Get Control of Your Finances During Financial Literacy Month

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Americans are worried about their personal finances. A lot. Surveys show that consumers are consistently stressed over money, whether it’s their lack of savings, mounting credit card debt, or other concerns.

That’s why there is no better time to assess and take action on your own personal finance plan than Financial Literacy Month in April.

Sprung from Youth Financial Literacy Day in 2000, the event has expanded to a month-long affair focused on programs and activities that are designed to help Americans take better control of their personal finances.

Financial literacy is important at all stages of life: whether it’s children learning money basics for their future, young adults learning how to budget, adults saving for retirement, or senior citizens managing a limited income—now is the perfect time to begin or progress your plan.

Across the nation, many financial institutions, government agencies, and community organizations are participating in Financial Literacy Month with awareness programs, activities, and online content.

BALANCE offers a wide variety of resources and information to help with each stage and area of personal finance. To learn how to create more financial literacy in your life, visit the BALANCE website. Here are some helpful links:

General Financial Education

Money Management

Credit and Debt

Planning for the Future

Teens and Money

Senior Issues

Budgeting Calculators

For more information on local activities for Financial Literacy Month, contact your credit union, bank, or local community organization.

Six Surprising Tax Deductions You Might Be Able To Take

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April 15 is approaching. Just in time, here’s a look at some of the unusual deductions you may be able to take advantage of for the 2014 tax year. Note: you must meet all qualifications of the deduction, and we encourage you to meet with your accountant or financial advisor before making decisions.

#1 Weight Loss Program: Did you make a New Year’s resolution in 2014 to lose some weight? If you had a specific disease diagnosed by a physician such as obesity, hypertension, or heart disease, you can deduct the expenses related to it. Expenses for dance lessons, swim lessons and dues for a health club are not deductible, however, even when recommended by a health professional.

#2 Smoking Cessation Program: Another resolution you may have made last year was to quit smoking. If you entered a formal program to help you kick the habit, it can qualify as a deductible medical expense. However, items such as nicotine gum, e-cigarettes, and other non-prescription items do not qualify as a medical expense and cannot be deducted.

#3 Work Uniform: Not only does wearing a uniform make it easy to choose work clothes, you might be able to deduct it too. If you are a delivery worker, police officer, firefighter, or healthcare worker, for example, you may qualify to take this type of deduction as long as you are not reimbursed by your employer. Artistic professions can take advantage of this deduction as well, if you spent money on theatrical clothing or accessories for your work.

#4 That First Job: If you just scored a job for the first time, say, after college or following many years as a homemaker, and you moved for the position, you may be eligible for deductions. The job must be at least 50 miles away from your old home to qualify and includes the cost of your move and your household items—you can deduct both the mileage (23.5 cents for 2014) and parking and tolls.

#5 Pet Move: Speaking of moving, when one thinks about job relocation costs, we might not think about the expenses related to moving the family pet, too. If your move is employment related, you can deduct the cost of shipping your household pet to your new location.

#6 B-I-N-G-O: Have you taken a shine to the local Bingo game at the community center? You can deduct your losses, up to the amount that was won. If you do take this deduction, you will be required to submit a diary of your winnings.

Again, as with all tax-related matters, check with your accountant or tax advisor before taking any of these or other tax deductions.

Ready. Set. Save!

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Do you feel prepared for your long-term financial future? It turns out that more than 65% of Americans do not. America Saves Week, from February 23-28, is here to kick-start your efforts with three simple yet important goals: Save money, reduce debt, and build wealth.

Take advantage of a variety of helpful and free opportunities this week to set goals and make a plan for your personal financial success.

Make the pledge: Commit to a savings plan that will help you stay on track (sign up for text reminders and tips that will keep you motivated).

Attend online events: Learn from webinars ranging from Savings 101 to Planning for Retirement along with Google+ Hangouts and Twitter Chats.

Take the quiz: Conduct a savings annual “check up” and find out how prepared you are for your financial future. While you’re there, test your savings knowledge.

Get entertained (and learn): Check out the helpful and humorous videos for the whole family, from the basics of savings plans to common financial pitfalls.

Start good habits young: Teach smart financial practices to children and teens with the Young America Saves program, including their very own version of Pledge to Save.

Share your goals (and maybe win a prize!): The #imsavingfor photo contest is on. Take a photo of your savings dreams and you could win $500. For inspiration, look no further.

Get motivated to save: Check out the Saver Stories of people just like you who overcame debt and adopted successful savings strategies.

Dig deeper on interests: Want to see how your financial circumstances compare to other Americans? Check out the collection of research, from women and money trends to the wealth-gap in America, and much more.

Get social with America Saves Week by following and participating on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest.

Visit the Americasaves site or contact your financial institution for more information.

Get Finances in Order With These Apps

mobile phoneIs one of your New Year’s resolutions to get your finances in better shape? Or manage your expenses more accurately? Maybe it’s both…or more. The good news is there are plenty of powerful, smart, and free apps to try out for the New Year. Here’s a roundup of some of the most talked-about ones by finance experts. All are free and available for iOS (iPhone), Android, and some for Windows.

Personal Finance

No surprise that Mint.com is one of the most popular personal finance sites out on the market.  Its app offers a secure way to track all of your accounts and credit cards in one location on the go. You can slice and dice account data to create graphs that show you the bigger money picture. You can also set alerts and reminders.

Dollarbird works from a calendar-based design to track expenses and income and also allows you to set up recurring transactions and bill reminders. You can also get a snapshot of where your money is going and even create a five-year financial projection plan.

Credit Cards and Check Management

Billguard monitors those “gray charges” on your credit card statements. It flags questionable or unwanted purchases and highlights merchants who frequently charge for products or services that are unnecessary or oddball fees.

MintBills (formerly Check) This app lets you pay checks from your mobile phone, either manually or by scheduling automatic payments. It also monitors bank or credit card accounts and notifies you if your checking account balance or credit limit is at risk.

Monitor everything about your credit score with the CreditKarma app.  Get notifications if and when there are changes to your credit report and a “report card” on factors impacting your credit score number.

Take the work out of expense reports

Hate keeping tracks of your work expenses? Most find it painful. Whether you’re a small business or employee, Expensify makes it easier with the ability to scan receipts, track mileage, and even link debit and credit cards. You can view usage and even create expense reports. Travel bonus: it allows you to set up currency converters and flight alerts.

For the online shopper

Slice offers its own version of “one stop shopping” for all of your online purchasing needs: track packages, view your spending habits, and also find out if there are price reductions that you can claim with a merchant after the purchase date. It also provides shopping insights and consumer recalls information.

Sharing the cost?

We all know how fun it is to split dinner three ways (or more). Square Cash makes it easy to link your debit card to the software and securely send and request money through email. You can beef up online protection with a security code too. Transactions typically take one to two business days.

Another big player in this market is Google Wallet. It allows you to send money to any user in the U.S. You can also track online orders and view your purchase history when you have the free Google Wallet Card.

So get ready, set, and app up for your personal finance needs in 2015.

 

 

 

 

Be a Holiday Hero with Debts of Zero

giftsThe warmth and good cheer of the holidays can grow cold  quickly when the spending of December wears off in January and you must pay for the merriment spent. However, there are ways to keep the good feelings rolling  financially. When you make a commitment to a “debt-free” holiday, you can ring in 2015 with a happier money outlook than seasons past.

Give a savings lesson

Saying “no” to a child with an extensive gift wish might be the hardest thing to do this time of year. The good news is that you can say “not yet” instead to some of those gifts. If your child has a high-cost present in mind, exceeding the current budget, start a savings fund aimed at buying that item later on. Delaying gratification not only allows your child to eventually have the thing he or she really wants, it also  teaches your child a valuable object lesson on the value of saving for a goal.

Break even

If you’re looking to avoid digging a financial hole, make a vow to have a “zero-sum” holiday. Sell possessions online that net what you are going to spend, or pick up extra income with seasonal work. No matter how you approach it, striving to break even is a positive way to keep your holiday bottom line from going off track.

Limit gifts to one item per person

Create a list of all the people you’ll be buying for to avoid buying excess presents for one person.  Always check off the names on your list as you go. Without a plan in place, it’s easy to load up on impulse items (not to mention gifting unevenly and unintentionally).

Donate time to a cause

Giving gifts doesn’t always mean spending money. Something just as meaningful—if not more so—is performing volunteer work in a loved ones’ name for a cause. Have a relative serving in the military? Consider devoting time to help injured veterans. Contributing to an effort close to the heart of your loved one can make for a gift that both you and the recipient will remember well into the New Year and beyond.

Find alternate “spending” power

Think about your existing rewards programs before you put any gift purchases on credit. Gather a list of rewards or loyalty programs you are a member of, such as grocery stores, gas stations, credit cards, department stores, restaurants, and big box retailers, and use those rewards to purchase gifts.  Additionally,  airline mileage can often times be exchanged for merchandise so find out what gifts you qualify for on the airline’s website.

During the celebration season, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of shopping for gifts or buying traditional holiday items. But keep in mind that this festive time also “presents” new traditions for yourself, family, and friends. You might find that with some planning, you can create some new customs that provide just as much joy with far less stress to your finances all year round.

What You Need to Dispute a Credit Report Mistake

What You Need to Dispute a Credit Report Mistake

Have you ever found a mistake on one of your credit reports? If so, you’re familiar with the feelings of anger and injustice that come with discovering you’re being accused of something that isn’t true. Translating your motivation to fix the false information into a successful dispute takes more than just a sense of unfairness though—it requires specific steps to remedy the problem. Here’s what you need to get on the “fact track.”

Get updated credit reports
To start with, there are many different kinds and sources of credit reports. While there are three main credit bureaus that compile credit files—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—there are many different formats in which the information they record gets reported. To effectively and efficiently complete disputes with the credit bureaus, you’ll need copies of the consumer reports the credit bureaus produce. Without these reports, your dispute will be very difficult—if not impossible.

You are entitled to the reports free once per year according to federal law. You can get them by calling 877.322.8228 or by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.

Gather all incorrect information
There can be many reasons for a mistake on your report. A common one is mistaken identity: Incorrect information on one of your credit reports may be due to having a name, address, or Social Security number that is similar to another person. For this reason, it’s important to make a comprehensive list of all mistakes on your credit reports, even if your first look only turned up a single error. The list should include wrong names, addresses, employers, and birth dates.

Know your report identifier
When you contact the credit bureaus to dispute what you believe to be a mistake in your credit file, the bureaus may ask that you provide a report number or code so they can refer to the right credit report. You’ll need reports and report identifiers from each of the credit bureaus to ensure that the problem information is removed from all of your reports.

Get dispute website/phone numbers
While you do have the right to dispute credit file errors in writing, this method generally takes much longer than the online or phone options. Below is contact information for each of the three major bureaus.

Equifax
www.equifax.com
Phone number for disputes provided on your credit report

Experian
www.experian.com
Phone number for disputes provided on your credit report

TransUnion
www.transunion.com
800-916-8800

Keep track of progress
Ideally, your disputes will be processed quickly and you’ll receive a response promptly, but this isn’t always the case. Keep track of the dispute confirmation codes you are given by the credit bureaus. If entering your dispute online, print out the confirmation page after your dispute has been completed. With a phone dispute, have a pad and pen handy to record the confirmation code, the time you called, and the names of any customer service representatives you spoke with.

Stay organized
Start a dispute folder with copies of any supporting documents you have to bolster your case, such as credit card statements, receipts for debts paid, paperwork for dismissed judgments, etc. If your initial online or phone dispute fails, you can always follow up with a dispute in writing that includes your supporting documents. Also include notes or paperwork regarding any previous dispute attempts. Lastly, include in your folder confirmation from the credit bureaus when an item is ultimately removed your reports.

Understand your options
You also have the right to dispute false data with the company that originated it—whether it is a financial institution, mortgage servicer, county courthouse, or other entity. While waiting to hear back on your disputes, contact the information originator to get account documentation. Should you need to file a follow-up dispute in writing, you’ll have even more evidence at your disposal.

There’s never any guarantee a dispute will be resolved as quickly as you’d like. However, doing a little prep work can make it easier to navigate any twists and turns that arise during the process.

Upromise Offers Education Savings Options

Upromise Offers Education Savings Options

Financial resources can be a challenge when it comes to paying for education, whether that means setting aside money for a child’s future expenses or paying for schooling you’ve already received. Luckily, there is a way to stash cash for educational expenses without sacrificing your other financial needs.

What is Upromise?
Upromise is similar to a credit card reward program – you get cash back for making purchases. However, the difference is that the rewards you earn shopping with participating companies can be directly linked to saving for a child’s future college bills, paying down your own student loans, or other education expenses.

Who administers the program?
Upromise is owned by Sallie Mae, the private student loan provider. Launched in 2001, Upromise states that it has helped generate over $850M in rewards for its users. 

Do I need to open a new credit card with Upromise?
Not necessarily. While Upromise does offer its own credit card, you can register your existing credit or debit cards with Upromise and receive cash rewards.

Where do the cash rewards go?
After you make a qualified purchase, the rewards cash is deposited into your Upromise account. This money can then be applied to an eligible 529 Plan for your child, put toward paying off a Sallie Mae-eligible student loan, or taken out in the form of a check. There are no limits to the awards you can acquire and the money never expires. Another benefit? You are not taxed for money in your Upromise account.

Where can I earn rewards?
Many popular brick and mortar and online retailers, grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses participate in the Upromise program. The amount of cash reward you receive depends on the percentage offered by each business and whether you make your purchase online or in-person. Many online buys can earn you 5% or more in cash back. 

What are the potential downsides to Upromise?
As with any rewards program, there is a risk of using the cash back incentive to rationalize purchases you don’t need and that weren’t part of your budget.

Upromise also potentially encourages purchasing more expensive products. You may miss out on better deals available elsewhere if you’re laser-focused on shopping with Upromise participants.

Another potential pitfall: Money accrued in an Upromise account doesn’t earn interest. Other rewards programs can directly deposits funds into a savings or checking account that can start earning interest for you immediately. 

Is Upromise right for me?
If you’ve set a goal to aggressively dedicate funds to education expenses, any money you can allocate to that purpose is a step in the right direction. Though you can participate in a general rewards credit card program (or pay into a savings account) to help with education expenses, a focused program could help add some discipline to the process.

Whether you are saving for your child’s college, paying off a student loan or setting aside money for education goals, Upromise is a solution worth consideration to keep you on the straight and narrow savings path.

The Slowdown 6: Avoiding Home Purchase Delays

The Slowdown 6: Avoiding Home Purchase Delays

No one wants to have a long, drawn-out home buying process. But if you’re the kind of person who sees every month spent not in a new home as weeks of equity lost, you’re even more motivated to finish the purchase in a timely manner. While it’s not a great idea to rush into a new house, there are steps you can take to make the journey as efficient as possible.

The roadblock: Not having a real estate agent
While some may advise you to forego a real estate professional in an attempt to save money, doing so may cost you both money AND time. An agent who is experienced in working with local laws and procedures can help you get those keys in hand much faster.

The roadblock: Lack of preapproval
It’s important to understand the difference between preapproval and prequalification. Preapproval is a more thorough examination of your readiness to buy a home than prequalification and as such, puts you much closer to finalizing a home purchase. Begin the discussion with your lender ASAP to find out what you will need to get preapproved.

The roadblock: Insufficient information
When buying a home, it’s vital to know when to slow down and when to hurry up. Slow down when you’re filling out information for your lender. You don’t want missing or unclear information to bog down the flow of paperwork.

Hurry up when you are asked to provide information to your agent, lender or other involved party during the process. If you want to close as quickly as possible on your new home, you need to prioritize supplying answers immediately.

The roadblock: Low appraisal
If your prospective home appraises for less than the sale price, your lender can pull the plug on the deal. Start the appraisal process as early as possible to avoid delays later. Set up the appraisal through your lender and plan on it taking 14 days.

The roadblock: Poor home condition
You may be fine with a fixer-upper, but if your lender has issues after the home inspection, repairs may be required before you can close. If quickness of closing is important to you, focus on homes in a well-maintained state. You may not be able to sniff out all potential problems in your initial walkthrough, but steer clear of the obvious TLC-needing homes. You can also seek out sellers who have a presale inspection report.

The roadblock: Altering finances
Even if you’re preapproved, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a loan. Lenders give a preapproval based on a snapshot of your financial details at that particular time. So if you suddenly decide to leave your job or buy that $2,000 pool table for your new home, you could change your money profile in the eyes of the lender. Do your best to keep your finances static in the run-up to closing.

Speed should never be your primary concern in finding the right home or finishing the deal. After all, you don’t want to rush through the steps and end up making a big mistake. Your best option for having a smooth and timely home buying experience is to make the extra effort to educate yourself early in the process.

Tax Information Checklist

Tax Information Checklist

One of the most frustrating things about preparing for tax filing is tracking down all the supporting documentation you’ll need for the IRS forms. In a perfect world, you’d have all this paperwork in one folder, ready to be processed. However, if you’ve got it spread across several locations, use this checklist to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

  • Social Security or Tax ID number
  • Copy of last year’s return
  • Tax preparation expenses from previous year
  • Past overpayment applied to current year’s taxes
  • Taxes paid with filing of extension
  • W-2s
  • Business income
  • Interest income
  • Dividend income
  • Rental property income/expenses
  • Income from sale of stock or property
  • Retirement income
  • Hobby income
  • Farm income
  • Gambling income
  • Unemployment benefits received
  • Social Security benefits received
  • Retirement fund distributions
  • Alimony paid or received
  • Tax refunds received
  • Foreign bank account information
  • IRA contributions
  • Estimated tax payments made
  • Interest paid on student loans
  • Business expenses
  • Childcare expenses
  • Medical and dental expenses
  • Job-hunting expenses
  • Health insurance costs
  • Self-employed retirement fund contributions
  • Education expenses
  • Student loan interest paid
  • Mortgage interest and points paid
  • Real estate taxes paid
  • Moving expenses
  • Personal property (such as vehicle) taxes paid
  • Investment expenses
  • Health Savings Account transactions
  • Union dues paid
  • Unreimbursed business expenses
  • Casualty or theft losses
  • Jury duty records
  • Charitable contributions
  • Energy credits
  • Bank account and routing numbers

Remember that if you are filing jointly, you will need to have the above information for your spouse too. If you’re claiming a dependent, you will need the Social Security number and date of birth for that person.

Depending on your personal situation, there may be other documents or information you need to compile to complete your tax filing. Consult with a tax professional to understand all your required paperwork.

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