Leaving Your Job? Make Sure Your Wallet is Ready

One of the many pandemic’s lasting effects on the U.S. economy is the so-called Great Resignation of 2021. Employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs in droves. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a whopping 20.2 million workers left their jobs from May 2021 through September 2021. Reasons for the high turnover range from availability of federal economic aid to general burnout, which reached a turning point during the pandemic. 

If you are considering becoming a part of the Great Resignation, it’s important to make sure your finances are in order before you give official notice at your job to cover any gaps in employment. Below, we’ve outlined some important steps to take before you leave your job.  

Review your savings

Before giving up a steady paycheck, make sure you have enough savings to tide you over until you find new employment. Ideally, you should have an emergency fund with 3-6 months’ worth of living expenses to help you survive periods of unemployment, such as when you’re between jobs.  If you don’t have this kind of money saved up, consider pushing off your resignation until you can put together a nest egg to help you get by without a paycheck. 

Check your benefits 

If your job includes employee benefits, like retirement funding, be sure to review them carefully before giving notice. Here are different options to consider for the most common employee benefits: 

  • Health insurance. Work-sponsored health coverage generally ends on an employee’s last day at work, though coverage will sometimes continue until the end of the month. Similarly, some companies start covering new employees on their first day of work, while others have a waiting period that can last from 30 to 90 days. If you’ll have a gap in coverage, try to negotiate for early coverage when securing your new job. If this is not possible, thanks to COBRA, you can continue your current health coverage at your own expense for 18 months after you leave your job. It’s important to note, though, that this can be a pricey option. You can also purchase a short-term policy through the marketplace. 
  • Pension. If your previous place of employment came with a pension, you may be able to keep it or take out the money when you leave. This depends on whether or not your contributions are vested and the other rules of the pension plan. In general, if you were only at this job for a short while, you likely will not be able to hold onto your pension. If you have a choice, it can be better not to take out a pension in a lump sum because you will likely get a better return with a pension than on other investments. If you do take out your pension, you may want to roll it over into an IRA or a 401(k), which is tax-deferred. 
  • 401(k). If your old job came with a 401(k), you’ll need to decide what to do with the funds. You can keep the account as it is without making any additional contributions, roll over the funds to a new 401(k) program, roll the money over into an IRA or cash it out. Consider the investment options in your current 401(k) when making your decision. 
  • Life insurance. Don’t forget to consider a possible gap in your life insurance coverage when leaving a job. You may be able to continue paying for coverage until you have a new plan through your next place of employment. 

Assess your risk tolerance

Before accepting a new job, make sure you can handle a possible blow to your income. Many jobs will present new employees with the possibility of better pay in the future, while initially only offering a starting salary. How comfortable are you taking a risk with a new job that doesn’t guarantee as much financial security? 

Adjust your budget for your new salary

If your new job comes with better pay, or you’ll be bringing home a smaller paycheck for now, you’ll need to adjust your budget accordingly. You may want to increase the contributions you make toward your investments or find a new place to park your cash, such as a Advantage One Credit Union Savings Account, for the extra income while you decide on a more permanent strategy. On the flip side, if you’ll be earning less money now, look for ways to trim your budget so your paycheck can stretch to cover all your expenses. 

Leaving an old job and looking for a new one can be an exciting opportunity, but it’s important to make sure your finances are in order before taking that leap. Follow the tips outlined here before giving notice at your place of employment to ensure ongoing financial security.  

Your Turn: Have you recently changed jobs? Share your best tips and strategies in the comments. 

My Money My Way: Taking Back Control of Your Financial Life

Title: My Money My Way: Taking Back Control of Your Financial Life

Author: Kumiko Love

Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: Portfolio

Publishing date: Feb. 1, 2022

Who is this book for? 

  • Single women looking for tips on managing finances on their own. 
  • Anyone who’s ever battled feelings of guilt, shame, doubt and/or deprivation in relation to money. 
  • Individuals looking to live a financially emancipated life. 

What’s inside this book?

  • Kumiko’s story of how she went from a newly divorced mom pulling in just $24,000 a year and facing $77,000 in debt to living completely debt-free in a home she bought with cash. 
  • Stories of moms, like Kumiko, who successfully navigated divorce and the financial challenge of making it alone.
  • Practical tools and tips for letting go of shame and deprivation for living a financially secure and fulfilling life. 

