7 Tips for a Budget-Friendly Road Trip

With many indoor attractions still closed or operating only at a limited capacity, there’s never been a better time to pack up the car, RV or camper van and set out on the road trip of a lifetime. However, without careful planning, a road trip can get pricey, especially with soaring gas prices and the rising costs of food. For this reason, we’ve put together seven solid tips for a budget-friendly road trip. This should help you hit the road in style without breaking your budget.

1. Save on food costs 

Food can quickly turn into the biggest expense of your trip unless you plan ahead. And no, this doesn’t mean dining only on canned baked beans or instant soups for the duration of your trip. Here’s how to save on food costs during your road trip: 

  • Stock up on staples while at home. Shop your local stores for basics before setting out. Once you’re on the road, you won’t have as many choices for food shopping, which may stimulate overspending. 
  • Get your “kitchen” into gear. Unless you’re road-tripping in an RV or camper van that comes with a fully equipped kitchen, you’ll need to gear up for basic food prep on your trip. A good knife, cutting board and small cooking appliances, like a portable grill, panini maker and plug-in burner, can be great starting points. 
  • Plan a mix of meal types. You likely want to eat some meals out during your trip, but overdoing the dining out will quickly kill your budget. Instead, mix it up, alternating between home-cooked meals, dining out on fine cuisine and tasting local street foods. 
  • Only eat out at places you don’t have at home. For further savings, save the dining out for delicacies that are unique to your current location. Think fresh seafood on the Oregon coast, authentic Korean food in K-Town of Los Angeles or Cajun food in New Orleans.

2. Camp out instead of sleeping in hotels

Sleeping under the stars whenever possible will add another layer of awesome to your trip. Check out recreation.gov, where you can book accomodations at 3,600 facilities and 103,000 individual sites across the country. Lots of camping spots will run just $20 a night.

3. Find free attractions

Who says you need to pay for your fun or it doesn’t count? Most tourist hotspots will have a wide selection of free activities and sights to see at no cost, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and city street art in Pittsburgh, PA. Check out local websites or ask around on the street to find the best-kept secrets at each location. 

4. Map out your route for greater savings

Instead of blowing money on gas, create a detailed schedule of all your stops before setting out, choosing the most efficient and inexpensive route. Look up local attractions in the areas you plan to stop at to book reservations in advance when possible. In many places, you can save a tidy bundle of cash just by pre-booking. Also, keep in mind that many attractions still require reservations as a COVID-19 precaution, so be sure to plan accordingly. 

5. Download GasBuddy

With gas prices hitting $4 a gallon in some parts of the country, your car’s tank can take a huge chunk out of your road trip budget. Download the Gas Buddy app before hitting the road to find the stations selling the cheapest gas throughout your journey. You can save hundreds of dollars on gas costs by leveraging this game-changing app.

6. Check in on a Sunday

For those nights when you must have a hot shower and comfortable bed, you’ll likely be checking into a hotel. If you can swing it, check in on a Sunday. According to a study conducted by the travel app Kayak, hotel reservations are at their lowest rates on Sundays. 

7. Explore more and drive less

Hit the brakes and get out of the car! Spend some time covering miles on foot by hiking through local trails or even backpacking through city streets. You’ll enjoy an enriching experience and save on gas costs at the same time. 

Your Turn: Do you have more tips for budget-friendly road trips? Share them with us in the comments. 

Is Plaid Safe?

Q: When using peer-to-peer payment apps, banking apps and free-trading apps, I’m often redirected to the Plaid network, where I’m asked to input personal information. Can I feel safe using Plaid?

A: The instinct to be wary of any service that’s asking you to share sensitive information is appropriate and commendable. Most financial apps will ask you to share your banking information, and some will even ask you to share your Social Security number. But it begs the important question; Should you be sharing this information?

While the safety and security of each financial app is individual, apps that are powered by Plaid are safe to use. Plaid is a reputable company that uses encryption and industry-standard security measures to protect your sensitive information.

Here’s what you need to know about Plaid.

What is Plaid? 

Plaid is a financial technology company that serves as an intermediary between financial services and their users. Apps like Venmo, You Need a Budget and Robinhood use Plaid to securely link their users’ financial accounts to their own platforms. This way, the financial apps do not have access to their users’ information; they instead rely on Plaid to supply it for them.

Plaid works by using a universal Application Programming Interface (API) to share users’ data with other applications. APIs are software intermediaries that allow two different applications to communicate. Plaid has developed an API that can be used by any financial institution or application, making it simpler and safer for users to share their financial information digitally.

