5 Financial Resolutions for the New Year

A brand new year provides the perfect opportunity to make meaningful life changes, including improved financial wellness. These five financial resolutions can help get your year off to a promising start.

1. Get on budget

Take charge of your finances by creating a budget. Start by calculating after-tax income and subtracting fixed monthly expenses. Then allocate portions of the remaining income for savings, important goals and a few things that just make you happy. If this sounds complicated, relax; today’s user-friendly budget apps can take a lot of the pain out of the process. To further simplify money matters, consider setting up automatic bill pay, an automatic savings plan and separate savings accounts for specific goals.

2. Build an emergency fund

Without a solid cushion, any unexpected job loss, medical challenge or serious property damage could lead to lasting financial hardship. An emergency fund with three to six months’ worth of expenses can protect your standard of living and offer peace of mind. Commit to making consistent deposits to this fund even if you can only spare a small amount each month. Because you may need to tap into emergency cash at a moment’s notice, choose a vehicle that gives you easy access, such as a savings or money-market account.

3. Prepare for retirement

Retirement may not be on the immediate horizon, but when the time comes it may well last 20 years or more. You’ll probably need somewhere from 70 to 90% of your final-year income for each year of retirement, and it’s unlikely that Social Security will be sufficient. Saving such a sizeable sum takes decades, so it pays to start early. Put as much as you can afford into tax-advantaged Roth or traditional IRAs, and if your job provides a 401(k) plan, contribute the maximum employer-matched amount.

4. Improve your credit

You likely know that credit scores affect financing approval and interest rates. But the influence of those three little numbers actually stretches much further. Prospective employers and landlords frequently check credit, so low scores may mean missing out on the best jobs and apartments. Credit scores also may affect insurance premiums, mobile phone offers, vacation costs, and even whether utility hookups require a cash deposit. For top scores:

  • Pay all bills on time.
  • Keep credit card balances at no more than 20% to 30% of the credit limit.
  • Carry a mix of debt types such as credit cards, auto loans and personal loans.
  • Monitor credit to catch and correct any errors or problems.

5. Knock down debt

Even with a great job, high-interest debt can sabotage financial health. To dig out from under this burden, consider concentrating efforts on your highest interest debt first while continuing to make timely smaller payments on all other obligations. When the first balance is satisfied, focus on the most expensive remaining debt and continue this way until you’re debt-free.

If debt from multiple sources is unmanageable, debt consolidation may help you regain control. This approach streamlines debts into one payment, often with reduced interest and a lower monthly cost. Depending on your individual situation, home equity financing, personal loans or zero interest balance transfer credit cards may be effective debt consolidation choices.

Smart money resolutions boost financial stability not just immediately but over the long haul as well. The bonus takeaway is the confidence that all life’s remarkable milestones and challenges won’t break the bank.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

How to Avoid the Busy Holiday Scamming Season

You’re not the only one joyfully anticipating the holiday season. Cyber criminals are all aflutter, too, as they look forward to the killing they’ll make ripping off innocent shoppers like you. Here are some of the most common ways these thieves operate, because awareness can help you avoid becoming yet another victim.

Antisocial media

Beware those enticing ads that turn up on Facebook and other social media sites offering vouchers, gift cards and deep discounts, as well as the online surveys these ads often link to. These offers are often only empty promises designed to steal your personal information.

Additionally, if you receive concert, theater or sporting event tickets as a gift, never post pictures of them online. Cyber thieves spend lots of time monitoring social media, just waiting for the opportunity to create phony tickets they can resell from your barcode image. If your ticket is resold, you might just find yourself out of a seat on the night of your event. It’s also unwise to post live from an event that gives criminals a heads-up that your home is empty and ripe for picking. Better to wait until the next day to post about the wonderful time you had.

Pandora’s inbox

It may be a mystery to you how cyber thieves got your private email address, but it’s chillingly clear they’re up to no good. Your inbox may fill up with all kinds of legitimate-looking product offers and delivery notices this holiday season, but clicking on links of bogus ones or entering personal information on the linked sites can provide criminals with the opportunity to steal your identity.

