Personal Finance

4 Tips for Secure Holiday Shopping

Although the holiday season is known for gift giving and good cheer, it’s also known for an increase in cybercrime and identity theft. Before you get a jump start on your holiday shopping, follow these four tips to ensure that you’re protecting yourself this season.

 

1.  Watch out for gift card scams.


Lately, there’s been an increase in gift card phishing scams. Typically, an attacker pretends to be someone you know and asks you to purchase a gift card on his or her behalf and e-mail back the redemption code. Don’t fall for this common scam.

 
 

2. Make smart decisions about your smart device.


Internet-connected home devices (e.g., smart security cameras, smart light bulbs, smart speakers, Amazon Echo, Google Home) are all the rage this year, but they may not be as secure as your typical “up-to-date” computer, potentially leaving them vulnerable to attacks. When setting up your new device, be sure to check out the settings or manual to enable any helpful security features it comes with.

 
 

3.  Check your online accounts manually—without clicking on links.


Holiday season is peak time for fake delivery notifications, order confirmations, and password reset e-mails. Rather than clicking on links from within the confirmation e-mail, open a new browser window and log in to your accounts that way.

 
 

4. Consider freezing your credit.


Don’t let identity theft ruin your holidays. Now that credit freezes are free, it may be worth placing a freeze on your credit file to prevent any unauthorized accounts from being opened.

 

If you have any questions about safe holiday shopping this year, feel free to call me at 919-463-0018.

Wishing you and your family happy holidays!

Are You Maximizing Your Employee Benefits?

For many of you, your salary and bonus are likely just a part of the total compensation you receive from your employer. Why not give yourself a raise by learning about and taking advantage of all your company benefits? This article will help you ensure that you’re making the most of the benefits your employer offers.

Retirement Plans

Your company’s 401(k) plan can play an important role in your future financial security. If your employer matches contributions, you should be contributing at least enough to get the maximum match. If you plan to max out your contributions, make sure you don’t do so too early in the year and potentially miss out on the matching.

For those of you that are considered highly compensated, your employer may also provide a nonqualified deferred compensation plan with matching to cover wages above the qualified limit. It is important to find out how the plans interact and how you can maximize your benefit.

Stock Options and RSUs

Some companies still grant employee stock options as a form of compensation. These can add significant value to your long-term financial success, but they can be complicated and have additional risk that needs to be considered.

 
  • Risk of termination before vesting

  • Risk of market volatility in the stock price

  • Risk of asset concentration

 

There are also several tax considerations that need to be evaluated when working with stock options and RSUs. I recommend working with a financial advisor to determine what works best for you.

Health Insurance

Many companies subsidize health insurance coverage for their employees, and some offer a choice of different plans.

 
  • HMOs generally have lower premiums and lower costs to access health care but limit which providers you can see.

  • PPOs allow you to choose any physician, but they charge higher fees if you decide to see an out-of-network provider.

 

Before selecting a plan, I recommend confirming that your doctor is a preferred provider.

If one of your health insurance choices is a high-deductible health plan, you may have the option to set aside money in a health savings account (HSA) to pay for qualified health care expenses on a pretax basis. HSA contributions remain in your account until you use them, distributions for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and the account is portable. Some companies even contribute to employees’ HSA accounts.

Flexible Spending Account

Your company may offer flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for a variety of expenses, including health care, dependent care, transportation, and parking. If you have any of these qualified expenses, you may benefit by having pretax money taken out of your paycheck to fund them. For example, if it costs you $100 per month to park at work, you can set aside that amount in an FSA to cover the expense. By contrast, you’d have to earn $157.36 to pay for this expense after taxes, assuming a total tax rate of 36.45 percent.

Life and Disability Insurance

Some employers provide life insurance coverage equal to a multiple of your salary. In many cases you may be able to purchase group supplemental life insurance coverage through payroll deductions. While this can be convenient, the coverage amounts and features may be limited, so I recommend shopping the market to ensure that you’re getting coverage at the best price.

Your employer may also pay for long-term disability insurance. LTD payments from an employer-paid policy are taxable to you; if you pay the premiums, you will receive LTD payments tax-free. If your company gives you the option of paying for your own LTD coverage, you should weigh the cost of covering the premiums yourself versus the benefit of receiving tax-free payments.

Additional Benefits

Some companies offer employee discounts on everything from wireless plans and vision care to movie tickets, hotels, and car rentals. Your employer may also offer reimbursement for certain education expenses.

I see far too often employees missing out on key employer benefits. Working with an adviser and doing a little research could be well worth your while! Contact Us today so we can help you maximize your benefits.

Take Charge of Your Student Debt Repayment Plan

Student loans are a lot like a ball and chain, slowing down what could be a perfectly good financial plan. Outstanding student loan debt in the United States has tripled over the last decade, surpassing both auto and credit card debt to take second place behind housing debt as the most common type of household debt. Today, more than 44 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.4 trillion in student debt. Here are some strategies to pay it off.

Look to your employer for help

The first place to look for help is your employer. While only about 4% of employers offer student debt assistance as an employee benefit, it's predicted that more employers will offer this benefit in the future to attract and retain talent.

Many employers are targeting a student debt assistance benefit of $100 per month.3 That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. For example, an employee with $31,000 in student loans who is paying them off over 10 years at a 6% interest rate would save about $3,000 in interest and get out of debt two and a half years faster.

Understand all your repayment options

Unfortunately, your student loans aren't going away. But you might be able to choose a repayment option that works best for you. The repayment options available to you will depend on whether you have federal or private student loans. Generally, the federal government offers a broader array of repayment options than private lenders. The following payment options are for federal student loans. (If you have private loans, check with your lender to see which options are available.)

 

Standard plan: You pay a certain amount each month over a 10-year term. If your interest rate is fixed, you'll pay a fixed amount each month; if your interest rate is variable, your monthly payment will change from year to year (but it will be the same each month for the 12 months that a certain interest rate is in effect).

Extended plan: You extend the time you have to pay the loan, typically anywhere from 15 to 30 years. Your monthly payment is lower than it would be under a standard plan, but you'll pay more interest over the life of the loan because the repayment period is longer.

You have $31,000 in student loans with a 6% fixed interest rate. Under a standard plan, your monthly payment would be $344, and your total payment over the term of the loan would be $41,300, of which $10,300 (25%) is interest. Under an extended plan, if the term were increased to 20 years, your monthly payment would be $222, but your total payment over the term of the loan would be $53,302, of which $22,302 (42%) is interest.

Graduated plan: Payments start out low in the early years of the loan, then increase in the later years of the loan. With some graduated repayment plans, the initial lower payment includes both principal and interest, while under other plans the initial lower payment includes interest only.

Income-driven repayment plan: Your monthly payment is based on your income and family size. The federal government offers four income-driven repayment plans for federal student loans only:

 
 
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE)

  • Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)

  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

 
 

You aren't automatically eligible for these plans; you need to fill out an application (and reapply each year). Depending on the plan, your monthly payment is set between 10% and 20% of your discretionary income, and any remaining loan balance is forgiven at the end of the repayment period (generally 20 or 25 years depending on the plan, but 10 years for borrowers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program). For more information on the nuances of these plans or to apply for an income-driven plan, visit the federal student aid website at studentaid.ed.gov.

 

Can you refinance?

Yes, but only with a new private loan. (There is a federal consolidation loan, but that is different.) The main reason for trying to refinance your federal and/or private student loans into a new private loan is to obtain a lower interest rate. You'll need to shop around to see what's available.

If you refinance, your old loans will go away and you will be bound by the terms and conditions of your new private loan. If you had federal student loans, this means you will lose any income-driven repayment options.

Watch out for repayment scams

Beware of scammers contacting you to say that a special federal loan assistance program can permanently reduce your monthly payments and is available for an initial fee or ongoing monthly payments. There is no fee to apply for any federal repayment plan.

Still Need Help?

Student loans can be complicated and can have a significant impact on your long-term financial success. It’s important to develop the right plan for your unique situation. Don’t let your student loan debt derail your financial progress Contact Us for a free consultation.

Credit Card Dos and Don'ts

The Basics: A credit card is issued by a financial company that gives the holder an option to borrow funds, usually at the point of purchase. Credit cards charge interest and are used primarily for short-term financing. Interest typically begins to be charged one month after a purchase is made, and borrowing limits are pre-set according to an individual’s credit rating.

If you're like me, you probably receive multiple offers weekly from credit card companies seeking new customers with easy to complete applications. In fact, I'd be willing to bet you have one or two sitting in your mailbox right now! These of course are almost always unsolicited. Before you sign on the dotted line and mail in one of those application, you need to know more. Here are some dos and don’ts regarding credit cards.

 
"Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving."
                                    - Warren Buffett
 
 

Dos

Shop around. The credit card industry is very competitive, so compare interest rates, credit limits, grace periods, annual fees, terms, and conditions.

Read the fine print. The application is a contract, so read it thoroughly before you sign it. Watch for terms such as “introductory rate,” and be sure you know when that introductory rate of interest expires.

Pay your bill in full each month. Pay off your statement each month in full and on time; otherwise, you will begin paying interest charges and may be charged late fees. Paying off your bill each month can also help ensure that you stay out of debt.

Track your spending. Look closely at your credit card statements each month to be sure that you actually approved the charges that appear. Mistakes can happen, and you don’t want to pay more than you agreed to.

Pay attention to changes in your credit agreement. Occasionally, the credit card company will send you updates on the contract you have with it. If you don’t pay attention, you could miss something important.

 
 

Don’ts

Don’t spend money you don’t have. Buying things without the money in your savings account can lead you down a dangerous path. Before you know it, you could be in a lot of debt with no way to pay it off.

Stay below your maximum credit limit. Creditors want to see that you know how to use your card wisely. Keeping your balance low and making payments in full are good ways to do that. Just because the option to spend more is there doesn’t mean that you should take advantage of it.

Don’t sign up for store credit cards just to receive a discount. Opening a credit line at a store to obtain a discount on a purchase then and there may not be a good idea. Remember that credit cards affect your credit score and that opening too many can actually hurt it. Plus, store credit cards tend to have much higher interest rates than those offered by financial institutions.

Don’t apply for additional credit cards if you have balances on others. Pay your balances on existing cards before you open new accounts. Getting in this habit will make you less likely to open too many accounts.

Don’t give your credit card to someone else. Whether you authorize it or not, giving your credit card to someone else to use is against the law.

 

Although having a credit card is important in helping you to establish a credit history, they are often misused. A credit card can be a powerful tool in the hands of a responsible individual, but it can be even more powerful in a destructive way in the hands of someone who is unaware of its pitfalls. Keep these tips in mind before obtaining and using a credit card.

Building Your Budget: Start With The Basics

A budget is an estimate of income and expenses for a set period of time. Creating a budget can help you get control of your finances and achieve important financial goals, including buying a car, saving for college, purchasing a home, and providing for a family. It can also be beneficial in meeting unexpected financial challenges, such as losing a job. Honestly I know this doesn't sound fun or exciting, but budgeting will help you improve every aspect of your financial life, and the earlier you begin, the better off you’ll be.

Write down your financial goals.

Before you start evaluating how much you can actually save each month to achieve your important goals, you should consider setting some near-term financial goals. This is essential to tracking your progress. So you need to:

 

· Determine what percentage of your paycheck you would like to save.

· Decide how much money you would like to save each month or how much money you need to save in order to achieve one of your longer-term financial goals.

· Consider how much money you want to allocate to future purchases, as well as how much you want to contribute to an emergency fund and a retirement plan.

 

Whether your goal is to put away a couple of hundred—or a few thousand—dollars every year, you need to know what that amount is. Once you have a realistic idea regarding how much you’d like to save, review the steps below, which can help you determine precisely how much you actually can save.

Next Steps

 

1. Track your income for a month. Figure out how much you make per month. Think in terms of your net income, that is, the amount of money you actually take home (i.e., your net pay) after federal, state and local taxes; contributions to employer-sponsored health insurance; and so forth have been subtracted from your gross pay.

2. Track your expenses for a month. This is the most important step to budget creation. You should record every purchase you make—without exception. No dollar should escape accountability. If you bank online, it is extremely easy to track noncash expenses and debit card charges by simply exporting the information from your user login to a spreadsheet.  

3. Create spending categories. Split your expenses into luxury items and necessities. Necessities would include rent, groceries, car payments, insurance, utilities, and so on. Luxuries would include dining out, entertainment, and other unnecessary items (e.g., extra trips to Starbucks).

To be safe, you should include your saving goal as a necessary item, so you would be less likely to sacrifice saving for other luxuries. Excel is a wonderful tool for this because you can color code your expenses, making it more obvious to tell which type of expense is which.

4. Evaluate your budget. This is the final step in budget preparation. Take a good look at your expenses. Do you see numerous luxury items that you can live without? One benefit to having expenses displayed on an electronic spreadsheet is the ability to make quick and easy calculations. You can set limits on your spending based on the results of your calculations. 

 

Besides preparing yourself for big purchases later in life, your budget can help save you from going into debt in the event of an emergency that requires you to unexpectedly spend a large amount of money.

Check your budget frequently

Keep in mind that it’s important to check your budget frequently to be aware of any changes that may have occurred in your financial situation. Every three months is a good rule of thumb for tracking your spending habits. Not doing so could result in overspending, under saving, and therefore delaying your big financial goals.

What are you waiting for? Get started now!

Now that you know how valuable a budget can be to your financial future and achieving your dreams, what are you waiting for? No doubt you’ll want to begin a savings program as soon as possible. Begin by considering the steps outlined here. Our Wealth Wise Plan program would provide you with personalized financial portal to help you track, monitor and improve your budget and cash flow situation. Contact Us today!

Emergency Fund: Preparing For The Unexpected

You’ve probably heard how important it is to establish and maintain an emergency fund. Unfortunately, most people don’t fully realize how important this is until a financial emergency strikes. Are you financially prepared for a leaky roof? How about a broken-down car? If you lost your job, how long would you be able to support yourself and your family until you got a new one? 

An emergency fund is money that you’ve set aside to be used in these critical situations, whether its to handle a minor home repair or to pay for something more serious, like medical bills. Despite the importance of having an emergency fund, however, more than three in five Americans have accumulated no savings for unforeseen expenses, according to a recent Bankrate report.

So what do you do? 

Set a goal

How much you need to save depends on a variety of factors. Generally speaking, your emergency fund should cover three to six months of living expenses. I always tell clients to start with three months and aim to work your way up to six months. There are plenty of free online tools that can help you figure out how much you should have on hand.

Keep your funds accessible

It’s important to pick a bank and a savings vehicle that will give you easy access to your emergency fund when you need it. Consider keeping a portion of your money in a regular savings account, as it will provide some return and you’ll be able to withdraw it at any time without penalty. Online banks such as Ally Bank offer significantly higher interest rates when compared to your local banks. For longer-term funding, you might want to use a savings vehicle with higher interest, such as a certificate of deposit (CD) or multiple CDs.  

Avoid savings pitfalls

Naturally, there may be obstacles to overcome as you build your emergency fund. Take a look at some of the most common pitfalls and ways to avoid them:

 

Using your credit card as an emergency fund.

Although credit cards may be convenient, there is a lot to consider before turning to plastic. Using your credit card will likely resolve the immediate need, but when you think about interest on the debt and possible penalties, it may not be worth it in the long run. 

Cheating other accounts to fund your emergency stash.

Withdrawing money allocated to other resources, particularly your retirement savings account, can do long-term damage to your financial picture. If you borrow from your retirement account and default on the loan, you could face serious tax implications and penalties. Think of it this way: taking cash out of your retirement account is like stealing from your future self.

Thinking that you can’t afford it.

The most common excuse for not maintaining an emergency fund is that you don’t make enough money to save. Although your budget may be tight, you don’t need to put away hundreds or thousands of dollars all at once. Starting small works just as well. You might try making your morning coffee at home instead of buying it or bringing your lunch to work instead of going out. The savings may not be dramatic initially, but it will add up.

 

Start today!

Establish your savings goal, figure out how much money you need to put away every month, and stick to the plan. Remember: it’s better to have an emergency fund and never use it than to face hard times with no means to support yourself and your family! If you have questions or want help, please don't hesitate to send me a message.

 
"It's not how much money you make, it's how you save it"
                                            -Anonymous