October: National Cyber Security Awareness Month

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  This annual campaign, which began in 2003 as a collaborative effort between government and industry, was created to raise awareness about the importance of cyber security.

Whether we realize it or not, today, the Internet touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) serves to engage and educate both the private and public sectors, through events and initiatives, of the importance of cyber security. Through tools and resources the objective of NCSAM is to increase the awareness of safe online practices and resiliency of our nation in the event of a cyber incident.

With recent legislation and support from the White House, there is an even stronger focus on consumers and their cyber safety. Consequently, this month also marks the 7th anniversary of the STOP. THINK. CONNECT. campaign.  Each year, NCSAM highlights the overall message and capstones of this campaign – Keep a Clean Machine, Protect Your Personal Information, Connect with Care, Be Web Wise, Be a Good Online Citizen, Own Your Online Presence and Lock Down Your Login – and offers the following tips to stay safe online.

Watch for Malicious Email/Spear Phishing

A malicious email can be disguised, looking just like it comes from a financial institution, an e-commerce site, a government agency or any business. It typically urges you to act quickly, often by supplying a link in the email, because one of your accounts has been compromised or your online order cannot be fulfilled without additional information or some other urgent matter requiring your immediate attention.

Spear Phishing involves highly specialized attacks against specific targets or small groups to collect information or gain access to data systems. Once they’ve gained access to the network (e.g. a business’ list of customers), they can launch a phishing attack, posing as the business, and sending emails to their customers that look authentic.

If you are unsure if an email is legitimate, try verifying it by contacting the company directly and/or searching for the company online. But, be sure to do this by not using the information provided in the questionable email.

Protect Yourself When Shopping Online

With the convenience of making purchases with the click of a mouse and next-day delivery to obtaining great deals on an endless catalogue of items, online shopping continues to grow in popularity. This convenience, however, also makes it lucrative for scammers to trick buyers into paying for merchandise they will never receive and obtain your personal information for their financial gain.

Take the following safety precautions when shopping online:

  1. When purchasing items from a new website, read the customers reviews.
  2. When making purchases online, be alert to the kinds of information being collected to complete your transaction.
  3. Use safe payment options. Credit cards are usually the safest option when making purchases online. Credit card companies allow buyers to receive a credit if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what was ordered.
  4. Always read the return policies to know what to expect if your purchase experience doesn’t go as planned.
  5. When shopping online, make sure the site is security enabled.

In addition to the safety precautions mentioned above, limit the type of business you conduct over open public Wi-Fi connections, including logging into accounts like email and banking, and adjust the security settings on your phone or tablet to limit who can access them.

Keep Security Software Current 

Having the latest security software, web browser and operating system is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats. In addition to computers, your smartphones, gaming systems and other web-enabled devices also need protection.

Use Unique Passwords 

The best passwords are the random ones…the ones that are the most difficult for you to remember and the cyber criminal to crack. So, mix it up – use variations on capitalization, spelling, numbers and punctuation. Avoid using names, places and dictionary words and never reuse the same password.

With this said, don’t leave notes with your passwords on your computer or your desk. If you choose to save passwords in a file on your computer, create a name for the file that won’t give it away. If you have a difficult time remembering multiple, unique passwords, use a trusted password manager. Be sure to check out the reviews and reputation of the service.

Data Backup 

Today, our digital devices house vast amounts of our important and cherished data. While very convenient, storing all this on our computer or mobile device comes with the risk of being lost. Data can be lost in many ways including computer malfunctions, theft, viruses, spyware, accidental deleting and even natural causes.

So, it’s important to back up your files – make copies of your data, select the hardware or method of storage and safely store the device that holds your copied files – on a regular basis.

 

Heath Savings Accounts – Growing in Popularity

The popularity of Health Savings Accounts, HSAs, has soared over the past 10 years. Designed as a way to help people manage high-deductible health insurance plans, financial experts believe that the attractiveness of these accounts will only continue to grow.

HSA Qualifications

If you are currently enrolled in a high-deductible insurance plan (HDHP), you can qualify for a HSA. By the 2017 definition, the IRS defines a HDHP for an individual as a plan with an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,550 and a minimum deductible of $1,300. For a family, the out-of-pocket maximum is $13,000 and the minimum deductible is $2,600.

How does a HSA Work?

Most health insurance providers offer HSAs. But, if yours doesn’t, you can open an account at most financial institutions.

If you qualify, you can currently contribute up to $3,400 as an individual and $6,750 as a family. Adults over 55 can increase these amounts up to an additional $1,000. If your place of employment offers a HSA, you can set up automatic contributions directly from you payroll.

Using a debit card or checks for this account, you can use these funds for eligible medical expenses. These include deductibles, co-pays, coinsurance and many other qualified medical expenses not covered by your insurance plan. However, you may not pay your medical insurance premiums with HSA funds.

The balance of a HSA, unlike Flexible Spending Accounts, rolls over from year to year. Consequently, you never lose your savings, even if you leave your employer.

Once you’re over the age of 65 and enrolled in Medicare, you can no longer contribute to a HSA. However, you can still use the balance of your savings for out-of-pocket medical expenses. If you use the money for non-medical expenses, you will have to pay income tax on that amount…and a penalty if you’re under 65 years old.

Triple the Tax Benefits

Three tax benefits make HSAs especially appealing. HSA contributions are pre-tax/tax-deductible, just like an IRA. This means your contributions are made before your income is taxed. In addition, you don’t incur taxes on the account’s growth, either. And lastly, the money withdrawn to pay eligible medical expenses is also tax-free.

The Investment Potential of a HSA

HSAs can be invested in mutual funds, stocks and other investment vehicles to generate more money. Financial experts tout the HSA as one of the best tax-free investment accounts out there, especially for those investors that have already maxed out their 401(k) and IRA contributions. The HSA provides yet another place to save in a tax-advantaged way.

For more information and/or to open a Health Savings Account contact or stop by one of our banking locations today.

 

 

 

 

Paying Off Credit Card Debt Fast

Americans owe a lot of credit card.

Shockingly, recent numbers show that Americans owe more than $1 trillion in credit card debt. That’s greater than the GDP of all but 15 countries.

According to WalletHub, which analyzed 2016 credit card debt in this country, the average American family owes $8,377. Additionally, this report also showed an upward trend per household, jumping 6 percent in the past year. Household debt is now as high as it was during the Great Recession.

Household income has grown by 28 percent over the past 13 years. This increase, however, has lagged behind the cost of living, which increased more than 30 percent during the same period. Consequently, Americans are taking on increasing amounts of credit card debt, one of the most expensive ways to borrow, to bridge this gap. With the average credit card interest rate of 18.76 percent, the average household pays approximately $1,292 in credit card interest each year.

Although this exorbitant, and continually growing, amount of card debt is a serious threat to our economy and the overall financial health of the heavily indebted, it doesn’t mean Americans are doomed to be indebted for life. But, remedying this situation requires major change and time.

Unfortunately, short of filing bankruptcy, which damages your credit for many years to come, there isn’t any magical, a quick wave of the wand, fix. Eliminating your credit card debt will require long-term behavioral changes as well as discipline. Careful spending habits and steady debt eradication is the key to gaining financial freedom.

