College Grads Can Get Their Loan History

May 2, 2015

Students with federal loans can use the government’s student aid database at to access the status of each loan, outstanding balances, disbursements, and total loan debt. Check it out here.

How to Shop for an Annuity

April 22, 2015

This post is reprinted from Financial Awakenings, a blog by Rick Kahler. Kahler is a financial advisor. You can find his weekly column here

If you’re shopping for an annuity, then, what should you look for and look out for?

First of all, do your own research. Carefully read everything a salesperson gives you, but get some independent information as well. A good start is an internet search for “annuities pros and cons” to get some pros-and-cons.jpgbasic facts.

Some of the benefits of annuities are:

• Tax-deferred growth

• No income restrictions or limits on contribution amounts

• Guaranteed lifetime income

Some of the drawbacks are:

• High fees and sales commissions

• Payments are taxed as ordinary income rather than capital gains

• High penalties, taxes, and surrender charges if you take money out early

• Paying for life insurance you may not need

• The guaranteed income may be significantly less than what a diversified portfolio may yield

• Unlike most retirement plans, contributions are not tax deductable

Second, ask specific questions about fees and commissions. Insist on having the numbers set out clearly so you know exactly what the annuity will cost you each year in addition to the initial premium. Be sure you know the financial penalty for getting out of the annuity. If the salesperson brushes you off with vague or confusing answers, take your business elsewhere.

Third, comparison shop. Check out annuities from several companies, including brokerage firms like Vanguard, Ameritas, or T. Rowe Price, to compare rates, costs, and benefits. But don’t stop there. Compare the annuities to other investments, such as 401(k)’s, IRA’s, and mutual funds, to decide whether the annuity is the best place to put your money. Many investment advisors recommend that you not even consider annuities until you have maxed out other tax-deferred options like IRA’s and 401(k) plans and you are in the top income bracket (currently 35%).

Fourth, get independent advice. Before you sign any annuity contract, have it reviewed by someone you trust who is familiar with investments and has no interest in the transaction except your well-being. From my perspective, of course, ideally this would be a fee-only financial planner. If you don’t have a financial planner, you might get advice from an accountant, an attorney, or a trusted and knowledgeable family member or friend.

Always remember two basic precepts: the more you educate yourself, the less you can be taken advantage of, and beware of anything that sounds too good to be true.

Manage Online Passwords with a System

April 10, 2015

Most of us collect too many passwords to remember. Plus, we’re encouraged to make them tricky and change them routinely.

Here are the two best things you can do to make your passwords safer:

1) Create each password with one uppercase letter, three numbers and a symbol makes it harder to break.

2) Use a password management system. For a nominal fee, use one like Keeper Password Manager at the Google Store. Or, find free ones at:
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New Credit Cards with Chip: Dip Instead of Swipe

March 23, 2015

By October 2015, most Visa, MasterCard and American Express credit cards will finally be using chip (EMV) security. That’s almost ten years after adoption in the United Kingdom.

After October, U.S. banks not issuing chip cards—and merchants not accepting them—are liable for any incurred fraudulent charges. Already adopted in many foreign countries, chip technology makes it harder to counterfeit cards, especially when paired with a PIN.

That’s why most countries use chip-and-pin cards, so buyers swipe their card and enter a PIN, Personal Identification Number. In contrast, most U.S. issuers will use chip-and-signature cards, which means you still sign for the transaction. They will eventually move to chip-and-pin cards.

How can you tell if your current card is EMV (that stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa)? Look for a small silver chip and four blue lines on the front. That means the card is NFC—Near Field Communication—capable, and it will send a cryptogram verifying legitimacy when the card is within two inches of an NFC terminal.

The card’s chip creates a unique, one-time transaction code every time the card is used for payment. With the old magnetic-strip cards, the data stayed the same, making it easy to replicate and perfect for counterfeiters. While EMV cards won’t prevent data breaches, it does stop a counterfeiter from using the data again.

Another added security feature? Bank issuers are comparing the cardholder’s mobile phone location to the location of where the credit card is being used. There is concern the card could be stolen if they don’t match.

To learn more about the new chip technology, go here.

Protect Your Information from Identity Theft

February 23, 2015

It takes an average of 220 days to discover identity theft in your accounts, and every three seconds, there is a new victim, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Even fake people can get credit. It’s called synthetic identity theft.
This means a thief steals bits and pieces of data, uses a real Social Security number and creates a fictitious identity and name for a “new” person.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 85% of identity theft is now considered synthetic identity theft. Protect your confidential information!

