Category Archives: Guest Post

Freshen Up Those Finances for Spring

Give Your Finances a Checkup This Spring
Spring brings showers, flowers and an urge to tidy up. When you dive into spring cleaning this year, don’t forget your finances. Here’s how to give your money a thorough checkup to prepare for a great summer and beyond.

Check the health of your credit report
By monitoring your credit regularly, you can identify problems early. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to get your free annual report from each of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your credit score is not on your credit report, but what’s on your report influences what your score is. You can pay to see your score for a small fee.

Some financial institutions, like USAgencies Credit Union, will connect members with free financial counseling. They can discuss things that may be affecting your credit standing, as well as look at whether options such as consolidating debt or refinancing your home might be worthwhile.

Bolstering an anemic credit score
To bolster credit, take steps to clear demerits on your reports. Dispute errors and contact creditors to see whether they’d be willing to make “goodwill adjustments” to remove legitimate blemishes in return for paying a balance in full.

Another strategy for rebuilding credit is taking out a secured credit card. With a secured card, you deposit enough money to cover the limit you’re applying for, and your financial institution keeps that amount on hold for as long as you have the card. A secured card lets you establish a record of responsible credit use — boosting your credit standing in the process.

Tackling costly debt
High-interest debt from credit cards and loans can spiral out of control. To lower interest rates and reduce monthly payments, look into debt consolidation, which combines debt from multiple sources into a single loan. Choose from several solutions including home equity loans and lines of credit as well as personal loans.

With mortgage rates still near historic lows, those holding older mortgages might also benefit from refinancing to get a lower-interest loan.

Tuning up your credit score and tidying up your debts can refresh your finances. Before you know it, your budget will be in healthier shape, and you’ll be able to afford more summer fun.

Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet
© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Questions about how USACU can help you freshen up your finances for spring? Contact us.

 

5 Steps to Safeguard your Financial Data from Thieves

Most people leave a trail of data nearly everywhere they go.

Some of that data links to critical information, such as bank or credit card accounts. Hackers want access and are constantly deploying new tactics to steal that data from unsuspecting consumers.

You don’t have to make it easy for them. These five simple steps can help you protect your financial information from data thieves.

1 > Use Secured Networks and Websites
The majority of Americans shop online, and data thieves try to exploit that fact. You can help protect your bank and credit card accounts by sticking to secured websites, which typically include “https” in the Web address and display a locked padlock icon near the address. When using a wireless network outside your home or workplace, avoid making financial transactions unless the network is password protected.

2 > Beef Up Your Passwords
Make it harder for hackers to access your data by choosing complex passwords that include a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. Steer clear of passwords that use personal information, such as your birth date or address, and avoid using the same password across multiple sites or accounts. Tools such as LastPass and PasswordBox will generate a random password for each site, store them securely, and automatically fill them when you log in to a site, so you only need to remember one password.

3 > Protect Your Phone
A stolen smartphone could be as risky to your finances as a stolen wallet, especially if you use mobile apps to manage your finances. So, while you’re strengthening the passwords you use online, consider doing the same on your phone. Some newer handsets are now equipped with fingerprint scanners, which could give you an added level of security if your phone is swiped.

4 > Be Smart at the ATM
Getting cash from an ATM is a fairly routine transaction. Many people insert their card, enter their personal identification number, or PIN, and take their money without giving it much thought. Doing so could put you and your money at risk, though. Before using a cash machine, check your surroundings, and the ATM’s card reader and PIN pad, for anything suspicious or unusual. If something seems amiss, it might be wise to find another machine.

5 > Upgrade to an EMV Card
Many card issuers are upping their security game by adding microprocessors to newly issued cards. Know as EMV chips, the devices create a unique code for each transaction with a given account, making it harder for hackers to steal your data or skim it from a card reader. Even if a hacker does get your account information, it’s virtually impossible to copy your card and its chip. EMV cards also require users to enter a PIN or give their signature to complete the purchase, adding a layer of security. (Note about EMV cards: USAgencies will be making the swith to EMV technology. Details coming soon!)

Despite taking every precaution, it’s possible your data could still be compromised. Use caution when doling out your account information, especially online or over the phone, and keep a close eye on your account and credit card statements. If you spot signs of a breach, alert your financial institution as soon as possible to help stop the fraud in its tracks.

Copyright 2015, NerdWallet

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

Why I Show Up for Something Bigger

From My Seat : A Blog Series from USAgencies’ Employees

MarkNine years ago I started my career in the credit union industry. Before that first day on the job, I did my “homework” – I read about credit unions and what sets them apart from banks. In my research, I read one thing that stood out the most. It captivated me, and made me feel like I was going to be part of something bigger. I read three simple words. People helping people. How wonderful does that sound? I was going to work at a place that was founded on a vision of people helping people. Working for a credit union, I look forward to interacting with members each day. I enjoy getting to know each and every one I encounter – listening to stories about their family; hobbies they enjoy; or sometimes, lending a compassionate ear for a concern. I get to earn and build trust with our members. As credit union employees, we are given the tools to help educate our members — as well as ourselves. We get to share our own personal stories and experiences. Over the years I have the pleasure of meeting a lot of people. I enjoy being pro-active and finding a solution to an issue, and seeing a member walk away with a smile. I pride myself in creating a personal touch with each member interaction. I am passionate about the credit union movement, and what we are here to do. I live by those three simple, yet very important words. Each day at work: “people helping people.” I know that without the earned trust of our members, we would not be here. This is what it’s all about: Having passion in what we do; being knowledgeable in what we share; listening to each member need; and being compassionate in difficult situations. It’s all part of the bigger picture. I show up at work with great pride, because I am a part of this something bigger. Thank you for being a member of a credit union! I look forward to serving your family on their financial journey. Mark, Lending Services About Mark: When you’ve met Mark, you’ve met a real, passion-filled credit union advocate. And that’s the truth. With many years in credit unions, Mark works in Lending Services and is overflowing with all the goodness that embodies the heart of the credit union movement. To quote him directly “I enjoy getting to know each member and hearing about what they have going on, building that relationship with them. I provide sound advice and educate members on ways to help make banking easy.” What a guy! Away from the office, Mark spends gobs of time with his puppy, Odis and enjoys the never-ending variety of food found in Portland, and like many others here, he hits the snowboard slopes in the winter and the cycle paths in the warmer months.  

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.