Declutter and Save

declutterWhat is the current state of your closets? Are they stuffed to the brim with clothes, shoes, suitcases, cleaning supplies, your high school chemistry textbook, etc., or can you do cartwheels in there? Is every horizontal surface covered in piles and piles of stuff or bare save for a few knickknacks?

If your house is filled with clutter, you probably know you won’t make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but you may not be aware that it could be costing you money too. Many people buy or rent bigger (and usually more expensive) places so they can have more closets or other storage space. Or they may opt for the smaller space and pay rent on a storage unit. A clutter-filled house can also lead to increased entertainment costs – you don’t want your friends to see the mess (or are sick of seeing it yourself), so you go out. Duplication is another way clutter can cost you. Have you ever spent money on something you already had because you had no idea where it was and did not want to spend hours looking for it?

If the thought of actually having to go though all your stuff makes you sweat, don’t worry. Here are some tips that can help make the decluttering process as painless as possible:

  • Do a little at a time: You are less likely to get discouraged and give up if you set a series of small goals spread out over time (e.g., clean the closet in the master bedroom tomorrow, clean the garage next weekend) instead of trying to clean up the whole house at once.
  • Take a picture of sentimental items: Do you have some items that you never use but nevertheless have a hard time getting rid of because of their sentimental value (such as the doll you bought for your daughter who is now 25)? Taking a picture can make it easier to part with them since you know you will have a reminder even if they are no longer collecting dust in your closet.
  • Donate or sell: While some of your items may be worn out and only welcomed by the trash bin, there may be many things you can sell to a consignment or thrift store or donate to charity. Think of your cleaning as putting money in your pocket or helping others, instead of just a chore.
  • Use the “one in, one out” rule: After you go through all that effort to get rid of what you don’t need, you probably don’t want the house to revert back to its former messy state a few months from now. A good way to prevent this is to get rid of something whenever you purchase something new. You buy a new t-shirt at the mall – when you get home, go into the drawers and get rid of an old one.

By taking the time to declutter, you’ll be cleaning all the way to the credit union.

10 Great Ways to Spend an Income Tax Refund

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Expecting a substantial income tax refund this year? If so, you are in the majority – over 70 percent of Americans get money back at the end of the tax year, with the average refund being close to $2,000. Rather than having those precious dollars being absorbed into your normal spending routine, get the most out of your cash.

  1. Pay down high interest loans and lines of credit. With average annual interest rates for credit cards and personal loans hovering around fifteen percent, paying off that Visa card before making other investment decisions makes good sense.
  2. Fund Your Retirement Account. About 30 percent of all working Americans have no money invested for their retirement. If you are one of them, seriously consider making a contribution to an IRA contribution right away.
  3. Invest it. Instead of just working for money, let money work for you. If you invested one lump sum of $1,500 in the stock market, over thirty years at 12 percent interest (the 30-year market average) you’d have $ 53,924. (Do your research first before making any investment decision, of course.)
  4. Open an emergency account. Most Americans don’t have money set aside for those financial emergencies that always seem to happen when there is no cash in the coffer. A large tax refund is a great start an emergency account. It should eventually total between three to six months worth of essential living expenses.
  5. Pay for repairs. Maintaining expensive possessions now will result in dollars saved tomorrow. Use the money to repair that leaky roof before it develops into a bigger problem; replace those dangerous bald tires with new, safe ones.
  6. Start a personal endowment. Investing in your emotional, physical, intellectual, and career growth is a wise use of money. Whether it’s paying for a gym membership or a cooking class, you’ll feel effects of this type of investment fast.
  7. Make an extra home mortgage payment (or two). Though you won’t feel the benefit immediately, doubling up on a mortgage payment now can save you months of mortgage payments later.
  8. Donate to a charity. Giving back to the community is a wonderful way of supporting a cause that you are passionate about. Even better – in many cases at least a portion of your donation is tax-deductible too.
  9. Open a 529 College Savings Plan. A four-year college education can cost upwards of $100,000. Save for your child’s college education with a 529 plan. It works much like a Roth IRA, and withdrawals are completely tax-free when used for higher education purposes.
  10. Plan a vacation. If you are in a fluid financial position, and can truly afford a bit of luxury, do something you’ve been dreaming of. Money is to be enjoyed as well as earned, saved, and invested. Go ahead. Book that cruise.