How does Plaid work?

When you sign up for any of the 3,000+ financial applications currently powered by Plaid, you’ll be asked to choose your financial institution from a list that’s provided by Plaid. Next, you’ll enter your banking login info and password. Some apps will have you create a new password at this point. Once you’ve logged in, Plaid securely shares the information you’ve chosen to link, such as your checking account number, with the app you’re using.

It’s important to note that Plaid itself does not move money around. The technology merely enables other financial apps and their users to send funds from one account to another. Plaid holds onto your encrypted password information without touching your money, while the linked financial app can move your money, but cannot access or know your login credentials.

Is Plaid safe?

Sharing personal information with an app can be unsettling — and it should be. However, you can rest easy, knowing that Plaid uses the highest levels of security possible. When you link your checking account with a financial application by using Plaid, the company instantly encrypts the sensitive data and then shares it with the application using a secure connection.

According to the Plaid website, the company uses these measures to keep your information secure:

  • End-to-end data encryption. Plaid uses a combination of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES-256) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) to keep your personal information completely safe.
  • Multi-factor authentication.  An extra login step adds another layer of security.
  • Cloud infrastructure. Plaid uses secure cloud infrastructure technologies to enable quick and safe connection.
  • Robust monitoring. The Plaid API and all related components are continuously monitored by a security team.
  • Third-party security reviews. Security researchers and financial institutions regularly audit Plaid’s API and security controls.

When using an application that is powered through Plaid, practice standard online safety measures. Check the URL to ensure you have the correct site, look for the lock icon and the “s” following the “http” in the address. Also, make sure the security settings on your device are updated and set to their strongest levels. Finally, if you need to choose a new password for the app, be sure to choose a strong, unique code and not to share it with anyone.

In a world that is increasingly mobile, Plaid safely connects users to thousands of financial apps and 11,000 financial institutions across the country. Follow basic online safety protocol, keep your login info private, and you can use Plaid knowing your information is secure.

Your Turn: What steps do you take to keep your data safe? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
getdivvy.com
plaid.com

5 Steps to Take Before Making a Large Purchase

Have you been bitten by the gotta-have-it bug? It could be a Peloton bike that’s caught your eye, or maybe you want to spring for a new entertainment system, no matter the cost. Before you go ahead with the purchase, though, it’s a good idea to take a step back and follow the steps outlined here to be sure you’re making a decision you won’t ultimately regret.

Step 1: Wait it out

Often, a want can seem like a must-have, but that urgency fades when you wait it out. Take a break for a few days before finalizing a large purchase to see if you really want it that badly. For an extra-large purchase, you can wait a full week, or even a month. After some time has passed, you may find that you don’t want the must-have item after all.

Step 2: Consider your emotions

A bit of retail therapy every now and then is fine for most people, but draining your wallet every month to feed negative emotions is not. Before going ahead with your purchase, take a moment to identify the emotions driving the desire. Is this purchase being used as a means to fix a troubled relationship? Or to help gain acceptance among a group of friends, neighbors or workmates? Or maybe you’re going through a hard time and you’re using this purchase to help numb the pain or to fill a void in your life. Be honest with yourself and take note of what’s really driving you to make this purchase. Is it really in your best interest?

Step 3: Review your upcoming expenses 

What large expenses are you anticipating in the near future? Even if you have the cash in your account to cover this purchase, you may soon need that money for an upcoming expense. Will you need to make a costly car repair? Do you have a major household appliance that will need to be replaced within the next few months? By taking your future financial needs into account, you’ll avoid spending money today that you’ll need tomorrow.

Step 4: Find the cheapest source 

If you’ve decided you do want to go ahead with the purchase, there are still ways to save money. In today’s online world of commerce, comparison shopping is as easy as a few clicks. You can use apps like ShopSavvy and BuyVia to help you find the retailer selling the item at the best price.

Step 5: Choose your payment method carefully

Once you’ve chosen your retailer and the item you’d like to purchase, you’re ready to go ahead and make it yours! Before taking this final step, though, you’ll need to decide on a method of payment.

If you’ve saved up for this item and you have the funds on-hand for it now, you can pay up in cash or by using a debit card. This payment method is generally the easiest, and if it’s pre-planned, it will have little effect on your overall budget.

If you can’t pay for the item in full right now, consider using a credit card with a low interest rate. Most credit card payments have the added benefit of purchase protection, which can be beneficial when buying large items that don’t turn out to be as expected. Before swiping your credit card, though, be sure you can meet your monthly payments or you’ll risk damaging your credit score.

Another option to consider is paying for your purchase through a buy now, pay later program. Apps, like Afterpay, allow you to pay 25% of your purchase today, and the rest in fixed installments over the next few months. This approach, too, should only be chosen if you are certain you can meet the future payments.

Large purchases are a part of life, but they’re not always necessary or in the buyer’s best interest. Follow these steps before you finalize an expensive purchase.

Your Turn: What steps do you take before finalizing a large purchase? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
thesimpledollar.com
thebalance.com
fool.com
moneywise.com

All You Need to Know About HELOCs

If you’re a homeowner in need of a bundle of cash, look no further than your own home. By tapping into your home’s equity, you’re eligible for a loan with a, generally, lower interest rate and easier eligibility requirements. One way to do this is by opening up a home equity line of credit, or a HELOC. Let’s take a closer look at HELOCs and why they can be an excellent option for cash-strapped homeowners. 

What is a HELOC?

A HELOC is a revolving credit line that allows homeowners to borrow money against the equity of their home, as needed. The HELOC is like a second mortgage on a home; if the borrower owns the entire home, the HELOC is a primary mortgage. Since it is backed by a valuable asset (the borrower’s home), the HELOC is secured debt and will generally have a lower interest rate than unsecured debt, like credit cards. You will need to pay closing costs for the line of credit, which are generally equal to 2-5% of the total value of the loan.

How much money can I borrow through a HELOC?

The amount of money you can take out through a HELOC will depend on your home’s total value, the percentage of that value the lender allows you to borrow against and how much you currently owe on your home. 

Many lenders will only offer homeowners a HELOC that allows the borrower to maintain a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio of 80% or lower. 

A quick way to find a good estimate of the maximum amount you can borrow with a HELOC is to multiply your home’s value by the highest LTV the lender allows. For example, continuing with the above example, if your home is valued at $250,000 and your lender allows you to borrow up to 80% of your home’s value, multiply 250,000 by 0.80. This will give you $200,000. Subtract the amount you still owe on your mortgage (let’s assume $100,000) and you’ll have the maximum amount you can borrow using a HELOC: $100,000. 

Is every homeowner eligible for a HELOC?

Like every loan and line of credit, HELOCs have eligibility requirements. Exact criteria will vary, but most lenders will only approve the line of credit for homeowners who have a debt-to-income ratio of 40% or less, a credit score of 620 or higher and a home with an appraised value that is at minimum 15% more than what is owed on the home. 

How does a HELOC work?

A HELOC works similarly to a credit card. Once you’ve been approved, you can borrow as much or as little as needed, and whenever you’d like during a period of time known as the draw period. The draw period generally lasts five to 10 years. Once the draw period ends, the borrower has the choice to begin repaying the loan, or to refinance to a new loan. 

How do I repay my HELOC?

The repayment schedule for a HELOC can take one of three forms:  

Some lenders allow borrowers to make payments toward the interest of the loan during the draw period. When the draw period ends, the borrower will make monthly payments toward the principal of the loan in addition to the interest payments. 

For many borrowers, though, repayment only begins when the draw period ends. At this point, the HELOC generally enters its repayment phase, which can last up to 20 years. During the repayment phase, the homeowner will make monthly payments toward the lHELOC’s interest and principal. 

In lieu of an extended repayment phase, some lenders require homeowners to repay the entire balance in one lump sum when the draw period ends. This is also known as a balloon payment. 

How can I use the funds in my HELOC?

There are no restrictions on how you use the money in your HELOC. However, it’s generally not a good idea to use a HELOC to fund a vacation, pay off credit card debt or to help you make a large purchase. If you default on your repayments, you risk losing your home, so it’s best to use a HELOC to pay for something that has lasting value, such as a home improvement project. 

How is a home equity line of credit different from a home equity loan?

A home equity loan is a loan in which the borrower uses the equity of their home as collateral. Like a HELOC, the homeowner risks losing their home if they default on it. Here, too, the exact amount the homeowner can borrow will depend on their LTV ratio, credit score and debt-to-income ratio.

However, there are several important distinctions between the two. Primarily, in a home equity loan, the borrower receives all the funds in one lump sum. A HELOC, on the other hand, offers more freedom and flexibility as the borrower can take out funds, as needed, throughout the draw period. Repayment for home equity loans also works differently; the borrower will make steady monthly payments toward the loan’s interest and principal over the fixed term of the loan. 

