Steps to Ease Stress in Heading Back to College

Getting ready to head back to college after a long summer break can be stressful on both a personal and financial level.

These tips can help make the transition as smooth as possible for both students and parents.

Calm the countdown
Packing enough for the better part of a year is a major undertaking, so it pays to start preparing three weeks to a month ahead. Break this job into manageable segments by creating a dorm-room checklist with categories such as clothing, furniture, schoolwork and personal hygiene needs. Unused items during the summer months, including fall/winter clothes and school supplies, can be packed up early, while daily necessities such as shoes, socks and a toothbrush may have to wait till closer to departure time. Try to find packing containers that can be stacked for on-campus storage or double as dorm shelves.

Reawaken that school mindset
To make returning to school a bit less jarring, commit to some lifestyle adjustments during the last few weeks of summer. If you’re registered for morning classes, begin to roll bedtime back to a reasonable hour. If you haven’t cracked a book lately, spend a little time each day doing some academic reading, whether this means starting your new textbooks or exploring related articles and books.

Control shopping costs
If you’re not careful, shopping for college gets very pricey, particularly for textbooks, which along with class supplies can easily top $1,000 a year. So set a budget for yourself, and stick to it. Although the college bookstore may be convenient, it’s probably your most expensive option. Instead, order books early from discounted sites such as CheapestTextbooks.com and Chegg, and consider purchasing used or e-book versions. Many websites, including Amazon, now also offer textbook rentals at a dramatic savings over the purchase cost.

Furniture, room decorations and supplies needn’t break the bank either. Take advantage of summer yard sales, thrift stores and dollar stores, and check out sites like eBay and Craigslist for bargains as well. To maximize savings, buy staples like nonperishable snacks in bulk.

Before shopping, gather up pens, notebooks and extra home accessories already on hand, and be sure to look for available discounts through coupon sites, text promotions and social media.

Create a cushion
Summer break is an excellent opportunity for students to find temporary jobs, which provide valuable work experience as well as extra cash to cover miscellaneous campus expenses. To help manage these ongoing costs, it’s helpful for students to set up a budget and open a checking account through a financial institution like USAgencies Credit Union. With the proper planning, getting back to school should be a breeze for all concerned, and students can look forward to a new year of learning and shared times with good friends.

By Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet

The Other Sarah & Why You Should Review Your Credit Report Annually

From My Seat : A Blog Series from USAgencies’ Employees

Through my experience working at a credit union for most of my 20s, I’ve had the opportunity to learn financial lessons first hand, via member experiences and my own. I’ve had lessons in everything from building credit, to starting over from a bankruptcy. The biggest lesson I learned was my very first – how important it is to take advantage of checking your credit report annually.

I’ll set the stage: I was 24 years old, a year and half into my job at USAgencies as a teller, and I was still learning banking basics. At that time in my life I had never had a loan and had just one credit card with a small limit. The thought of checking my credit report had never even crossed my mind, seeing I had just the one credit card and I was aware of my limit and balance, which I paid off every month.

One afternoon I received a phone call from Kathy in human resources letting me know that Social Security called to verify my employment status, as they had received an application for a disability claim matching my social security number and name. They had called twice within the last few weeks, and HR told them each time, “No, Sarah is working and currently employed with us at this time.” Kathy suggested I contact Social Security myself to ensure it was cleared up as someone had clearly made a mistake along the way.

When I got off the phone with Kathy I told my co-worker about what as happening, and having been in banking a few years more than me, she suggested I view my credit report just to be safe.

I went to annualcreditreport.com and pulled my credit. There it was….  A collections!!…. an item in collections reporting in my name.  How could this be? I had ONE credit card. I had never been contacted by any agencies asking me for money, and I couldn’t even think of any situation I could have been in that would have resulted in a collection. I started to get nervous, and my mind begin to fill with all the possibilities of what was happening, and the road I had in front of me if this was in fact a case of identity theft.

On the credit report was the contact information for the collection agency so I called them right away. I stated who I was and what I was calling about. They informed me that the collection item was a medical bill from an ER visit up in Spokane, Washington. Not only had I never been in the ER as an adult, I had NEVER been to Spokane. They gave me the hospital’s contact information, I contacted them, and explained the situation. I asked for all the records they had regarding this ER visit. All the hospital needed from me was a faxed request with a copy of my ID and they would send the records to me in the mail in 3-5 business days.

When the packet of information came in the mail I was stunned. There is was in black and white – someone using my FULL name, social security number, and birth date had in fact been admitted to the ER in Spokane, Washington. There was a physical description of this “Sarah Buck” and we couldn’t be more opposite. This was definitely NOT me.

I now was in a panic. Someone had stolen my identity and I had no clue what to do. I needed to dispute this charge, but I also needed to find out what else they were doing with my name! That night, I gathered ALL of the identifying information I had – my social security card, my driver’s license, my passport, my birth certificate – EVERYTHING.

The next morning, I went into the Social Security office, took a number, and waited my turn. When my number was called I went up to the window and explained to the representative my situation, and I needed to know what to do next. She took all of my ID I had brought, and pulled something up on her computer. She then asked me if I had ever been married and changed my name. I said no, never. She explained that there was record of a name change due to “me” getting married. She said given all of the ID I was able to provide, it seems as if I was correct and I may have a case of ID theft on my hands. She went over a few additional items with me, took copies of all my documents, and let me know she opened a case and would be in contact with me within a day or two with next steps.