Apps are far from immune

With mobile apps available for just about everything, it’s a sad sign of the times that certain free mobile apps (often disguised as games) have been specifically designed to steal personal information from your phone. This is a particularly scary development since many people use their phones to secure their cars and homes. For this reason, only install apps from familiar companies and, at the very least, find a third-party review from a trusted site if you’re interested in an app from an unfamiliar source.

USB Trojan horses

Lots of people use portable USB drives, which makes it all the more important to avoid those being distributed as giveaways this holiday season unless they’re from a trusted source. These innocent-looking devices are often used as a method of introducing malware to computers.

Gifts that keep on giving … to criminals

A spirit of generosity is traditional at holiday time, but if you’re not careful, your donations may never make it to the needy. Fake charities that skillfully tug at your heartstrings abound at this time of year, just waiting for you to willingly give your hard-earned cash to scammers. Before donating, be sure to check out charities thoroughly, to make sure that they’re not only legitimate, but also that they allocate the bulk of funds toward their causes rather than “administrative costs.”

Tips to avoid holiday scams

These strategies will also help keep you a step ahead of scammers:

  • Only shop online with reputable businesses you trust, using secure websites with an address that begins with https.
  • Don’t shop or bank over public Wi-Fi.
  • Protect your credit card privacy by covering your account number with your hand when shopping in public.
  • Don’t respond to suspicious unsolicited calls or emails. Only open email attachments from senders you trust, and contact businesses only through their official websites, phone numbers or email addresses.
  • Monitor your credit to catch fraud at its earliest stages.

Scammers may be smart, but you can still outsmart them. A little foreknowledge and caution go a long way toward ensuring you’ll enjoy a safe and memorable holiday season.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Getting Hitched Doesn’t Need to Mean Marrying Finances

Marriage generally implies that two homes and lives become one. Should it also involve a complete merging of earnings, assets and expenses? With money arguments being one of the leading causes of failed marriages, combining finances can be scary. For some couples it’s the right approach, but there are several other options.

The traditional approach

Just a few generations ago, one spouse was generally the breadwinner who paid all the bills. Although today most marriages involve two people who work, the traditional approach isn’t entirely obsolete. It can be effective when one partner is a stay at home parent or full-time student, or one spouse earns much more than the other. It’s also appropriate for couples choosing to bank one income to save for shared goals, such as a down payment for a home. Single breadwinner couples may merge assets or maintain separate accounts.

This type of arrangement works best when both partners have similar financial styles so that no one ends up feeling like a child having to ask for spending money or resenting the other for spending too much.

The share-everything approach

With this option, couples completely merge financial assets and responsibilities. All investments and debts are in both names and bills are typically paid from one joint account. Sharing everything works particularly well for couples that enter marriage with similar incomes and limited assets. As with the traditional approach, it’s vital that spouses have compatible styles to avoid feelings of resentment or deprivation.

The four-accounts approach

Sharing is beautiful but sometimes it’s also nice to have a little something of your own. With this arrangement, both partners contribute equally to a joint checking account used to handle household expenses and joint savings to reach shared goals. Their remaining income is deposited to individual accounts to be saved or spent at each partner’s discretion. This approach makes sense for couples with comparable incomes and debts, or when one partner is much more frugal than the other, since it lets both manage money as they see fit without straining the relationship. In cases where one spouse earns substantially more than the other, couples may want to contribute a percentage of their income as opposed to a fixed monthly amount to the joint accounts.

The what’s-mine-is-mine approach

Some couples may simply be more comfortable maintaining totally separate assets and liabilities. With this approach responsibility for household expenses may be split equally, divided according to ability to pay, or each spouse may pick which bills to cover. Keeping finances separate may make sense if one partner has a much larger income, net worth or debt than the other. When entering into marriage with vastly different financial positions, it’s also a good idea to consider a prenuptial agreement, whether or not separate or joint accounts are maintained.

Which way is best?

