Plug for 2-1-1

Friday, April 15, 2011

We all know the value of being able to call 9-1-1 in an emergency. Back before the days of cell phones and Google, we also knew the value being able to call 4-1-1 for information.

But I’m regularly surprised that a large portion of our population does not know about 2-1-1. All 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico have 2-1-1 call centers. 2-1-1 is an invaluable referral line for help with food, housing, employment, health care, counseling and other issues.

If you’d rather surf, check out www.211.org. When you’re experiencing a financial or an emotional emergency, 211 is the number to call.

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

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Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Perpetuating Myths about Poverty

March 28, 2011

I’ve said it before, I was not the brightest financial light in the bunch when I was younger. Oddly enough, I come from a wonderful upbringing in a home where financial responsibility was expected and demonstrated, if not discussed openly. So, according to the philosophy that well-to-do and financially savvy parents beget children with the same financial smarts, I should have known better. But I didn’t.

Yes, balancing a checkbook and making a dollar stretch were two skills I was taught and which I have carried with me ever since. However, the wise usage of credit what not taught, most likely because I came of age at about the same time as the explosion of the consumer credit card in the 1980s. Before that, receiving a credit card while in college was not only uncommon, it was next to impossible.

So, when I pulled my first credit card offer from my apartment’s mailbox, the only thing I saw was the $2,000 credit limit. To me, that was like shouting, $2,000 of “free money.” WMaxing Out Credit Card was NOT Goodithin 36 hours of receiving that card in the mail, I had maxed it out and would, for a decade thereafter, carry a balance and pay interest (initially to the tune of 19% APR or more).

It took years to dig out of the credit card hole. In the meantime, I dabbled in a couple of payday loans, bounced a number of checks, and continually treated my savings account as a “deferred spending” account rather than an emergency fund.

I share this lengthy history to make the point that my troubles where not actually from a lack of education or from ignorance. I quickly learned how credit cards worked, but I continued to rely heavily upon them to subsidize the lifestyle I felt I deserved. What kept me in the cycle of consumer debt was my attitude, what I termed PovertyThink in a recent blog. I had conditioned myself to believe that this was the only way to look at my finances.

So here is a synopsis of a few of the myths that lead many of us to subsidize our unsustainable lifestyles through credit, thus keeping us from building true financial net worth (aka wealth):

  1. We prefer to blame others rather than take responsibility for our own financial mistakes. Banks and creditors, in particular, are the major targets of our frustration. They, after all, charge ridiculous fees for bounced checks and late payments, right?
  2. We seem to believe that lifestyles, income and effort should all be fair and proportional. That is to say, the harder we work, the more money we should earn and/or the more money we “deserve” to spend. We compare our efforts and lifestyles to those of our friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and say to ourselves, “I work just as hard as they do, so I deserve to live as well as they do.” For example, I saw friends and classmates back in college driving new(er) cars, purchasing season ski lift passes, and living in expensive condos. Some might call it impatience, but I felt I worked just as hard as they did (harder, I would argue, since I was an early-morning janitor at my school’s science center), and that I was consequently entitled to anything they had just as much as they were. Credit cards allowed me to initially satisfy that feeling but lead to long-term troubles.
  3. We choose immediate gratification over long-term security. “Living in the now” may be a popular catch phrase in movies and among a few philosopher wannabes, but it’s a terrible idea for financial security. Of course we can enjoy life each day, but this catch phrase ignores the absolute necessity to prepare ourselves for long-term financial survival. Spending money now that should be going toward savings and investments means we’re spending tomorrow’s security for today’s gratification.

Taking Personal Responsibility for Our Finances MUST Be Our First StepUntil we take personal financial responsibility for our own choices, stop expecting life (and especially financial affairs) to be perfectly fair, and we learn to delay gratification, we are destined for financial insignificance. We do not find long-term satisfaction in living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’ll find no honor in unearned positions or possessions. We’ll find no lasting peace of mind in expenditures for the pleasures of today.

In summary, for those who continue to blame others, demand financial equality (which is not the same as opportunity), and live only for today, the future may only bring more disappointment, greater financial inequality, and the dreariness of debt and financial ruin.

If you or someone you know is stuck in this rut of PovertyThink, it’s time to reconsider your situation. Do some reading about how financially successful people accomplished their goals, and follow their examples. Here’s a nice site to see read some real life financial success stories (without all the blinding glitz and false glamour of the lottery and get-rich-quick sites): Get Rich Slowly.

Have a fantastic day!

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Maximizing Benefit of Tax Refunds

March 15, 2011

Debt Reduction Services Inc suggests a sensible approach to using your tax refundIt’s tax return time. Many households are receiving tax refunds now or will over the next month or so., but too often, these refunds – which can amount to several thousands of dollars – are spent on consumer goods. Such emotion-based consumer spending typically has no significant impact on the household’s net worth or financial stability. Instead, it tends to perpetuate the mindless spending cycle that keeps too many American households stuck in the rut of paycheck-to-paycheck living.

Here is what we and other financial experts suggest such households ought to consider doing with their refunds instead:

  1. Set aside 25% of the refund for consumer spending, if the head(s) of the household feels “the urge to splurge.” This may help to satisfy the primal spender within.
  2. Add 25% of the refund to the household’s emergency fund. This should be held in accounts that are fairly liquid (or easily accessible). A savings account is a standard option, though its rates tend to hover somewhere between the average inflation rate and zero. Other possibilities include Certificates of Deposit that earn a little more interest than savings accounts. Money market accounts are also decent options, as well as interest earning online savings accounts. Rarely will you find an account that offers quick access to your cash but pays interest above the current rate of inflation.
  3. Use another 25% of the refund to pay down debts. Either send it to the account charging the highest interest rate or to the account with the smallest balance. Where I differ from many financial experts is that I also suggest that you consider paying down your mortgage debt. Even though there currently are tax incentives connected to mortgage debt, debt is still debt. Until a mortgage is paid off, the home owner’s freedom (to move, to rent out the home, etc.) is restricted, just as with any other type of debt.
  4. Lastly, use the final 25% to add to long-term retirement investments, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s and Individual Retirement Accounts.

Although some of these suggestions might not be relevant to some households, the remaining suggestions probably are.

Please feel free to share your own successes and experiences with your tax refunds.

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Debt Repayment Options Made Simple

December 20, 2010

One of the most talked about, written about and thought about financial topics in this country is, and has been since its founding, the best way to get out of debt (and then, hopefully, stay out of debt). Yet for all of the tongue wagging, ink wasting, and energy squandering on this endeavor, most American still have an extremely poor, if not completely mistaken, idea of what options they have available to them when they are ready to repay excessive consumer debts.

So, below you’ll find my unofficial “The American Consumer’s Guide to Debt Repayment Options: the Abbreviated (and just about all-you-ever-needed-to-know) Version.” I have listed them in order of their typical impact upon an individual’s credit history and personal finances, from least to greatest, according to  my own opinion:

  1. Pay your debts off on your own
    Minimum Payments Option: Make only the minimum payments requested by your creditors, and it’s quite possible that you’ll need 15 to 25 years to get out of debt – assuming you never use your credit cards again! NOTE: This is universally accepted by financial experts as a poor choice since minimum payments are designed to maximize interest (profits) from your own pockets to those of your creditors.
    Level Payments Option: Never pay less than this month’s minimum payments, even as creditors begin to request a smaller and smaller minimum payment because of a decreasing total balance. NOTE: Realistically, this could have many consumers out of credit card debt in just 5 to 6 years without any direct impact on current household spending levels.
    Extra Payments Option: Use the “Level Payment Option,” but add an extra $25 to $50 (or more) to the payment for the account with the highest interest rate (or, also not a bad choice, the account with the smallest total balance). NOTE: Many such consumers can pay off a $5,000 credit card debt this way in just 3 years!
    Equity Loan Option: Borrow money against the equity in your home or other asset and pay down your credit card debt. NOTE: On paper, this seems like a no brainer, since such loans are often at low interest rates and can have definite tax advantages to them. The problem for many (actually most) who choose this option is that within one or two years, those credit card balances that they paid off with their home equity loan will creep back up to their original amounts, meaning now the consumer will be dealing with the same credit card debts AND be at risk of losing their home because of the additional home equity loan. This is NOT the best option UNLESS the consumer has made a total commitment to budgeting their expenses and reining in any expensive or impulsive lifestyle issues.
  2. Debt Management Program:  A  modified repayment plan available through nonprofit credit counseling agencies (disclaimer: I am employed by one such – see AICCCA.org for a list of nonprofit agencies nationwide). Such programs, known by their acronym of DMPs, target high interest rates and penalty fees. Credit counselors work with creditors to lower the consumer’s interest rates and/or cease any recurring penalty fees. While the debts themselves are not consolidated, the consumer makes just one payment per month to the credit counseling agency, which turns around and disperses the payments to creditors according to accepted repayment proposals. NOTE: Depending upon the consumer’s current credit history, there may be an initial drop in credit score due to the fact that accounts on DMPs must be closed to further usage, which may have a detrimental impact on the consumer’s credit usage ratio. However, FICO has not considered credit counseling as a direct factor in its credit scoring model since 1999, and on-time monthly payments have the greatest impact on credit scores. At the end of the DMP (which cannot last longer than 5 years), creditors should remove any notations on the consumer’s credit report referring to their participation in a DMP, thus leaving no lasting indication of DMP activity. Finally, while consumers can often work directly with a creditor to put into action a DMP for one solitary account, consumers with more than one account will usually find that their creditors are unwilling to provide interest rate concessions unless all of the consumer’s other creditors are also committing to them. That’s were the nonprofit agencies play such an important role.
  3. Consolidation Loan: This option allows consumers to replace multiple smaller debts with one large debt (and, consequently, many monthly payments with just one). NOTE: First, if you’re struggling to repay your debts, you likely have less-than-perfect credit, which means you won’t qualify for a consolidation loan at anything less than an astronomical interest rate. Even consumers who somehow find an affordable consolidation rate are then subject to same temptation as those who use home equity to pay down debts: to recharge those same credit cards back up to unmanageable levels due to poor money management plans and habits.
  4. Borrowing from Retirement: Some retirement plans allow the individual to borrow money or to outright withdraw invested money from their retirement account. There are usually extensive penalty fees associated with some of these options. NOTE: At the very least, the consumer who chooses this option becomes subject to the temptation to recharge their cards back to their original balances, just as the consumer who uses a home equity loan or a consolidation loan.
  5. Debt Settlement: You offer to pay the creditor less than what they say you owe them. Debt settlement can be done directly between the creditor and the consumer, or the consumer may contract with a third-party negotiator (which may even be an attorney) to pursue a settlement. NOTE: Now we’re getting serious. Debt settlement means, by definition, that you have no intention to repay in full the debts that you owe. Such intentions brought to fruition form the basis of a poor credit reputation that is circulated by consumer reporting agencies among potential lenders for the next seven years. Additionally,  fees from third-party negotiators can tally up to 25% or more of the original debt, leaving the consumer still having to pay a total of 80% to 95% or more of the original debt owed.
  6. Personal Bankruptcy: Generally considered the final option where consumer debt is concerned, a chapter 7 or chapter 13 bankruptcy provides legal protections to consumers who are overwhelmed by their debts to such an extent that their creditors are threatening (or actually beginning) to take away all or portions of the consumer’s assets. Assets may include, for example, a home, vehicles, or even income. NOTE: No one enjoys going through bankruptcy. It’s not a pleasant experience. While our own statistics show that there is a fairly significant amount of recidivism among filers (close to 20% have filed before and 3% have filed at least two cases of bankruptcy before their current case), most people end up in bankruptcy due to job loss (about 40%), poor money management (25%) or excessive medical expenses (19%). Going through bankruptcy likely means giving up a portion of control over your own finances and even some of your assets. The consumer’s creditors receive so little of the amount they’re owed that bankruptcy has a solidly negative impact on a consumer’s credit for 7 years and remains on their credit reports for 10 years.

I’m sure there are other, more creative, debt repayment options out there, so I invite you to share those of which you are aware.

Have a fantastic day!

