Morning coffee and keeping an eye out for credit fraud

By Carol Harrison, Financial Counselor with The Village

Most mornings upon waking I hear, “Coffee, coffee. I need coffee.” Next I hear the sound of the coffee grinder followed by the coffee brewing, the wafting aroma, and finally comes the utterance “Ah coffee!”

But recently we awoke to a different coffee calling. The phone was ringing and on the other end was a representative from a credit card company. He alerted us that there appeared to be fraudulent activity on our account. In the wee hours of the morning while we slept, our coffee gift card had been loaded several times via this credit card. When we checked the account, sure enough, someone was adding money to it in small amounts and then issuing gift cards.

The credit card company had noticed this unusual activity and put a hold on these charges. They notified us, closed the account, and re-issued a new one. In the meantime we contacted the coffee card company, and they confirmed that this was not a system glitch and indicated that the activity was fraudulent. We are awaiting the results of the coffee company’s investigation.

Fortunately, our credit card company was diligently looking out for our best interests. It is not unusual for your credit card company to give you a call to question transactions to your account when they appear suspicious to them and they take quick action. We were not held accountable for the charges as they were all put on hold until confirmation from us.

It’s important to remember that credit card companies don’t always catch fraudulent activity. So be vigilant by reviewing your statements every month. If your creditor doesn’t catch the fraud, it is up to you to identify it and report it.

Got money questions? The Village offers financial coaching

Do you have financial goals, but can’t seem to reach them?

A Village financial coach will help you identify and follow through on the steps necessary for reaching your financial goals. Coaching works because you build a relationship with someone who keeps you accountable through frequent mini-contacts.
A Village financial coach will:

  • Do an initial financial assessment of your situation.
  • Visit with you to determine your financial goals.
  • Create “to-do” lists directly tied to your goals.
  • Determine check-in times.
  • Follow up frequently by phone, email, or in person to document your progress and keep you accountable

More info about Financial Coaching from The Village.

Money Sense: Quick tips for tax season

Before You Prepare Your Taxes…
You’ll need to determine the following:
1. What status will I be filing (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately,
etc.)?
2. What is my adjusted income?
3. Will I itemize or not?
4. What are my correct exemptions?

After You Prepare Your Taxes…
Double check each of the following so you don’t underpay or overpay your taxes:
1. Are your Social Security numbers …

Read the full article here in the “Money Sense” newsletter from The Village.

Why it’s Important to Save Money

Think back to a time when having an extra $1,000 would have made a major difference in the circumstance you were facing. How would the situation have played out differently if you had $1,000 to draw upon? Could you have avoided using a credit card and paying interest, taking out a payday loan, or having to borrow from family or friends? Whatever the situation, when you need to borrow money for unplanned expenses, it usually costs you in more ways than one.

The standard recommendation is to have a liquid savings account containing three to six months of your monthly expenses. Determine this amount by tracking what you spend. Don’t forget about your periodic expenses-the expenses that occur throughout the year, but not necessarily on a monthly basis. Periodic expenses include auto/home maintenance, gift buying, traveling, propane, medical deductibles, etc.

Three to six months of expenses in savings can feel like a very lofty goal for most families. However, having this amount in savings will protect your household from a tailspin if faced with periods of unexpected unemployment, seasonal income shortages, medical expenses, and major repairs.

Adequate savings provides you with a stable financial foundation. Just as a house is only as stable as the foundation it is built on, so are your finances.

Electronic Couponing and Deals

You can save money using the Internet through a variety of websites and mobile apps. Here are some of our favorites.

Websites

All of the websites listed here are also available as apps.

• Freebies2deals.com – Created by a mom from Utah with established connections to the best freebies and deals each day. She gives great advice and also matches up store coupons with manufacturers for you. This is a great time-saver for people who want to get the deals of a crazy couponer without spending the time.

• Zulily.com – Deals on clothing for babies and kids

• 1saleaday.com – Various products on sale

• Woot.com – Daily deals

• Retailmenot.com – Coupon codes and deals

• eBates.com – Just about every online retailer is on this site. Once you have an account, you can search by product or retailer, find discount codes, and receive cash back on all your purchases. You get a free $10 gift card to the place of your choice just for signing up!

Mobile Apps

• GeoQpon – Coupons you can scan at the register

• Shopkick – Find coupons and earn points toward gift cards

• Smartphonemate – Earn credit at Amazon.com just by having the app open on your phone ($3/month) or tablet ($5/month)

• Gasbuddy – Lists all gas stations in the area, along with prices. You can update the prices as well and earn entries for a free gift card

 

More than One in Five Americans Consider Credit Essential

According to the September poll hosted on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) website, 22 percent of more than 1,900 respondents indicated they could not make ends meet without access to credit.

“There are hundreds of millions of credit cards in circulation, making the plastic temptation very real,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “Nonetheless, credit was intended to be a convenience, not a piggy bank to supplement income.”

An additional 24 percent of poll respondents said they would have to make significant lifestyle changes if they did not have access to credit. Taken together, 46 percent of Americans would experience major interruptions to their financial lives if denied the use of credit.

The inability to responsibly manage credit is one of the first financial danger signals. Consider the following data from the NFCC’s 2012 Financial Literacy Survey:

• Thirty-three percent of consumers do not pay all of their bills on time, the highest percentage since the question was first posed in 2008, up five percent over 2011;

• Thirty-nine percent of respondents indicated they carry debt over from month-to-month, a sure sign that a person is living beyond what his or her income can support; and

• Sixteen percent have experienced an overdraft related to a checking account.

No one ever intends to dig a deep financial hole. Life’s unexpected events often throw a curve to even the most stable financial plans, making credit the choice of last resort to meet monthly obligations. Many well-meaning people think living off of credit will be a short-term solution; the new job is just around the corner; the medical event won’t be serious; the divorce decree will read differently. Others have not experienced a financially back-breaking life event, but have built a lifestyle that their income simply will not support.

The solution for either group is a three-step process: stop charging, increase income, decrease expenses. Facing the financial facts can be hard. Changing ingrained habits is never easy, but it is not only worth the effort, it is essential to a person’s current and future financial stability.

“Although the 22 percent of people indicating they could not make ends meet without credit is a minority among those polled, it is a significant minority,” continued Cunningham. “People are masters at deceiving themselves and justifying spending. Don’t be one of them.”

To determine if your finances are on the brink of disaster, try living without credit for one month. If successful, it is likely that credit is being managed responsibly.  If you are not successful, consider getting some advice from the experts at The Village Financial Resource Center at 800-450-4019.

Avoiding Lifestyle Inflation

When my wife and I first got married, we lived on a meager income. We lived in a run-down two bedroom apartment and ate Hamburger Helper more than I’d care to admit. We managed to get by and live a happy life even though we didn’t have cable, rarely ate out, and shared a cell phone.

But over the years our income rose and our standard of living along with it. We now own a home, have newer cars, we each have our own cell phone and we have cable TV with premium channels. However, when I reflect on all the things we have, I’m not sure that we are any happier than we were when we were poorer. But everything that we have accumulated in the past eight years just seemed normal because everyone else had it too.

It is perfectly normal for your expenses to increase with our income over time. Some increases, like those due to economic inflation, we cannot avoid. However, if you really want to build your wealth, you will have to keep your lifestyle inflation in check and understand that keeping up with the Jones’ may make you look rich, but can actually make your poorer.

To curb your lifestyle inflation, first take an inventory of your monthly spending. How much money is spent on absolute necessities? How much is spent on added conveniences? For example, we need to have a phone to communicate with each other. But do you need to have the latest greatest phone with all the bells, whistles and expensive data plans? A basic cell phone plan starts at around $50 per month. However, it’s not uncommon to see cell phone bills over $200 per month with all the extras. You could do a lot with an extra $150 each month. You could pay off debt or invest for retirement. Both of those options will help you to build your wealth over time.

Now you don’t have to cut out all the fun stuff in your life, but you should seek a balance and moderation. I really like having the internet on my phone and HBO on my TV, but I’d probably be happier if I had my car paid off and more money to save toward a tropical vacation. Recognize the difference between wants and needs and make your choices wisely because you may have to live with them for a long time.

Another way to curb lifestyle inflation is to fool yourself into thinking that you don’t have much money to spend. Pay yourself first by contributing to your 401(k) or IRA and have it taken out automatically. You will be building your wealth while limiting the amount of money you have to spend frivolously. Also, use cash to help you limit spending. It’s harder to overspend when using cash and it makes you think twice before spending because you only have a limited amount on hand.

Lastly, remember that life is about the experiences that you have and the people that share them with you. Everything else is just stuff. Keeping things in perspective is the best way to keep an objective view on your finances.

Wallet Audit

Have you ever lost your wallet? I have not, but I shudder to think what kind of mess I would be in if I did. Fortunately, my wallet is usually void of any cash (or maybe I’m unfortunate?). However, I’ve got plenty of other important items in there that I’d be lost without.

The obvious items in your wallet you are probably concerned about are your credit cards. However, your health insurance cards, social security, Medicare, and other cards are just as valuable to thieves. Healthcare fraud is one of the fastest growing crimes today and you don’t want to be stuck paying someone else’s medical bills. One solution is to not carry them in your wallet. Leave them at home and only take them with you if you have an appointment where you know they will be needed. The other solution would be to make a photocopy of the card to keep with you and black out the last few digits of the account number which you could memorize.

Speaking of those credit cards…First off, limit the number of credit cards that you own and carry. There is no reason to have more than three. Second, make a photocopy of all of your credit and debit cards and keep them in a safe place. If you lose them, you want to have those account numbers when to go to cancel them. While you are inventorying those cards, also take the time to note what accounts have automatic payments. If you have to close accounts, you will have to re-establish those automatic payments. Having a list will help you so you don’t miss any critical payments.

Lastly, to avoid this unpleasantness altogether, take some precautions that will ensure that you are not parted with your wallet. Keep it on your person, preferably in a front pocket or one with a secure button or zipper. Don’t leave your wallet in a purse or luggage which may leave your sight or be separated from you. And if you are really worried, get a wallet with a chain or lanyard that will attach to your clothing so that you cannot walk away without it.

If you have any other cards or information in your wallet, think about whether you need to have with you in your wallet. The less you carry, the less of a headache you will have if your wallet is lost or stolen. Losing your wallet is bad enough, but trying to remember everything that was in it just adds to the frustration.

Spending Your Tax Refund the Right Way

It’s that time of year again and I’m not talking about spring. Its tax season and hopefully you are getting a nice surprise this year from Uncle Sam. But, don’t go blow it on that nice new 3D LED TV you’ve been lusting after. Take some time to plan things out and spend that refund wisely. Check out these five tips to manage that windfall of cash before it’s all gone:

 Make a budget before you do anything.

Extra money in your pocket seems to burn a hole in it and its gone before you know it. Take some time to plan out how you are going to spend that money so that you can spend it on things that are worthwhile instead of on impulse buys that you may regret later.

Don’t spend it before you’ve got it.

Don’t make purchases on your credit cards thinking that you’ll pay them off once your get your refund. Don’t make any down payments on anything either. We don’t know what unexpected things may come up and we don’t want to spend money that we don’t have yet.

Put a third away into savings right away.

It’s important to have ample savings for emergencies. You should have at least three to six months worth of income saved for the unexpected. You may also be saving for an important goal like retirement or a new car. Your refund is a great way to accelerate your progress on your savings.

Pick a debt to pay off.

Do you have a credit card bill that you have been struggling with for a while? Maybe you have a few medical bills that you are working on? Now is the time to get them paid off and get rid of the stress of having to make payments each month.

Splurge a little.

It’s okay to have some fun and live a little! Take the family out to dinner or buy yourself something you’ve been wanting. Just splurge in moderation. One rule of thumb would be to limit your splurge to 5% of your refund.

One last note on refunds: If you find yourself with a huge refund each year, but you struggle paycheck to paycheck each month, you may consider adjusting your withholdings so that you get more in your paycheck each month to cover your monthly expenses. Just talk to your payroll department to fill out a new W-4.

 

Tired of Bank Fees?

Change can be tough. I blame it on a Scandinavian heritage but it’s probably just “me.” I recently changed internet providers and dropped our landline at home. That was a lot of change – but in the end something that will reduce costs of the household budget and use the dollars more wisely that are spent on communication. I’ve used the same bank for almost 30 years – again, change is tough. But – looking at this article by Mary Hunt (from Everyday Cheapskate) on credit unions just may have me incorporating a little more change (cha-ching) in 2012.

Free Checking Accounts Still Out There

Many bank customers have been feeling nickeled-and-dimed by their banks for some time. And as banks scramble to make up for lost revenue, some are demanding even steeper fees. The country’s largest banks are charging consumers as much as $50 a month if they do not maintain minimum balances or meet other requirements for certain high-end checking and savings accounts. What lunacy! Why should we pay a cent to have access to our own money?

While free bank accounts are disappearing, there are still a few out there. You just have to know where to look. Hint: credit unions. While not all credit unions offer free accounts, many still do. In doing research for this column, I have discovered one that’s even better than free!

Firstmark Credit Union (FirstmarkCU.org) has one of the best free checking accounts I have ever seen. Firstmark is located in Texas, but anyone can join regardless of where they live or work.

What makes a Firstmark Credit Union checking account even better than free? Customers who use their debit card (unlike your humble columnist) earn 10 cents for every signature-based debit-card transaction. You can also earn $25 bonuses by receiving statements online, using their debit card, paying one bill with online bill pay and signing up for direct deposit. Do all four (use promo code GET100) and you can have $100 added to your balance. But there’s more: Firstmark’s free checking account pays 0.10 percent APY on your balance—not much, but better than nothing.

Firstmark offers 11 local branches in the San Antonio area, but anyone can join online. Go to FirstmarkCU.org, and click on “Open a Free Checking Account.” On the next page, look for “Become a Member.” In that list, select “Other Eligible Groups.” Use the pulldown menu and select “None of the above.” Whew! You’re almost there.

Ready for another bonus? You can join Firstmark by becoming a member of the Friends of the Park Foundation, a charitable group that supports the San Antonio Parks Foundation. Firstmark takes care of your first year’s dues, and you’re under no obligation to renew your membership for a second year. This means you qualify for membership at Firstmark by being a member of the Friends of the Park Foundation.

And the best part? Once you are a credit union member, you will enjoy “Once a Member, Always a Member.” You will be able to enjoy the benefits of Firstmark Credit Union for the rest of your life, including free checks, too.

Firstmark is part of the Allpoint network, which provides its members free use of 35,000 ATMs nationwide and 43,000 around the world. All of the ATMs in 7-Eleven, Target, Walgreens and Costco, for example, belong to Allpoint.

If you’re paying even a dime in bank fees, ask yourself this question: Why? Then get busy finding a better alternative that won’t cost you. And it just might pay you to make the switch, too!