Strategies to help pay off credit card debt fast:

  1. The most obvious one…stop using your credit cards. This doesn’t mean you should close your credit card accounts – this can actually hurt your credit score. However, if you are prone to impulse buying on credit, put the cards away!
  1. Use a card with no balance for normal purchases. You pay interest immediately on new purchases when you use a card with a balance.
  1. Budget more towards debt repayment. Budget as much as you can towards debt repayment. If you have balances on multiple cards, with about the same interest rate, attack the one with the smallest balance first. Dedicate the largest portion of your credit card repayment budget to this card. Once this card is paid off, attack the card with the next smallest balance…and so on and so on, until all of your credit card balances have been paid in full. This is more of a psychological strategy than a financial one…you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you’ve paid off that first card.
  1. Reduce expenses. One of the quickest ways to eradicate credit card debt is to cut your spending and apply that savings toward your credit card debt. This requires a plan…a budget…and sticking to it. By closely examining your family’s spending habits, you are sure to find several ways to cut your monthly expenses.
  1. Make extra payments using new money. Cutting expenses can only take you so far. Find ways to generate some extra income – work an extra day on overtime a week or have a garage sale – and put this extra money, including any tax refunds or unexpected income, towards your credit card debt.
  1. Ask for lower interest rates. This may or may not work. But, it’s worth the try. Knocking four interest rate points off a $10,000 credit card balance can save you hundreds of dollars in interest annually.
  1. Pay off the highest interest debts first. If you have credit cards with much higher interest rates, pay those off first. Pay the minimum required on every card except the one with the highest interest rate. Put most of your debt repayment budget toward the balance with the highest interest rate. Once this card is paid off, do the same with whichever remaining card balance has the highest rate. This strategy helps you devote less money to interest and more to paying off debt.
  1. Make two payments per month. Most credit card companies use average daily balance to compute interest charges. So, instead of paying one larger payment per month, break it up into two monthly payments. You’ll lower the average daily balance…so, you’ll pay less interest! To magnify this effect, try making a payment every week.
  1. Transfer debt to zero-interest credit cards. Transferring some or all of your debt to a card with a lower interest rate can make repayment much easier.
  1. Get a debt consolidation loan. This is only a good idea if you can get an interest rate lower than the average of the rates you’re paying on your credit cards and you make a definite plan to pay off the loan quickly.

Any of one of these strategies can be helpful on its own. However, implementing several of these strategies simultaneously will help you pay off your credit card debt more quickly.

The ATM Celebrates Golden Anniversary

On June 27, the world’s first ATM, automated teller machine, was turned into gold to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

The ATM was jointly developed by inventor John Shepherd-Barron and De La Rue Instruments, a company specializing in printing newspapers, just over five decades ago.

So the story goes, the ATM was conceptualized after Barron arrived at his bank a minute too late one Saturday in 1965, leaving him without cash until the bank reopened on Monday morning. Extremely frustrated by this experience, Barron began thinking that getting cash should be as easy as getting a chocolate bar from a dispensing machine.  Consequently, two years later, the first ATM was opened at the branch of Barclays bank in Enfield, north London. This was the first of six cash dispensers commissioned by Barclays.

When the ATM first debuted in Enfield it made a huge splash in the media, sending many other European banks racing to debut their own. However, most consumers viewed these “cash machines,” eventually known as ATMs, as a cumbersome novelty. Predating the debit card, the original ATM required customers to insert a single-use paper voucher, which was mailed back to the customer to prevent fraud, and key in a four-digit code, we now call a PIN, to access their money.

America’s first ATM debuted at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York on September 2, 1969. Although several inventors worked on the early versions of the cash dispensing machine in the U.S., Don Wetzel, an executive at Docutel, a Dallas company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment, is generally credited with the development of America’s modern ATM.

By the 1970s, with the introduction of the debit card, the ATM became more consumer-friendly, and began handling multiple functions, including providing customers with their account balances. By the mid-2000s, as ATMs began supporting check deposits, consumers began seeing what was once thought of as only a cash dispenser in a whole new light.

Today, ATMs have spread across the world, and people think nothing of walking out of their houses without a penny in their pocket. There are approximately 70,000 cash machines in the UK, 425,000 in the U.S., and an estimated three million across the globe. The world’s most northerly ATM is located in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway and the most southerly is located at the McMurdo station at the South Pole.

