Five Steps to Organizing Your Finances

Do you know your net worth? Or how much you spend each month, and on what? Or how much you can expect from your pension plan or Social Security in retirement?

A majority of the population will answer “no,” saying they’ve been too busy with life to get a handle on their finances.

Fortunately, there’s a 5-step action plan to help you take control of your money.

1.Set up a financial filing system either manually or online. Keep separate folders for different expenses and records, for instance “Auto Expenses,” “Insurance,” “Mortgage,” “XYZ Credit Card,” etc.. There are also many online apps that will allow you to do this electronically.

2. Gather records. Look through your records to identify missing information. For example, you need an estimate of your Social Security retirement benefits. To request one, visit ssa.gov or call 800-772-1213. Gather copies of your health, disability, life, homeowners, and vehicle insurance policies, and get a copy of your credit report.

You can check your credit report—the summary of your credit activity that generates your credit score—from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once a year for free. Always make your requests from the annualcreditreport.com website, the only site sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission. Or, you can call 877-322-8228.

Make one request every four months in rotation among the three credit agencies so you can monitor your credit report year round.

3. Size up your situation. Add the estimated current value of all assets, including your home, car, personal property, savings, investments, and retirement accounts.

Next, add all liabilities, including mortgage, credit card balances, and any other outstanding debt. Then subtract liabilities from assets to figure net worth.

Then, make a list of income and expenses by reviewing paycheck stubs, online checking account information or your checkbook register, and credit card statements from the past year. Finally, track spending for a month by saving all receipts or recording cash purchases in a notebook. You also can find a spending plan or money management software program that can help organize spending by category.

4. Chart a course. Set financial goals–long term and short term–and figure how much money you’ll need for each. Create a target saving and spending plan that meets needs using your list of income expenses. For a month or more, track actual spending to see how you’re doing, making changes as necessary

5. Brush up on money management basics. Contact or visit Hopewell Federal Credit Union for more information about how to save and spend finances wisely.

Copyright 2017 Credit Union National Association, Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

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Smart Phone, Smart Saver

Phone apps have changed our lives. We now have, at our fingertips, the ability to access information 24/7, wherever we are. There are a number of useful apps that can even help you save money and track your spending.

Level Money — Are you often struggling at the end of the month to pay your bills, wondering where all your money went? This app helps you keep track of your spending by letting you set daily, weekly, or monthly limits on how much you can spend. You begin with your actual bank balance and subtract essentials like rent and utilities. The remaining balance is what you can spend on non-essentials. You can even set alerts to warn you when you only have a certain amount of money left.

Mint — This is a budgeting app that links to your banking and credit card accounts and keeps track all of your spending. It will analyze how and where you spend your money, suggest a budget, and even suggest how to reduce the money you spend on monthly bills and fees. It also alerts you when bills are due or your bank balance falls below a certain amount.

Flipp — Like a traditional Sunday newspaper, this app tells you all the sales and special offers currently available, at as well as help you find coupons. It covers weekly ads from 800+ retailers, including supermarkets, pharmacies, and big retailers, like Target or Walmart. If you’re a member of a store’s loyalty program, it can automatically apply discounts when you use your loyalty card at checkout.

Good Budget — This app uses the envelope system of budgeting. You begin by placing a certain amount of money for each expense (rent, groceries, gas, eating out, etc.) into its own category. This app keeps track of each amount, helping you to stay on budget. It also allows you and your spouse to sync your account, letting both of you know who’s spending, where it’s going, and how much is left in each “envelope.”

ShopSavvy — When you’re out shopping in a store, this app lets you scan the bar codes on merchandise and compare prices from other local and online competitors to see whose price is better. It offers special cash-back deals and you can set up notifications to alert you when a specific product goes on sale.

Copyright 2017 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

When Is the Best Time to Buy Plane Tickets?

It’s a familiar — and frustrating — experience: Planning a trip and checking airfares every few days, waiting for the perfect price to appear. Finding the opportune moment to buy is no easy feat.

Plane ticket costs fluctuate constantly. In fact, during the typical 11-month period a flight is listed, the price changes every four and a half days on average, according to CheapAir.com’s annual airfare study.

So when is the optimal time to book? That depends on where and when you plan to travel. While there’s no sure bet, we’re offering some guidance to help you out.

Domestic flights (within the continental U.S.)

When: Between 21 and 105 days in advance; in particular, 54 days in advance.

Why: Airlines tend to price flights on the higher side at first, because there’s not yet a strong sense of the market demand, says Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, an airfare analysis app. After that, it’s simple economics: If demand is low, prices fall. If it’s high, prices get higher. Wait too long, seats fill up and the costs increase. “So there’s usually that sweet spot — two, three, four months in advance — depending on where you’re flying to,” Surry says.

What to expect: Spikes and dips in cost still occur, but your best chance to secure a ticket on the cheaper end lies within this window, according to the CheapAir study. You may have fewer seats and routes to choose from compared with when the flight was first announced, but competition, and therefore sales, will likely heat up.

International flights

When: Between 59 and 119 days in advance, depending on the region. Here’s a breakdown of the best times on average:

  • Canada: 59 days in advance
  • Mexico and Central America: 61 days in advance
  • Caribbean: 76 days in advance
  • South America: 81 days in advance
  • South Pacific: 89 days in advance
  • Asia: 90 days in advance
  • Europe: 99 days in advance
  • Africa and the Middle East: 119 days in advance

Why: The prime booking window for international trips is farther out than for domestic excursions, in part because these flights are generally costlier. The more expensive the purchase, the earlier the typical person plans, Surry says. If seats are grabbed early, that leaves a longer period for airlines to hike up prices for the remaining supply. Another explanation is that international fares are especially prone to seasonal variations. “So buying the lowest fare in high season as soon as dates are firm is generally a wise course of action,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Company, an airline industry analysis and consulting firm, in an email.

What to expect: Frequent, sometimes drastic, shifts in ticket costs.

Best days of the week to book

When: Wednesday and Thursday

Why: Computers normally control airline ticket prices using complex algorithms, which makes it difficult to predict the exact day when fares are lowest. However, humans decide when to schedule flash sales — short-lived deals that usually last a day or two — and these often pop up during the week, Surry says. This could explain why more destinations — in both domestic and international markets — see their lowest fares on Wednesdays and Thursdays than any other days, according to a study conducted by Hopper.

What to expect: Tickets might be less expensive — but not by much. The average savings between the best and worst days of the week to shop are about $10 for domestic markets and about $30 for international markets, according to Hopper.

“You’ll save a lot more by booking farther in advance, typically, than you will by picking a specific day of the week,” Surry says.

Note that prices vary based on which days of the week the departure and return are.

Anticipate seasonal anomalies

The above guidance won’t apply in all circumstances. Allow yourself extra buffer room for peak times, such as weekends and holidays. For less desirable periods, like the cold winter months, you can procrastinate a bit longer.

When to buy (for domestic flights):

  • Winter: 54 days in advance
  • Spring: 75 days in advance
  • Summer: 76 days in advance
  • Fall: 47 days in advance

Why: Sensing a pattern? That’s right — it’s another case of supply and demand. Seats sell out faster during busy seasons. The same goes for international voyages.

What to expect: Buying tickets on the best day versus the worst day for each season yields more than $200 in savings, according to CheapAir. However, there are exceptions within each season. With some high-demand travel times, ticket costs are relatively static. For example, domestic plane tickets are expected to hold steady around $300 round trip for Thanksgiving, according to data from Skyscanner, a travel search site.

Maximum savings for Christmas and New Year’s Eve can be found in the three to seven weeks leading up to each holiday.

More ways to save

Counting down the days isn’t always the best way to get a cheap flight. The next time you’re hunting for a deal, try these tips:

  • Use a flight comparison tool. Apps and websites like Hopper, Skyscanner and Airfarewatchdog automatically track fares and can alert you to the best time to buy a ticket for your desired route.
  • Check social media. Follow travel companies and airlines on sites like Twitter and Facebook for up-to-date sale announcements.
  • Ask for a price adjustment. “If you find that the fare drops subsequent to your decision to buy, ask the carrier to match it. Some will, and Southwest and Alaska often do so without change fees,” Mann says. However, airlines will often issue refunds in the form of travel credit.
  • Be flexible. Keeping your options open can help you save money. Try moving dates around or flying out of different airports.

The article When Is the Best Time to Buy Plane Tickets? originally appeared on NerdWallet.

How to Protect Yourself from the Massive Equifax Hack

The bad news is that there’s a good chance your personal information was stolen during the massive data hack of Equifax, one of America’s three largest credit reporting agency. The thieves stole the social security numbers, dates of birth, names and addresses of 143 million Americans—that’s about 60% of the adult population of the United States.

This is particularly dangerous because with that information, the thieves could steal your identity to take out new loans in your name, alter your existing accounts, and ruin your good credit. But the good news is…well, there isn’t much good news to a hack of this size.

Still, if you act quickly, it’s possible you can protect yourself. Here are the steps you need to take sooner rather than later.

1. Find out if your information was compromised. Visit https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/ and click the “check potential impact” button.

2. If it says your information was likely stolen, at a minimum you should sign up for the free credit monitoring Equifax is offering for a year.

But that level of protection likely isn’t enough. The thieves still have your personal information and could use it to apply to lenders who don’t use Equifax. Also, because the thieves have your social security number, they could wait and use it a year or five or ten years from now—unless America totally rethinks the system it uses to identify everyone, that still leaves you vulnerable.

Here are some other steps you should consider taking, adapted from the Federal Trade Commissions recommendations:

• Start checking your your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — for free — by visiting annualcreditreport.com. You can check each one time a year for free. Space them out in four month intervals, so you’re regularly getting up-to-date information. If you see evidence of identity theft, visit IdentityTheft.gov to find out what to do.

• Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. A credit freeze won’t prevent a thief from making charges to your existing accounts, but implementing a freeze at all three of the major credit bureaus means they won’t be able to issue a report to any company that doesn’t already have you has a customer, making it harder for the thieves to use your information to open a new line of credit. You can unfreeze it with a special PIN when you want to apply for a new loan.

• Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for charges you don’t recognize.

• If you decide against a credit freeze, consider placing a fraud alert on your files. A fraud alert warns creditors that you may be an identity theft victim and that they should verify that anyone seeking credit in your name really is you.

• File your taxes early — as soon as you have the tax information you need, before a scammer can. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your social security number to get a tax refund or a job. Respond right away to letters from the IRS.

By putting a freeze on your accounts, checking your credit reports regularly, and monitoring activity on your existing accounts, you’ll be doing everything you can to protect yourself.

Copyright 2017 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

Do you know the credit union difference?

International Credit Union Day is celebrated annually on the third Thursday of October and celebrates how credit unions help consumers reach their financial dreams through its people helping people philosophy. In the Ohio Credit Union League’s 2017 Consumer Survey, respondents were asked what differences between credit unions and other financial institutions they found to be most significant.

Lower interest rates on loans had the top spot with 35 percent of respondents citing it as the most significant difference. A close second at 34 percent, was fewer and lower fees compared to other financial institutions. Credit unions being member-owned, with profits going back to benefit members, was named as the most significant difference for 24 percent of respondents.

Credit unions are known for their service-centric model, and 90 percent of the respondents to the League’s survey rated the service they received from credit unions as “outstanding.”

The American Customer Satisfaction Index consistently shows credit unions deliver excellent service to members. The most recent report, on its 100-point scale, ACSI said credit unions received an overall score of 82, up from 81 the previous year.

The World Council of Credit Unions data indicates there are 231.2 million credit union members worldwide who belong to 68,880 credit unions in 109 countries. In the United States, according to the Credit Union National Association, as of June 2017, there were 110.6 million members of 5,812 credit unions in the United States.

In Ohio, the state’s 284 credit unions serve 2.9 million members, and by choosing credit unions as their financial institutions, according to CUNA’s Member Benefits Index, those Ohioans received more than $206 million in direct financial benefits in the past year.

Credit unions serve a common field of membership based on characteristics such as a geographical area, employee groups, or membership in an organization. Every resident of Ohio is eligible to join a credit union, and deposits are protected by the federal government’s National Credit Union Administration insurance or the private American Share Insurance.

So, if you’re trying to decide on a financial institution, keep the following in mind:

  • Do your research: Online reviews, consumer surveys, and regulatory agency reports are all good resources to find out how financial institutions treat consumers and how they conduct their business. The FDIC (banks) and NCUA (credit unions) each have searchable databases on the size, financial health, and insurance status of the financial institutions they regulate.
  • Compare your needs with their strengths: If you primarily conduct your financial transactions online, you’ll want an institution that offers online or mobile banking. If ATM fees are an issue, look for surcharge-free networks or institutions that reimburse you for fees. If you need advice on planning for the future, choose an institution with a strong financial wellness program. If you need a car loan or a mortgage, look for the lowest loan interest rates.
  • Choose to be involved: If you have an account with a credit union, you are both a member and an owner. This process guarantees you a voice and ensures that your credit union is looking out for your best financial interests and not that of a small group of stockholders.

Whether you are looking for your first loan, would like to start a small business, or just want to get rid of debt, a credit union can help. They offer many of the same services as other financial institutions but are not-for-profit. They treat you like a person, not a dollar sign. To learn more about credit unions and how they help members achieve their dreams, whatever they may be, visit www.aSmarterChoice.org.

How to Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit, and Why

Just about everyone with a pulse and a credit file is worried about whether data breaches, such as the massive Equifax hack, have exposed their personal data to scammers.

When you’re worried about identity theft, the simplest way to add a layer of protection to your credit file is a fraud alert. It’s a free, 90-day service that requires businesses to take extra care when issuing credit in your name.

What a fraud alert requires

When you have a fraud alert, a business must use “reasonable policies and procedures to form a reasonable belief” that the person applying for credit in your name is actually you.

Businesses handling a credit application may try to contact you directly, usually by phone, or may hire an identity verification service.

You’ll almost certainly be unable to get “instant credit,” such as a store card offered at the register. It also may delay the process of getting a mortgage or car loan.

Choosing between an alert and something stronger

If you’re worried about identity theft — let’s say your Social Security card is missing or you lost your wallet — a fraud alert protects your credit while you track down your misplaced wallet or card.

However, stronger, longer-lasting protections are available in the form of a credit freeze or credit lock. Rather than requiring extra verification before a business accesses your credit file, they make it inaccessible unless you unfreeze or unlock it.

Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG, a federation of nonprofits that push for policy change, recommends fraud alerts for anyone who chooses not to freeze their credit. It’s quicker than a freeze or lock, because you have to contact just one agency, and it’s free.

>> MORE: Credit freeze and credit lock: What’s the difference?

How to apply a fraud alert

You can call, go online or write to any one of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Whichever bureau you contact will notify the other two:

Experian: 888-397-3742; equifax.com; Experian, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: 800-680-7289; transunion.com; TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

Equifax: 888-766-0008; equifax.com; Equifax Consumer Fraud Division, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374

Make sure the credit bureau has correct contact information for you.

The alert will expire in 90 days; make a note of that date in case you want to renew it.

Each credit bureau should contact you to confirm the alert and offer instructions on how to get a free copy of your credit report in addition to the one you can get every 12 months by using AnnualCreditReport.com. Keep the letter or email verifying the alert in case a lender doesn’t follow the requirements and someone opens a fraudulent account.

Special fraud alerts

If you have been a victim of identity theft or are serving in the military, you may be eligible for an alert lasting longer than 90 days.

Extended alerts: If you’ve created an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission, you’re eligible for a seven-year alert. Extended fraud alerts also come with additional free credit reports.

Alerts for military: Service members can place an active-duty credit alert to protect their credit while they’re deployed. It lasts one year and can be renewed to match the period of deployment.

How to renew or lift a fraud alert

You can lift a fraud alert early by calling one credit bureau and providing identifying information. However, there’s little reason to do so. Alerts expire on their own unless you renew them. Mark your calendar and contact one of the credit bureaus if you wish to extend the protection.

Because alerts are the lowest level of added protection and expire, if you find yourself continually renewing an alert, consider stepping up to a lock or freeze.

Stay vigilant

Fraud alerts, credit freezes and locks all aim to prevent new accounts from being opened fraudulently. They don’t prevent fraudulent charges from being made on an account you’ve already opened.

Stay on the lookout for fraud in your existing accounts:

  • Check credit card statements for charges you don’t recognize. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name on transactions, so you can investigate anything that looks off.
  • Sign up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set a transaction amount so you’re alerted to anything over that.

If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it. Your card issuer can’t charge interest or fees on the transaction while it’s being investigated.

The article How to Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit, and Why originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Need a New Appliance? Learn, Compare — Then Ask for a Deal

Unless you’re an expert in spin cycles, buying an appliance could leave you dizzy.

To make the process easier, here are answers to the appliance-buying questions you’ll probably ponder, from “When should I buy?” to “Do I really need a warranty?”

Repair or replace?

People with existing appliances have two options: repair or replace.

You can count on major appliances to last about a year for every $100 spent, says Doug Rogers, president of Mr. Appliance, a national appliance-repair company.

“If I bought a $100 microwave, I’m probably not going to call anyone to fix it if it’s over a year old,” Rogers says. “I’m probably just going to go buy a new one. But if I buy a $1,000 refrigerator, it’s probably worth fixing up to 10 years.”

Also consider your existing appliance’s energy efficiency — you could get an Energy Star rebate for a more efficient model — and its appearance, because replacing one appliance may leave you with others that no longer match.

Refurbished or reconditioned appliances offer a cost-effective alternative to buying new, but look into the warranty and the return policy in case something goes wrong.

Which one to buy?

Once you’re in the market for something new, don’t fixate on brands, unless you care about top-of-the-line prestige.

“It can matter when you’re looking to buy a luxury appliance, but if you’re buying a low- to midrange appliance, I wouldn’t get caught up too much in the brand name,” Rogers says, noting that he uses some of the same parts to fix appliances from different brands.

No one appliance brand masters everything all the time, says Paul Hope, a senior home and appliance editor at Consumer Reports, a nonprofit that tests and rates products. And contrary to popular belief, a more expensive model isn’t inherently better. Hope says professional-style appliances are pricey but frequently lack features of their less expensive counterparts.

To educate yourself, consult a salesperson and check reviews from sites like CNET and Consumer Reports. Then weigh your options.

A “smart” appliance that works with voice-activated services like Alexa is convenient but likely costly. A counter-depth refrigerator won’t stick out as far past your countertop, but it’s shallower than a standard-depth fridge. Cross-check features to see why one appliance is more expensive than the other and which aspects you can do without.

Online or in store?

When you find something you like, go see it at a store. Online resources are helpful but shouldn’t be the last word. “This is one of the few industries where the online marketplace doesn’t work as well as the local marketplace does,” says Kevin Brasler, executive editor at the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook.

Aside from being able to see and touch the appliance, you might also avoid delivery fees by going local.

Will it fit?

Before you swipe your card, make sure your appliance fits — in your home and your budget.

Measure the space where it’ll go. Rogers recommends a close fit; for a 32-inch opening, get an appliance no wider than 31.5 inches.

As for price, get the model number and call five local, independent stores, Brasler says. Tell them you’re shopping around and looking for the best deal. They’ll often give you a quote below the advertised price, he says. Consumers’ Checkbook conducted a price experiment to test this.

“It was common for us to find that for a dishwasher, the lowest price we were quoted was $250 less than the highest price,” Brasler says. “For some of the refrigerators we shopped, we found price differences of $600, $700 or even $800 between the lowest and the highest price.”

When comparing by model number, be specific. “If you look at these model numbers, they’re just a mass of letters and numbers, and one digit off makes it a different appliance,” Brasler says.

What about warranties?

You’re not finished yet. The salesperson may try to sell you extra protection, called a service contract, in case something goes wrong.

“An appliance comes with a warranty,” Rogers says. “Maybe you get a one-year warranty on your parts and labor on your refrigerator and a five-year extended warranty on the sealed system.” Service contracts might cover items that are included in your standard warranty, he says, so read the fine print to ensure you’re not doubling up.

Another consideration: Products don’t usually break within the service plan window, according to Consumer Reports.

Brasler puts it bluntly. “Don’t buy those,” he says. “They’re totally worthless.”

He recommends checking the terms of your credit card. Some extend the length of a standard warranty if you put the purchase on your card. Warehouse clubs like Costco extend manufacturer warranties as well.

More from NerdWallet

The article Need a New Appliance? Learn, Compare — Then Ask for a Deal originally appeared on NerdWallet.