Spring Clean Your Finances

Spring is a great time of year to clear your house of accumulated junk and make it sparkle. Why not do the same for your finances? Junk can accumulate there, too. In fact, some of your money matters may need a good wipe down this season. It is especially true this year, when many Americans are still recovering from the financial fallout of COVID-19, or maybe wondering how to use the latest round of stimulus checks. Whatever your current situation, a thorough spring-cleaning for your finances is a responsible move this time of year.

Here are some ways to spring clean your finances:

Sweep out your budget

It’s time to shake out the dust in your budget! Review your monthly spending and find ways to cut back. Have you been overdoing the takeout food this year? Buying up more shoes than you can possibly wear? Pare down your budget until it’s looking neat and trim.

Freshen up your W-4

Tax season is prime time for revisiting the withholdings on your W-4. If you received an especially large refund this year, you may want to adjust the amount you withhold. The IRS’s tax withholding estimator  can be a useful tool to help you determine the perfect number.

Deep clean your accounts 

If you’ve switched from one bank or credit union to another, you may have dormant accounts that are still open and may be charging you fees. Or, perhaps they’re holding onto money you’ve forgotten you have! And don’t forget about the 401(k) you may have from an old job. Now may be the time to transfer those funds to your current 401(k).

This spring, do a Marie Kondo on your finances and get rid of any accounts you don’t need any longer. A minimalist approach to your finances will make it easier to manage your accounts. It will also give your savings a greater chance at growth, and help you avoid fees for unused accounts.

Toss out your debt

Get ready to kick that debt for good!

If you’ve been stuck on the debt cycle for too long, make this spring the season you create a plan to break free.

First, trim your budget or consider a side hustle for earning some pocket money, designating these extra funds for your debts. Next, choose a popular debt-busting approach, such as the avalanche method, in which you pay off debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest, or the snowball method, where you start with the smallest debt and then move up your list as each is paid off. Once you’ve chosen your approach, maximize payments to the first debt on your list, making sure not to neglect the minimum monthly payments on your other debts. Before you know it, that debt will be gone!

Dust off your saving habits

Have you been remembering to pay yourself first? Get into the habit of maximizing your savings this spring with a tangible financial goal. You can also make savings an itemized line in your budget. This way, you’ll have funds set aside for this purpose, instead of savings only happening if there’s money left over at the end of the month. Finally, automate your savings by setting up a monthly transfer from your checking account to your savings account. Never forget to pay yourself first again!

Make your investments sparkle

Whether you’re an experienced investor or you’re just getting your feet wet, it’s time for a spring cleaning of your investments! Check if your allocation strategy is still serving you well, whether you need to adjust your diversification and if your retirement accounts are on track for your estimated retirement timeline.

Make your stimulus count

Don’t let your stimulus payment and tax refund blow through your checking account. Instead create a spending plan for the funds that includes paying down debt, allocating some of the money for long-term and short-term savings and possibly investing another portion of the payment. Don’t feel guilty about using the rest of your stimulus check to splurge on a purchase or experience you’ve been wanting for a while now. The money is being distributed with the hopes that it will help stimulate the economy, and the best way to do that is to spend — just don’t go overboard.

Spring is the perfect time to give your finances a thorough cleaning. Follow our tips to make your money matters shine!

Your Turn: How are you spring cleaning your finances this season? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
nerdwallet.com
thebalance.com
doughroller.net

How Do I Give Myself an End-of-Year Financial Review?

Q: With 2020 drawing to a close, I’d love to give myself an end-of-year financial review before it goes.  Where do I begin?

A: Giving yourself an end-of-year financial review is a wonderful way to check on the progress you’ve made toward your goals, highlight areas needing improvement and update your accounts, funds and investments. Here’s all you need to know about this important end-of-year ritual.

Step 1: Review all your debts and create a payoff plan

Take a few minutes to list all your debts and their interest rates. Have you made any real progress toward paying them off this year? Or have you stuck with minimal payments each month, leaving the actual balance to pile up since you’re mostly just paying for interest?

If your debt needs some help, you have two primary options for how to proceed:

  • The avalanche method. Focus on paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first, and then continue to the debt with the second-highest interest rate. Move through the list until you’ve paid off all debts.
  • The snowball method. Work your way through your debts, starting with the lowest-balance debt. Then, once it’s paid off, apply the payment that was previously committed to that debt to your new lowest debt. Repeat through the rest until all debts are paid off.

