings account as a direct result of the decision not to spend. Instead, the money I “saved” would usually just get spent on something else!

A decision not to spend is a key step in saving. But by itself, that decision is not enough; it only turns into saving when we actually move the money into a savings account (or to a dedicated savings location such as a piggy bank).  When I come to a coffee shop or an ice cream store and I go on by without stopping because I want to save that money, I should probably just stop right there and transfer money from one account to another. Or I could carry a “saving” envelope in my purse and move cash into the envelope every time I resist temptation. That would be the way to make sure the actual saving occurred.

Saving is a two-step process. It involves deciding not to spend and  putting money in a designated location. Either step can come first. I can decide not to buy something and then save the money; OR I can put the money away first and then (out of necessity) spend less than I otherwise would have spent.
Note: many of us do better if we put the money in savings first!.When there’s no money in your billfold or your account, it’s easier to resist temptation to spend! 

Do you sometimes wonder why you aren’t getting ahead, despite your efforts? It may be because you’re skipping one of the steps.  How can you turn your cost-cutting into true savings progress?

 

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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Stocking the Grocery Pantry

I threw a list of Pantry items together in 2004 and went shopping. My goal was to confirm or dispel what participants in my budgeting classes would argue: that it was cheaper to purchase groceries at larger markets, especially those in larger towns where there is more than one grocery store.

What I challenged them to consider was the cost of transportation and the added time it took to make a 1 hour round trip each week for groceries; especially if the sale items were the same price in a local store.  Did they save enough to off-set those costs? Even though the cash register receipt is lower for the same items, it wasn’t enough savings to cover the cost of transportation.

I took my list shopping to the local grocery in 2007 and again today.   Here’s what I’ve learned from the comparison:

  • The cost for store brands, 2004-2018, increased 54.7%, the national brands increased 34.3%.
  • The margin between the cost of buying a store brand and buying a national label continues to erode. In 2004 the difference was 30%, in 2018 the difference is 24%. Store brands still cost less, but not as much.  Quality becomes more important.
  • The changes in package sizes has slowed. I found several items in smaller packages between 2004 and 2007; but only Oat Cereal was found in a smaller package in 2018.
  • Some items are lower priced. Brand name stick margarine is priced lower than the 2004 cost and the store brand is equivalent to the brand name price. Oat Cereal, when broken down into price per ounce, is 27 cents today. In 2004 it was 26 cents an ounce.  Brand name green beans have declined slightly since 2007, with store brands getting close to equivalent price.
  • Items on my pantry list with a larger than average increase in price are: a 2 lb. block of processed cheese food – the national brand increased 100%; a 5 lb. bag of national brand flour increased 61%.

A new player in the pantry shopping list is a local dollar store.  My grocery sack included a combination of store brands and national brands. The sizes were equivalent. Not everything on the list was available. Some items were lower, but others were higher in price. In the end my combination sack cost the same as the store brands at the local grocery.   If you have the time and pay attention to prices you could lower your total grocery costs by shopping at both stores if they are close to each other.

Visit the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website for low cost recipes and other tools to manage your grocery dollars.

 

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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