Tag Archives: NerdWallet

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

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

5 Credit Card Tips for Teens

New to credit? This should help!

If you just received your first credit card or your parents made you an authorized user on their account, you now have more spending power in your financial life. Although people with credit cards tend to spend more in general, developing good habits now will prepare you for more credit responsibility down the road. Check out these tips to ensure that you use credit the right way.

Check your card details
Since so many credit cards exist (all with their own perks, limits and fees), it’s smart to know your account well to avoid missing misunderstanding terms, overusing the card or neglecting a due date. A secured card, which is backed by a sum of money in a savings or checking account and has a credit limit equal to that amount, can help you avoid overspending. Secured cards, which issuers such as USAgencies Credit Union provide, can be good starting points for building credit. When you pay your bill consistently on time, you show that you can handle credit responsibly.

Check your credit report
A credit report gives a picture of your credit overall, from a summary of your loans or credit cards to any inquiries that lenders make when you apply for new credit. The three major credit reporting companies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) all provide one free credit report annually, so take advantage of that. Check for any errors or fraudulent accounts you see and notify the company in question if you spot anything.

Avoid overusing credit
Although you’ve probably heard the phrase “test your limits” used in a positive way, when it comes to credit cards this idea can do more harm than good. A good rule of thumb is to spend at most 30% of your credit limit each month, and keep the monthly balance below that level. Future lenders might consider you a high risk if you spend too much with your cards.

Pay bills on time
Like having an overdue library book, paying your credit card payment after the due date will mean an additional fee. Be over 30 days late and in addition to a late fee, it can drop your credit score, which is the 3-digit number that indicates how good you are with credit.

Pay more than the minimum
Your monthly credit card bill usually states the minimum amount you owe, but what it might not say is that you’ll have to pay interest on the remaining balance in future months. It’s better to pay the complete amount you owe so you can avoid extra costs and help raise your credit score.

As empowering and convenient as credit cards can be, they also can work as effective tools to help build your credit record over time. Keeping up good credit card habits can help you avoid debt while qualifying for loans and other products with favorable terms.

By Spencer Tierney, NerdWallet

How to Find the Right Car for You

Shopping for a new car?

Shopping for a new car? With so many options, the choice may seem overwhelming. Here are a couple of questions that can guide you to just the right car for your needs and lifestyle.

Is it affordable?

No matter how much you love a particular car, if paying for it is going to leave you short on cash each month, then you haven’t found your perfect match. Generally, what you shell out for transportation — including car payment, insurance and gas — shouldn’t come to more than 20% of your take-home pay each month after you’ve paid your other bills.

That said, you need to weigh your existing expenses before deciding how much is manageable. Financial institutions such as US Agencies Credit Union can pre-approve you for an auto loan and may reward you for setting up e-statements and automatic payments, for choosing a fuel-efficient model or even just for making your payments on time consistently. You’ll also have the advantage of knowing exactly what you can afford before you shop.

What are your lifestyle considerations?

Once you’ve set your budget, narrow the possibilities by examining your needs:

  • Will you be traveling in winter conditions and benefit from all-wheel drive?
  • Do you commute long distances, making fuel efficiency a priority?
  • Do you often drive passengers and need enough seating for everyone? Would having four doors make life easier? What about room for child seats?
  • How much cargo do you carry, and which vehicle types have enough room for your stuff?
  • Do you love to work on engines, or do you need something with top reliability ratings?

Credit unions like USAgencies often provide other helpful auto services like GAP and MRC coverage, and debt protection. Some credit unions also partner with organizations that provide car-shopping help.

Choosing a car can be a hassle, but knowing the right questions to ask will put you in the driver’s seat on the way to a new ride.

By Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet

7 Tips to Keep in Mind When Buying a Car

Buying a car, especially if it’s your first one, is an exciting experience!

By handing you those keys, the salesman will be opening up a whole new world of opportunity.

But don’t hit the gas too quickly. Before you sign any papers, or even before applying for an auto loan, take a look at these seven car-buying tips.

  1. Set a car-buying budget, which should include how much you can afford on a down payment and for monthly loan installments. Factor in insurance as well.
  2. If you want to finance your vehicle but haven’t established great credit, consider getting a relative to co-sign your application. This can improve the chances of your loan request getting approved.
  3. Consider prearranging that loan before stepping into the dealership. That way, you’ll know exactly what your interest rates are and can select a vehicle that’s appropriately priced.
  4. With your budget in mind, make a list of cars you can afford. Remember: Practicality should trump flair. For additional guidance, take a look at auto buying assistance services like those offered by lenders such as USAgencies Credit Union.
  5. Comparison websites can give you accurate quotes based on a car’s year and model, so you can get a feel for market prices.
  6. If you’re in the market for a used vehicle, take the time to inspect any car that has caught your attention, keeping an especially close eye out for any easy-to-overlook imperfections like scratches and worn tires.
  7. Simply say “no” to unnecessary add-ons your dealer offers you, like rustproofing. Rust problems are pretty much nonexistent among newer cars nowadays, according to Consumer Reports’ Annual Auto Surveys.

These suggestions should put you on the right path toward purchasing a car that’s best for you. With the right game plan, you’ll be on the open road in no time.

By Tony Armstrong, NerdWallet