For both methods, be sure to pay the minimum balance on all your other debts each month. Try to boost your income and/or trim your monthly spending for extra cash and use it toward the first debt you are paying off completely.

Step 2: Automate your savings

Review your savings from 2020. Have you reached your goals? Have you forgotten to put money into savings each month?

Going forward, make it easy by automating your savings. Give us a call at 734-676-7000 to set up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account to your savings account. [You can also set this up through your online and/or mobile banking with us.] This way, you’ll never forget to put money into savings again.

Step 3: Review the progress you have (or haven’t) made on financial goals

Have you made measurable progress toward your financial goals in 2020?

Take a few minutes to review your past goals, taking note of your progress and determining how you can move toward achieving them.

Step 4: Review your retirement account(s) and investments

As you work through this crucial step, be sure to review the following variables:

  • Your employer’s matching contributions. Are you taking advantage of this free money, or leaving some of it on the table?
  • The maximum IRA contribution limits for 2021. You will likely need to make adjustments for the coming year.
  • Management fees and expense ratios for your investments. Fees should ideally be less than 0.1%.
  • Your stock/bond ratio and investing style. You may want to take more risks in 2021 or decide to play it safer this year.
  • Your portfolio’s balance. Does it need adjusting?

Step 5: Create an ICE Binder

The events of 2020 underscored the importance of making plans in case one becomes incapacitated for any reason. Create an In-Case-of-Emergency (ICE) Binder to hold all your important documents in one place in case the unthinkable happens. Because of the sensitive nature of the information it holds, be sure to keep this in a safe place where it will not fall into the hands of identity thieves.

Include the following in your binder:

  • Medical information
  • Account information
  • Child care and pet care details
  • Online accounts and passwords
  • Insurance policy documentation and details
  • Investment accounts and details
  • A copy of your life insurance policy
  • A copy of your living will
  • A copy of your last will and testament

Step 6: Set new financial goals for 2021
As you finish reviewing your financial progress of the past year, look forward to accomplishing greater financial goals in the coming year.

A great way to turn dreams into reality is to set goals that are SMART:

Specific

Measurable

Attainable

Realistic

Timely

Here are some goals you may want to set for the coming year:

  • Create a monthly budget before January. Be sure to include all expense categories. Review on the first of each month and tweak as necessary.
  • Review the week’s spending with your partner each Friday night.
  • Pay off your largest credit card bill by 2022.
  • Start a vacation fund in February.
  • Cut out two subscriptions you don’t really use by mid-year.
  • Slash your weekly grocery bill by 10% before May.

Wishing you a financially healthy New Year!

Your Turn: Do you have any additional steps for your own end-of-year financial review? Share them with us in the comments.

Learn More:
moneyning.com
14news.com
steppingstonestofi.com

Beware of Debt-Collection Scams

With the pandemic still wreaking havoc on the economy, many people are struggling to pay their monthly bills and meet their debt payments. Unfortunately, scammers are exploiting the financial downturn by tricking unsuspecting victims into paying for debts that don’t actually exist, or by using abusive tactics to collect legitimate debts.

Don’t be the next victim of a debt-collection scam. Here’s all you need to know about these scams:

How the scams play out

In a debt-collection scam, a caller claiming to represent a creditor or a debt-collection agency demands immediate payment for an alleged outstanding debt. The caller insists on specific means of payment and may even threaten to tell the victim’s family and friends about the outstanding debt. The alleged debt may be completely fabricated, or the scammer has hacked the victim’s accounts to learn of its existence. In either scenario, the caller does not represent the creditor and will pocket any “collected” money.

These scams can also take the form of abusive debt collection. In this variation of the scam, a caller collects money for a legitimate debt, but uses abusive and illegal practices to complete this task.

How to spot a debt-collection scam

You might be looking at a scam if an alleged debt collector does any of the following:

  • Withholds information — a legitimate debt collector is able and willing to tell you the name of the creditor as well as the exact amount owed.
  • Threatens the debtor with jail time — barring criminal fines or restitution, there’s no jail time for an overdue debt.
  • Insists on specific means of payment, such as prepaid debit card or money transfer.
  • Asks you to share personal financial information — a legitimate debt collector will not ask you to provide your Social Security number or account numbers.

