If You Don’t Need It, Don’t Buy It

As we experience consumers’ hoarding of a few items like toilet paper we might be under the impression that we’ve fallen on “Tough Times.”  Powerful memories exist for my senior parents who lived during World War II, when rationing meant you couldn’t always buy a wide range of the things you wanted. Like many Americans they learned and practiced “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

It might sound like the advice of frugal parents, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT,” but to meet the needs of US soldiers during World War II, commodities in short supply had to be rationed.  So in 1942 Americans back home were given numbered ration books with stamps inside to control people’s consumption of things like coffee, fuel and shoes and provide equal distribution of scarce goods.

A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the store the right ration stamp.  Once a person’s monthly ration stamps were used up, they couldn’t buy any more of that type of product. It was like being on an allowance.  

This meant planning carefully, being creative, not wasting and self-control. My father’s ration book represents just one way in which World War II changed the spending behaviors of families.

So, what of these valuable consumer behaviors can we practice today? Do I have a list and know what is already on hand at home before shopping? Can the “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” ideal give me confidence to wait during a temporary product shortage? How might my kids, family, friends be encouraged by a different perspective than what they are seeing happen?

My grandparents and parents, like many American households, learned and practiced modest family living, to do without and to sacrifice for the common good because “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Being guided by the rule “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” printed on American’s WWII ration book covers could prove to be a life lesson for the historical event that impacts us all these days.  The ration book of my 82-year-old father, a Soil Conservation Contractor and Southeast Kansas farmer, re-appeared this week as he continues to live by the motto “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Guest Blogger: Carol Ehlers, Human Sciences Finance Field Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

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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When Income Goes Down…

bar graph showing 7 months income and expenses; first month income and expenses equal, then income suddenly drops, while expenses decline slowly, until in the seventh month they are in line with lower income.

When income goes down, it often goes down suddenly – one month it is normal, and the next month it is suddenly much less. People may be much slower to reduce their expenses, often taking many months until their expenses are finally in line with their new (lower) income. Why? Denial, unwillingness to modify their lifestyle, lack of needed skills, or other reasons.

That slow response will, unfortunately, delay their recovery and increase their financial problems. The graph (above) depicts a family whose income declined by $800/month. It shows five months where the family’s expenses continued to exceed their new income. During those five months, their spending exceeded their income by a total of $2,000.

Where did that $2,000 come from? Perhaps they had an emergency savings account – if so, the balance in that account is now depleted. If they, like many Americans, had no savings, then they had no choice but to go in debt — they may have made partial payments on some bills, or built up the balance on their credit cards. They are $2,000 in the hole. And while it only took a few months to get into that hole, it may take years to repay that $2,000! (or to rebuild their savings)

The second graph depicts the same situation, but in this case the family rapidly reduced their spending to match their new income. This family also spent more than they earned, but only in the first two months, and only by about $500. They will recover much more quickly from this financial setback.

Reducing expenses isn’t easy. But in the long run, people who quickly adjust to the new situation are more satisfied with the outcome. Even in situations where the income reduction is expected to be temporary, people who adjust quickly come out of the situation in a stronger financial position.

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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Choices: Cut to the core

When you face unfamiliar financial stress, the choices are difficult. But they are still choices – and we know how to do that. We’ve been making choices since we were small children deciding what book we wanted for a bedtime story, or which treat to order at the ice cream store.  I know – these days we would LOVE to face such simple choices, right? Sometimes the key to dealing with difficult choices is to make them more simple — cut through the extraneous details and get to the core of it.

Faced with a budget shortfall, the hard truth is that we no longer have the money for the lifestyle we enjoyed in the past. To put it simply: I can’t still have everything. So which do I need and want the most?

Think about something special to you – maybe it’s a monthly subscription, or your favorite soda or beer, or planting flowers in your pots and your yard. Whatever this special thing is, we’ll call it  your “treasure.” It’s hard to give up. But ask yourself: would I rather have “my treasure” or running water? If the answer is running water, then you’ll pay the water bill. Would I rather have “my treasure” or keep my car? Your financial decision will follow your answer.

Sometimes we say “I was FORCED to give up ‘my treasure.'” But it’s not really true. We could have kept the “treasure” and given up something else. We kept the “something else” for a reason. Instead of feeling defeated and deprived, we can feel PROUD of the decision we made. We gave up something less important in order to keep something more important.

Looking at the bare facts can help us feel a little better about choices we wish we weren’t facing. Simplifying makes some things really clear.

Really? Of course, it’s not always as simple as I’m trying to make it. Sometimes we have more options. Perhaps I can keep “my treasure” and just delay my car payment. That means I’m choosing to make extra payments later. In order to do that, I need to be REALLY certain that my income will go back up sometime soon. – it’s a risk. Having the option to delay or make partial payments dilutes the simplicity I’m trying to convey. After all, real adult life IS more complicated than childhood decisions.

Even so, if we cut through some of the static, we get down to the bare choices. It’s always about choosing what is most important to ourselves and our families. Sometimes it’s also about carefully weighing future risks and deciding if we’re willing to take them. If we choose to take on the risk of extra payments in the future, we know we need to start now to plan for them. Accepting that reality is also part of cutting through the details and looking at the core of the decisions we’re making.

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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Managing Personal Finances in Tough Times

Audio Blog

Concerned about your finances during these uncertain times, but not sure where to start? ISU Extension and Outreach invites you to get in touch with one of our Human Sciences financial educators. They can help walk through ideas and options to revise a budget, prioritize bills, pay down debt, connect with community resources to stretch reduced incomes, and other personal finance topics—totally free of charge.

Our 11 financial educators are listed below with the counties they serve and are available to talk with anyone in Iowa. Because Extension and Outreach staff are currently working from home, please send an email. They will get back to you during regular business hours within 48 hours. You also can leave a phone message at Extension and Outreach’s toll-free Iowa Concern Hotline (800-447-1985) to have someone get back to you.

Contact an ISU Extension and Outreach Financial Educator

Central Iowa – Kalyn Cody  [Dallas, Madison, Polk, Warren]

North Central Iowa – Barb Wollan  [Boone, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Marshall, Story, Webster, Wright]

Northern Iowa – Brenda Schmitt  [Cerro Gordo, Emmet, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Kossuth, Mitchell, Palo Alto, Winnebago, Worth]

Northwest Iowa – Jan Monahan   [Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Plymouth, Sioux, Woodbury]

West Central Iowa – Carol Ehlers  [Audubon, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford, Greene, Guthrie, Ida, Pocahontas, Sac, Shelby]

Southwest Iowa – Sandra McKinnon  [Adams, Adair, Cass, Clarke, Decatur, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Pottawattamie, Ringgold, Taylor, Union]

Southern Iowa – Joyce Lash  [Appanoose, Davis, Jasper, Jefferson, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello, Wayne]

Southeast Iowa – Mary Weinand  [Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Washington]

East Central Iowa – Phyllis Zalenski  [Benton, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson, Jones, Linn]

Eastern Iowa – Casey Codner  [Cedar, Clinton, Muscatine, Scott]

Northeast Iowa – Jeannette Mukayisire  [Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Tama, Winneshiek]

The information provided is educational in nature to help you make your own informed decisions and is not intended to substitute for professional advice or serve as an endorsement of any financial product or service.  Consult with licensed professionals prior to implementing any of the information provided to determine the course of action is best for you.

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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COVID-19 and Unemployment Insurance Benefits

This is a stressful time for individuals and communities across Iowa and we are dealing with many unknowns. Communities are impacted by the temporary closure of businesses, schools and other public facilities or events, and in some cases, quarantines. While these actions are necessary steps to help reduce exposures, it may bring financial uncertainty for many people who could experience a loss of income due to illness or workplace closures.

If you do experience unemployment, remember there are supports in place for you and your family. Iowa unemployment benefits are available to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If your employer needed to shut down operations and no work is available, you would be eligible to for unemployment benefits. Unemployment claims that are filed as a result of COVID-19 will not be charged to employers.