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

7 Tips for Keeping You in the Black this Black Friday

November 23, 2010Keeping your own finances in the black this Black Friday

If you’re a Black Friday junkie, before you head out the door this Friday morning (likely EARLY Friday morning), please consider the following 7 suggestions for keeping your own finances in the black:

  1. Have a simple financing plan in place. There will be WAY more cool and attractive stuff on sale than you could possibly afford, so you’ll need to decide AHEAD OF TIME for whom you are purchasing the items, and how much you’re willing to spend for each person on your list. Create a simple chart with the names of gift recipients down the left hand column and the amounts you’re planning to spend on them in the right hand column. If you want to be more detailed, you could split the “Amount” column into two, with “planned amount” in the middle and “Absolute Maximum” amount on the right. Aim to spend no more than the middle amount, but commit now NEVER to exceed the right hand amount.
  2. Leave the cards (credit and debit) and the checkbook at home. You can’t overspend if all you’ve got is cash.
  3. Take a shopping buddy… but NOT JUST ANY shopping buddy. Go with the friend, family member or neighbor with whom you enjoy spending time but who will also keep you on financial track. Verbally commit to each other to stay within your stated spending limits.
  4. Budget for your Black Friday breakfast or brunch. Many make this meal part of their holiday traditions (in fact, for many, if may be the first time since consuming the Thanksgiving meal 20 hours or so earlier that they’re even able to eat). Just make sure you have a limit, you know restaurant’s price range, and you stick to your plan.
  5. Compare prices online: Make sure you know how much competitors are listing the items on your want list for. Check out their web sites. Of course, you have to take shipping and handling costs into account.
  6. Think in dollars, NOT percentages. Forget the sale signs. “75% off” doesn’t mean anything to your purse or wallet. The reality is NOT how much you’re saving but how much you’re spending. Remember that sales come and sales go. What’s “hot,” “in” and “cool” this year will be next year’s forgotten fad. However, you only get to spend the dollars in your wallet once. After that, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. Make sure you’re spending them on your own priorities and not what the stores are telling you your priorities should be.
  7. Make your Christmas about the people in your life rather than the “stuff” you’re buying for them. We all know that relationships are more important than things, yet too often we get caught up year-after-year in buying and consuming. This year, get creative by spending MORE TIME with the important people in your life and spending LESS MONEY for stuff that will sooner or later likely end up in the attic, garage, or, worse, the dump just taking up space.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Holidays, and (although still a few days early by my standards, but if you can’t beat ’em…) a very Merry Christmas!

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Motivation for Mid-Week

Click this link: I Will

A few years ago, I saw a mentor of mine, Larry Wintersteen, include in his office management presentation a simple, black and white PowerPoint, set to music, that had an intense and dramatic effect on his audiences.

So, with a nod to Mr. Wintersteen and a great big “Thank you” to my friend and music hero, Jonathan David Clark, for his genius and his generosity, please enjoy the PowerPoint linked here, entitled, “I Will.”

(You’ll want your speakers plugged in and turned on)

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Savings Strategy for Those Living on Main Street

Here’s a comment I left on a CNN Money post about a couple who have been living on half of their income for years and tout the values of frugality. Several comments referred to those not in a financial position (lower income, greater expenses, job instability, etc.) to have the luxury of such frugality.

Some even asked for specific savings tips for those with much more meager incomes. Here is my response:

Start Small if you have to, but Start Saving.

It All Adds Up

For anyone not in the savings habit, we teach at Debt Reduction Services Inc that an “amount” is less important to begin with than just doing it regularly. If you feel that you can only spare $5 a month for your savings, do it. Even better, automate it. Three months later, once you realize you don’t miss that $5, then double it.

Try that pattern for a year, and you could potentially have $225 in savings and $40 being added to it each month. At $40/month, year 2 would see an additional $480 added.

The challenge is considering it an emergency fund, not a “deferred spending” fund as I used to in my younger days.

Is it easy? No. Is it a challenge? Of course. Is it worth it? Definitely.Best wishes!

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Financial Freedom

Freedom is a Journey

I read a blog asking about financial freedom and, even though it specifically mentioned how narrowminded that concept is when defined by amounts or by financially-based ideas (e.g. “getting out of debt”), I was surprises by how many comments still focused on purely financial achievements or factors.

Here was my response to what financial freedom means to me:

“Yes, financial freedom carries different meanings not only for different people but for each of us depending upon our stage in life.

“I like to share my concept of financial freedom in my workshops as follows: If you’re making your money work for you, then you’re at least on the road to financial freedom. Otherwise, if you’re still working for your money, it controls you and you are definitely not free.

“Where that road leads is up to the individual, but I certainly hope it’s headed for fulfillment outside of the financial sphere.”

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney