Financial Education

Getting Your Finances Right Before the End of the Year

Brought to you by KOFE, Knowledge of Financial Education

As the weather gets cooler, prices on consumer goods are still red hot due to inflation. Now is a good time to check in on your finances. If you focus on your income and expenses in the fall, you should be able to make it through the expensive holiday shopping season and start the New Year right.

To help you get started, KOFE has put together this fall financial checkup, so you can focus on all the points that need your attention right now.

  • Tip No. 1: Review your credit report

    Checking your credit reports is always a good idea. Studies show that consumer credit reports often contain errors that can damage their credit score. Start by getting free copies of the 3 big credit companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) and read through each report carefully. If you find any mistakes on your reports, you should dispute them immediately.

    If you've used deferment or forbearance on loans and credit cards, you want to make sure your accounts are current. Credit issuers are not allowed to report deferred payments as missed, but mistakes can happen. So, you want to check your credit reports to make sure all the information listed is accurate.
  • Tip No. 2: Check your credit card balances
    The holiday shopping season is the most expensive time of year for most Americans. The average person spends almost $1,000 and much of that expense ends up on credit cards. You want to make sure you're heading into the holiday season with your balances as low as possible. Review your balances, as well as your interest rates. If you are carrying balances across multiple cards, plan to reduce your debt as much as possible now. That will give you more breathing room in case you use your credit cards to make travel reservations or holiday purchases in the coming months.
  • Tip No. 3: Refresh your budget

    Expenses can change throughout the year, especially in the fall when most kids are headed back to school. This makes fall the perfect time to review your budget and make any adjustments you need before the end of the year.

    As you look at your budget numbers, consider the following: Are there any expenses you can cut or cut back on so you can free up more money for holiday spending? Are there things you're paying for that you don't use, such as subscription services that you've already binged your way through? Are you able to dedicate money to saving consistently, so you can continue building your emergency fund?
  • Tip No. 4: Get a handle on housing costs

    Housing has become one of the most burdensome expenses in anyone's life. Homebuyers are staring record high home prices in the eye; homeowners are dealing with an unheard-of increase in property tax and insurance rates and renters often struggle to meet their monthly payments.

    If you are a homeowner...
    As a homeowner, housing costs are usually fairly stable. However, with insurance rates and property taxes rising, not to mention record high levels of inflation, many homeowners are seeing higher costs than they anticipated.

    The government has introduced several programs, such as the Homeowners Assistance Fund, to help people get back on their feet and help to catch up with past due payments. Recently the U.S. Department of Treasury has updated the guidance mandates to provide additional information on the reimbursement of certain qualified expenses. Make sure to take note of any changes as they could have a big impact on the funds available.

    The best way to get informed is to talk to a HUD-certified housing counselor to receive housing stability counseling. Housing stability counseling is free, so if creditors are knocking on your door, make sure you know your options.

    If you are a renter...
    Traditionally, renting has been seen as the cheaper alternative to buying a home, with less responsibility and shorter commitments. The upward costs associated with owning a home have made renting seem even more attractive over two decades past.

    But that doesn't mean renting is cheap by any means, and rental costs have sky-rocketed in many places over the past few years. The average cost of a one-bedroom rental has risen 39% in the last year alone. Coupled with the fact that 16% of low-income renters can't afford to make their full monthly payments, housing stability is becoming harder and harder.

    Rental counseling can be a valuable resource. If you need assistance do not hesitate to reach out for help. We can connect you with counselors that are HUD-certified and will work with you to assess your financial situation, create a personalized budget, and much more.

  • Tip No 5: Start planning for federal student loan payments

    Federal student loans are currently in automatic deferment and interest rates have been suspended. However, that all ends at the end of December 2022, and borrowers need to plan to resume payments in January 2023.

    If you are worried you won't be able to make your payments once they start, don't wait to talk to your loan servicers. Ask about enrolling in an income-based repayment plan, which will match your payments to your income. This can mean you may pay nothing and avoid penalties if you are unemployed or underemployed.

    It's also worth noting that if you can make payments now, you can pay off a significant portion of your debt. That's because with interest frozen, 100% of every payment you make will go towards paying down the principal debt you owe. That can give you a huge advantage in eliminating some of your student loan balances.

  • Tip No. 6: Check in on your retirement savings

    The stock market volatility caused by inflation meant a lot of people's retirement savings took a hit. You may have taken funds out of retirement savings to get through the challenges of this year. If so, you want to set a plan to pay those funds back into your retirement accounts as soon as possible.

    Keep in mind that taking funds out of a retirement account means you also lost the growth on that money. So, if possible, you may want to up your contributions.

    Even if you didn't withdraw any of your retirement funds, check in on your balances to see if you're on track. If you haven't used your free consultation with your plan advisor yet this year, schedule an appointment to meet with them before the end of the year. That way, you can talk about a strategy for allocating your funds the right way for 2023.

  • Tip No 7: See where you stand on your financial goals

    Remember all those great financial resolutions that you had at the beginning of the year? Now is the time to check in on them. The economic uncertainty over the past ten months may have gotten you off track, but there's still time to catch up. Look back at what you had planned for your finances this year. If you haven't made progress, now is the time to recommit to what you wanted to achieve.

    If you didn't have any financial goals set for this year, then get started now. Do you want to buy a house or a car next year? Will you have another major purchase in 2023? Then it's time to start saving. If you want to improve your credit, download a free credit monitoring app and start tracking your score.

  • Tip No. 8: Make sure your family and your assets are protected

    Insurance is more crucial now than it's ever been. You need to make sure you have adequate health insurance in case something happens. You also need to make sure you have adequate life insurance.

    And, with all the storms raging across the country, you need to make sure you have the right insurance for your home, even if you rent. Review your policies to see what's covered and what's not. If you have questions, go to your KOFE portal to access the free coaching session and other financial tools anytime.

Benefits of the Homestead Exemption for Homeowners

The homestead exemption can help you save a nice chunk on your taxes and offer other legal benefits. Following are answers to common questions regarding the homestead exemption.

  • What is the homestead exemption?

    The homestead exemption is a legal provision in a state's tax laws that reduces the property tax on a home, can protect a home from bankruptcy and provides rights to surviving spouses.

    A homestead refers to a dwelling that is inhabited by the homeowner. It can be a manufactured home, a condo or a three-story colonial, though the exact criteria will vary by state.
  • What are the qualifying factors for a homestead exemption?

    Eligibility requirements for the homestead exemption will vary by state. However, the principal qualifying factor in most states is that the homestead is the primary place of residence for the homeowner. Generally, the homeowner must be able to prove they have lived in the homestead on Jan. 1 of the taxable year to be eligible for an exemption.

    Some states make a general homestead exemption available to all homeowners who reside in the home. In other states, only senior citizens, surviving spouses of veterans and former military members and/or people with a disability can qualify. There may be income limits for the exemption as well. Other states establish qualifying criteria around the homestead alone. Still others, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, don't offer the homestead exemption for tax filers at all.
  • How much money can I save with a homestead exemption?

    Most states have established a maximum amount for the exemption, which starts at just $5,000 and goes all the way up to $500,000. In Florida, the homestead exemption can be as high as $50,000, while Texans can write off $25,000 in a homestead exemption for school district taxes.

    The average homestead exemption amount in the U.S. is approximately $30,000 to $50,000.
  • How can the homestead exemption shield me from unsecured creditors?
    The homestead exemption offers a limited amount of protection from unsecured credit lenders, which includes credit cards, personal loans and lines of credit. This means these creditors cannot force the homeowner to sell the home if owed money. The amount of financial protection offered for unsecured credit varies by state, with some, including Florida, Iowa and Texas, providing unlimited financial protection to qualifying homeowners against unsecured creditors.
  • How can the homestead exemption help a surviving spouse?
    After someone dies, their surviving spouse and family may be granted the right to continue living in the "homestead," even if the title of the house transfers to someone else. In addition, some states preclude a property with a homestead exemption from probate proceedings. Finally, homestead allowances can provide a surviving spouse with a specific amount of money, which is also protected from creditor claims.
  • How do I file for a homestead exemption?
    To receive a homestead tax exemption, you'll typically need to make a homestead declaration by filling out an application. The deadline is usually toward the beginning of the year, before the first quarter's property taxes are due. The exact deadline will vary by state, so be sure to verify your state's deadline and file the application in time. You'll likely need documents to show proof of residency when filing an application for a homestead exemption. Depending on your eligibility criteria, you may also need additional documentation.

9 Ways to Fight Rising Prices on Groceries

Brought to you by KOFE, Knowledge of Financial Education

If you're like most Americans, you've probably noticed your grocery bills climb to crazy heights during the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past 12 months, all of the six major grocery store food group prices increased, according to the November 2021 Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose 12.8 percent in 2021, with beef prices jumping the most with a 20.9 percent increase. Dairy product prices rose 1.6 percent. Other prices rose too, ranging from a 4.0 percent increase on fruits and vegetables to 5.7 percent for other foods.

Here are nine ways to cut your grocery bill despite rising prices.

  • 1. Have a grocery budget
    When you have a set amount you can spend on weekly groceries, that can stop you from making impulse purchases or overspending. Decide ahead of time how much you want to spend and then make sure you stay within the budget. If you're worried you'll go over, use your phone's calculator to keep track of the grocery tab while shopping.
  • 2. Sign up for rewards
    If you haven't signed for grocery store loyalty card programs, you're missing out on savings. When you enroll, you'll generally receive significant discounts on eligible items. Many grocery store loyalty programs may also offer discounts per gallon on gas.
  • 3. Give store brands a chance
    You don't have to stock your cupboards with all generic or store brands, but don't dismiss all those brands simply out of grocery snobbery. Most grocery stores offer their own quality brands of milk, eggs, pasta, toilet paper, health and beauty products and many other items for much lower prices than brand name products.
  • 4. Watch for sales
    Do you toss grocery circulars in the mail into the recycle bin without even a glance? Take a few minutes to flip through those sale ads to look for items you would typically buy that are on sale. You might find fruits or vegetables discounted for the week, meat on sale, boxes of pasta for $1 each and other items you can stock up on to use later.
  • 5. Make a grocery list
    One of the best ways to save on groceries is to enter the store with a grocery list in hand. Take time to look in the fridge, freezer and cabinets so you know what you need before you go and don't duplicate items you already have. Then sit down and write a list of grocery items, vowing to stick to your list (for the most part) so you don't overspend on impulse buys.
  • 6. Plan meals before shopping
    Instead of going into the grocery store with only a vague idea of what you might cook that week, plan a few meals around items that you can use in more than one dish. For example, you might prepare baked chicken and then use leftover chicken in another dish like soup, salad or sandwiches. Buy a vegetable that you can serve on the side with more than one entree.
  • 7. Don't limit yourself to eye-level foods
    Did you know that higher-priced items are typically placed on shelves at eye level? That's because many customers never lower their gaze to the bottom shelves, which often contain store brand, generic or low-priced items. Always check out the lower shelves, too. You may find a lower-priced brand you like just as much as that pricey pasta sauce you've been eyeing.
  • 8. Pay with cash
    It's easy to spend too much when you pay with a credit card. But nothing keeps the grocery bill down like watching hard-earned cash leave your hands. Next time you head to the grocery store, stop by the ATM to withdraw cash first. Better yet, withdraw enough for the entire month and
  • 9. Put an end to sporadic grocery runs
    Running to the store for coffee, some chips, a jar of spaghetti sauce and a block of cheese may not seem like a big deal. But if you're making three or four trips to the grocery store a week in addition to your weekly grocery run, you're probably spending too much

That's where having a grocery list helps. Give some thought to your weekly grocery list to avoid making extra trips to the store, which can include impulse purchases that raise the bill.

How to Help Children Become Financially Independent Grown-Ups

Teaching your children how to be financially independent will help smooth the transition into adulthood. It will also give them what they need to stay financially stable throughout life.

Here are some tips for raising kids to be financially independent adults.

  • Start with basic budgeting
    Introduce your children to the concept of earning money and spending mindfully when they're young, and build upon that as they grow up. Preteens can watch you work on an actual budget, and teens can even assist you in creating a budget for a large expense, like a family vacation. You can also help kids create a budget for how they plan to spend their own money.
  • Split the costs of "must-have" items
    If your children are like most kids, they're asking you for trending items they claim they must have; from a pair of designer jeans to the latest fad toy they insist everyone else already has.
    A great compromise is to have your child pay half the cost of expensive trending items. They'll likely quickly see that a "must-have" really isn't when you're footing half the bill.
  • Teach them about credit cards
    If your child sees you using a credit or debit card often, teach them what's behind that card. Show them your credit card bill when it arrives and talk about how you need to pay for all those expenses during the month, plus the possible interest. Teach them about debit cards, too, explaining how money is withdrawn from your checking account each time you swipe the card. You can also give older kids a quick rundown on credit scores, how they work and why they're so important.
  • Talk openly about what they can expect in terms of support for the future
    When your child is mature enough to talk about the future, discuss how much financial support you plan to offer while they attend college, immediately after graduation and into their adult years. Ask about their plans as well, paying attention to when they anticipate being financially independent.
    You can bring up the topic of career paths, too. Help your child determine a basic budget for the lifestyle they plan to lead and assist them in narrowing down their career choices until they have just a few that will support their future life. Talk about student loans, too, and explain how crippling debt can be.

Don't Get Caught in an Auto Warranty Scam

Another phone call, another scam.

It can sometimes feel like scammers have some kind of competition going to see who can hit you with the most robocalls in a day. In fact, according to Truecaller, scams and robocalls account for 67% of all phone calls in the U.S. Each American will receive an average of 28 of these calls a month. More than just an annoyance, scam calls cost 56 million Americans a financial loss in 2020.

One of the most common scams pulled off over the phone is the auto warranty scam. Here's all you need to know about this scam and how to protect yourself from falling victim:

How the scam plays out

In this ruse, scammers posing as representatives of a car dealer or manufacturer will call to tell you that your auto warranty is about to expire. The scammer will then segue into a pitch for renewing your warranty. During the call, you may be prompted to press a number to stay on the line, and then are asked to provide personal information to continue the process of renewing your warranty. If you follow instructions, you will be playing right into a scam.

How to spot a scam

It is possible for legitimate auto warranty companies to call you about purchasing or renewing a warranty. Look out for these red flags to help you pick out the authentic calls from the scams:

  • Hello, it's Mr. Robot calling. When it's a robocall on the line, you're almost certainly talking to a scammer. A legitimate company will hire a live salesperson to promote their services.
  • Feel the pressure? Scammers notoriously lead victims to act without thinking by claiming their offer is available for a limited time. If a caller pressures you to act now, you're likely talking to a scammer.
  • Just a small fee ... Is the caller demanding a small processing fee, or a down payment on the plan before supplying you with real details and information on it? If yes, you're being scammed.
  • You've got mail! Scammers aren't content with playing games over the phone; they'll often send bogus documents in the mail, too. These can be disguised to look like genuine alerts from the DMV or auto manufacturer, prompting you to act now because your auto warranty is expiring. Of course, when you call the number on the letter, you won't be connected to the DMV or auto manufacturer, but to a full-blown scamming operation.

Protect yourself

Follow these tips to keep yourself safe from auto warranty scams and similar ruses:

  • Never share your personal information, such as your Social Security number, credit card information or checking account details, with an unverified caller.
  • It's also a good idea to screen all incoming calls by checking the Caller ID before answering the phone. Legitimate telemarketers are required to display their phone number and the name/or phone number of the company they represent. If this information is missing, it's likely a scam.
  • It's important to note that scammers often spoof authentic phone numbers to make it appear as if they are calling from a legitimate company. If you suspect spoofing, you can always ignore a call, and then call the number of the company that allegedly reached out to you, to ask about the contents of the call. If the call was indeed spoofed, the company will not be aware that the call was made.
  • If those robocalls are not letting up, consider blocking the number on your phone. You may have to do this several times, as scammers often use more than one phone number to carry out a scam.

Alert the authorities

If you are targeted by a suspected scammer, you can alert the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at the FCC Complaint Center. These calls likely violate telemarketing and robocall regulations, and by alerting the FCC, you can help them identify the scammers.

If the call you received involved fraud, you can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov.

Robocalls are incredibly annoying, but getting scammed is more than just an irritating experience. Follow our tips to protect yourself from auto warranty scams and similar ruses.

Why Good Credit Matters

You probably already know how important your credit score is to lenders. When you apply for credit, your credit score helps lenders determine whether or not you are able to repay the loan based on your past financial performance. With a higher score, you qualify for better interest rates, lower payments, higher credit limits, and more types of credit than you would with a lower score.

Did you also know that your credit score can make it easier to rent an apartment, qualify for a good cell phone plan, and pay less for insurance? A higher score can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars every year, which can add up to significant savings.

Not only can it hurt you financially, but many employers now check a potential employee's credit as part of the hiring decision. A low credit score could cost you a chance at your dream job.

How to Manage Credit to Improve Your Score

There are no tricks or quick fixes to getting a good score. However, you can raise your score over time by demonstrating that you consistently manage your credit responsibly. Here are 10 things you can do to improve your credit score:

  1. Pay your bills on time. Building a history of paying your bills on time will improve your score. Even if you've had serious delinquencies in the past, a recent history (24 months) of on-time payments carries weight in credit decisions.
  2. Keep credit card balances low. High outstanding debt can pull your score down.
  3. Check your credit report for accuracy. Inaccurate information on your credit report can be cleared up easily. Always contact the original creditor and the credit bureaus whenever you clear up an error so that the inaccurate information won't reappear later
  4. Pay down debt. Consolidating your credit card debt or spreading it over multiple cards will not improve your score in the long run. The most effective way to improve your credit is by slowly paying down the amount you owe.
  5. Use credit cards - but manage them responsibly. In general, having credit cards and installment loans that you pay on time will raise your score. Someone who has no credit card tends to have a lower score than someone who has already proven that he/she can manage credit cards responsibly.
  6. Don't open multiple accounts too quickly, especially if you have a short credit history. This can look risky because you are taking on a lot of possible debt. New accounts will also lower the average age of your existing accounts which is something that also impacts your credit score.
  7. Don't close an account to remove it from your record. A closed account will still show up on your credit report. In fact, closing accounts can sometimes hurt your score unless you also pay down your debt at the same time.
  8. Shop for a loan within a focused period of time. Credit bureaus distinguish between a search for a single loan and a search for many new credit lines, based in part on the length of time over which the credit inquiries were made.
  9. Don't open new credit card accounts you don't need. This approach could backfire and actually lower your score.
  10. Contact your creditors or see a legitimate credit counselor if you're having financial difficulties. This won't raise your score immediately, but the sooner you begin managing your credit well and making timely payments, the sooner your score will improve.