Many people wonder if they can receive unemployment benefits if they need to stay home from work to care for a dependent, family member or if their child has school cancellations. The answer is, “It depends”. A good approach is to contact your employer regarding potential telecommuting, sick leave, PTO, FMLA, Disability and other options they may be offering.  If those options are not available, you may file for unemployment insurance benefits to determine your eligibility.

Also note, an employer can require an employee to stay at home for the fourteen day isolation period if they have traveled out of state or had contact with someone who visited an area affected by COVID -19. Your employer should attempt to provide paid leave but if that is not available, employees might be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

To learn more about filing an unemployment claim, contact your local Iowa Workforce Development Center or apply online at:  https://www.iowaworkforcedevelopment.gov/file-claimunemployment-insurance-benefits.

Mary Weinand

Guest Blogger: Mary Weinand, Iowa State University Extension Family Finance Field Specialist.

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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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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Communicating with creditors

When a tight financial situation leaves you truly unable to pay all your bills according to the prescribed schedule, then difficult choices must be made, as discussed in my previous post. After evaluating your situation and figuring out the best strategy you can come up with, the next step is to make some phone calls. Note: in some cases emails or on-line communication may be the company’s only option, but I encourage you to first attempt to reach creditors by phone.

As much as you might dread the phone call, communicating with creditors is essential if you cannot pay on time. The fact that you called and explained your situation will make a huge difference in their willingness to work with you. This is especially true if you have previously been a reliable customer; creditors recognize the losses people are facing during this unprecedented crisis. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Be prompt – call them before your payment is due.
  2. Be honest with them – tell the truth without embellishment or exaggeration.
  3. Ask if they have any “hardship plan” that would reduce or eliminate the fees or interest that come with late payments.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Example: sometimes people are so nervous that when the creditor says “Will you be able to pay the remaining balance by next Wednesday,” the customer just says yes, even though it is not realistic. If they want a promise that you are not sure you can live up to, consider this option: you can promise that you will make another payment by next Wednesday, although you can’t guarantee it will be the full amount.
  5. Keep a record of what phone number you called, who you talked with, the date and time of the conversation, and what exactly was agreed.

Need help with all this?  In many communities a non-profit credit counseling service is available to help you negotiate the process.  To find a reputable credit counselor near you, check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling; either by phone or on-line, they can do a zip code search to find the member agency nearest you.

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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The Point of Pause: How Many Hours Will It Cost You?

Audio Blog

I realize that I still have unopened boxes from when I moved into the house 5 years ago. My closets and rooms are full. My rule is if something is coming in, something is going to have to go out. Every time I think about buying something for the house, like a recliner, even a kitchen gadget, I ask myself, “What will need to be taken out to give room for this new item?” It’s all about balance.

Traditionally, as a personal finance educator, I teach budgeting by focusing on balancing money coming in and going out of the household. For example, if we have $3500 in monthly income, then we only have $3500 to spend, save and share. Saving includes goals we are working toward, like retirement, children’s education, a vacation or a kitchen remodel.

How much do we really spend? Tracking where our money goes for a month or two helps give us real numbers to work with in a budget. Many times people do not actually know where that $20 bill in their pocket went. Spending also includes all the out-of-pocket expenditures like eating out or the quick stop before work for a cup of coffee.

Before spending money, focusing solely on the dollars, what if we think in terms of hours worked? Would it give us pause before spending? Would budgeting our hours worked make more sense? Would it help us look at our spending differently? For example, when finding a recliner, we would ask ourselves, “Is it worth it? Do I work enough hours to buy this item?” Here’s a scenario to illustrate the point of pause – Ben clears $20 an hour and works full-time. Ben’s rent is $750, so he has to work 37.5 hours to pay rent. That’s almost a week’s work! He tracked his food expenses and discovered he has to work 11.5 hours each month. He rarely goes out to eat. So how many hours does Ben have left to pay for utilities, goals, clothing, car maintenance, etc.? Can he buy the recliner he has been eyeing?

Guest Blogger: Sandra McKinnon

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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