A home equity loan can be the right choice for borrowers who know exactly how much they need to borrow and would prefer to receive the funds up front. Budgeting for repayments is also simpler and can be easier on the wallet since they are spread over the entire loan term. Some borrowers, however, would rather have the flexibility of a HELOC. They may also anticipate being in a better financial place when the repayment phase begins, so they don’t mind the uneven payments. 

Your Turn: Have you taken out a HELOC? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
creditkarma.com
marketwatch.com
thepennyhoarder.com
investopedia.com

When Should I Do It Myself and When Should I Leave it to the Pros?

Q: Which home improvement projects can I tackle myself, and which should I leave to the pros?

A: In today’s world, when you can look up how to do practically any project online, it’s tempting to want to do everything yourself, but it isn’t always the best choice. Attempting to do a project on your own can sometimes end up costing more time, money and mess than it’s worth. Here’s how to know when to do it yourself, and when to leave it to the pros.

Home improvement projects you can probably do on your own

While everyone’s level of skill and dexterity is different, these home improvement projects are simple enough for nearly everyone:

  • Cosmetic improvements. This includes painting, wallpapering, wood staining, installing adhesive carpet tiles and replacing the hardware on cabinets and drawers. Before you start, check out tutorials on YouTube for useful tips and tricks.
  • Minor plumbing jobs. Almost anyone can snake a clogged toilet, and most people can handle fixing a minor faucet leak, changing a shower head and even installing a toilet. Again,  when it comes to DIY projects, YouTube is a wonderful plumbing mentor.
  • Minor electrical work. Don’t try to rewire your home on your own (unless you’re a licensed electrician), but you can probably successfully install new light fixtures and change your light switch plates.
  • Install tiles. Think a new backsplash for your kitchen, new tiles for your bathroom floors and walls and new floors for your kitchen and foyer. You’ll need to research exactly how to lay tiles, using a notched trowel to spread your tile adhesive in horizontal strokes. If you’re not comfortable with the installation of your new tiles, you can still save a buck by removing your old tiles with a hammer and chisel before calling in the experts to lay your new ones.

Six questions to ask before tackling a project on your own

  1. Have I done a project like this before? If this isn’t your first time doing a project like this, you can probably handle it now. If it is your first time attempting this kind of project, you may still be able to do it, as long as you’re prepared for the extra work and focus it will involve.
  2. Do I have a reliable resource to turn to with any questions that may arise? It’s best to be prepared in case you run into trouble mid-project. Get that contractor friend on speed dial!
  3. Will this project involve any structural framing? It’s best not to tackle projects that involve cutting through walls, as you run the risk of cutting through engineered lumber and trusses, which can then lose their weight-carrying capacity. If your project fits into this category, have a pro do the job or ask them for guidance before you begin.
  4. Will this job involve any electrical, plumbing or HVAC work? Here, too, you run the risk of messing up structural elements of your home. If your project involves cutting through pipes and wires, it’s probably best to leave it to the pros.
  5. Do I have the resources to complete this job? Many homeowners are eager to start a project on their own and save on pro prices, but they neglect to consider how much time and money the job will take. It’s best to make an estimation of how much the supplies and tools for the job will run you, and how many hours of work you can expect it to consume. You may find the DIY route is not as desirable as you believed it to be.
  6. Will this job risk personal injury? Don’t risk your safety on a project that should really be left to the pros.

Paying for a home improvement project

Whether you decide to DIY, or you’re going to call in the experts, a home improvement project can cost a pretty bundle. Consider tapping into your home’s equity through a home equity loan or a home equity line of credit through Advantage One Credit Union to help you pay for the project. Increasing the value of your home is one of the best ways you can use your home’s equity.

Your Turn: Are you an avid DIYer? Share your best success stories with us in the comments.

Learn More:
lifehacker.com
plygem.com
homeisd.com
usatoday.com

Navigating the Current Auto Loan Market

If you’re in the market for a new set of wheels, get ready to experience sticker shock. Prices on new and used cars have soared since the beginning of 2020, and experts aren’t expecting them to fall anytime soon. Here’s what you need to know about the current auto loan market and how to navigate it successfully.

Why are auto prices so high? 

The coronavirus pandemic has touched every sector of the economy, and the auto industry is no exception. According to the U.S. Consumer Price Index, the price of used cars and trucks has jumped a full 9.4% in the last 12 months, while the price of new cars and trucks increased by 1.5%. The drive behind the increase is multifaceted and linked to several interconnected events.