Although all the preceding ideas are excellent uses for a lump-sum amount of cash, remember that instead of planning for a refund, it’s best to come out even. A tax refund is an interest-free loan to the government, and money that is not in your pocket every month. If you have been getting a refund back each year, consider changing your withholding exemptions so less tax is withheld from each paycheck. While a tax refund may feel like a gift from Uncle Sam, it’s not – it’s money that you have overpaid on your income taxes.

Joining a Credit Union makes dollars and sense

shutterstock_223077982.jpgHappy New Year! As you review your finances from the holidays and try to keep your sanity, it may be time to also review your financial institution. Many people are not aware of credit unions or what they do. Here are just some benefits of joining a credit union.

  • You do not have to belong to a particular group or have a specific occupation to join; today, many credit unions are open to almost anyone with very few stipulations. Being member-owned and not-for-profit, the credit union exists to serve is its members. Typically, they offer lower interest rates on mortgages, auto loans and credit cards with lower fees. This helps its members save more money over the long-run. Credit unions are governed by a member-elected, unpaid volunteers which means local accountability.

 

  • Tech-savvy; most credit unions have all the latest technology such as APPs, online banking, mobile site and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube and Instagram. One of the best features of the APP is the mobile deposits of checks. It is a simple process. Log in to your mobile account, select the deposit check icon, state the amount of the check, take a photo of the front of the check, take a separate photo of the back of the check and select deposit. Members are also able to pay bills, find locations and ATMs, make a transfer and even apply for a loan all through the APP. Most credit union APPs are free though your smart device and are compatible with iPhones, tablets and androids.

 

  • Member-specific savings; credit unions also provide personal loans to members when in need of financial assistance. Financial literacy is also an important benefit that credit unions provide. Helping members understand and manage their credit; improve their credit score and eliminate debt are additional benefits of joining a credit union. Many credit unions have specified fee-free ATMs locations throughout the country. They are also federally insured by the NCUA, the sister organization of the FDIC.

 

  • Educating the public; many credit unions offer free seminars on topics such as credit, getting out of debt, purchasing a car or home and retirement. Credit unions have partnerships with businesses and organizations to provide discounts exclusively to its members. They also give back to the community by generously supporting other not-for-profit organizations.

 

As you progress through life, it is wise to see if your financial institution is still the best choice for you. It not only saves dollars, it makes sense.

 

Start the New Year Off Right!

shutterstock_172827005Losing weight is the most common New Year’s resolution, but becoming a better money manager isn’t far behind. If you’d like to get your spending in shape, too, adopt some of these resolutions this January.

Analyze your spending

Some financial institutions offer apps or calculators that help you split your spending into categories, such as housing costs, grocery expenses and entertainment. There are also many third-party apps with similar features. These tools show you where your money is going and help you identify areas — such as spending on entertainment — where you might be able to cut back.

Some financial institutions, including Bright Star Credit Union, also provide professional counseling and other services to help customers solve money problems.

Check your credit

You’re entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three major reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Request a different one every four months through AnnualCreditReport.com to keep a close eye on your credit. If you find serious errors, tell the reporting agency. According to federal law, it must investigate your claim, usually within 30 days.

Your credit has a major impact on whether or not you’re approved for mortgage and car loans, as well the interest rates you’re charged. Having a high score will make it easier for you to qualify for loans with low interest rates.

Take the thought out of bill payments

Your monthly bills all arrive at different times, from different providers, in different forms. What if you could manage them all in one place?

Online bill pay isn’t terribly new, but if you haven’t tried it yet, you should. You can receive and view all your bills, make or schedule payments, and review your payment history in one platform. This makes it harder to misplace any important information.

Payment history makes up a large part of your credit score. If you make payments on time and in full, it will improve your score. Online bill pay is a good way to ensure that you don’t miss any payments.

Revisit your mortgage and insurance policies

We tend to set it and forget it once we’ve signed up for insurance. But if you shop around every year, you might find a better deal on auto, home or health insurance.

In a similar vein, it’s a good idea to examine the terms of your existing loans, particularly if you’ve raised your credit score since you qualified. If you refinance, you could qualify for a lower interest rate, which would reduce your monthly obligations.

