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4 Financial Tips for Fall

Posted by ginger$nap on 10.04.16

Fall means dreams of pumpkin spice lattes, turkey dinners and a cozy holiday season just around the corner. Here are four ways to make sure you’re financially well-equipped for the last stretch of the year.

1. Winterize your home: Save energy, save cash

As temperatures drop, home heating bills rise. But properly sealing and insulating a house can save an average of about 11% a year on energy costs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Keep your expenses to a minimum by sealing gaps and cracks in windows and doors with weatherstripping or caulk. Clean and inspect your furnace to ensure it’s running as efficiently as possible. Also consider increasing your insulation. Though your wallet will take a hit for the season, you’ll probably get more than your money’s worth in a few years.

2. Start your holiday gift hunt

We all know that the sale to beat all sales — Black Friday — comes on the heels of Thanksgiving. But don’t forget about the little guys: Columbus Day and Veterans Day usually mean smaller but still significant discounts. As the year winds toward its close, expect sales on appliances, cookware, clothing and electronics. Beat the winter rush and get started on your holiday shopping.

3. Traveling in December? Book your trip now

If you’re flying for the holidays, now is the time to book if you haven’t already. Follow your favorite airlines on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for their email announcements for deals. This is also a great time to cash in your travel credit card miles, especially if your earned perks are due to expire at the end of the year.

4. Check your flexible spending account balance

If you’ve been putting money aside in a health care flexible spending account, or FSA, make sure you spend it before your money effectively disappears at year’s end. Book yourself a dentist or eye appointment, or get an annual physical.

And check with your company to see whether there’s any wiggle room. Your employer might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year or give you a few months’ grace period.

With a little planning in the fall, you can save enough money to get through the long (and often pricey) holiday season that’s just ahead.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Budgeting 101: Creating a Budget & Sticking to It

Posted by ginger$nap on 09.07.16

With the total student loan debt in the United States hovering around a mind-blowing $1.23 trillion, it’s important to be smart about budgeting and managing your money while you’re in school so you’re not one of the 43 million Americans drowning in student loan debt.

Creating and managing a budget isn’t the most fun in the world, but it’s not as much of a hassle as you might think, either. Plus, it’ll help you stay on track during school and avoid graduating with heaps of debt.

budget-sheet-downloadFor starters, you’ll want to figure out whether you want to track your budget per month, per academic semester (or year), or per calendar year. Once you’ve chosen a timeframe for your budget, you’ll want to decide what tool or tools you want to use to track it. You could go old school with pen and paper, or you might opt for using a computer spreadsheet, or maybe your phone is your life and you’d prefer to use a budgeting app. Georgia’s Own BALANCE Financial Fitness program offers free resources to help with budgeting, and we’ve also created an budgeting spreadsheet to help you track your income and expenses (download it for free here). I personally love Mint – it’s simple to use, secure, and automatically updates all of my accounts in one place. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s a tool you’re comfortable with and one you’ll actually use.

Here’s what you’ll need to create your budget:

  • Your income: Be sure to include all sources of income, including wages, any financial aid refund, and any contributions from family.
  • Your expenses: Expenses include fixed expenses like your cell phone or rent, as well as variable expenses such as dining out or gas for your car (if you have one). For your initial budget, you may have to estimate some expenses until you have a better idea of how much you spend on that category.

The next step is adding up your income and your expenses so you can balance your budget. To do this, you’ll subtract your total monthly expenses from your total monthly income. The goal is to have a positive balance, meaning you’re earning more than you’re spending. If you have money left over each month, you can save it or even start paying on your student loans (if you have any), since they do accrue interest while you’re in school. (Read more about why paying on your loans while in school is a good idea).

If your balance is negative, you’re spending more than you’re earning and need to adjust your budget. You can cut back on expenses or find a way to supplement your income, such as getting a second job.