When the pandemic hit American shores, demand for new and used cars increased significantly. This was largely due to the many people who were avoiding public transportation for safety reasons. The mass exodus from big cities and their high rates of infection also boosted the demand for new cars.

At the same time, supply of new and used cars dried up, thanks to these factors:

  • The pandemic put a freeze on the production of new vehicles for nearly a full business quarter. The factory shutdowns reduced output by 3.3 million vehicles and sales dried up, along with subsequent trade-ins.
  • The production freeze prompted chipmakers to focus on the electronics industry instead of creating chips for automakers. Now, the industry is still scrambling to keep up with the automakers’ demand.
  • Business and leisure travel was halted for months. This led to a steep decline in travelers renting cars, which in turn led to rental agencies holding onto more of the cars in their lots instead of selling them to used car dealerships.

The rise in demand and shortage of supply naturally triggered a steep increase in the prices of both new and used vehicles.

Rethink your auto purchase

If you’re in the market for a new car and the price tags are scaring you, you may want to rethink your decision. If your car is in decent condition, consider holding onto it a little longer until the market stabilizes. To go this route, consider the following tips to help make your car last longer:

  • Use a trickle charger to keep the battery in excellent condition.
  • Change your filters regularly.
  • Follow the service schedule. Most cars need to be serviced every 10,000 miles.
  • Keep all fluid levels high. This includes coolant, oil, antifreeze and windshield washer fluid.
  • Drive carefully to avoid sudden braking and prolong the life of your brakes.
  • Replace spark plugs when they begin showing signs of wear or melting. Depending on the vehicle, spark plugs need to be replaced every 30,000-90,000 miles.
  • Check your tires regularly and rotate and inflate them as needed.
  • Pay attention to all warning lights that are illuminated on the dashboard.
  • Have your car rust-proofed to keep the exterior looking new.

Tips for buying a car in today’s market

If you’ve decided to go ahead with buying a car, it’s best to adjust your expectations before hitting the dealership.

First, a seller’s market means many dealerships will not be as eager to close a deal as they tend to be. They have more customers than they can service now, and that can translate into a willingness to move only slightly on a sticker price of a car, or a refusal to negotiate a price at all. Processing a car loan may now take longer, too.

Second, expect to pay a lot more than usual for your new set of wheels. If you’re looking to purchase a new car, prepare to pay approximately $40,000. Also, as mentioned, supply of new cars is down while demand is up, so you likely won’t have as many choices as you may have had in the past.

The used-car market has been hit even harder by the pandemic since prohibitive prices and a short supply has pushed more consumers to shop for used cars instead of new vehicles.  This increase in demand, coupled with the dwindling supply, has driven the prices of used cars up to an average of $23,000, according to Edmunds.com. If you’re thinking of buying a used car, prepare to encounter a highly competitive market where bidding wars are the norm and cars are super-expensive.

If you’re looking to take out an auto loan, consider one with your credit union. The most recent data shows that auto loans at credit unions are a full two points lower, on average, than auto loans taken out through banks. Car prices may be soaring, but credit unions continue to deliver lower rates and customer service you can really bank on.

The auto loan market has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Follow the tips outlined here to navigate today’s car market successfully.

Your Turn: Have you recently bought a new set of wheels? Share your best tips on navigating today’s auto market in the comments.

Learn More:
chicagotribune.com
marketwatch.com
barrons.com
cnbc.com
yourautoadvocate.com

Save Money When Shopping Online

With tens of thousands of people still out of work and the economy still limping toward a recovery, wise spending remains important. And with huge parts of life still happening on your screen, for many, this means saving on online shopping.

Here are some tips for saving money when shopping online:

Wait on every purchase 

Online retailers purposely make it quick and easy to buy the stuff in your cart. Outsmart them by waiting between choosing your purchases and actually purchasing them. This trick serves a dual purpose: First, you may find you don’t really need or even want the item after a few days. Second, the retailer will almost always email a coupon for you to use for the “forgotten items” in your cart.

Outsmart dynamic pricing

Dynamic pricing is one of the most powerful tools merchants use to get online shoppers to spend more. It involves using sophisticated algorithms and tracking to show shoppers prices based on their location, browsing history and spending patterns. Retailers learn each shopper’s price point and show them products in that range.

Fortunately, you can outsmart dynamic pricing by following these tips, especially when shopping for items with a wide price range, like airline tickets.

  • Clear your browsing history and cookies or shop with your browser in incognito or private mode.
  • Log out of your email and social media accounts.
  • Choose localized websites of international brands instead of being redirected to the U.S. site.
    Time your purchases right

Believe it or not, there’s a method to the madness of online pricing. Learning how to crack the code can help you unlock substantial savings.