Whether and how completely to merge finances is ultimately a matter of individual style. With honest communication and trust, any of these vastly different approaches can work, giving those who choose what feels right a good chance at avoiding the bitter money conflicts that plague so many married couples.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

How to Help Aging Parents Without Going Broke

The stress involved in being a care provider for your parents is twofold: You want to make sure they’re not in pain, while making sure that you don’t hurt yourself financially. The balance is a delicate one.

Almost a third of adults ages 40 to 59 have provided financial support to a parent in the previous year, according to a recent Pew Research report. If you’re in that situation, see what you can do to help without burning through your savings or going into debt.

Understand your parents’ finances 

If you’re not used to asking your parents about their money situation, this can be a hard topic to broach. But it’s necessary. You want to know upfront about how far their funds will take them, including retirement savings, pensions and Social Security payments. A more important question is: Can they afford assisted living or a nursing home, should that become necessary, and for how long? Also check their insurance coverage should they need expensive drugs or extended hospital care.

Evaluate health coverage

Make sure your parents will have a way to handle future health costs. Although Medicare can cover hospital, medical and prescription drug costs, there are limits, and some expenses may need to be paid out of pocket. Look into options like the Medicare Savings Program for your state, and also use the National Council on Aging’s free service, BenefitsCheckUp.org, to see what other help may be available to your parents.

Get professional advice

Once it’s clear that your parents will need more help soon, get a geriatric care manager to assess the situation. These professionals work with families to determine the best course of action for quality of life in terms of housing, legal services, home care and other assistance. Who is best fit to hold a power of attorney for your parents, for instance, is an issue they can help you sort out.

Get family involved

If you’re not an only child or if you have family members who can help, don’t try to do it all on your own. It can burn you out, and sharing the financial costs with other relatives can help ensure that it’s a family effort.

Consider hospice care

Sending your parents to a nursing home might not be the best option. If a parent has a terminal illness, hospice can be a good alternative, and Medicare or Medicaid may cover all the costs, including care, medicine and other supplies. You’ll have to make sure the arrangement is approved through your parent’s health coverage. Also note that any conditions unrelated to a covered illness may not come under hospice benefits.

By checking on programs and services that can help your parents, you can make supporting them financially a last resort instead of your first.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

How to Protect Your Money and Accounts Online

Being able to bank or shop online is a great convenience, but you want to be sure you’re protecting yourself before you hit “send.” If the wrong people access your accounts, you might find yourself with a lot less money than you thought. Here are six steps you can take to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

1. Do your online shopping/banking from home

You’ve probably taken steps to secure your home network, so it makes sense to do most of your online activity there. Public computers are convenient, but be careful about entering passwords and sensitive account information when using these machines. Many will keep your login data in the web browser history, so after you leave, the next person who uses the computer might be able to see what you typed and access your account.

If you’re on your own laptop or mobile device but using public Wi-Fi to access the Internet, you could run into similar issues. You can’t be sure the network you’re on is secure, and if it’s not, a lurking hacker could see any information you send. When you use public Wi-Fi, consider updating the settings on your device to make sure you don’t automatically join networks you won’t use regularly.

If you have to shop or bank online while away from home, consider using a virtual private network, or VPN, service to protect your account information.

2. Install antivirus software

Many antivirus companies will send security patches to your computer automatically, so you don’t have to be a tech genius to get the most up-to-date protection. In addition to installing an antivirus program, it’s a good idea to check your operating system, web browser and mobile devices to make sure they also have the latest software updates.

3. Be smart with account passwords

Strong passwords include both uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, and they can’t easily be guessed. Security experts recommend that you change your passwords at least every few months. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts, especially your online banking accounts.

4. Don’t skimp on mobile security

Sometimes you may need to shop or bank online while you’re on the go. When using smartphones, tablets and laptops, you can help protect your accounts by adding a password to lock your device screen. Also, install a “find your phone” tool to help locate your device if it’s misplaced. Many such tools give you the ability to disable your device remotely, in case it can’t be recovered.

5. Remember, ‘secure’ starts with an ‘s’

Before sending over account numbers or other sensitive information, check to see whether your browser address bar begins with “https” instead of “http”. The extra “s” literally stands for “secure,” because the page is encrypted. In addition to checking for the “s,” you can also look to see whether the webpage has a seal from such organizations as the Better Business Bureau, Truste or VeriSign, which means the site is more likely to be trustworthy.

6. Shop with a credit card, not a debit card

With a credit card, you’ll generally have better consumer protection. If someone makes unauthorized charges, you’re only responsible for up to $50.

But with a debit card, your maximum liability is capped at $50 only if you report the card’s loss or theft within two business days after learning of it. After two days, you could be out $500 if you report a loss or theft within 60 days of getting your account statement — and beyond 60 days, you could lose all the money in your account, plus money taken from linked accounts.

No matter which card you have, set up automatic alerts to notify you when your card is used, and regularly check your statements for any charges you don’t recognize.

When you’re banking or shopping online, you don’t want to leave an open door for hackers. So it’s best to secure your accounts and your devices to protect your hard-earned money.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

6 Financial Traps New College Graduates Should Avoid

6 Financial Traps New College Graduates Should Avoid

As college seniors across the nation graduate and start their careers, their financial lifestyle should be top of mind, says the American Bankers Association. ABA has highlighted six traps new college graduates should avoid to fortify their finances as they transition from the dorm to the office.

“Now is the time for college grads to get their financial life started on the right foot,” said Corey Carlisle, executive director of the ABA Foundation. “When it comes to managing your finances in the real world, pulling an all-nighter isn’t the best strategy.  Forming positive financial habits today will set you up for lifelong success.”

According to ABA, new college graduates should avoid the following financial traps:

  • Not having a budget.  Don’t spend more than you make. Calculate the amount of money you’re taking home after taxes, then figure out how much money you can afford to spend each month while contributing to your savings. Be sure to factor in recurring expenses such as student loans, monthly rent, utilities, groceries, transportation expenses and car loans.
  • Forgoing an emergency fund.  Make it a priority to set aside the equivalent of three to six months’ worth of living expenses. Start putting some money away immediately, no matter how small the amount. A bank savings account is a smart place to stash your cash for a rainy day. Use your tax refund for this instead of an impulse buy.
  • Paying bills late – or not at all. Each missed payment can hurt your credit history for up to seven years, and can affect your ability to get loans, the interest rates you pay and your ability to get a job or rent an apartment. Consider setting up automatic payments for regular expenses like student loans, car payments and phone bills.
  • Racking up debt. Understand the responsibilities and benefits of credit.  Shop around for a card that best suits your needs, and spend only what you can afford to pay back. Credit is a great tool, but only if you use it responsibly.
  • Not thinking about the future.  It may seem odd since you’re just beginning your career, but now is the best time to start planning for your retirement. Contribute to your employer’s 401(k) or similar account, especially if there is a company match. Invest enough to qualify for your company’s full match – it’s free money that adds up to a significant chunk of change over the years.
  • Ignoring help from your bank. Most banks offer online, mobile and text banking tools to manage your account night and day.  Use these tools to check balances, pay bills, deposit checks, monitor transaction history and track budgets.

7 Ways to Avoid Online Fraud

7 Ways to Avoid Online Fraud

Internet fraud continues to be a growing problem in the U.S. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, the agency received approximately 270,000 complaints from consumers who were exposed to online fraud in 2014 — up from nearly 263,000 in 2013. In recognition of Internet Safety Month in June, the American Bankers Association is offering seven tips to help online users safely navigate the web while averting online threats.

“Fraudsters are using every tool, resource and tactic imaginable to get a hold of your personal information,” said Doug Johnson, ABA’s senior vice president of payments and cybersecurity policy. “As you navigate the web, it’s extremely important that you safeguard your personal information by developing stronger network passwords and ensuring that your online security software is up to date.”