4 lessons you’ll learn from this book:  

  1. How to harness your emotions to your financial benefit, instead of letting them control you and drive your money choices. 
  2. How to create a budget based on your actual life, not a life of self-deprivation.
  3. How to create a debt payoff plan that can work.
  4. How to build a positive relationship with money. 

4 questions this book will answer for you:  

  1. How can I reverse negative thinking patterns that I’ve grown accustomed to?
  2. How can I align my emotional health with my financial health? 
  3. Can I take control of my finances with a low income and high credit card debt?
  4. Do I need to live with constant deprivation to have a financially secure life?

What people are saying about this book: 

  • “It’s no surprise that millions of people flock to Kumiko Love for her financial advice. She’s able to do the impossible: teach others about money in a non-judgmental, down-to-earth way while also making concepts, like budgeting and debt-repayment, exciting and fun.” – Jessica Moorhouse
  • “No shame. No condescension. Just real, practical money talk from a woman who lives it. Kumiko reminds us that our money struggles and mistakes are not a reflection of who we are or what we can achieve. And her tools and strategies offer an easy-to-follow framework for using money to build a lifestyle you love.” – Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez
  • “If you’re ready to break free from a dysfunctional relationship with money and build wealth from a place of strength, Kumiko’s book is a must-read.” – Marie Forleo
  • “It’s so wonderful to see more voices join the movement that money shouldn’t be rigid or restrictive. Kumiko Love and her money management style will help you feel seen and capable instead of shamed and distressed — no matter the money mistakes in your past.” – Erin Lowry

 Your Turn: What did you think of My Money My Way? Share your opinion in the comments. 

What are the Tax Benefits of Owning a Home

Q: I’m in the market for my first home, and I’m trying to get a complete picture of how owning a home will affect my finances. What are the tax benefits of owning a home?  

A: Owning a home can provide you with significant tax benefits. It’s important to learn how home ownership can impact your taxes so you know which home-related expenses to claim on your returns for maximizing your savings potential. 

Before we explore the specifics, let’s review how an income tax deduction works. A deduction reduces your taxable income by a percentage, which depends on your tax bracket. You can choose to take the standard deduction ($12,550 for individuals filing as single taxpayers, or $25,100 for married couples filing jointly) or to itemize your deductions, which involves listing each eligible deduction separately. After adding up the total of your itemized deductions, you’ll multiply that amount by your tax bracket for your total deduction. 

With this understanding, let’s take a deeper look at the tax benefits of owning a home. 

Tax benefits of buying a home

Purchasing a home offers the buyer several tax benefits. 

First, with the exception of very large loans, you can generally deduct the cost of the points you paid when securing your mortgage. If you’ve refinanced your original mortgage and paid points when taking out your new loan, the cost of these points can be deducted as well. 

Second, if you are an active-duty member of the armed services, you may be able to deduct your moving expenses from your taxable income. However, this tax perk is limited to active servicepeople who need to move because of a permanent change of station due to a military order. 

Tax benefits of owning a home  

There are multiple ongoing tax benefits to owning a home:

  • Mortgage interest deduction. Most homeowners can deduct the interest payments they make on their mortgage from their taxable income. There may be limits on how much you can deduct, which is dependent on how large your loan is. 
  • Real estate taxes. The money you pay in property taxes is deductible from your taxable income. If you pay through a lender escrow account, you’ll find the tax amount on your 1098 form. If you pay your taxes directly to your municipality, use your personal records, such as a copy of a check or automatic transfer, as proof. 
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI). If you took out a loan that was equal to less than 20% of the home’s value, you may be able to deduct your PMI payments from your taxable income. This deduction depends on your adjusted gross income (AGI): If you’re single and your AGI is less than $50,000, you’re eligible for the PMI deduction. For married couples filing jointly, the threshold is $100,000. Once you’ve reached the max income allowed for the PMI deduction, the amount you can deduct begins to phase out.  
  • Home equity debt. If you’ve taken out a home equity loan or home equity line of credit against your home, the interest payments on these loans can be deducted from your taxable income, as long as the loan is used, in the words of the IRS, “to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan.”
  • Home office expenses. If you use a part of your home exclusively for work purposes, you may be able to deduct related expenses.