Know your rights

When outstanding debts go unpaid, a lender is legally allowed to sell the debt to a collection agency. The agency can then attempt to collect the debt through letters and phone calls. The agency is not allowed to employ abusive practices or harassment when attempting to collect the debt.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act  (FDCPA) is an amendment to the Consumer Credit Protection Act, which protects consumers from abusive debt-collection practices.

According to the FDCPA, debt collectors cannot:

  • Contact borrowers at unreasonable hours, generally before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
  • Call borrowers at their workplace if the borrower said they cannot accept phone calls at work.
  • Harass borrowers about a debt, including using threats of violence and obscene language, publishing the debtor’s name and calling the debtor multiple times each day.
  • Engage in unfair collection practices, such as collecting more than is owed, depositing post-dated checks early, or seizing property when it is not legally allowed.
  • Lie about the money owed.
  • Falsely represent themselves as an attorney, government official or another party.
  • Threaten the debtor with jail time or other unwarranted legal action.
  • Falsify the name of the agency they represent.

Protect yourself

If you are unsure of whether you are being targeted by a debt-collection scam, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Ask the caller for a callback number. A legitimate collector will not hesitate to share this information. You can also ask for the caller’s name, as well as the name and street address of the company they represent. Be sure to try the number the caller shares, as they may have rattled off a nonfunctioning number in the hopes that you wouldn’t actually dial it.

Ask the caller to confirm basic information about the debt. The collector should know the exact amount owed and be able to tell you the name of the company behind the debt.

If you still believe you are being scammed, contact the creditor the collector is claiming to represent and ask if the debt collection has been outsourced to another company.

If you’ve been targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by an illegitimate debt collector, let the FTC know. Report the scam at ftc.gov/complaint. You can also block the scammer’s phone number on your phone and let your friends know about the circulating scam. If a falsified debt appears on your credit report, you will need to dispute the charge as well.

If you’ve confirmed that a collection agency has been legitimately hired by a lender, but you believe the agency is employing abusive tactics, or you’d like them to stop contacting you, there are additional steps you can take. According to the FTC, under these circumstances, it’s best to send the collection agency a written letter asking it to cease all contact. Once the agency has received the letter, it can only reach out to the debtor to let them know there will be no further contact, or to inform the debtor of a specific action being taken against them.

If the debt collector continues to contact you for any other purpose after receiving your written request to desist, you may want to consider filing a lawsuit against the agency in state court.

[If you are having trouble meeting your financial obligations, we can help! Call, click, or stop by Advantage One Credit Union to speak to a member service representative today.]

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a debt-collection scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
consumer.ftc.gov
nerdwallet.com
ftc.gov
aarp.org
consumerfinance.gov

When and Why to Take on Business Debt

Taking on debt can be an inevitable step for many businesses. A loan or a line of credit can provide a struggling business with the cash it needs to expand or fund a new venture.

As with every financial move, thought, it’s best to consider all angles before going ahead with the decision. Here’s what you need to know about when and why it can make sense to take on business debt:

When is it a good idea to take on business debt?

Businesses can benefit from taking out loans or opening new lines of credit under these circumstances:

When seeking resources to help grow the business. It takes money to make money, and a small business loan can help business owners pay for an expansion when they don’t have the current resources to fund it on their own. The funds can be used to broaden the company’s line of products or services, pay for a move to a larger location, fund a marketing campaign or hire additional staff.

Before taking on debt for this purpose, it’s important for a business to first measure the anticipated return on investment (ROI) for the debt. The ROI for taking on new debt needs to exceed its post-tax interest costs for the debt to be profitable for the business. For example, if a business takes out a loan to pay for new equipment costing $10,000 that will enable it to sign a $20,000 contract, it needs to ensure that a loan won’t cost them more than $10,000 in interest and other fees. Otherwise, the business will not stand to gain from taking on new debt. The profit margin also needs to be generous enough for the venture to be worth the time and effort for the business. If the final gain is minimal, the business owner may be better off investing energy in another lower-cost endeavor.

When trying to build credit. Taking out a small loan or opening a new line of credit can be a great way to build a credit profile for a business and to strengthen its relationship with financial institutions. Small loans and lines of credit can help a business prove it is responsible and trustworthy for repaying debts. This will open the doors to larger loans that may be needed in the future.