ABA recommends the following tips to keep you safe online:

  • Keep your computers and mobile devices up to date.  Having the latest security software, web browser, and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware, and other online threats. Turn on automatic updates so you receive the newest fixes as they become available.
  • Set strong passwords. A strong password is at least eight characters in length and includes a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.
  • Watch out for phishing scams. Phishing scams use fraudulent emails and websites to trick users into disclosing private account or login information. Do not click on links or open any attachments or pop-up screens from sources you are not familiar with. Forward phishing emails to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at spam@uce.gov – and to the company, bank, or organization impersonated in the email.
  • Keep personal information personal. Hackers can use social media profiles to figure out your passwords and answer those security questions in the password reset tools. Lock down your privacy settings and avoid posting things like birthdays, addresses, mother’s maiden name, etc.  Be wary of requests to connect from people you do not know.
  • Secure your internet connection. Always protect your home wireless network with a password. When connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, be cautious about what information you are sending over it.
  • Shop safely. Before shopping online, make sure the website uses secure technology. When you are at the checkout screen, verify that the web address begins with https. Also, check to see if a tiny locked padlock symbol appears on the page.
  • Read the site’s privacy policies. Though long and complex, privacy policies tell you how the site protects the personal information it collects. If you don’t see or understand a site’s privacy policy, consider doing business elsewhere.

Five Steps to Cut Your Data Security Risks

Hackers are a particularly stubborn bunch. Each new security advance just motivates them to come up with a better game plan. A new case of identity theft occurs about every two seconds, so you need to be informed and vigilant to avoid becoming a victim. Here are five simple steps you can take to protect your identity online.

 

  1. Practice wise web habits

 

The United States is adopting the use of credit cards with microchips that will largely eliminate the use of counterfeit cards and reduce the threat of fraud when you use your card in person.

However, statistics on credit fraud indicate that the drop in counterfeiting will be accompanied by an increase in online fraud as criminals put more emphasis there. That change will make practicing safe web habits more important than ever.

 

For the safest web experience, avoid public Wi-Fi networks where hackers can easily access your activities. Instead, stick with secure home networks. If you must shop or bank on the go, install a virtual private network, or VPN, which hides your IP address and encrypts information to maintain privacy.

 

All websites aren’t created equal, so exchange sensitive information only over secure sites and with organizations you know and trust. While reputable financial institutions such as First National Bank of Pasco provide strong remote banking security, retail sites still require careful inspection. Identify secure sites by a web address beginning with “https” and a picture of a locked padlock in the address bar. It’s still important to log out of all accounts after completing transactions and to delete cookies regularly.

 

  1. Update devices

 

Hackers are constantly working to outsmart security software, so stay one step ahead by installing the latest browser version and operating system on your smartphone, laptop or other device. Additionally, be sure to regularly upgrade to the most recent versions of firewall, antivirus and antispyware programs.

 

  1. Create strong passwords — but don’t get attached to them

 

As tempting as it is to use your birthday or favorite hobby as a password, keep in mind that when passwords are easy for you, they soon become easy for identity thieves. Foil hackers by avoiding the obvious and by including symbols, numbers, and both upper- and lowercase letters. Don’t get too comfortable with these passwords, though: For the best security, change your login information frequently.

 

  1. Don’t be fooled by scammers

 

Identity theft scams can be quite convincing if you’re not wise to them. Often they come in the form of emails that look like they’ve been sent from familiar companies. These messages may indicate that there’s a problem with your account and instruct you to click on links and enter information in order to fix the issue.

 

Don’t fall for it. No legitimate business would make this type of unsolicited request. The links provided will most likely take you to copycat websites designed to steal your passwords, account numbers and other personal data. Never click on links in suspicious emails, and contact businesses only through their official websites and phone numbers.

 

  1. Nip trouble in the bud

 

No matter how careful you are, sometimes identity theft still happens. Catching fraud early is key to prevent it from escalating, so monitor your checking and savings account statements and credit reports regularly.

 

If you spot a problem, don’t panic. Notifying the financial institution or retailer involved immediately can help ensure that you won’t be held responsible. To help prevent future crimes, report any fraud incidents to the Federal Trade Commission.

 

Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet

 

© Copyright 2015 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved