3 Safe, Easy Ways to Gift Money This Holiday Season

Giving money as a holiday present is like baking cookies for a potluck: It’s easy to do, and it’s usually appreciated. But cash might miss the mark.

Slipping it into a holiday card and mailing it is risky, because it has no protections if it’s lost or stolen. And whether you mail it or give it in person, it’s easy for recipients to quickly stash the cash in their wallets and forget where it came from.

Here are three easy, safe alternatives to cash that might make for a more memorable gift.

1. Checks

Writing checks is becoming a lost art, but if you already have a checkbook, it’s hard to beat for convenience. Many banks have mobile apps that let customers cash a check by taking photos with a smartphone, which could increase the convenience for your recipient, too. Add a handwritten card to make it even more personal.

Protections: Whereas cash is anonymous, a check requires you to write the recipient’s name. And if a check is never delivered, you can have your bank cancel it. This service generally comes with a steep fee, so think of it as a last resort.

When they’re a hassle: You won’t know exactly when a person deposits your check or when the money will leave your account. So if the check is cashed when your account has a low balance, you might overdraw and face a hefty fee.

Around the holidays, “my mother generally writes checks,” says Lou Anne Alexander, the group president of payments solutions at the financial risk management firm Early Warning Services. “She will call [her granddaughters] two or three times to say, ‘Why haven’t you cashed my check?’”

2. Gift cards

With a gift card, you can earmark money for a specific spending experience, rather than give cash that could be used for anything. If you’re in a financial bind, Shelley Hunter, gift card expert for GiftCards.com, suggests pairing lower-value gift cards with something homemade to make the gift more personal. For instance, you can pair a $10 gift card to a coffee shop with a plate of homemade cookies. And don’t forget a written note to keep the personal touch.

Protections: Anyone can use a gift card, so there isn’t much you can do if a card is stolen and then spent. But if it hasn’t been used yet, you or the recipient could try replacing it.

“You need to have some proof of purchase to get a replacement gift card,” Hunter says. If you have a receipt or email that includes the gift card number, plus the exact store where it was purchased, customer service may be able to help, Hunter says. Lost cash is just lost.

When they’re a hassle: Gifting the right card could require some detective work, especially if your shopping tastes differ from those of the would-be recipient. Check with the recipient directly, or with someone in the know, if you’re not sure what card would be a good fit.

3. Online peer-to-peer payments

Peer-to-peer payments (P2P for short) have grown popular recently thanks to easy-to-use apps such as PayPal, Venmo and Square Cash. This past summer, many banks started offering a similar service run by Zelle, a network and P2P provider that can send and deliver money within seconds between two bank accounts. Most providers offer a free way to send and request money, though details vary.

Protections: The major P2P platforms encrypt their websites and can help resolve unauthorized transactions. In fact, federal law caps how much you can lose from unauthorized transfers if you report the theft or loss within a few days.

When they’re a hassle: You generally can’t cancel or reverse P2P payments after you send them, even if it’s to the wrong person. Your best bet is to request the money back.

Also, you might have to work harder to personalize it. As a gift, “I think P2P transfers could work, especially if you put emojis into it,” says Dan Andrews, a certified financial planner at the firm Well-Rounded Success in the Denver area, “but it’s just not a glamorous way to receive a gift.”

Unlike with a check or gift card, including a physical note about a P2P transfer might be awkward, so consider adding a note with the transaction and sending the payment while you’re exchanging gifts. Or see if your bank can schedule the payment to give you control over when the money gets to your recipient.

“Presentation factors into any gift that you give,” Hunter says, “whether it’s cash, a gift card or a new sweater.”

The article 3 Safe, Easy Ways to Gift Money This Holiday Season originally appeared on NerdWallet.

3 Steps to Tame Your Debt in an Hour or Less

Maybe you’re afraid to face your bills, or just don’t know how to start paying them off. What you do know is you want relief from too much debt.

Here are three concrete steps to help you get a handle on debt, each of which can be done in an hour or less:

1. Add it up

“The first step to getting control over your money is to know exactly what you’re dealing with,” says Lara Lamb, a certified financial planner at California firm Abacus Wealth Partners.

List your debts and their interest rates. Include credit cards, medical bills, and auto, payday and personal loans, but not your mortgage or student loans, which are considered “good” debts you can pay off over the long term.

Divide the total by your gross annual income. This number is your debt-to-income ratio, and it will help you with the next step, choosing a strategy to pay off debt.

2. Pick a strategy

Moderate debt: Suppose you’ve racked up balances on a few credit cards and feel confident you can pay them off with a little budgeting and discipline. Explore do-it-yourself methods like debt avalanche or debt snowball.

With debt avalanche, you pay off the highest interest-rate debt first, which can lower the total interest you pay. The snowball method involves paying off debts from the smallest to the largest amount, regardless of interest rate. The short-term reward of knocking off a smaller debt or two can motivate you to keep going.

Heavier debt: If your debt-to-income ratio is high — between 15% and 50% — then the snowball or avalanche method is less likely to cut it.

Instead, consider a 0% interest balance-transfer credit card or low-interest debt consolidation loan to pay off your debt — and be unwavering about paying off that card or loan.

Crushing debt: If you’re overwhelmed with debt, especially if it’s more than half your gross income, ask for help. Talk to a nonprofit credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney. Initial consultations with both are typically free.

3. Be your own advocate

You may have heard ads for companies that say they can solve your debt problems. But you can negotiate with creditors yourself — for free.

Using your list of debts, call each creditor. If you aren’t seriously behind on your payments, asking for a lower interest rate or information about a hardship program shouldn’t do any harm.

Let’s take the credit cards example again. If you’ve been paying the minimum due each month but carrying a balance, you still have a history of on-time payments. That could help your case when you negotiate with your issuer.

“It can be scary, but it’s important to create a plan before you can move forward and gain control,” Lamb says.

More from NerdWallet:

Amrita Jayakumar is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ajayakumar@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ajbombay.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.

Freezer Tips for Smart Savers

No one likes throwing away food, especially if you’re trying to save money. But what do you do with those fresh string beans you got on sale that may not get eaten before they go bad? Freeze them. Follow these handy tips and you’ll be able you to enjoy your favorite foods for months.

It’s best to freeze veggies when they’re fresh. Blanch them first. This stops the enzymes that cause vegetables to lose their flavor, color, and nutritional value. Blanching time is crucial, but it also varies depending on the vegetable, so check the National Center of Home Food Preservation’s website for blanching times http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/blanching.html. After the recommended time, dunk the vegetables in ice water for the same amount of time, then drain them thoroughly. Finally pack them into freezer bags or freezer safe plastic containers and be sure to mark each container clearly with the name of the item and date. When you’re ready to cook your veggies, throw them in the pot while they’re still frozen.

Very ripe fruit is perfect for smoothies. First wash them. If they’re bananas, remove them from their peels. Then chop them up, bag them, and put them in the freezer. You can leave grapes whole before freezing and use them later as ice cubes in your favorite drinks.

You can freeze meat in the store wrapper for a month or two, but if you’re going to keep it longer, add a second wrapping to maintain quality and prevent freezer burn. You can use airtight heavy-duty freezer foil, freezer paper or place the package inside a freezer bag. If food does get freezer burn, it is still safe to eat, though it may be dry in spots.

Milk, hard cheese and egg whites (not the yolks) freeze well. Store milk in plastic jugs, not glass or paper. Cheese should be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. Egg whites can be poured into a freezer bag — just make sure to note how many eggs you used.

Make simple herb butters by combining fresh herbs with softened butter and crushed garlic. Wrap them in plastic wrap and pop them in the freezer. You can also make flavored oil cubes by tearing your favorite fresh herbs into ice cube trays and filling each compartment with olive or canola oil before freezing. They can go straight into the pan when you’re ready to use them.

It’s very important to clearly mark the date and description of each item so you don’t have a freezer full of mysteries. Most vegetables can be stored for 8 to 12 months, fruits for 6 to 9 months, and dairy products and leftover meals are safe for up to 3 months. 

For more information, go to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service at http://www.fsis.usda.gov.

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.