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Now that you’ve created and balanced your budget, there are two more important steps in maintaining that budget:

  1. Review your budget monthly – doing so will help you stay ahead and avoid surprises.
  2. If you make a spending mistake, don’t dwell on it. Next time you’re tempted to make an impulse purchase, ask yourself if you really need that item and if so, can you afford it?

Developing good financial habits in college (or earlier) not only helps you cut down on student loan and credit card debt acquired throughout school, but also helps sets you up for success later on in life. Trust me – things like credit scores and savings accounts may seem trivial now, but it’s a lot easier to start off strong than to find yourself in heaps of debt after school and trying to correct mistakes that could have easily been avoided.

Do you follow a budget? What do you find the hardest about sticking to a budget? Let us know in the comments or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!


7 Money-Saving Tips for Teens

Posted by Ne[x]t on 08.18.16

Most teenagers probably won’t leap at the prospect of learning about personal finance on their own. That’s why it’s important to take the time to teach them smart money management. To get the conversation started, here are seven topics worth discussing to help your teen avoid costly financial missteps in the future.

Encourage your teen to get a job

Preaching about the value of a hard-earned dollar isn’t quite as effective as encouraging your child to get a job. By working for their money, teenagers are likely to begin thinking critically about how they spend it, which is a good habit to pick up at an early age. If your child is too young for a job, you could provide a weekly allowance for helping around the house.

Help your teen set a budget

Once your teen starts earning money, explain how to set a budget. Consider explaining the difference between essential and nonessential expenses, providing examples from your own life.

Set financial goals together

Since creating a budget isn’t the most exciting activity, introducing the idea of saving up for a fun purchase might reinvigorate your teen. Putting away money every month requires discipline and is a great skill to practice at an early age by regularly stashing away some cash for a new smartphone, for example. Crunch the numbers with your child to determine how much needs to be saved each month to hit the savings goal by a certain date.

Help your teen sign up for a checking and savings account

So money doesn’t have to be stashed under their mattress, sign your teenager up for a checking and savings account. Although you’ll need to co-own the account if your child is under 18, your teen can have an active role in managing it. Just know that you’ll have to foot the bill if any fees, such as overdrafts, are incurred.

Encourage responsible credit card use

Although your child won’t be able to get a credit card before turning 21, anyone can be set up as an authorized user on your plastic at any age. Make sure to implement rules regarding when your teen can use the card, and make it abundantly clear that your credit score will take a hit if your card is maxed out.

Take your teen shopping

It can be tempting to overspend on name-brand products. To help your teen fight those initial instincts, shop together and explore the wonders of coupons, sales and store brand items. This should underscore the notion that popular products don’t always have to be the go-to option, which can save your child a lot of money over the years.

Teach your teen about compound interest

When it comes to saving money, compound interest is a person’s best friend. Teaching your child about the many benefits of compound interest should encourage contribution to a 401(k) plan in a future full-time job.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved


No Sweat Summer Savings

Posted by Ne[x]t on 06.15.15

Yes, it’s that season again: a time of popsicles, sprinklers, baseball … and heat. Before this summer really starts to sizzle, know how to keep the bills – and the temperature – down.

Go AC Easy
Own an air conditioner? Tune it up before turning it on. Make sure the filter is clean too. If it’s old and inefficient, shop for a new one before the mid-summer rush to avoid paying premium prices. Decrease demands on its output by running such large appliances as the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer in the evening. And never crank it up beyond the temperature you want – it won’t work any faster, but it will use more energy.

Capture the Cool
To keep all that lovely cool air inside, caulk and insulate windows and doors to lessen air gaps. Keep sunlight out of the house by closing shades, blinds and curtains, and shut doors and vents to unoccupied rooms.

Start a Fan Club
When it’s warmer inside than out, place freestanding fans at open windows. Also, consider installing ceiling fans. These pretty propellers use far less power than air conditioners and can save you up to 40 percent on your energy bill. Fans use about as much energy as a 100-watt light bulb and can instantly make a room feel cooler by four degrees or more.

