Cheryl

America Saves Week

The week of February 25 – March 2 is “American Saves Week.” “America Saves Week,” which was coordinated by America Saves and the American Savings Education Council, was started in 2007. America Saves is a national campaign comprising more than 1,000 non-profit, government and corporate groups that encourages individuals and families to save money and build personal wealth. The Consumer Federation of America manages the America Saves campaign. The American Savings Education Council is a national coalition of public and private institutions committed to making saving a priority for all Americans.

“America Saves Week” provides an annual opportunity for organizations to promote good savings habits and a chance for individuals to assess their current savings status – how much they have saved in their non-retirement and retirement savings.

Results from the 2012 Annual National Survey Assessing Household Savings showed that having a savings plan with specific goals and objectives has beneficial financial effects, even in lower-income households. But the key is to have a plan to save!

So, let’s get started.

A great place to begin is by setting a goal. What would you like to save for – an emergency fund, a home, a vacation, a new car, pay off revolving credit card debt, retirement, etc.? Knowing what you are saving for provides the motivation to save. Note: If you don’t have an emergency fund, this should take precedence over your other saving goals. You should have at least $500 of emergency savings – this will alleviate using high interest rate credit cards for unexpected expenses. After this saving goal has been achieved, the next goal is to put money aside to pay off any credit card debt.

The next step is to make a plan. How much are you going to save monthly? The best way to come up with this figure is by making a budget. Yes, I know, the ever-dreaded budget. But unless you know where your money is going you can’t determine how much you can save…more importantly where you can save…where you can cut back. The most important factor in making a budget is making an accurate budget – accounting for every expense to include your daily Starbucks Vanilla Latte habit. The budget process is very similar to a diet – you don’t know how much you are eating until you keep an accurate food log. Your expenditure log is your budget. I can promise, this exercise will be extremely eye opening.

The final step is to begin saving automatically. Routinely putting money away is difficult for most of us. But if you make saving automatic, you will never miss having that money.

Once you determine how much you are going to save each month or pay period, either have your employer direct deposit that portion of your paycheck into a savings account or if your employer doesn’t use direct deposit, immediately transfer that part of your pay into an established savings account. The most important piece of this savings plan is discipline. Once you determine how much you are going to save, treat this amount like a bill – pay it and pay it on time!

For more information on “America Saves Week” and/or helpful tips on saving, visit AmericaSaves.org. You can also follow America Saves on Facebook and Twitter.

Children Become Main Target of Identity Theft

In a world where technology is king, identity theft has become a growing problem. Identity theft can go undetected for years, especially if the victim is a child.

Identity theft among children age five years or younger doubled in the past year. Children are being targeted for identity theft 35 times more than adults (www.jacksonsun.com, Tips to Prevent Child Identity Theft, Randy Hutchinson, Jan. 4, 2013).

Social security numbers that belong to children are unused. They are a blank slate for identity thieves. Once this thief steals a child’s information, it may be years before it is detected. Most identity theft occurs over the Internet. Typically the thieves steal the child’s social security number, attach a different name and birth date to it and proceed to open credit cards, auto loans and even home mortgages.

The child usually doesn’t have a clue until he or she applies for credit card, a student loan, a job or possibly an apartment lease. The identity thief may be a family member, sometimes even a parent, who is having financial difficulties or someone completely unknown to the family or the victim.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there are several red flags that indicate that your child’s personal information has been comprised. The following warning signs have been identified by the FTC:

  • Your child gets calls from collection agencies or bills from credit card or other companies, or offers of credit.
  • Your child or family is denied government benefits because they are already being paid to someone else using your child’s social security.
  • The IRS or another governmental agency asks you to confirm that your child is employed – even though your child has never had a job.
  • After filing your tax return listing your child as a dependent, you are notified by the IRS that your child’s social security number and information is listed on someone else’s tax return.
  • Your child gets a notice from the IRS that he or she has failed to pay taxes even though he or she has no income.

Although some of the advice for preventing identity theft applies to both adults and children e.g. don’t provide personal information in response to unsolicited emails or other messages, keep documents containing personal information secure, if you are scanning personal information make sure that your antivirus is up to date and it’s password protected, and shred unwanted personal documents, some special tips for children include:

  • Talk to you child. Go over the importance of his or her privacy settings on social media sites and when it’s appropriate to share information and photos – also what information shouldn’t be shared, e.g. address, complete birthdate, etc.
  • Don’t carry around your child’s social security card or his or her number. Keep his or her card in a safe place. Just like your social security number – memorize it and have your child memorize it.
  • Make sure you fully understand how your child’s information is being used at school. Read notices explaining your rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, including the option to not have your child’s information released to third parties.
  • Check your child’s credit report close to his or her 16th birthday or earlier if you suspect a problem. You can check this once a year for free.
  • If you determine that your child’s personal information has been compromised, immediately contact the three credit bureaus and follow their instructions for resolving the problem. File a report with the FTC and consider filing one with the police if the theft involves your child’s medical or tax records. Finally, contact every company where your child’s information was misused. Ask these companies to close the fraudulent account and flag it to show it resulted from identity theft.

Important numbers to keep on hand:

Equifax – 1-866-493-9788
Experian – 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion – 1-800-680-7289

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – 1-877-438-4338

Setting and Sticking to a Holiday Shopping Budget

Every year the holidays seem to begin earlier and earlier. Both Walmart and Target started bringing out their Christmas decorations and merchandise before the Halloween candy was even off the shelves.

Not only have the holidays been thrust upon us sooner, but they’re also getting more expensive each year as well. Yes, the holiday season is a time of giving, however, it’s important to remember that we can’t give more than we have. We’ve let the Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and all the one-night-only, anxiety-inducing sales get the better of us. After all, who wants to pass up a good deal…right?

But as many families continue to struggle financially with today’s tightening economy, getting a good deal is smart, but getting carried away, allowing our credit card balances to balloon, is not. If we set a strict budget and stick to it – not being naughty but nice – we can get gifts for everyone on our shopping list while avoiding the after-the-holiday blues of falling into debt.

Here are some helpful tips to ensure that all of our holidays are “oh so merry:”

1. Make a budget – Yes, just like everything else in our lives that involves money; we must create a budget. We need to come up with a realistic amount of money we can spend. No, this isn’t the amount of money we can afford to charge on our credit cards and pay off in increments by next year’s holidays. This is the amount we can spend in cash and still be able to afford the holiday dinner with all the trimmings.

2. Make a List and check it twice – Before we head out the door or get on our computer, we need to make our list of the people we plan to buy gifts for this year. Like grocery shopping, having a prepared list will keep us on financial target and keep us from impulse buying. We must prioritize our list – family, friends, tithes, teachers, etc. We must determine an amount we plan to allot to each of the people on our list and then make sure the total dollar amount equals our budgeted figure. If we are over budget, we must – as difficult as it seems – remove people from our list or spend less on each person. WE MUST STAY WITHIN OUR BUDGET!

3. Pay Cash – We must avoid the temptation to use debit or credit cards. We typically spend 12-18% more money when we use our credit cards. If we are going to the store; we should bring cash. If we are going to use the Internet, a debit card is better than a credit card, but the best way to stay within our means is to use a prepaid card.

4. Be creative – People love getting gifts that are homemade and come from the heart. We can make pies, cookies, jellies, etc., and wrap them up festively to give to friends, teachers, co-workers, etc. We can give the gift of time – make coupons for a nice dinner for someone, babysitting – take care of friends’ children so they can have a nice evening out. This is a great gift idea for dads/husbands – give wives a coupon for a day all to themselves.

5. Be a savvy shopper- Look for coupons, clearances and sales. Shop early – avoid those last minute anxiety driven impulse buys.

6. Be honest – If we are going through tough financial times – lost our job, pay cut, etc. we need to let our family and friends know that money is tight for us this year. Sharing the holidays together is the best gift of all.

Whether we’re ready or not, the holiday season is upon us once again. Let’s not make it one that leaves us disheartened long after we’ve packed the decorations away. In the true spirit of the season, let’s make it about having fun, spending time with our family and friends and making lifelong memories.

Happy holidays from our Intracoastal family to yours!

Getting Ready for Tax Season

 

We’ve turned back our clocks, started buttoning up our houses in preparation of our winter, begun pondering the impending holidays and have given brief reflection to the end of yet another year.  As we rapidly move through the third quarter of 2012, most of us are subtly reminded of what’s looming on the horizon….the dreaded tax season!

If you are like most people, you hate thinking about preparing for tax season. Many people procrastinate because they think they have plenty of time before that April deadline. Unfortunately, this rarely is the case and we end up scrambling, oftentimes missing eligible credits and deductions and overpaying Uncle Sam.

 

However, with some planning and preparation, filing your taxes doesn’t have to be the nerve-racking, hair-pulling hassle it typically has been. Here are a few tips to help you get ready and make this year’s tax season less stressful.

 

  1. Get your paperwork together. When preparing for tax season, go through your past returns. This will help spot items you may have forgotten or remind you of questions you may want to ask you tax preparer. Prepare a folder labeled “2012 Taxes and begin filing important tax documents, statements and receipts and as you get additional end of the year items (e.g. 1099s, W-2s, etc.) add these to your file.  It’s a good idea to retain this folder with a copy of your tax return every year. It will be a lifesaver if you’re ever audited. Note: If your name has changed in the last year and you haven’t applied for a new social security card, do so now, so that it reflects your new name by tax time.

 

  1. Decide what’s the best way to do your taxes – filing yourself or hiring a CPA. Today, programs like Turbo Tax can save you money. But depending on how complicated your return is, and how much your time is worth, a CPA may be worth hiring.

 

  1. Have a chat with your working teen. If your teenager works and will be filing a return make sure you find out whether he or she is claiming himself or herself.. Typically he or she shouldn’t. Most teenagers don’t make enough money to claim themselves.

 

  1. Be Patient. Although it feels great to have your taxes done early, don’t be too overly zealous. Make sure to wait until every form you need has arrived. It will cost you more if have to file an amended return.

 

Remember, taxes are a necessary evil.  They are bound to cause some anxiety. But if you leave yourself enough time and start preparing early by following the steps above, tax season will be a breeze…or at the very least, a great deal less stressful!

 

Experience the Celebrated Colors of Fall Close to Home

Although we Floridians are continuing to experience muggy, summer-like days, most other areas of the country are meandering into one of the most beautiful seasons of the year – fall.

Even though I’ve lived in Florida for over twenty years, having grown up in New York, fall remains the season I miss most. Oh sure, northern Florida gets a taste of fall, but it is quite dull in comparison to the vibrant, rich colors observed by our colder states.

One of the many benefits of living in central to northern Florida – other than the fact it doesn’t snow or more accurately, accumulate snow here – is our close proximity to the true fall – the kind all of us more northern transplants fondly remember and often yearn for each year around this time.

A recent Southern Living article I came across listed the best places in the south for experiencing the radiant colors of fall. I thought I’d share a few with you which are fairly close to home.

So, before this incredible color-packed foliage disappears (peak season is usually the second and third week of October), pack a bag, gas up the car and take a delightfully unexpected trip and celebrate the true colors of fall!

Enjoy your trip and tell me all about it when you return!

1. Ellijay, GA
Ellijay is located on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, about 80 miles north of Atlanta. This town and surrounding Gilmer County are known for being the apple capitol of Georgia, claiming 10 pick-your-own apples orchards.

2. Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Clermont, KY
This forest is located just south of Louisville in Clermont. It includes 14,000 acres of fields and forests and 35 miles of hiking trails. For the biking enthusiast, there is a bike route that winds along the beautifully fall-colored Long Lick Creek.

3. Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury, NC
This state 7, 024 acre park, which boasts some of the best colors of fall in North Carolina, is approximately 30 miles north of Winston-Salem. You will find mountains rising more than 2,500 ft., cascading waterfalls and more!

4. Lover’s Leap Loop Trail, Hot Springs, NC
The Lover’s Leap Loop Trail overlooks the French Broad River and the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. A hiker’s heaven – offering 1.6 mile miles of the Appalachian Trail. With its panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you won’t want to miss this!

5. Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg, TN
This most visited national park offers acres of fall colors and incredible wildlife to include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and black bears. This park spreads across 800 acres of the southern Appalachian Mountains, winding through Tennessee and North Carolina.

6. Natchez Trace Parkway, TN
The Natchez Trace Parkway runs through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. It connects the cities of Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Approximately 100 miles of this parkway runs through Tennessee and passes through such towns as Leipers Fork, and several historic spots.

Identity Theft/Fraud

Identity theft/fraud is the fastest growing crime in the nation.  Younger aged groups, especially children are most vulnerable and consequently, in recent years have become most targeted.

 

Identity theft and identity fraud occurs when someone obtains and uses another person’s personal information in a deceptive or fraudulent manner, typically for economic gain (U.S. Department of Justice, www.justice.gov).  A majority of theses cases involve the fraudulent use of debit/credit cards to take funds out of a victim’s bank or financial accounts or to make unauthorized purchases.  However, in the worst cases, when someone’s social security number falls into the wrong hands, the victim’s identity can be taken over altogether, oftentimes leaving them with vast debt and severe and long lasting damage to their credit.

 

Unfortunately, in many cases, the immediate costs associated with this growing crime are minimal compared to the additional financial costs incurred with restoring your credit, reputation and correcting invalid information.  However, instead of focusing on what you should do if you become a victim of identity theft, it is wiser to know what you can do to prevent it in the first place.

 

Steps to take to prevent identity theft/fraud:

 

  1. Memorize your social security number and all passwords – don’t carry these with you or keep them where someone can easily find them.
  2. Don’t use your birth date as a password.
  3. Shred any information/documentation containing personal or financial information – especially “preapproved” credit cards that come in the mail.
  4. Keep your personal information on a “need to know” basis.  Be extremely cautious about giving your personal information out over the phone or Internet.
  5. Check your financial information regularly for unusual activity – bank and financial statements and credit card statements.
  6. Report lost or stolen credit/debit cards immediately.
  7. Use a firewall program on your computer.
  8. Be careful about sharing personal on social media sites (e.g. address, birth date, phone number, etc.).
  9. Don’t download files or click on hyperlinks from people you don’t know.
  10. Order your credit report from all 3 bureaus (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union) at least once a year and review thoroughly for accuracy.
  11. When traveling have all mail held at the post office or ask someone you know well to collect your mail and hold it for you until you return.
  12. When traveling don’t give out your personal or financial information on the phone in a public place or where you can easily be overheard.

 

Every year, an estimated 9 million U.S. residents are victims of identity theft.  However, the overall monetary loses are decreasing due to early detection (www.creditinfocenter.com, July 10, 2011).  However, preventative measures remain the best tool for reducing the number of cases as well as costs – financial and personal – associated with this crime.  Don’t become a victim – take these necessary precautions to protect your identity.

 

For more information on protection, early detection or to report a lost or stolen debit card, please contact us at 386-447-1662

Sending Your First Child Off to College – A Survival Guide

As the lazy days of summer begin to wane, many parents are facing the overwhelming task of preparing their first child for college. Gearing up your first-time college student with the necessary supplies for dormitory life is a significant part of this preparatory process. Appointing your child’s first home away from home can seem particularly daunting. With the faithful assistance of Google, I sifted through the seemingly infinite articles, topics ranging from saving for college to dealing with being an empty nester, and compiled some great advice from parents who’ve “been there, done that” and survived to tell their stories. Hopefully, these tips will guide you, somewhat painlessly – a few bouts of tears, sadness and momentary nervous breakdowns are be expected, through this life-altering endeavor, accomplishing the feat both efficiently and cost effectively, ultimately creating a memorable rite of passage for you and your child.

Must-haves for your Freshman College Student

1. A small refrigerator and microwave –
Even if your child is on the meal plan, there will times when he or she will want to sleep in or just have the convenience of eating in the dorm.

2. Linens and Towels –
Dorm mattresses are covered with a plastic waterproof material – you will want to purchase a mattress cover for comfort. You will need a full set of twin sheets, including pillowcase, and of course, a pillow and a comforter. You may want to buy two sets of sheets to alternate between washings. Note: Look for dorm/college length sheets (usually found at Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond) because a college bed is longer than a traditional twin bed. Towels – three large bath towels and three washcloths or a bath sponge are recommended.

3. Storage Bins –
Find ones that will fit under the bed to allow more space.

4. First Aid Kit –
In addition to necessary over-the-counter medicines (e.g. aspirin, cold medications, etc.) and required medications, you will want a first aid kit containing bandages, antibiotic ointment and other basics.

5. Laundry detergent and quarters –
Dorms are equipped with commercial washers and dryers, requiring quarters and your own laundry supplies.

6. Night Light –
Courtesy goes a long way to a lasting friendly roommate relationship – your child won’t annoy his or her sleeping roommate by turning on a bright light when he or she comes in late.

7. Memorabilia -
Your child may never admit to being homesick. Either way, bring a piece of home – a framed family picture is perfect.

8. Shower Caddy –
Fill it with shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor, shaving cream, etc.

9. Power Strip –
Dorms don’t have enough outlets to keep up with the electronic demands of today’s kids.

10. A debit card –
If your child hasn’t opened a checking account yet, it’s time to do so.* Make sure to order a debit card for the account. The debit card will come in handy for all of his or her ancillary needs (e.g. groceries, school supplies, an occasional night out, etc.). A debit card is safer than cash, there’s no waiting for checks to clear, it provides more accountability than a credit card, and with online management there is immediate access to the account balance.

*Stop by our branch and one of our courteous team members will be happy to assist with this.

Okay, before you hit the aisles of your favorite discount store or begin filling the shopping cart on your most frequently visited house ware internet site, step back, take a deep, cleansing breath and utilize what’s remaining of your common sense. Today’s freshmen have access to a tool we didn’t have when our parents packed up the wood paneled family station wagon and carted us off to college – the Internet. They can gain valuable information about each other by connecting on Facebook; their likes and dislikes as well as what kind of supplies and furniture each person is bringing. Although, the element of surprise is gone, the potential for duplication is eliminated, allowing the parents to divide and conquer the communal wares still outstanding.

Before you can blink your weary, occasionally tearful eyes, the momentous day will arrive. You’ll check and recheck your to-dos, must-haves and the various can’t live with outs, pack the car and set the GPS; destination, Collegetown, USA. As you head down the highway, trying to collect your thoughts and maintain composure, remember one very important thing – parenting doesn’t end….ever. You’re just suiting up for the next phase of life with your child. Who knows, when all is said and done, you just might end up being best friends!