It’s still profitable for thieves to target banks, retailers, and organizations, like health care providers, universities and entertainment companies. Even though these data collectors may have stepped up security, you should protect your own information and:

• Ask to use an identifier other than your Social Security number.
• Ask data collectors to shred discarded documents that contain your information, or take them.
• Monitor financial accounts for fraud.
• Use only secure websites when shopping online.
• Do not give permission to online sites (and limit the number) that store your credit card information.
• Check your credit reports regularly.
• Shred personal information, forms, statements, and receipts not needed.
• Update security software often for your computers and cell phones.
• Do not transmit sensitive data over an unsecure or public WiFi connection.
• Use strong passwords and change them often.
• If notified of a security breach that involves your information, change account numbers and passwords.
• Consider an identity theft monitoring service, which may be offered by your bank or credit union.

Put a Jingle in Your Christmas

December 20, 2014

So you think saving is hard enough during the year, and you can’t imagine trying to save money during the Christmas season – aka “tis the season to be spending”? Plus, you just expect to sing the blues with the January bills?

Saving during the holidays isn’t impossible, providing you clean up some of those sloppy financial habits and get creative. Here are 4 steps to take.

1. Consider your holiday spending personality with this checklist:

What are your holiday patterns – Do you like to shop for gifts, wrap them, entertain, decorate, bake/cook, and/or party hearty? Do you prepare or procrastinate?

Do you:

• Stick to a spending limit or leave it open-ended?

• Buy gifts for everyone who’s anyone?

• Spend time to find just the “right” gift for each recipient?

• Shop early, search for sales or wait until the last-minute?

• Want to spend an equal amount on everyone?

• Want to be “best” gifter, “best” baker, “best” host AND life of the party?

• Strive to “keep-up-with-the-Joneses” and have a mental checklist?

• Find things for yourself as you’re looking for others?

• Make numerous donations for various causes?

2. After you have an idea how you might spend, make a budget.

Who needs a budget? Anyone who’s spending! In addition to buying gifts, also earmark money for those often unseen expenses:

  1. Extra groceries for entertaining and baking
  2. Hostess gifts
  3. Transportation
  4. Decorating
  5. Appearance (new accessories, manicure, dry cleaning)
  6. Eating out, including alcohol
  7. Unexpected incidentals

So…you’ve made that budget. What more is there?

3. Planning ahead is everything!

Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Plan to make your money go farther – Check for sales
  2. Plan to shop with a list – to stick to your budget
  3. Plan to use coupons and frequent shopper rewards
  4. Plan ATM visits – to avoid fees
  5. Plan to not overdraw accounts – avoid overdraft fees

Not planning your time costs you:

  1. Snacks to eat – high-priced stops to curb hunger can bust a budget
  2. Wrapping gifts – many retailers wrap for free if you have time to wait
  3. Shipping costs – avoid last-minute rush pricing, and ship direct if ordering on-line
  4. Group your shopping trips – Plan to use less gas and time
  5. Use cash – and avoid credit card fees in January
  6. Plan enough time so you aren’t rushing – Accidents cost too!
  7. Stress is a cost of not planning. So avoid the last-minute panic, disappointment, fights, depression, stomachache, overeating binge, and the “January bills” blues.

 4. Creativity Counts…and might save some money as well.

• Make some gifts – presents or presence??

• Learn a skill, give a skill.

• Magical touches – wrapping, cards, photos, surprises

• Co-op with others-baking, writing cards, making crafts.

• Make some memories – Party together, photo books, open houses, nativity scenes

• Make some TIME – texting doesn’t count (call Mom), do lunch with someone

• Make a tradition (bake cookies with your friend)

Let Christmas spending and giving bring out your best financial behavior, not your worst.

How to Avoid 2015’s Higher Bank Fees

December 1, 2014

ATM fees hit a new high this year and so did overdraft fees and some other account fees, according to the 17th annual Bankrate Checking Survey. On average, consumers using out-of-network ATMs now pay $4.35/transaction, up 5% in 2014.*

Fees in 2015 promise to be higher, too. Sometimes those pesky fees can’t be avoided, but getting dinged with several ATM charges every month signals sloppy financial habits you can fix.

Plan ahead, even a little!
1. Withdraw more money in one transaction rather than make two smaller withdrawals the same week.
2. Choose an ATM in your network. To find one, use a free app called “ATM Locator.”
3. Use your debit card at the store and get cash back there instead (restrictions may apply).
4. Switch to an account at a bank with ATM locations convenient for you.

Another fee on the rise? Overdraft fees, or getting dinged for not having enough in your account to make the purchase.

How to avoid overdrafts:
• Opt-out! Choose to have a debit card purchase declined rather than pay a fee (means you “opt out” of overdraft protection, thanks to a recent Federal Reserve rule for banks).
• Keep more money in your account.
• Watch your account balance and check your activity.

Most checking account customers can avoid fees by following the rules and paying attention to transactions. For starters, that probably means you must use direct deposit and keep a minimum balance. Fees are typically higher on checking accounts earning interest but require a minimum balance. Ask yourself if that meager interest rate is worth it.

* Bankrate’s survey covers the nation’s 10 largest banks in the 25 largest markets and was conducted late summer, 2014.


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