Set Your Limits
To skim a minimum of ten percent from your energy bill, set the thermostat to as warm as is comfortable, and ten degrees higher at night than during the day. Make it easy by investing in a programmable thermostat. You can set it to rise and fall during the day and evenings, and at times when you are normally in and out.

Be Energy Efficient
Be diligent about turning off lights and other appliances when they are not in use. Refrigerators are among the top home energy users; if you have a spare one, think about unplugging it during summer months. And looking for a reason to eat ice cream for dinner? Ovens are a major contributor to heat build-up.

Get Out
During the hottest times of the day, go to the mall, supermarket, restaurant, café, library, or a movie. Free air conditioning is the ultimate in cool.

Don’t let skyrocketing energy costs get you hot under the collar this summer. Apply at least a couple of these tips and you’ll beat the heat – on the cheap!

 

Source: BALANCE Financial Fitness


How to Spend an Income Tax Refund: Ten Money-Smart Suggestions

Posted by Ne[x]t on 05.06.15

taxrefund

Expecting an income tax refund this year? Use it wisely!

1. Pay down high interest lines of credit. With average annual interest rates for credit cards hovering around fifteen percent, paying off consumer debt before going on a shopping spree makes good sense.

2. Fund Your Retirement Account. Millions of working Americans have no money invested for their retirement. If you are one of them, seriously consider using your refund to make a contribution to an IRA.

3. Invest it. Many people get thousands back at the end of the year. If you invest one lump sum of $1,500 in the stock market, with a 10 percent return (the long-term market average), you could have $30,173.73 in 30 years!

4. Open an emergency account. How much money do you have set aside for emergencies? If the answer is “none,” open a savings account today. Three to six months’ worth of essential living expenses tucked away is a great goal.

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. Consider applying the money to your emotional, physical, intellectual, or career growth. Whether you use it for a gym membership or a cooking class, you’ll soon reap the reward of this investment.

7. Make an extra mortgage payment. Why? Doubling up on one 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.

9. Open a 529 College Savings Plan. A four-year college education can cost upwards of $100,000. Save for your child’s college career 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 healthy financial position, and can 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.

Certainly there are many savvy ways to spend a tax refund, but keep in mind that it’s usually best to come out even. If you’ve been getting money back each year, consider changing your withholding exemptions so less tax is withheld from each paycheck. While a refund may feel like a gift from Uncle Sam, it’s not – it’s money that you have overpaid on your income taxes.

Source: BALANCE Financial Fitness


Use Credit Wisely

Posted by Ne[x]t on 03.16.15

Credit cards are a simple way to establish credit, which you will need when making big purchases, such as a car and eventually a home. They are also good to have in case of emergencies, and reward programs make them extremely attractive to use for routine purchases. However, it is vital to recognize that unpaid credit card balances are constantly accruing interest in addition to the original amount charged, and that you are responsible for every penny.

Many young adults are lured by the ease of ‘the swipe’- an outfit here, a meal there, a trip (just this once!)- and before you know it, the balance becomes unmanageable. Don’t fall into this trap! As a general rule, don’t use your credit card for more than what you can immediately repay, and make sure your card provides maximum value. Click here to check out Georgia’s Own Student Visa, which has an extremely low rate and earns ScoreCard Bonus Points on every purchase, and here to read a post on responsible credit card use!


Smart Holiday Spending

Posted by Ne[x]t on 12.09.14

As the holidays approach, many of us begin to wonder how we’ll be able to afford everything that goes into making the holiday season memorable. Gifts and travel to see all of the loved ones in our lives and hosting parties can quickly add up to an expensive couple of months. Instead of it being an enjoyable time like it should, it can become stressful. So instead of piling up the debt this year, try some of the following tips to protect your wallet.

Set a Budget

This seems like the most obvious thing to do, but most people fail to set a budget and end up spending way more than they anticipated. List out all of the items you plan to spend on and set a realistic limit for each one.

Plan Ahead

Know what you want to buy ahead of time by doing research. Then, determine where you can find the most reasonable price on the items you’re looking to buy. Check your newspaper for coupons, look online and take advantage of free shipping for additional savings. Sticking to your plan will help to keep you from impulse buys that don’t fit into your budget.

Shop Early

If you’re like a lot of people (talking to you, men), you’ll probably wait until the last minute to go buy your gifts. Last minute shopping can cause several headaches, including long lines; the stores may be out of the items on your list causing you to buy on impulse. It also leaves you less time to shop around for the best deals. Waiting until the last minute to shop online will cost you more with higher shipping fees.

Be Creative

If your budget is tighter than normal, think about giving your time instead of material gifts. A gift for Mom, Dad, siblings, nieces and nephews can quickly add up so a visit and a card may be more than enough. For your spouse, pick a set of chores they usually do and commit to doing those for a couple of months.

Potluck Meals

While a lot of the holiday expenses come from shopping for gifts, cutting down on your dining expenses is another way you can save this year. Instead of dinner out at an expensive restaurant, host a gathering at your house. Ask your guests to bring their favorite dish to share so that you aren’t stuck with providing the entire meal.

These are just a few ways that you can have an un-expensive, yet unforgettable holiday season. Try some or all of them out and let us know what works best for you and your family.


Money 101: A Financial Glossary

Posted by Ne[x]t on 04.25.13

Making money is tough, but simple. Get a job, do the job, get paid, now you have money.  Keeping money is both tough and complicated.  i[x] is here to help simplify things for you with this basic finance glossary.

Interest Rates:  An interest rate is the amount (measured in percentage) charged to a principle.  Generally, interest rates are calculated annually. So, if you borrow $1,000 (the principle) at a 5% interest rate for one year, at the end of the payment period you would have paid back just over $1,027. You can also earn interest on your money by investing it in certain types of accounts.  For example, if your financial institution offered you 3% interest returns on money you keep in a savings account, and you kept $1,000 in that account for a year, you would have $1,030 after 12 months.  

Checking Account: Given that the use of checks has declined in recent years, this term can be a bit of a misnomer.  A checking account is your bank account that money moves in and out of with ease.  This is where you keep the amount of funds necessary to pay your bills, buy groceries, and cover any other regular expenses.

Savings Account: Unlike your checking account, you should not be withdrawing money from your savings account regularly. Rather, you should be depositing excess funds so your account can grow and accrue more interest.  The longer more money sits in your savings, the more money you earn in interest. While the interest rate for a savings account is not very high, it does offer you the opportunity to withdraw without penalty in case you have a surprise expense (i.e. car repair, appliance replacement, etc.) 

Certificate of Deposit (CD): A CD functions much like a savings account, but with two major differences.  First, you cannot withdraw funds from it without incurring a penalty.  Second, the interest rate of a CD is significantly higher than that of a savings account.  So if you’re looking for a safe investment and you have enough savings that you can set aside some funds for at least a year or so, a CD is a great way to earn some extra cash by just letting your money sit still.

Money Market Account: A Money Market Account (or MMDA) is similar to a CD in that it is difficult to move your funds without penalty, but it does have a high interest rate. Usually, there is a limit to the amount of transactions you can make with the account’s funds.  Additionally, even if you make fewer transactions than your limit, you must maintain a relatively high level of balance in order to avoid penalty.  Once again, if you have a large sum saved up that you can’t foresee needing, an MMDA is a safe investment that can yield impressive returns.

Loan: A loan, from possibly a credit union, the government, or a private lender, is a large sum of money given to a borrower up front. The borrower repays the lender as he/she acquires the funds, usually on a monthly basis. The lender makes money by charging interest on the initial amount.  If you borrow $1,000 at 10% interest, you will end up paying your lender a total of $1,055.  If your repayment timetable is 12 months, you would pay just over $88 per month. Most loans include additional charges for late payments, as well as collateral, or something you agree to forfeit if you cannot repay your loan. This could be your wages, car or home.  When looking to take out a loan, it’s important to keep in mind what interest rate you’re borrowing at, what repayment plan you’re agreeing to, and what collateral you are offering up in exchange.

Stocks: Buying “stock” in a corporation means you are purchasing ownership of a company’s assets and earnings.  Subsequently, if you buy stock in a company that increases its assets/earnings, your stock’s worth also increases. If you then sell the stock, you’ll have made a profit. Conversely, if the company begins to lose money, your stock loses its worth as well. If you sell your stock for less than what you paid for it, you’ve lost money. This is why investing in the stock market can be quite risky.  However, the possible gains are far greater than any interest rate, which is why so many choose to take the risk in hopes of dramatically increasing their savings’ worth. Bonds: Like CDs or MMDAs, U.S. Savings Bonds are investments that have a guaranteed interest rate over a given period of time. While their return rates are not as high as successful stock investments, bonds are endorsed by the federal government, and are therefore incredibly low-risk.

Mutual Funds: Mutual Funds are a way for an investor with a small amount of capital (or starting money) to take advantage of diverse investment opportunities. For instance, if you only had $100 dollars to invest, but you wanted to invest 25% in stocks, and 75% in bonds, you wouldn’t have enough money to do either effectively. Many stocks cost well over $25 for one share, and no bond offers returns on a principle of only $75.  But mutual funds pool lots of money from many small investors and then divide the money up between stocks, bonds, etc.  So you can still put some of your money toward stocks and some towards bonds, even though you really don’t have enough money to do either on your own.

Inflation: Inflation occurs when a country prints more money without increasing its assets. So if America had 1,000 assets and 1,000 $1 bills in 2012, each dollar could buy one asset.  But if America still had 1,000 assets in 2013, but printed 2,000 $1 bills, you would need $2 to buy one asset. This is an extreme, fantastical example, but if it were true, the inflation rate of 2012-2013 would be 100%. Inflation rates are important to understand and be aware of because they can affect the worth of your money even if you’re saving it. If you saved $1,000 in 2012 and put it in an account that netted a 3% interest rate of return, you would end up with $1,030 in 2013.  Sounds good right?  But if the inflation rate for 2012-2013 was 4%, you actually lost money in that account last year. This is because your $1,000 from 2012 is worth $1,040 in 2013 (1,000+ 4%(1,000)=1,040), but now, in 2013, you only have $1,030. You essentially lost $10 with that investment. 

Making money with investments is a challenge. But with the help of a professional financial advisor and your understanding of these basic concepts, it should be a little easier. 


Common Financial Blunders (And How to Avoid Them)

Posted by Ne[x]t on 04.18.13

imageLate Fees: Bills cost enough by themselves, so don’t get hit with unnecessary late fees. The best way to avoid these fees is to spend within your means. Ideally, you should be spending frugally enough to yield surplus funds you set aside every payday and put in savings for emergency funds and investments/retirement. Also, organize your bills in such a way that you can condense your payments into a one or two day period. This can be done by contacting your land lord/creditors/service providers/etc. and seeing what kind of flexibility they have regarding monthly collection dates. Most collectors have two monthly collection cycles, and can be very accommodating to your payday schedule. This way, when you take home your paycheck, you can go straight to paying your bills, and then determine what you have left over, what you’ll save, and what you can afford to spend.

Health Care Costs: This is an area young people especially tend to underestimate. You’re healthy, you’re struggling to pay bills and save money as it is, why bother with health insurance? Well, a small bill for health insurance can really payoff in case of a significant injury or illness. But even if you avoid either of those two unfortunate scenarios, having health insurance at a young age can really pay off in the long run. First, if you’re insured, you can go to a doctor twice a year for free, so there’s no real downside to a biannual check-up, even if you’re healthy. This practice is known as “preventative health care.” Getting good advice every six months from a doctor on how to maintain or improve your health can lead to an overall healthier lifestyle, plus if there is something wrong, a doctor can catch it before you become symptomatic. This “early detection” is key to dealing with a lot of ailments. Finally, if you have health insurance for many years when you’re young and healthy, it’s easier to become insured at a reasonable rate when you’re older and require more healthcare costs on a regular basis.

Paying Retail: Anyone who has bought cereal knows that the grocery store offers its own “knock-off” version of the popular kids’ sugary cereals for a slightly cheaper price. This is true not just for food products, but all kinds of items you purchase regularly. You pay a premium for the brand name. Luckily, there are several companies who offer student discounts. Check out this quarter’s Ne[x]t issue to help you find the best deals out there.

Not Checking Credit Reports: Did you know that each of the three credit agencies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) is required by the federal government to give you one free credit report per year? Additionally, Georgia residents are entitled to a second additional free report from each agency every year. That’s six reports in total, free, every year. This gives you easy means to check up on your credit history, and catch any fraudulent activity. It’s important to be thorough when you’re checking your reports. According to Manilla.com, a new common practice amongst identity thieves is to make a small purchase in your name first and wait. If you don’t notice, that gives them the go-ahead to make multiple large purchases with confidence. Catching a small fraudulent charge early can help you protect yourself from much more serious theft.


Tuesday's Tip: Guest Post – How to Avoid Common Money Mistakes

Posted by Ne[x]t on 01.29.13

This guest post was written by the experts at NerdWallet.com, a consumer finance website committed to helping you save money.

Without realizing it, many people make common money mistakes. You can watch your finances like a hawk, and you still may not be able to see why some of your money has gone down the drain and disappeared. If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s causing your money to disappear, it’s time to take a critical look at your spending habits. Here are some common money mistakes that may be holding you back.

Skipping out on health insurance
Skipping out on health insurance may seem like a good idea to save money at first, but it can and will most likely backfire on you. Getting the right insurance plan can save you money and save your health, too. If unexpected accidents or health problems show up, insurance will be cheaper than paying out of pocket. You can save money by shopping around for the right plan, or see what your employer has to offer. You should also make sure your plan information is up-to-date. Having out-of-date coverage creates the possibility of you paying way too much, or worse, not having the coverage you need.

Paying too many fees
Fees are everywhere, and if you’re not careful, they can really hinder your finances. Always check for them when you’re using a credit card. The only way to truly avoid fees is to plan ahead. If you’re going somewhere that only takes cash and you need to withdraw money from your checking account, make sure you go to an ATM in your network to withdraw the money you need beforehand. Keep a close eye on your accounts to make sure you have enough money to complete your transactions and pay your bills on time. It’s also good to keep money in a savings account for a rainy day.

Not planning for retirement
A lot of people hold off on saving for retirement. They may think it’s too far away to worry about, or they assume they can live comfortably off a company pension or Social Security. The average Social Security payment is $11,000 a year, and for a household of one, that’s already a hundred dollars below the poverty line. To make matters worse, many people who have a company pension and social security still need extra money to live comfortably. Make it easy on your future self by opening an investment account, usually an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) or a 401(k). 401(k)s have a high yearly contribution limit, while IRAs are eligible for lower taxes. If your employer offers a 401(k), take it, especially if you can get matching funds.

Ignoring the total cost
Many purchases, especially the expensive ones, have little costs that can easily slip by unnoticed. Think about how much money you spend on your car every month. Most people factor gas, insurance and loan payments into the total cost of owning a car, but what about registration, parking or maintenance? You can offset some of these costs by including them in the next version of your budget, but you should also be realistic and realize that you can’t possibly account for every tiny expense. Leave wiggle room in your budget in case something breaks, or you have to spend more than you expect.







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