Developing or improving your money management skills is a great way to kick off the new year. And if you stick with it, the dividends are just as positive as the benefits of regular workouts at your gym.

 

Peter Lewis, NerdWallet

© Copyright 2015 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Thieves Don’t Take a Holiday

hackerThe holiday season is underway and more than ever, consumers will shop by mail, phone and the Internet. This means greater opportunities for thieves who hope that shoppers will drop their guard in pursuit of bargains and hard-to-find items. Protect yourself from fraud for a happy holiday season:

  • Check out the seller. Be sure anyone selling though the Internet has a physical address, phone number and clearly posted policies relating to payment, refunds, delivery schedules, and the privacy of your information. Those selling by mail and phone should provide the same information. When in doubt, contact the Better Business Bureau for a reference.

  • Be wary of unsolicited phone calls. Thieves sometimes pose as well-known retailers, offering special deals available only by phone. Shop by phone only when you make the call, and to a merchant you know and trust.

  • Check out the product. Some sellers try to hide the fact the offered item is refurbished or a previously returned item. Be certain of the product description in the ads and examine items carefully when they arrive.

  • Don’t email financial information. Email isn’t that secure and legitimate sellers won’t request payment in this fashion. Enter personal and financial information only when there is a “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar and look for the URL to read “https” versus “http”.

  • Don’t open suspicious attachments. Some Internet identity thieves will send spam email offering unbelievable bargains on hot items such as digital cameras, computers, and mp3 players. The email includes an attachment that promises to explain how to obtain the promised item. By opening the attachment, however, you download a program that searches your computer for your personal information, and transmits that data to the thief.

  • Keep your virus protection software and personal firewall up-to-date. Many software packages have features that allow an automatic check for updated virus definitions or enhanced protection; use these options to guard against hackers and thieves. Don’t forget to use hard-to-guess passwords to further protect sensitive data.

  • Be careful using unfamiliar ATMs. Need cash on your shopping trip? ATM’s are popping up everywhere but some are found in high traffic areas where there are opportunities for thieves to observe your pin entry and use small cameras to film your transaction.

  • Know Your Rights. All retailers (including those using the Internet) must ship your order within the time limit they promised in their offer. If they didn’t state a time limit they must ship within 30 days of receiving payment. If the retailer cannot ship within the promised date, they must allow you to cancel the order and receive a timely refund.

  • Keep Records. Save all documentation related to your purchases, including emails detailing on-line purchases. Make note of all phone purchases, including the phone number you called, when you called, and who you spoke with. Always ask for a confirmation number for your order to quickly reference the purchase if the item fails to arrive or you are not satisfied.

Want more important consumer and personal finance guidance? Contact the financial professionals at BALANCE. As a benefit of being an account holder at [Your Financial Institution], counselors are ready, at no charge to you, to answer questions and help you develop a personal finance strategy. Visit http://www.balancepro.net or call toll-free: 888.456.2227.

 

http://www.balancepro.org/partnertools/newsletterarticles/articles/thievesdontholiday.html

Thanksgiving dinner

Ways to Save Money on Holiday Dinner

 

Hosting dinner for Thanksgiving? These helpful tips will keep money in your pocket so you can purchase that perfect gift.

Size does matter: Using smaller plates helps prevent wasting food. Guests can always go back for seconds if needed. Get an accurate head count. If you are expecting a large group, purchase in bulk from Sam’s Club or Costco.

When purchasing that delectable bird, try to buy it early. Having meal options can help relieve the stress and cut the cost of getting that large turkey. Vegetarian options, baked chicken, rice and beans can all be a new tradition and help save money. Make a note of the least eaten dishes and cut them out.

Buy seasonal: A great way to save money is by purchasing food that’s in season such as corn, eggplants, asparagus, peas and onions. Try the Farmer’s market or local supermarket. Look for items on sale, and create a menu.

Decorations: Use things around the house or items that are in season from the yard. Check websites such as Pinterest or YouTube for decorating ideas. Leaves, branches and twigs can be attractive if used correctly. Seasonal food and fruits can also be used and eaten later. Still looking to buy decorations? Go the local dollar store.

Potluck: There is less stress when you have a plan. A potluck gives variety to your meal. Friends and family can swap recipes. Delegate the menu so that everyone knows what to bring. Simple meals are easier to make and costs less.

Keep it real: Use real plates instead of purchasing paper plates and plastic cups, knives and forks. Yeah, it may be a hassle when it comes to cleaning up but get everyone to chip in. It is also better for the environment. Borrow from family or friends if needed.

Recipes for left overs: Sandwiches are great, try stews or soups, fried turkey bites, gumbo or pot pies. Look up fast and easy recipes online. This will help reduce waste and throwing money in the garbage.

If you are looking to try something new, why not volunteer at a food bank? The best way to show how grateful you are, is by giving back.

Holiday Travel on a Budget

It is always great to be with family and friends for the holidays, especially during Thanksgiving. Hopefully by now you have figured out your plans for Turkey Day. Remember, it is the busiest time for travel. Here are tips to take into consideration:

Flying? Book early!

Book your trip at least 2 weeks in advance. Check discount sites on Wednesdays, Thursdays or Saturday evenings. If possible, do not fly the Wednesday before, or the Sunday after Thanksgiving; the priciest and busiest times to fly.

Traveling with the family or in groups? Book as early as you can or consider flying on Thanksgiving Day. Check out smaller airlines or airports to help save money.

Pack smart! Do you really need all that?

Check the weather before you go. Pay attention to guidelines for carry-on luggage. Airlines have specific guidelines which may result in expensive fees. According to Independent Traveler, it is best to fit everything in your carry-on as it saves time and worry when transferring. Remember TSA guidelines in regards to liquids.

Driving instead? Check out your ride

Check out your car before you go on the road. If you can avoid it, don’t drive on Thanksgiving Day. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it is the busiest day of the year for cars being on the road. Leave on the Wednesday or Tuesday before Turkey Day instead.

Driving late at night can be an option. There is less traffic and the kids will be asleep. Make sure you are well-rested and have a co-pilot. It is dangerous to drive tired.

Try an alternative

Try using alternative transportation such as a train or bus. Amtrak offers great discounts for the family. Avoid spending on food or snacks by carrying your own.

Place to stay

If you are unable to stay with family members or friends there are some great, affordable alternatives. Sites such as AirBnB can be a great resource. You can read reviews from other travelers who have stayed at the same location. This alternative is much more cost effective as opposed to staying at a hotel or motel.

However you decide to travel, be safe and treasure the moment.

Tips on saving this Halloween

Halloween is quickly approaching which means pumpkins, trick-or-treat, costumes and spooky festivities. According to U.S. News and World Report, Americans spent $7.4 Billion on this ghoulish holiday in 2014. The average person will spend from $40-$80 on decorations, costumes and candy. Depending on family size, that amount can quickly spin out of control. Thankfully there are ways to enjoy the festivities without screaming when you see the bill. Here are a few tips:

Trick-or-Treat

Sam’s Club and Costco are great places to purchase candy in bulk. If you are not a member, ask friends or family who are members to take you shopping with them.

Non-candy treats such as stickers, erasers, pencils or plastic bugs can be a great alternative. Stop by your local dollar store for affordable options. Create your own trick-or-treat sacks by using pillow cases, sand buckets, baskets, gift bags or reusable grocery bags.

Decorations

There are several websites where you can order affordable spooktacular decorations. Check coupon sites such a Groupon to see if there are additional savings available. The neighborhood Dollar Store is also a great option.

Activities or parties for the entire family

Events such as Halloween Horror Nights or your FREE community activity can be a great alternative. It’s also great to pool together with friends when having a fright night. Homemade Halloween goodies will be a scream at your howling party. Have a potluck where guests can win a prize for “the spookiest dish.” Groupon and Living Social are also great for events the entire family will enjoy.

Costume options

Make your own costume, shop at consignment stores or swap costumes with friends and family. Another alternative is the toy section for dress-up options. Use make-up instead of purchasing masks will also save green. Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube can assist with the make-up D-I-Y.

Pumpkins

Purchase pumpkins last-minute at your neighborhood grocery stores or farmer’s markets to keep the cost of Halloween to a minimum. According to US News and World Report, stores may have drastically-reduced prices on pumpkins to save on the post-Halloween price drop. Have a pumpkin carving competition on, or, the night before Halloween.

In addition, a scary movie night can be a cost-effective option; create and print your own invitations; capitalize on the after-Halloween sales and make a note of how much you spent in order to save additional funds next year.