Are there any tax credits available for homeowners? 

Unlike a tax deduction, a tax credit directly lowers your tax bill, dollar for dollar. You may be eligible for a mortgage credit if you were issued a qualified Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) by a state or local governmental unit or agency under a qualified MCC program. In addition, depending on your home state, you may be able to claim a credit for a percentage of the costs of buying and installing items that help your home harness renewable energy, such as solar panels or geothermal heat pumps. 

Home ownership comes with many advantages, some of which include tax benefits. Keep that in mind as you explore your options, and as with all tax advice, please remember to consult a tax professional for the most current and accurate laws.

Your Turn: How has home ownership benefitted your taxes? Tell us about it in the comments. 

12 Steps to Financial Wellness-Step 1: How to Track Your Spending

Are you ready to join us on a journey toward financial wellness?

Each month, Advantage One Credit Union will focus on one step of a journey of financial wellness. We’ll tackle the topic in detail and help you learn all you need to know about this step. Follow along, and at the end of the year, you’ll have mastered the tools for a life of financial wellness.

Tracking your spending is the first step toward greater financial awareness and, ultimately, toward financial health. However, mastering this skill is easier said than done. How can you track every dollar you spend when you make multiple purchases each day?

We’ve outlined how to track your spending in 3 easy steps. 

1. Choose your tools

Tracing every dollar’s journey isn’t easy, but with the right tools, you can make it quick and simple. Choose from one of the following money-tracking techniques: 

  • Budgeting apps. If your life happens on your phone, you can download a budgeting app like YNAB or Mint to help you track your spending. Both apps allow you to allocate a specific amount of money for each spending category for each month, and will enable you to track your spending with just a few clicks. It’s important to note that YNAB is not a free app, but that it may be worth the price for users who want to take on a more active role in their money management. 
  • Spreadsheet. If you like to see everything spelled out clearly, a spreadsheet might be a better choice for you. You’ll need to record every transaction, but if you prepare the sheet with all the spending categories you think you’ll need, this step shouldn’t take long at all. 
  • The envelope system. If you’re a big cash spender, consider withdrawing the cash you think you’ll spend in a month (or in a week) and keeping it in an envelope designated for each category. When you need to make a purchase, just use money from the envelope. 
  • Receipts. Hold onto every receipt from the purchases you make this month to help you track your spending. 

Pencil and paper. Recording each purchase the old-fashioned way can help you make more mindful money choices throughout the day. Be sure to keep a steady supply of both writing instruments handy at all times so you never miss a purchase. 

2. Review your checking account and credit card statements carefully

Along with one of the tools listed above, you can track the purchases you make using plastic by reviewing your monthly checking account and credit card statements at the end of the month. You may receive these in the mail, or you can access them online by logging into your account and downloading.

3. Review and categorize your purchases

At the end of the month, use your chosen tool to review all the purchases you’ve made throughout the month. If you’ve used an app or a spreadsheet, adding your purchases to find the total amount of money spent will be simple. The app or spreadsheet may have already helped you divide the money spent into separate categories as well. Similarly, if you’ve used the envelope system, you should know how much you spent on each kind of purchase this month. However, if you’ve chosen another method to track your spending, you’ll need to crunch some numbers to get an accurate picture of your spending habits.

When completing this step, don’t forget to include any automated payments you may rarely think about, such as subscription fees and insurance premiums.

Tracking your spending and identifying your money drains is the first step toward greater financial awareness and responsibility. Use the tips outlined here to successfully master the skill of tracking your spending. 

Your Turn: How do you track your spending? Share your tips with us in the comments.  

How to Beat the Post-Holiday Blues – It Doesn’t Need to Cost a Thing!

The visitors have returned home, the leftovers in the fridge have been tossed, the kids are back in school and you have work first thing Monday morning. After the excitement of the holidays, the return to normal can make even the most jolly of folks a little depressed. 

Without the holiday festivities to distract us, the winter months can suddenly seem very gray and drab. If you find yourself feeling blue after the holiday season, you’re not alone. It’s normal to start feeling down as the flurry of the holidays winds to a lull. Fortunately, there are measures you can take to beat the blues, and they don’t need to cost you any money.