Sunday’s your day to score cheap airfare, with Mondays being the most expensive day to book your tickets, according to Airlines Reporting Corporation.

Bookworms are best off shopping for new titles on Saturdays, as this is when Amazon and Barnes & Noble launch most book sales.

Shopping for a new laptop or desktop computer? Major retailers, like Dell and Hewlett-Packard, distribute coupons each Tuesday.

For most other purchases, it’s best to wait until the end of the week for the best deals. According to Rather Be Shopping, most stores roll out discounts and special deals on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Layer coupons

You may already be in the habit of never completing a purchase without doing a quick search for coupons, but even when you have those coupons on hand, there’s a technique that will guarantee the best savings.

Always use a promo code before a discount coupon. A promo code will take a specified percentage off your entire purchase while a discount code will take off a dollar amount. For example, say you have a 15% off promo code and a $5-off coupon to use on a $100 purchase. First use the promo code to shave $15 off your purchase. Next, apply the discount to bring your total down to just $80. If you’d do it the other way, you’d save less money.

Ask for price-drop refunds

Discovering that an item you purchased yesterday has just dropped in price can be incredibly frustrating; however, some companies take the edge off by offering to refund the price difference within a specific time-frame. Amazon, for example, gives a grace period of seven days from the delivery date to claim discount refunds. You can use camelcamelcamel.com  to monitor price changes on the retail giant’s website.

Use multiple emails for discounts

Many online retailers offer one-time promo codes for new customers, but you can be a new customer more than once. All you need is a different email address.

Don’t shop alone

Take advantage of the many apps, websites and browser extensions that can help you save money every time you shop online. Here are just a few you may want to try:

  • PriceGrabber – Use this app to compare prices on millions of products to find the best deal.
  • Rakuten – Shop your favorite retailers through this site for instant kickback cash.
  • Ibotta – Shoot a photo of your receipt for rebates that will go right back into your pocket.
  • Retailmenot.com  – Check this site for discounts and coupons you may have missed.

Online shopping just got cheap again!

Your Turn: How do you save money when shopping online? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
lifehack.org
blesserhouse.com
people.com
rather-be-shopping.com

The Benefits of Using Mobile Payments

Why fumble for your wallet at checkout when you can just pay by using your phone?

With more than 81% of Americans owning smartphones, contactless payments by digital wallet and mobile payment apps are now more popular than ever. Contactless payment is also becoming increasingly available at checkout counters across the country, with six in every 10 retailers accepting digital payments, according to research by the National Retail Federation.

Switching over to paying for your daily purchases with a digital wallet is simple. You’ll need to choose between popular mobile payment apps, like Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. All of these apps are similar, but Google Pay is your app of choice for all Android phones, Apple Pay works with recent Apple devices, and Samsung Pay offers the widest acceptance of all digital wallet apps. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll need to load your credit union credit and debit card information and then finish setting up the app with your personal authentication process. When this step is complete, your app is ready for use.

Here are some of the benefits of using mobile payments.

Convenience

The biggest and most obvious draw of mobile payments is their incredible convenience. No more pawing through cards at the checkout counter while the people standing in line behind you are growing impatient. No more hesitating over a stack of cash. Just pull out your phone, open your digital wallet app and tap or wave your phone near the payment-enabled terminal. It’s that easy.

Security

Using a mobile payment app to complete a purchase has several security advantages over traditional payment methods.

First, it eliminates the need to carry around cash or credit cards, which always has the risk of being stolen or lost. Misplaced credit cards in particular can be a nightmare for consumers, making them vulnerable to full-blown identity theft.

Second, mobile-payment apps use extra security measures to protect the user’s data, such as encrypting all personal information and utilizing bio-metric authentication features, like fingerprint scans and facial recognition.

Finally, each transaction that takes place over a mobile payment app is tokenized. This involves a one-time code generated by the payment terminal, or a “token.”  The token is used to complete the transaction in place of the buyer’s actual payment information. The token cannot be used for any other transaction and is effectively useless if hacked. The buyer is thus protected from fraud.

Speed

Mobile payments are super-fast. Instead of counting out cash or inserting a card into a payment terminal and waiting for the transaction to clear, it’s just a one-two-three tap to pay. With mobile payments, checking out in any store can take just seconds from start to finish.