When taking on debt for this reason, it’s important for a business to run the numbers and to be sure it can handle the monthly payments, even before the anticipated boost in revenue. If a company cannot meet its monthly payments, taking on new debt can wind up doing more harm than good to its credit.

Why is debt often a preferred source of funds?

Businesses in need of extra cash can choose from several options. Primarily, a business can decide to sell equity in its company or to take out a small business loan or open a new line of credit. Here’s why debt can be a preferred source of funds for businesses:

It has lower financing costs. Unlike equity, debt is limited. Once the loan is paid back, the business owner can forget it ever existed. On the flip side, selling equity in a company generally means forking over a part of the profit for as long as the business exists. (It’s important to note, though, that debt has fixed repayment costs as opposed to equity stakes, which are determined as a percentage of the company’s profit. This means a business owner will need to pay back debt regardless of the company’s success.)

It provides tax advantages. Business debt can decrease a company’s tax liability by lowering its equity base. As an added bonus, interest on business loans and lines of credit are usually tax-deductible.

It mitigates risk. Taking on debt to access funds, instead of selling equity, lowers the company’s risk in the event that the business does not succeed.

[If you’re ready to take out a business loan or to open a new line of credit for your business, we can help! Our business loans and the lines of credit feature favorable rates and easy terms. Call, click, or stop by Advantage One Credit Union today to secure the funds you need to grow your business.]

Your Turn: Tell us about your experience with getting a business loan or line of credit in the comments.

Learn More:
entrepreneur.com
montrealfinancial.ca
businessinsider.com

Your Complete Guide to Using Your Credit Cards

Q: I’d love to improve my credit score, but I can’t get ahead of my monthly payments. SeptFeatured2020_credit-card-scam
I also find that my spending gets out of control when I’m paying with plastic. How do I use my credit cards responsibly?

A: Using your credit cards responsibly is a great way to boost your credit score and your financial wellness. Unfortunately, though, credit card issuers make it challenging to stay ahead of monthly payments and easy to fall into debt with credit card purchases. No worries, though; Advantage One Credit Union is here to help!

Here’s all you need to know about responsible credit card usage.

Refresh your credit card knowledge
Understanding the way a credit card works can help the cardholder use it responsibly.
A credit card is a revolving line of credit allowing the cardholder to make charges at any time, up to a specific limit. Each time the cardholder swipes their card, the credit card issuer is lending them the money so they can make the purchase. Unlike a loan, though, the credit card account has no fixed term. Instead, the cardholder will need to make payments toward the balance each month until the balance is paid off in full. At the end of each billing cycle, the cardholder can choose to make just the minimum required payment, pay off the balance in full or make a payment of any size that falls between these two amounts.

Credit cards tend to have high interest rates relative to other kinds of loans. The most recent data shows the average industry rate on new credit cards is 13.15% APR (annual percentage rate) and the average credit union rate on new credit cards is 11.54% APR.

Pay bills in full, on time
The best way to keep a score high is to pay credit card bills in full each month — and on time. This has multiple benefits:

  • Build credit — Using credit responsibly builds up your credit history, which makes it easier and more affordable to secure a loan in the future.
  • Skip the interest — Paying credit card bills in full and on time each month lets the cardholder avoid the card’s interest charges completely.
  • Stay out of debt — Paying bills in full each month helps prevent the consumer from falling into the cycle of endless minimum payments, high interest accruals and a whirlpool of debt.
  • Avoid late fees — Late fees and other penalties for missed payments can get expensive quickly. Avoid them by paying bills on time each month.
  • Enjoy rewards — Healthy credit card habits are often generously rewarded through the credit card issuer with airline miles, reward points and other fun benefits.

Tip: Using a credit card primarily for purchases you can already afford makes it easier to pay off the entire bill each month.

Brush up on billing
There are several important terms to be familiar with for staying on top of credit card billing.

A credit card billing cycle is the period of time between subsequent credit card billings. It can vary from 20 to 45 days, depending on the credit card issuer. Within that timeframe, purchases, credits and any fees or finance charges will be added to and subtracted from the cardholder’s account.

When the billing cycle ends, the cardholder will be billed for the remaining balance, which will be reflected in their credit card statement. The current dates and span of a credit card’s billing cycle should be clearly visible on the bill.

Tip: It’s important to know when your billing cycle opens and closes each month to help you keep on top of your monthly payments.

Credit card bills will also show a payment due date, which tends to be approximately 20 days after the end of a billing cycle. The timeframe between when the billing cycle ends and its payment due date is known as the grace period. When the grace period is over and the payment due date passes, the payment is overdue and will be subject to penalties and interest charges.

Tip: To ensure a payment is never overdue, it’s best to schedule a time for making your credit card payments each month, ideally during the grace period and before the payment due date. This way, you’ll avoid interest charges and penalties and keep your score high. Allow a minimum of one week for the payment to process.

Spend smartly
Credit cards can easily turn into spending traps if the cardholder is not careful. Following these dos and don’ts of credit card spending can help you stick to your budget even when paying with plastic.

  • Do:
    When making a purchase, treat your credit card like cash.
    Remember that credit card transactions are mini loans.
    Pay for purchases within your regular budget.
    Decrease your reliance on credit cards by building an emergency fund.
  • Don’t:
    Use your credit card as if it provides you with access to extra income.
    Use credit to justify extravagant purchases.
    Neglect to put money into savings because you have access to a credit card.

Using credit cards responsibly can help you build and maintain an excellent credit score, which will make it easier to secure affordable long-term loans in the future.

Your Turn
: How do you use your credit cards responsibly while keeping your score high? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
moneyunder30.com
npr.org
debt.org
creditcardinsider.com

 

Step 12 Of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Celebrate!

Two men bumping fistsIs your debt shrinking? Have you gotten rid of one of your outstanding loans or lines of credit? Well, then it’s time to celebrate!

Take the time, this month, to celebrate every small goal you’ve reached on your journey toward paying down debt. You don’t need to spend much to celebrate an achievement; find inexpensive or even cost-free ways to reward yourself.

Celebrate big. You deserve it!

Your Turn:
How do you celebrate achievements without blowing your budget? Share your best ideas with us in the comments.

Step 11 Of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Track Your Progress

A young professional man makes selections in ann app on his laptop.Update every bit of progress you make on the debt spreadsheet you created earlier this year. Keep your spreadsheet in a visible place so you can quickly and frequently track your progress.

Watching those numbers shrink will give you the motivation you need to work harder and make it all happen quicker. Just imagine; one day, you won’t owe anyone a single dollar!

Your Turn:
Does tracking your progress motivate you to work harder? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn More:
Step 1 of 12 Towards a Debt-Free Life

Step 10 Of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Make It Automatic

Young black woman manages her finances and checks her credit card balances on a laptopNow that you’re maximizing your payments toward the debt you’ve prioritized, make sure it happens by automating your payments. Set up an automatic transfer in your designated amount from your checking account or your savings account to that debt each month, and it will be well on its way to disappearing!

Your Turn: How much time can you save each month by making all of your payments automatic? Brag about it in the comments!

Step 9 of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Put All Windfalls In Your Snowball

Young man and woman look at one another happily over fanned 1 dollar bills in their hands.Let your debt snowball grow by packing it with all your unexpected windfalls. Seasonal bonus at work? Add all or most of it to your snowball. Unexpected refund? Let it go toward paying down your debt. Birthday gift money from Great Aunt Sally? You know where it’s going!

It isn’t easy to say goodbye to an unexpected windfall, but all that extra money will help you reach your goal that much sooner.

Your Turn:
Which windfalls did you pack into your debt snowball this month?

Step 7 Of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Create A Debt Snowball

hipster man checks finances on computer while at trendy eateryYou’ve organized your debt, you’ve set up an emergency fund and you’re working on spending less. You’re now ready to start getting rid of that debt…for good!

Choose the debt you’d like to pay down first. Financial expert Dave Ramsey suggests starting from the smallest debt and working your way up. You can also choose to start with the debt that carries the highest interest rate. Either way, once you’ve paid down the first loan or line of credit, you’ll move onto the next and continue to work your way through all remaining debt until you’re completely debt-free.

For now, paying off this debt will be your top priority. Be sure to pay the minimum payments on all other debts, but any extra money you have at the end of the month goes towards the first one. Start with the minimum payments you were making anyways, and add the money that was previously going towards setting up your savings account to create your debt snowball. Whenever possible, try to add money to your snowball to accelerate your progress.

Doesn’t this feel great? You’re on your way to a debt-free life!

Your Turn:
Did you choose to start with your lowest debt or the one carrying the highest interest rate? Share your choice and your reasons with us in the comments.