Finance

Spring Cleaning Safety Tips

Spring has sprung! And so has our sense of urgency to clean our closets, houses, garages and all of the stuff that has piled up over the winter months.  What most of us don’t realize is these chores can be hard on our bodies. In fact, according to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, a national leader in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, millions of home-related injuries occur every year as we clean our way into the warmer months.

Typically, we all try to do too much too quickly. If you are anything like me, you feel the overwhelming desire to get this done in the shortest time frame possible – warp speed!

Cleaning chores involve stretching, lifting, climbing, pushing, pulling, climbing, twisting and turning – movements most of us don’t do on a regular basis.  Many of these movements use muscles we wouldn’t typically use even in a daily exercise program. In addition, most of us don’t take the necessary precautions to avoid injuries.  Many common injuries are the result of improper bending or lifting or not using our common sense when it comes to safety, e.g. securing and stabilizing a ladder before climbing to reach the hard to reach areas that require our spring cleaning attention.

To help us all get the job done safely and without injury, below are some helpful tips:

  1. Set realistic goals – Rome wasn’t built in a day and either is our thorough annual cleaning. Tackle one project at a time. Spread projects out over a few days or even several weekends.  I know…this is killing you…us… A+ personality types, but this will alleviate our tendency to overdo and give our bodies some rest in between.
  2. Check all equipment that is needed for cleaning projects – Make sure all ladders, stools, etc. are in good solid working order before beginning a project.
  3. Work safely – Make sure all cleaning areas are free of clutter and well lit. Make sure to work in well-ventilated areas when using cleaning solutions and chemicals and keep them away from children and pets.
  4. Ask for help – We have a tendency to think that the only way anything gets done right is if we do it ourselves. Well, that may be true but, other people live in the house and they should all do their part too. Assign tasks so that everyone shares in the workload. In the end, everyone will feel good…especially about the sense of accomplishment.
  5. Use proper cleaning techniques – Using the correct body movements can help minimize risk of injury.   Here are a few recommendations.
    • Lifting and carrying – Always have someone help you with heavy boxes or when moving furniture and remember bend your knees and lift with your legs, not your back.
    • Windows – Always keep your feet on the ground or on a secure ladder/step stool.  Never climb on furniture or windowsills.  Yes, I know, we’ve all been guilty of this.  Keep level with the area that is being cleaned to avoid overstretching. Also try to keep your back straight and avoid tilting your head upward or backward, especially for long periods of time.
    • Painting – Always keep paintbrushes and rollers in front of you and waist high. This will avoid stress on the spine.  Looking up at high walls or ceilings for long periods of time puts extra pressure on the neck, which can cause pinching and numbness. Again, although we’d all like to have a freshly painted house before the sun goes down, we will benefit immensely, body and mind, if we practice patience – paint in short intervals and take frequent breaks.

Getting our house in order is good for the body and the soul.  It’s great exercise and we feel such a sense of accomplishment when it is completed.  But, let’s be sensible. We must our limits, take frequent breaks and always drink plenty of fluids.

Here’s to spring!  Now let the cleaning begin!

Small businesses Fall Prey to Cyber Attacks

Hackers are expanding their sights beyond the large multinational companies to small business owners. A recent survey conducted by Symantec and the National Cyber Security Alliance found that 77 percent of small business owners in the U.S. believe that their company is safe from cyber criminals and 83 percent of them don’t have a cyber security plan.

However, the threat to small businesses is greater than ever. The Secret Service and Verizon Communications, Inc.’s forensic analysis unit, which investigates cyber attacks, cites that a majority of their responses to data breaches over the last couple of years have been at companies with 100 or fewer employees. Visa, Inc. estimates that approximately 95 percent of the credit card data breaches it discovers each year are on small businesses.

Hacking small businesses is big business and unfortunately, it is going to get worse before it gets better.

The reason for this is three-fold. The first reason is that a majority of small companies have now gone to computerized systems, digital record keeping and conduct most their financial transactions online. The second factor is that most small companies don’t have the resources (financial, tools and manpower) or the time to fully secure their businesses from today’s ever-changing and increasingly sophisticated threats. The last and most significant factor is complacency. Most small business owners have the unrealistic mindset that this isn’t going to happen to them. After all, what could a hacker possibly want with a small company anyway? These high-tech criminals want their bank account information, employee lists, including social security numbers, and their customers’ credit and debit account information.

Typically, cyber threats on small businesses come from several sources, the most popular being outside the organization and from within the organization when an employee or an ex-employee steals data. Most financially motivated attacks rely on computer code that the hackers plant on victims’ computers, often as attachments or links in emails sent to employees. While these malicious programs are well known to security experts, the hackers tweak them frequently to render them undetectable to antivirus software.

The bottom line is, the costs of a breach can put a small business out of business. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. However, the following is a list of best practices for small business:

-Use secure web browsers.

-Maintain up-to-date firewall and antivirus protection as well as an intrusion detection system.

-Establish policies that stipulate how and when employees can access the Internet, especially when accessing the computer system from home or a mobile device.

-Run automatic computer updates.

-Never open emails, attachments or links from unknown sources.

-Never have sites remember passwords or financial information.

-Shut down computers when not in use.

-Businesses that use online banking for wire transfers and ACH origination should have a dedicated computer for those functions.

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!

 

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!

Jargon and Acronyms….They’re everywhere…LOL!

Jargon and Acronyms….They’re everywhere…LOL!

The use of jargon and acronyms has become pervasive in the English language.  Whether used by government (e.g. CIA, NATO, etc.), lawyers (e.g. adjudication, brief, etc.), IT specialists (e.g. SEO, SPAM, etc.) or the younger generation (e.g. TTYL, sick, etc.), today our language has become laden with these professionally, generationally and industry specific dialects.  With the advent of computerization and the internet specifically, the use of jargon and acronyms has increasingly become more widespread in our culture.  So customary, that this lingo has almost become a language of its own – a foreign language for many of us, oftentimes requiring translation.

The use of acronyms and jargon in the financial services industry is not new.  Our industry has always had its own language. Whether you are watching your favorite nightly financial news show or conversing with financial professionals, I’m sure you sometimes feel inundated and somewhat intimidated by our industry’s commonplace use of idioms.

Webster’s Dictionary defines jargon as the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession or group and acronym as a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of the words in the name or phrase.  In a nutshell, the use, most aptly today, the overuse of this language can be quite confusing and leaves many of us exclaiming, “WHAT???”

Although the list of our industry’s acronyms and jargon is fairly exhaustive, I thought I’d dedicate the balance of this article to a few of the most commonly used acronyms in our industry which tend to be the least understood by our customers.  I hope to shed some light and clear up any possible confusion concerning the following popularly used financial acronyms: APR, ARM, AGI, and PMI.

APR – Annual Percentage Rate – This is the annual rate of return made by investing or charged by borrowing, expressed in a single percentage number.  It represents the actual return on money invested or cost of funds when borrowed.  For example, if a credit card company charges 2% a month on your outstanding balance, the APR is 24% (2% x 12 months).  This number differs from APY (Annual Percentage Yield) which takes compound interest into account.

ARM – Adjustable Rate Mortgage – This differs from a fixed rate mortgage in that the interest you pay on the loan balance varies over the life of the loan based on a financial benchmark or index and an additional spread called a margin.  The initial rate is fixed for a period of time.  Then periodically, the interest rate is reset.  For example, if you had a 2/28 ARM, this is a 30 year mortgage, with a fixed rate for the first two years and a floating rate for the remaining 28 years.

AGI – Adjusted Gross Income – This is the “net income” figure used to determine your taxable income.  Your AGI is your gross income minus all allowable deductions (e.g. unreimbursed business expenses, medical expenses, contributions to a deductible retirement plan, etc.).  This net number is computed on page 1 of your federal tax return.

PMI – Private Mortgage Insurance – Many people confuse this insurance with homeowner’s insurance.  This mortgage specific policy is provided by a private mortgage insurer to protect lenders against loss if the borrower defaults on the loan.  Most lenders today require PMI on loans with a loan-to-value (LTV….yet another acronym!) that is more than 80% (a down payment less than 20%).  Although this allows the borrower to put less down, it typically requires an additional premium payment over and above the mortgage payment and possibly an additional monthly fee.

Although the use of jargon and acronyms is most likely not going away any time soon, we must be cautious not overuse them, especially when we are communicating with people outside of our trade or industry.  In our goal to provide excellent service to our customers, the management and staff of Intracoastal Bank make it a priority to always communicate with our customers clearly and concisely.  It doesn’t cost a thing ….just a little time and patience.  B4N! (Bye for Now)