Here are some simple tips to use this winter that may help lift your spirits:

  1. Stay social – not social media

The holidays are centered around social gatherings, such as parties, big meals and traveling to see family or friends you haven’t seen in a long time. After such a flurry of social activity, you may find yourself feeling lonely when it’s all over. But there’s no rule that says your social calendar needs to be empty after Jan. 1. Plan some activities with a friend. They don’t need to cost money. Take a walk or watch a movie at home with a friend or family member. Talking on the phone can be a great social outlet as well.

The important thing is to talk to someone verbally, not through texting or social media. Social media apps often give us the illusion that we’re being social, but in reality it’s not the same thing as truly talking with someone. Planning a fun social outing can help remedy the letdown after the holiday parties have ended.

  1. Get active

Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for yourself, especially when you’re feeling a little down. When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins. Endorphins are natural chemicals in the brain that help trigger a positive mood.

If you’ve got the blues, get out there and get some exercise. It may be tempting to veg on the couch with your favorite show all day, but before you begin the binge watching, try some physical activity first to see if getting the body moving and the blood flowing doesn’t help lift your mood. You may be surprised at how good you’ll feel after your workout. 

You don’t need to pay for a gym membership or an expensive exercise machine. Get outside for a quick run or walk. Stretch or do yoga in your living room, or try an aerobics class on YouTube for free. 

  1. Focus on realistic resolutions 

New Year’s resolutions give us something to focus on after the holiday parties are over. It’s great to have goals and something to look forward to, but be careful not to become too perfectionist and hard on yourself about achieving your resolutions. Unattainable goals only cause stress and feelings of failure. Instead, focus on realistic goals that you can actually work toward and feel good about.

Start by writing out specific and measurable goals you can realistically achieve. This will give you the best shot at success. For example, instead of making a vague goal of saving enough money to retire early, try setting a goal to save an extra $100 per month. This way you can see your success each month as you save money and build that nest egg. 

  1. Look forward to the next big thing

Thanksgiving through New Years isn’t the only fun season on the calendar. After the holidays, there is still plenty to look forward to with excitement and optimism. 

Start planning your next vacation or what you want to do on spring break. And there are still upcoming long holiday weekends to consider in January and February, such as President’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Planning a simple family outing, staycation or dinner party with friends can refocus your thoughts. Weekend day trips can be done on the cheap and give you something to spur your spirits.

  1. Boost your mood with vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D, known as the “sunshine vitamin,” have been linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Our bodies produce vitamin D when our skin is exposed to the sun. Of course, in the winter months, exposure to sunshine can be a little hard to come by. Eating foods that are rich in vitamin D or taking a supplement is an affordable option that may help improve your mood until spring.

Your Turn: What are your tips for beating the post-holiday blues? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Baby Steps Millionaires: How Ordinary People Built Extraordinary Wealth—and How You Can Too

Title: Baby Steps Millionaires: How Ordinary People Built Extraordinary Wealth—and How You Can Too

Author: Dave Ramsey

Hardcover: 224 pages

Publisher: Ramsey Press

Publishing date: Jan. 11, 2022

Who is this book for? 

  • Anyone looking for straightforward and practical advice on building wealth. 

What’s inside this book?

  • An inside look at how Dave invests and builds wealth. 
  • True stories of people just like you who’ve dug themselves out of deep debt and built wealth. 
  • An extensive look at Dave’s own Baby Step 4 toward becoming a millionaire.

4 lessons you’ll learn from this book:  

  1. How to take baby steps, immediately, toward becoming a millionaire. 
  2. How to break barriers that are holding you back from building true wealth. 
  3. Basic financial concepts written in simple terms. 
  4. Simple steps for getting out of debt. 

4 questions this book will answer for you:  

  1. How can I become a millionaire?
  2. Is there any easy way to build wealth? 
  3. Are financial concepts reserved for the elite?
  4. What can I do — RIGHT NOW — to start getting rid of debt? 

Your Turn: What did you think of Baby Steps Millionaires? Share your opinion in the comments. 

New Year, New Money Habits: How to Stick With It in 2022

If you’re like most people, you likely start each year with a list of resolutions to help you improve various aspects of your life. The list may include resolutions to help you become more physically fit, further your career growth and improve your personal relationships. Another category of resolutions you may make centers on those that affect your finances. 

If the latter is true, there’s probably a good chance that your list of resolutions for the new year looks the same, year after year … after year. Yes, it’s easy to come up with ways you can improve at year’s end, but seeing those resolutions through and actually making them happen is another story entirely. 

Spend less, save more, pay down debt — how can you make 2022 the year you actually stick to these and other financial resolutions? 

Below, we’ve compiled a list of tips that can help you keep your financial resolutions throughout the new year. 

Set measurable goals

Don’t just resolve to be better with money this year. Set realistic, measurable goals to help you stay on track and to ensure you’re actually making progress. For example, you can resolve to increase your spending by a certain amount by the time you hit the mid-year point, decide to trim your spending in a specific category by a set percentage or promise to pay all your bills on time for the entire year. 

Bonus tip: To make it easier, keep those goals SMART: 

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Relevant

Time-based

Spend mindfully

Creating a budget can take some time and lots of number crunching, but it’s not the real challenge of financial wellness. The hard part comes when you’ve got to actually stick to that budget and make it part of your life. And one reason many people don’t end up keeping their budget is because they spend money without consciously thinking. 

Resolve to be more mindful about your spending this year, which means actually thinking about what you’re doing when you swipe that card or hand over that cash to the cashier. You can accomplish this by taking a moment to think about what you’re purchasing and how much you’re paying for it. You can also set yourself up for better success by staying off your phone while you complete your in-store transactions.

Bonus tip: To make this easier, use this calculator to determine how much you actually earn in an hour, and to see how much of your work time you’re “spending” when you make a large purchase. Is it really worth the price?

Partner up with a friend

According to MyFitnessPal.com, dieters who share their food diaries with a buddy lose twice as much weight. It’s basic psychology: When we know we have to answer to someone else, we’re more likely to stick to our resolutions — and this works for financial resolutions as well. 

Choose a friend who is in a similar financial bracket as you are and has a comparable relationship with money. Also, it helps if they have similar resolve to set and stick to those financial resolutions together. Set up a weekly time to review progress (or regression) you each have made, and make sure you both come prepared with details and proof to show how you’ve handled your money. 

Bonus tip: To make it even easier, you can use a money management app, like Mint, to help you track your spending, find your weak areas, and stay accountable for your friend. 

Write it down

In an era where some people can go without touching a pen and paper for days, writing down New Year’s resolutions can seem obsolete, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. The act of putting your financial resolutions into writing will help to imprint them on your memory. Plus, you’ll have a list of your resolutions to reference throughout the year to help keep you on track. 

Bonus tip: Writing doesn’t need to be physical in order to count. You can use a resolution-tracking app, like Strides, where you can record, track and reference your New Year’s resolutions at any time with just a few quick clicks. 

Sticking to your financial resolutions isn’t easy. Follow the tips outlined here to make 2022 the year you truly get your finances into shape. 

Your Turn: What are your financial resolutions for 2022? Share them with us in the comments. 

Should I Buy or Lease a Car Now?

Q: It’s no secret that the semiconductor chip shortage is driving up the price of both new and used cars, but I do need a new set of wheels. Am I better off buying or leasing a car now? 

A: The chip shortage and other factors relating to the pandemic and inflation have created a tight auto loan market, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years. 

As a result, finding a new or used car that meets your criteria is challenging in today’s market. Unfortunately, though, leases have also risen in price and there is limited availability among many models. 

If you need a new car right now, what’s your best choice? 

Let’s take a deeper look at buying and leasing a car, paying particular attention to factors that are unique to today’s market, to help you determine which option makes the most sense for you. 

Buying a car in 2021

If you choose to buy a new or used car, you’re looking at inflated prices and a supply shortage that’s been ongoing for months. Expect to pay approximately $40,000 for a new car and $23,000 for a used car, according to Edmunds.com. You’re also unlikely to get the service you may be used to getting at a dealership since salespeople likely have more customers than they can serve at present. This can translate into reluctance to move on the sticker price and in a delayed processing of a car purchase. 

Leasing a car in 2021

The leasing market has not been spared the after-effects of the chip shortage and resultant lag in supply of new vehicles. Many lease companies are struggling to service customers while facing a shortage in available cars. The rising prices have hit this market, too. 

If you’re nearing the end of a lease, you may be in luck. Auto dealerships are in desperate need of cars to sell, and they may offer to buy out your lease at an inflated price, leaving you with extra cash to finance your next car. The dealer pays the leasing company what you owe, and gives you a check for the remaining equity. Of course, you’ll also be facing high prices, but it may be worth getting a head-start on your purchase. 

Buying VS. leasing

In every market, there are some drivers who are better suited toward owning a car and others who benefit more from leasing. Here are some important factors to consider when making this decision: 

  • How long do you hold onto your cars? If you like to swap in your cars for a newer model every few years, a lease may be a better fit for your lifestyle. On the flip side, if you tend to hold onto your cars for many years, consider buying a car instead. 
  • Insurance costs. Leases require full insurance coverage, which can be pricey. When you own your vehicle, though, the amount of insurance coverage beyond what is required by law is your decision. If you like having full protection, including GAP insurance, which pays the difference between what you owe on a car and its true value if it’s totaled in an accident or stolen, a lease may be a better choice for you. If, however, you tend to purchase just minimum coverage, you may be better off purchasing your vehicle. 
  • Mileage. If you usually put more than 10,000 miles on your car each year (the standard amount allowed by most leasing companies before charging extra), you may be better off buying a car. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll still need to pay for those miles in depreciation costs of the car. 
  • Maintenance costs. When you lease a car, most maintenance costs are on the leasing company. You’ll need to spring for anything related to wear and tear of the vehicle, but most other repairs will be covered. You’ll also have the option to pay extra for tire protection, and dent and scratch insurance. 

When you own your car, you’ll be footing the bill for all these costs, plus any maintenance needs. To minimize these costs, don’t finalize a car purchase without first ensuring it’s in good working order. You can do this by using its VIN (vehicle identification number) to look up its history and by having it professionally inspected by a mechanic.

While individual circumstances vary, in general, you can expect the cost of purchasing and leasing a vehicle to break even at the three-year mark. While a lease may offer you cheaper monthly payments, you’ll likely earn back two-thirds of the price you paid on a car if you sell it after three years. 

Today’s auto loan market makes every decision challenging. If you’re choosing between buying or leasing a car, be sure to weigh all variables carefully before making your decision. 

Your Turn: Do you buy or lease your cars? Which factors drive that decision? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Last Minute Shopping Hacks

Retailers and suppliers have been urging consumers to shop early this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean everyone has been paying attention. If you’ve pushed off their shopping until the last minute, we’ve got you covered! Here are six ways to keep your last-minute shopping stress-free and inexpensive. 

  1. Order online and pick up in-store

Don’t sweat over delayed shipping or the impossibly long lines in stores before the holidays. Instead, order what you need online and arrange to pick it up in the store. Most retailers offer this option now, and choosing it will give you the best of both worlds. You can browse from the comfort of your home, and pick up what you need (provided they still have it in stock) in no time at all, usually on the same day or within 24 hours. As an added bonus, many stores have designated parking spaces for shoppers who are picking up these types of orders.

  1. Get stocking stuffers at the dollar store

The dollar store is your best friend when it comes to last-minute stocking stuffers for your family. Browse carefully for fun finds, from activity books and sticker packs for the little ones, to scented candles and funky-colored nail polish for your tweens and teens, to fuzzy slippers and socks for your better half. Best of all, no one has to know they came from the dollar store!

  1. Send a gift card through Giftly

Gift cards are the best cheat for the overwhelmed shopper, but they can also be a tad impersonal when you want to show you really care. Take the easy way out and keep the personal touch in your gift-giving by purchasing a gift card through Giftly. Here’s how it works: You suggest a gift item for your recipient, like “spa day” or “new electronic gadget” and then select a place where they can choose the gift. Or, you can leave it open for your friend to decide. You can send your “gift” via email, text message or even deliver it in person. Add a customized message, and the recipient can use the electronic gift card at your chosen place, or, if you’ve left it open, wherever Visa gift cards are accepted. Gift-giving, done!

  1. Shop on Dec. 14 for free shipping

What’s not to love about Free Shipping Day? Save your last-minute online shopping for this day in mid-December to save on shipping costs. Unless you’re purchasing items from overseas, most retailers will still be able to get your items delivered in time for the holidays.

  1. Shop small businesses

Avoid the heavy crowds and empty shelves by shopping at smaller, independently owned stores. They’re likely to be better stocked, even this late in the season, and you can enjoy more personalized service, too. In addition, small businesses are still hurting from the coronavirus lockdown and more recently, from the spike in inflation. Shopping at local mom-and-pop stores will be helping a struggling business stay afloat during a time of year when kindness counts most. 

  1. Shop during non-peak hours

Another way to avoid the big crowds and bare shelves is to shop during slower business hours. In retail-speak, this means hitting the shops as soon as they open in the morning. The shelves in most stores are restocked overnight, and if you get there before the crowds, you’ll get first picks at the best gifts. Aside from a bigger selection, shopping in an emptier store will make it easier to make responsible, budget-conscious decisions. 

Leaving some or all of your holiday gift-shopping for the last minute doesn’t mean you need to blow your budget, fight big crowds, or try to make your list work when you’re facing empty shelves. Use the tips outlined above for last-minute shopping that’s easy on the wallet, light on the stress, and makes it possible to find the perfect gifts. 

Your Turn: How do you make last-minute shopping a stress-free and inexpensive experience? Share your hacks with us in the comments. 

Your Complete Year-End Financial Checklist

As 2021 draws to a close and we prepare to usher in 2022, take a moment to go through this year-end financial checklist for ensuring your finances are in order before the start of the New Year.

  1. Review your budget

Is your monthly budget still working well for you? Are you stretching some spending categories or finishing each month in the red? Take some time to review your budget and make any necessary changes.

  1. Top off your retirement plan

If you have a 401(k), check to see that you are taking full advantage of your employer’s matching contributions. If you haven’t contributed as much as you can, you have until the end of the year (Dec. 31, 2021) to catch up; to a limit of $19,500. If you turned 50 this year, you are eligible for an additional catch-up contribution of $6,500. If you anticipate getting a holiday bonus, consider putting this money toward your debt. 

Likewise, if you have an IRA, you have until April 15 to scrape together the maximum contribution of  $6,000, with an additional $1,000 if you are age 50 years or older. 

  1. Check your progress on paying down debt

 Give your debt an annual checkup by reviewing your outstanding debts from one year ago and holding up the amounts against what you now owe. Have you shed debt from one year ago, or is your debt growing? If you’ve made no progress, or your debt has grown, consider taking bigger steps toward paying it down in 2022, such as consolidating your debt with a [personal/unsecured] loan from Advantage One Credit Union.  

  1. Get a free copy of your annual credit report

The end of the year is a great time for an annual credit checkup. It’s a good idea to review your statements each month to check for fraudulent charges, but you can also request a free copy of your credit report from all three credit agencies once a year. Get your free annual credit reports here, and take a close look at each report. Look for accurate, updated information and any errors, like charges you don’t remember making, or other signs of possible identity theft. If you find any wrongful charges, be sure to dispute them immediately.  

  1. Review your investments and asset allocation

Take some time at year’s end to rebalance your portfolio and to see if your asset allocation is still serving you well. You may need to make some changes to your mix of stocks, bonds, cash and other investments to better reflect the current state of the market.  

  1. Review your beneficiaries

Has your family situation changed in the past year? If it has, be sure to switch the beneficiaries on your accounts and life insurance policies to accommodate these changes. 

  1. Complete open enrollment and select your employer benefits

The end of the year coincides with open enrollment for health insurance policies. This is your chance to select the employer benefits you want for the coming year. If you miss this window, you will be stuck with the benefits you chose last year or with no benefits at all. 

  1. Review your tax withholdings

It’s a good idea to review your W-4 annually and see if the amount of tax being withheld from each paycheck needs to be adjusted. If you’re not a numbers person, ask your accountant for help. Changing up the numbers just a bit can make a significant difference in your tax bill at the end of the year. Or, if you usually get a large refund, adjusting the amount withheld can mean enjoying a larger paycheck throughout the year instead of giving the government an interest-free loan to be paid back in one lump sum at year’s end.  

The doors are closing on 2021 and it’s time to give your finances a full checkup. Use this checklist to make sure your money matters are in order before the start of 2022.

Your Turn: What’s on your financial checklist for the end of the year? Tell us about it in the comments.