However, with all the plastic in our pockets and the continued hype of mobile payments today, does the ATM, which Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, once touted as “the only thing useful banks invented in 20 years,” have a future?

According to Raheel Ahmen, head of customer experience and channels at Barclays, the birthplace of the ATM, even though there’s been a huge uptake in digital banking and card payments, cash remains a crucial part of people’s day-to-day lives.

“Today, what consumers are asking for is to be able to bank wherever and whenever, and through different channels,” says Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, a professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University in Wales. “People are changing the way they consume in the same way that banks are trying to change the way they operate.”

What does this mean for the future of the ATM…and ultimately the consumer? According to the banking industry, it means ATMs will hurtle right along with us into the future, bringing a whole lot of new and exciting technology our way.

So, happy golden anniversary ATM, and here’s to another 50 years!

Ransomware – A Rising Cyber Threat

The ransom business is booming. However, today’s threat doesn’t come in the form of a note composed of letters clipped out of a newspaper. It’s a new spin on the ransom note where criminals unleash an attack on your PC and its data through malicious software called ransomware.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a malware that locks your computer keyboard or computer to prevent you from accessing your data until you pay these data kidnappers a ransom. This digital extortion is not new – it’s been around since about 2005. But, the ransom cryptware that encrypts your file using a private key, which only the attacker possesses, has greatly improved.

Is ransomware on the rise?

Ransomware has come a long way since it first showed up in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The growth in digital payment methods, particularly Bitcoin, the most popular method for demanding ransom because it prevents extortionists from being tracked, has greatly contributed to ransomware’s spread.

The FBI recently issued an alert, which included ransomware and fake antivirus scareware scams. The FBI estimates that criminals are netting an estimated $150 million a year through these scams. However, according to identity theft experts, ransomware is far scarier than the scareware scams because when an attack occurs, it can easily escalate from a potential data loss to potential identity theft to a data breach in the form of extortion.

How does ransomware work?

Similar to scareware, this digital assault begins by duping its victim by persuading him/her to click on an infected popup advertisement or taking him/her to an infected website. But, instead of trying to trick their victim into buying fake antivirus software, these criminals hold their victim’s computer hostage and attempt to extort a payment to return his/her data. Very often the ransomware attacker puts pressure on the victim, stating that his/her data will be destroyed in a specified time period if the ransom is not paid.

Often, the criminals only ask for a nominal payment, figuring that the victim will more likely pay to avoid the hassles and heartache (e.g. losing irreplaceable pictures) of dealing with the virus. Yet, when multiplied by thousands, this nominal payment quickly turns into a healthy income for these aggressive attackers.

Ransomware doesn’t just affect desktops or laptops, it also targets mobile phones. In 2015, masquerading as a porn app, ransomware targeted Android users and allowed attackers to lock up the victim’s phone while demanding $500 ransom to regain access.

Today, individuals, businesses, government agencies, academic institutions and even law enforcement agents have been victims. This vicious malware can infect a victim’s digital device via a malicious email or website, or even become infected straight through someone’s computer via a backdoor.

These types of attacks can have a devastating impact, from losing precious personal data to shutting down hospital services in the middle of emergency procedures. That’s why it’s so important to prevent ransomware attacks from happening in the first place.

How to avoid these ransomware attacks?

1.  Use reputable antivirus software and a firewall. Maintaining a strong firewall and up to date antivirus software is critical to preventing a ransomware attack. It is equally important to use reputable antivirus software from a reputable company because of all the fake antivirus software out there.
2.  Back up often. By backing up files to an external hard drive or an online backup service, the threat of a ransomware attack is greatly diminished.
3.  Enable the popup blocker. Popups are the prime tactic used by digital criminals. If a popup appears, click on the “X” in the right-hand corner.
4.  Always exercise caution. Don’t click on links in emails and avoid suspicious websites.
5. If attacked, immediately disconnect from the Internet. Disconnect from the Internet to keep your personal data from being transmitted back to the criminals. Simply shut down your computer and start fresh – re-installing software and downloading backed-up data. If you’re wary about doing this, take your computer to a reputable computer repair shop.
6.  Alert authorities. If you are the victim of ransomware, don’t be tempted to give in and pay the ransom. Ransomware is a serious form of extortion…crime…and your local FBI will want to know about it.