The very next day I received a call. She said she had good news and bad news. The good news – it WASN’T ID theft. The bad news, it was something much more complicated.

When I was born, on the VERY SAME DAY another girl, in Washington State, was ALSO born. Our parents gave us the same exact name, and we already happened to have parents with the same last name of Buck. When our papers were submitted to Social Security someone assigned us the SAME number. That’s right.  I had shared not only an entire full name with someone else, the very same birthday, and we were assigned the very same SSN. We weren’t even born in the SAME state so how this happened, they had NO Idea. Clearly someone had made a HUGE mistake along the way. What baffled me is how it was able to go on for so long without anyone noticing. I had been working since I was 18, I had filed my taxes every year, I had been enrolled in college, and had a credit card – and nothing!

The SS office informed me that a new number would have to be issued to me to move forward from this very rare situation. A New number?! My parents made me memorize my SSN when I was 10 years old. How was I going to memorize a new one?!

After a few long months of lots of paper work and phone calls, I had a new SSN and all my pertinent contacts had been informed. I even had to speak with the police in Washington because the other Sarah Buck had gone the same path as me, suspected ID theft and filed a police report.

Today I do in fact know my new SSN by heart, and can still even recall the old one. I run into a few issues here and there when needing to verify myself, but I have accepted this will be a lifelong thing and I am ok with it, as long as it is protecting my name.

I now check my credit report every single year to ensure that all the information is mine and accurate.  If this had never happened, I am sure I wouldn’t have started doing this so early in my life, but I now know it’s crucial. Credit is used for many different things from employment and housing to car insurance rates. Check your credit report annually (annualcreditreport.com)! Start early on building your credit on a positive path, and take responsibility for your financial life. It will pay off in the end, trust me!

Sarah, Lending Services

About Sarah:
Without Sarah’s support, the lending department would be smoking, if not in flames. She helps prepare loan for processing, updates materials in the database, handles DMV titling — and that’s all before lunch. This woman does not like leaving the office with anything still in her inbox. As a master of details, Sarah handles her lists like a magical bow and arrow, slaying deadlines preemptively and triumphing over red tape. One of her most gratifying moments came when she worked in Member Service – her radar picked up strange transactions on a member’s account. She was able to initiate processes to protect an elderly member from financial abuse. All this good work can be tiring, leading Sarah to occasionally pause from her labors to spend time with her niece and nephew. They’re pretty cute.

From My Seat is a series of posts written by USAgencies’ employees on a variety of topics. We hope this gives members insight into what we do, why we do it, and provide some financial education along the way. Stay tuned for additional posts in the series in the future.

Budgeting When Your Income Ebbs and Flows

The foundation of budgeting rests on two main pillars: planning and steady income.

If you’re a freelancer, an artist, or otherwise have an uncertain income, you know both of those can be challenging. Here’s a look at how to establish a budget and stick to it when your income is irregular and uncertain.

Have a baseline
Salaried employees can use their monthly income to determine what they can afford to spend, but freelancers generally have to consider expenditures first and then determine how much work they need to do each month to meet their financial needs. For this reason, it’s smart to keep monthly expenditures stable and predictable. Think about housing, utilities and transportation costs, along with the cost of food, including groceries, restaurant meals and coffee shops.

Track your spending for the past couple of months in several categories to find the average. Don’t forget other living expenses such as medical costs, as well as any auto loans or student loans. Budgeting apps such as Mint or BudgetPulse can help you manage and categorize your spending. Some financial institution provide consumers with customized apps, such as USAgencies Credit Union’s MoneyMark tool for use by members. This app also helps you track your financial assets and net worth.

Get organized
Once you have a clear idea of your monthly expenses, you’re ready to assess a minimum income. If you have a few years of freelancing under your belt, it might be helpful to look back on bank statements to see which months tend to bring lower income and which trend higher so you can plan for periods of feast and famine. For certain months, that might mean planning ahead to pick up extra part-time shifts somewhere to bridge the gap between income and expenses.

Many people with uncertain income are also self-employed, meaning they’re solely responsible for things such as paying income taxes and saving for retirement — hassles that salaried employees don’t always have to worry about. Keeping income organized is imperative.

In addition to personal and business checking accounts, it’s a good idea for freelancers to have at least two separate savings accounts. One should hold money for the quarterly payments you’re required to make to the IRS to cover your income and self-employment taxes. The second should be for your other savings.

Put aside emergency savings
If income is unstable, the best thing you can possibly do for yourself is have at least three months’ worth of living expenses stashed away. That way, if there’s a lull in work, you’ll have enough of a savings cushion to still make ends meet.

Save for your tax payments
Since taxes aren’t automatically deducted from your pay, make sure to send in quarterly payments or April can bring a harsh dose of reality, especially if your tax bill is upwards of a thousand dollars. It’s wise to deduct taxes each month as you go along and place it in a separate account.

Plan for retirement
Since you don’t have the option of a 401(k) plan with an employer match, you must be your own best ally when it comes to funding your future. It’s smart to plan for retirement by setting up an individual retirement account (IRA) to cushion the golden years.

By keeping track of expenditures and having a good backup plan, you’ll be able to stay financially afloat, even in times of instability.

By Cait Klein, NerdWallet