Budgeting and expense-tracking

Digital wallets can be easily integrated with money-management apps, making budgeting easy. Every transaction will be instantly recorded for future reference and review. Additionally, retailers generally offer electronic receipts with mobile payments, as opposed to paper receipts which are easily misplaced.

Safety

Ever since the world entered the alternate reality of COVID-19, mobile-payment apps have enjoyed an enormous boost in popularity. In fact, retailers have seen a 69% rise in contactless payments since the beginning of 2020, according to a study done by the National Retail Federation. This is likely due to the fact that consumers are wary of shopping in brick-and-mortar locations and are hesitant to handle germ-infested cash. Inserting a debit card or credit card into a public payment terminal that processes payments for hundreds of cards a day is not much of a better option. All of this has made digital wallets the chosen method of payment now more than ever, with 67% of shoppers choosing self-checkout options from their own mobile devices over in-person payment.

Mobile payment apps enable consumers to complete a purchase without making physical contact at germ-laden terminals. There’s no need to use a wallet, cash or credit card at all. Just pull out your phone and your transaction is a quick wave or tap away. It’s the perfect way to pay for purchases without compromising your safety.

Mobile payments are the way of the future. There are so many reasons to love mobile payments. They’re convenient, secure, quick and safe.

Your Turn: Why do you use mobile payment apps? Share your favorite benefit of using digital wallets in the comments.

Learn More:
thefinancialbrand.com
mobilepaymentstoday.com
alacriti.com

All You Need to Know About Checking Accounts

The most obvious things in life are often overlooked, and your checking account is just one of them. Most people hardly give a thought to this important account and how to best manage it effectively. We’re here to change that.

Here’s all you need to know about checking accounts:

What is a checking account? 

Your checking account at Advantage One Credit Union offers easy and convenient access to your funds. The minimum balance required for opening a checking account can be as low as $25. Like most financial institutions, we also allow an unlimited number of monthly withdrawals and deposits.

Checking accounts are designed to be used for everyday expenses. You can access the funds in your account via debit card, paper check, ATM or in-branch withdrawals, online transfer or through online bill payment.

Making transactions using the connected debit card, or through a linked online account, will automatically use the available balance in your account and lower the balance appropriately.

A paper check is also linked directly to your account, but will generally take up to two business days to clear. It’s important to ensure there are enough funds in your account to cover a purchase before paying with a check.

Maintenance fees 

Many banks charge a monthly maintenance fee for checking accounts.

According to Bankrate’s most recent survey on checking accounts, only 38% of banks now offer free checking, compared with 79% in 2009. Monthly fees can be as high as $25 a month.

Interest rates

Most checking accounts offer a very low Annual Percentage Yield (APY) on deposited funds, or none at all. Institutions that offer checking accounts with interest or dividends will generally charge a monthly fee, with the fee being higher for accounts that have higher rates. They also generally require a minimum balance in the account at all times or a minimum number of monthly debit card transactions. According to Bankrate’s survey, you’ll need to keep an average of $7,550 in an interest-yielding checking account at a bank to avoid a steep maintenance fee.

Security

Funds that are kept in a checking account at a bank are federally insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. Credit unions feature similar protection for your funds, with all federal credit unions offering government protection through the National Credit Union Association. State and private credit unions may be insured by the NCUA as well, or through their own state or private insurance. Advantage One Credit Union is insured by the NCUA to offer you full and complete protection for your funds.

Managing your checking account 

Managing a checking account is as simple as 1-2-3:

1 – Know your balance

It’s important to know how much is in your account at all times. This way, you can avoid an overdrawn account, or having insufficient funds to cover your purchases. Being aware of how much money you have will also help you stick to a budget and spend within your means. You can generally check your balance by phone [or via online checking or a synced budgeting app].

2 – Automate your finances

Make life a little easier by setting up automatic bill payment through your checking account. You won’t miss the hassle of paying your monthly bills, and you’ll never be late for a payment again. As a bonus, you’ll save on the processing fee that is often charged on bill payments made via credit card.

You can also set up direct deposit to have your paycheck land right in your account.

Finally, ask us about automatic monthly transfers from your checking account to savings so you never forget to put money into savings.

[You may also want to consider signing up for overdraft protection, or to have funds transfer from your linked savings account to checking when your balance is getting low.]

3 – Keep your account well-funded, but not over-funded

Financial experts recommend keeping one to two months’ worth of living expenses in your checking account at all times. This way, you’ll always have enough funds to cover your transactions without fear of your account being overdrawn. You’ll also be able to cover the occasional pre-authorization hold that a merchant may place on your debit card transaction until it clears.

It’s equally important not to keep too much money in your checking account. Once you’ve reached that sweet spot of two months of living expenses, it’s best to keep your savings in an account or an investment that offers a higher APY, such as a money market account or a share certificate.

Checking accounts offer the ultimate in convenience and accessibility. Now that you’ve learned all about these often overlooked accounts, let this financial tool help you manage your finances in the most effective way possible.

Your Turn: How do you manage your checking account effectively? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
investopedia.com
discover.com
bankrate.com
thebalance.com
kiplinger.com

How Can I Protect Myself from Payment App Scams?

Q: I love the convenience of payment apps, like Cash App and Venmo, but I’ve heard there’s been an increase in scams being pulled off within these apps. How can I continue to use my payment apps without compromising my safety?

A: Payment apps offer users the ability to effortlessly send payments to friends, making it easy to split the tab at a shared meal, buy a present for a mutual friend and quickly pay back a small loan. Unfortunately, though, scammers are using these apps to cheat people out of their money.

Here’s all you need to know about payment app scams and how to protect yourself from being the next victim.

How the scam plays out

There are several variations of the mobile payment app scam, most of which involve the scammer hijacking the victim’s linked checking account or credit card and using it to pay for their own purchases. Now, though, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing people’s attitudes toward money, there is another, more nefarious scam being played out through mobile payment apps.

In this trending scam, a payment app user is invited to participate in a contest on Twitter or another social media platform. The host of the contest is giving away a bundle of cash to one lucky winner as a way of helping them through the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

After entering the contest, the victim receives a message informing them that they’ve won the giveaway — but they need to pay a small fee to verify their account and, later, receive their cash prize. Thrilled to be the winner and suspecting nothing unusual, the victim will gladly pay the fee and wait for their big payday. Unfortunately, though, the money never lands in their account, and they won’t see the funds they used to pay the “fee” ever again.

In the above scenario, the contest the victim entered may actually be authentic, but the follow-up post they’ve received is the work of a scammer.

Sometimes, the victim has not entered any contests but receives a message appearing to be sent directly from the payment app informing them they’ve been randomly chosen to win a cash prize — with a small processing fee attached.

Other times, scammers take the ruse one step further. After asking the victim to send the fee via mobile payment app, the scammer hacks the victim’s linked account or credit card and uses it to make their own expensive purchases.

Scammers use keywords like #coronavirus and #emergencyfunds to make their social media posts appear authentic; their efforts often pay off.

“My goal is to help those in need,” one scammer in Florida wrote. “Your deposit allows us to immediately send you your payment.”

The scam can be pulled off through any payment app, but is especially popular with Cash App users who are familiar with the app’s “Cash App Fridays.”  To the unsuspecting victim, the new freebies seem like an extension of the app’s existing giveaways.

Likewise, the scam can be executed through several social media platforms, but is most commonly found on Twitter. The social media giant is a popular host for contests of this sort, and another cash giveaway hardly stands out. The “Retweet” culture on Twitter also makes it easy for scammers to pick up on a legitimate contest and choose a participant to target.

“This behavior is absolutely against our rules and outlined as such here,” Twitter spokesperson Lauren Alexander wrote in an email. “Users who see such scams should go to the ‘Suspicious and Spam’ category to report the scam.”

Protect yourself

Luckily, you don’t need to give up on the convenience of mobile payment apps just yet. Protect yourself from this scam by learning about the medium used to pull it off and how to recognize the scam’s red flags.

Here’s what you need to know about Cash App and other mobile payment apps:

  • Cash App will never ask customers to send it money as a “processing fee” or for “verification.”
  • Cash App will not ask users to share their PIN or sign-in code outside the app.
  • Cash App currently has only two official Twitter accounts, @cashapp and @cashsupport, both of which have blue, verified check marks. If you receive a tweet from another account appearing to be from the app, it is likely bogus.

If a post or tweet looks suspicious, don’t take any chances; ignore it and move on.

If you believe you have fallen victim to a mobile payment app scam, contact the app’s support through the app or website. If the scam is reported early enough, they may be able to reverse the transaction. You can also report the scam to the FTC at ftc.gov  and let your friends know about the circulating scam so they don’t fall victim to it themselves.

Mobile payment apps make transferring money easy, but they also make it easy for scammers to con victims out of their money. Stay alert and practice caution to keep your money safe.

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a payment app scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
www.freep.com
www.cash.app
www.qz.com
www.consumer.ftc.gov
www.idtheftcenter.org