As these cyber criminals become more and more savvy…and potentially threatening, the best offense is still a good defense. Taking precautions to protect your information and continually being alert are the best solutions to avoid becoming a ransomware victim in the first place.

The Value of Part-time Jobs for Teens

IntraLogoTMMany parents today would agree that their teens have a sense of entitlement. With many TV shows glorifying teens that have extravagant lives, parents are inundated with the idea that their teens should be pampered and deserving of the most expensive clothes, cars and the latest and greatest technological gadgets.

The societal pressure on parents today to ensure their teen is keeping up with everyone else’s teen greatly hinders their child’s ability to learn many valuable life lessons, most importantly, working hard for what they want. A part-time job not only imparts this valuable lesson but also helps teens reap the following long-term benefits as well.

Time Management – Balancing school and work teaches teens the importance of prioritizing and managing their time wisely. Learning this early on will greatly help them in a few years when they leave the day-to-day security of home and head off to college. A part-time job also sets them up with the necessary skills to eventually leave the nest completely, branching out into the real world of full-time employment and all the responsibilities of being an independent adult.

Resume Building – Knowing how to fill out a job application and building a resume helps teens get ahead of the crowd. Being able to have a list of work experience goes a long way on a teen’s college application as well as when he or she eventually seeks full-time employment. It shows both prospective colleges and employers that a teen is a motivated, hardworking and well-rounded individual, and sets them apart from other applicants with no work experience/history.

Financial Independence – Many of us remember our first summer job and the sense of pride in earning our first paycheck. There was a feeling of satisfaction when we were able to buy something we wanted with our own hard-earned money. It’s no different for teens today.  Bringing in a paycheck allows teens to learn how to manage money, their money, and rely on themselves and not their parents for certain purchases (parents should discuss the particulars of these purchases with their teens ahead of time…e.g. clothes, gas, car insurance, entertainment, etc.). Learning to manage money is a life skill everyone needs to have, and the earlier, the better.

Learning to Save – Most employers today direct deposit their employees’ pay. So, if your teen hasn’t already done so, it’s time to set up a checking account. This is also a great time to set up savings account for your teen, mandating that a portion of their pay automatically go into savings. This instills the imperative, long-term life skill/behavior of saving.

An Introduction to the Tax Man – A teen’s first experience with the “tax man” comes with their first job. They quickly learn that no matter how old they are or how much they earn, they have money withheld in the form of income taxes. In addition, they will also learn the importance of April 15th, filing their tax return, and mostly likely, the excitement of receiving a tax refund.

Developing Long-term Life Skills – By having a part-time job, a teen quickly learns the importance of teamwork and effective communication skills. These skills are transferrable to almost any career or life experience. In addition, teens learn other critical skills like showing up on time and taking responsibility.

A Hard Work Ethic – Unfortunately, hard work is becoming more undervalued, especially with teens. However, if we want our teens to mature into productive, independent adults, we must teach them that hard work is an admired and respected trait, as well as one that they must possess to survive in the big world.

The Power of Compounding

power of compoundingOne of the most valuable financial concepts…lessons parents can teach their children is the power of compounding.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.”

So, what exactly is the power of compounding? The power of compounding refers to the fact that money that stays invested grows exponentially over time, as the returns on that money stay invested. Put simply, through the power of compounding, a small amount of money over time can grow into a substantial sum. But, it requires two things: the continual reinvestment of earnings and time.

The power of compounding is truly an investor’s best friend. Over time, as you reinvest your returns, you are continually earning a return on your return – and the longer the time frame, the greater the value. This is why it’s so important to start saving early. The earlier you start saving for retirement, the longer you have the power of compounding working for you.

To demonstrate this, let’s look at an example:

Consider two investors, Sally and Sue, who are the same age. Sally was 25 when she invested $15,000 at an interest rate of 5.5%. For simplification, let’s assume that the interest rate was compounded annually. At 50 years old, Sally will have $57,200.89 saved.

Now, let’s say that Sue invested the same amount of money at the same annually compounded interest rate. However, Sue was 35 years old when she started investing. At 50 years old, Sue will have $33,487.15 saved.

What happened? The power of compounding! By allowing Sally’s investment 10 more years to grow, she earned $23,713.74 more on her money than Sue.

Both investments start to grow slowly and then accelerate over time. However, Sally’s acceleration begins to quickly outpace Sue’s as she nears 50. Sally’s greater acceleration is not just due to the fact that she’s accumulated more interest but also because her accumulated interest is itself accruing more interest.

This amplification increases with time. In 10 more years, Sally will have nearly $100,000 saved, while Sue will only have around $60,000.

One other important fact to know about the power of compounding is that a small increase in the rate of return can produce a huge impact over time.

Example: Let’s say that Sally’s grandparents gave her a gift of $10,000 when she was born and her parents invested it in an account that returned 10% annually. By the time Sally reaches 65 years old, she would have $4.5 million. Now let’s say that the same gift/investment only returned 8% annually. Sally’s portfolio would then only grow to $1.4 million. What if the investment only returned 5%? Sally would only have a mere $227,000 at age 65.  In a nutshell, half the rate of return produces an account that’s less than one-twentieth the size.

At the end of the day…this lesson in numbers, all you need to know is that you must start early. However, if you’ve lost a lot of investing time because you’ve procrastinated, didn’t have the willpower to save, weren’t able to save or just didn’t know what you didn’t know, stop fretting and start saving today. With this said, keep one of my favorite quotes about taking action in mind: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

 

 

Community Bank…More than Just a Name

IntraLogoTMThe recession and subsequent financial fallout put a negative spotlight on “big banks.” This increased the popularity… attractiveness of the community bank.

Many local banks today refer to and market themselves as “community” banks. But, are they really?

What does it mean to be a true community bank? The definition is two-fold – the FDIC’s size, asset-based definition as well as the bank’s behavioral characteristics, how and where it conducts business. Both attributes must be taken into account to determine whether a bank truly is a community bank.

FDIC’s Community Bank Definition

An institution that has less than $1 billion in assets is a community bank if it:

At year-end, does not have an asset concentration exceeding 50% of total assets in non-community specialty banks, including:

  • credit card specialists,
  • consumer nonbank banks
  • industrial loan companies,
  • trust companies, and/or
  • bankers’ banks; and holds less than 10% of its assets in foreign assets.

A bank that has assets of $1 billion or greater is a community bank if it:

At year-end, does not have an asset concentration exceeding 50% of total assets in non-community specialty banks, including:

  • credit card specialists,
  • consumer nonbank banks
  • industrial loan companies,
  • trust companies, and/or
  • bankers’ banks; and holds less than 10% of its assets in foreign assets;
  • Has a ratio of core deposits to assets greater than 50%
  • Has a ratio of loans to assets that exceed 33%
  • Has no single branch office that exceeds the branch maximum deposit limit of $5 billion
  • Has no more than 75 bank offices
  • Operates in no more than two large metropolitan statistical areas (MSA), defined as an MSA with a population of more than 500,000
  • Operates in no more than three states

Behavioral Characteristics of a Community Bank

Community banks focus on providing traditional banking services to the community in which they operate. A community bank obtains most of their core deposits and makes most of their loans, residential and commercial, locally. For this reason, community banks are often considered to be “relationship” bankers as opposed to “transactional” bankers.

A community bank, typically privately owned, locally controlled and with employees often residing in the community they serve, has specialized knowledge of their local community and their customers. This expertise allows them to base credit decisions on local knowledge and nonstandard data derived from long-term relationships with their customers. Community banks are less likely to rely on the standard underwriting models used by big banks.

This relationship approach to lending is particularly important to a community’s small businesses. Small businesses, especially small start-up companies, may be unable to satisfy the requirements of the more structured underwriting guidelines the larger banks use. The community bank’s relationship lending approach is often the only avenue for small businesses to obtain loans and access to other financial services.

Managing relationships at a personal level is the hallmark of community bank.

Beyond the asset-driven definition and behavioral characteristics, a true community bank creates a “community” culture both within and outside its walls.

True community banks get involved with their customers and with the community at large. They sponsor Little League teams, participate in charitable functions and attend social events.  They are visible in their community.

True community banks strive for the best customer service. Unlike the big, national banks, community banks don’t serve millions of customers. Consequently, their customers are more than just an account number on a computer screen. Every customer is treated as a friend and neighbor, which in many cases, especially in small communities, they are.

True community banks put the decision-makers in front of the customer. If you walk into a big bank to apply for a loan, you’ll most likely never meet or speak to the person who makes the decisions. Community banks operate transparently, allowing their customers to communicate with the people who make the financial decisions.

Community banks contribute to the local economy. These institutions stimulate, direct, and improve local economies by opening business accounts for entrepreneurs or extending loans to corporations. The community bank’s fortunes are intimately tied to the fortunes of their local communities. So, they have a vested interest in the economy of the community in which they operate.  The more the community prospers, the more the local community bank benefits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Will Rising Interest Rate Projections Affect Consumers?

finance blogAs anyone with a bank account and/or any kind of debt – a car loan, mortgage, credit card balances, etc. – can attest, the interest rates that affect us, the retail financial consumer, are driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions.

A Brief Finance Lesson

Most consumer interest rates are driven by the federal funds rate – the interest rate considered the central interest rate in the U.S. financial markets. This is the interest rate that major banks use when borrowing or lending funds through the central Federal Reserve banks. The fund rate is set by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the policy-making arm of the Fed.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve, one of the 12 member banks of the Federal Reserve System, apportions the impact of the fed funds rate. This interest rate influences the prime rate – the rate offered to the bank’s customers with the highest credit ratings.

Since 2008, interest rates have remained historically low. For the consumer, this has been a double-edged sword – very attractive borrowing rates coupled with negligible investment rates (e.g. Savings and CD rates).

However, events of the last quarter of 2016 indicate there will be upward pressure on interest rates on the horizon, both short-term and long-term.

In the last quarter, the economy began showing signs of strength. With the election of Donald Trump, businesses seem optimistic over their growth opportunities. In addition, the stock market has soared to record highs and bond yields took their first big fall, the unemployment rate holds steady, and job growth continues as household spending slowly improves. These indicators, and stirring inflation, prompted the FOMC to hike the interest rate on December 14.

Is this the beginning of the end…of historically low interest rates, that is? Financial analysts seem to think so, and expect we will witness creeping interest rates over the coming year.

What Will this Mean for Consumer?

Low rates have been painful for retirees who seek a decent return on their emergency funds and cash investments. Consequently, an increase in the fed funds rate will improve the rate on these investments.  However, most analysts’ projections for these rates are cautious, indicating that consumers shouldn’t expect to get rich on savings account and CD rates in the near future.

The housing market has enjoyed the benefits of mortgage interest rates in the range of 3 to 5 percent since 2010. The forecast for these rates suggests that the rise in the fed funds rate, in addition to the yields on treasury bonds, will prompt higher borrowing costs for consumers. Mortgage rates have already pushed to their highest levels since July 2015.

Even an incremental increase on the interest rate of a large loan balance can cause a significant increase in monthly debt payments. Consequently, with increasing mortgage rates likely on the horizon, now may be a good time to refinance, especially if you have an adjustable rate loan, or buy, if you’re in the market. This suggestion applies to auto loans as well.

Financial analysts are also predicting that consumers will see higher interest rates on credit cards and variable rate loans, such as student loans. Typically, variable rate loans adjust once a year. But, credit card APRs can be increased any time. If you have a variable rate student loan, now may be the time to refinance into a fixed rate. There are many companies who offer fixed rate student loan refinancing and consolidation with terms ranging from 5 to 20 years. If you have credit card debt, you should set a plan in motion to pay down the balances as quickly as possible. If you have the opportunity to transfer to another card that has zero interest balance transfer for 12 months or longer, now would be a good time to accept that offer.

The investor can expect to see stocks and stock funds perform well if the interest rates are rising as a result of a growing economy. However, if inflation becomes a problem, it could have a negative effect on some stocks. Investors who own bonds can expect to see their value decrease as yields increase. But, this shouldn’t present a problem if the investor plans to hold the bond until maturity.

A Sound Strategy

 No one knows where interest rates will land in the future. But, current low rates are unlikely to continue. The FOMC expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner warranting gradual increases in the federal funds rate.

With this said, savers will benefit from the Fed Funds rate increase and should look to maximize the returns on their cash by securing the best savings rates… as long as the institution is insured by the FDIC or NCUA. Borrowers should maintain strong credit profiles. If you have credit issues, take steps to improve your credit score now to receive the best borrowing rates in the future. And if you’re in the market for credit, act sooner than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s An App for That

cardvaletToday, there’s pretty much an app for anything. There’s an app for turning the lights on in your home before you arrive and turning them off after you leave. There’s an app for measuring your daily physical activity, the calories you’ve burned as well as monitoring your vitals. There’s even an app to make purchases without ever opening your wallet. Apps are developed to entertain, provide added convenience, and even, like the one below, diminish our ever-increasing vulnerability to fraud.

CardValet®.

CardValet, an app recently developed by Fiserv, a technology solutions provider to the financial world, is a debit card management and fraud mitigation tool that enables cardholders to control when, where and how their debit cards are used. A turnkey mobile app, CardValet gives the debit cardholder significant awareness of and control over how and when their card is utilized.

This innovative financial app, increasingly promoted by more and more financial institutions, lets cardholders turn their cards on and off, set spending limits as well as monitor and receive alters on transactions.

CardValet gives debit cardholders the ability to turn their cards off immediately if their card has been lost or stolen or if they detect unauthorized transactions on their card. When the card is turned off, no withdrawals or purchases will be approved. Then, after the fraud threat is eliminated, the cardholder can turn the card back on immediately.

With CardValet, the cardholder also has the option to receive text alerts every time the card is used. These real-time alerts keep the cardholder informed when his or her card is being used or has been declined.

In addition, the app can work with the GPS system in your smartphone and geographic restrictions can be established on your debit card. These transaction controls allow your debit card to work only in specific locations or geographical areas, adding another layer of protection against fraud.

The CardValet can also help you stick to your budget. Let’s face it, the increasing use of plastic over paper has made overspending easy. With this app, you can take control of your finances by setting spending thresholds on your card. You can set spending limits for general use or specify thresholds by merchant types, such as gas, groceries or retail stores. The flexible app lets you change these parameters at anytime…you simply update your transaction controls to fit your spending needs.

The CardValet also allows you to set parental controls on your child’s card. Whether your kids are shopping at the local mall or they’re away at college, you can manage their spending. With the same convenient features that help you stick to your budget, this app lets you decide where, when and how your children can use their debit cards.

For more information concerning this app – how it can help you manage your money with greater ease and confidence than ever before, please stop by and talk with a member of our team. We’ll be happy to answer all of your questions and help you get “the app for that.”