Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Don’t stress! There are still deals to take advantage of, even after Black Friday!

Budgeting isn't easy, but it’s a GREAT feeling knowing you have a healthy bank account. Let us help make holiday budgeting and purchasing easier—attend December’s Credit Club! In the meantime, here are some suggestions from our budgeting professionals.

Have a plan
Avoid holiday headache overspending and make a detailed budget plan. Encompass all that is part of the holiday season into the budget, including travel, food, events and parties. There should be a long list of what your holiday expenses are. While planning and spending, think of ways where you can cut back on your budget or save on expenses.

Comparison shop all your planned purchases
Check ads in newspapers and visit retailers’ social media pages or websites. Saving just a few dollars on each expense adds up! If getting the better deal means driving to several different shops, save gas money by grabbing everything while you are already out or try carpooling with a friend.

In the true spirit of the season, the thought really is what counts
It’s tempting to use shopping as a way to get into the holiday spirit. Instead of making time for shopping, make time for friends and family, and creating gifts that are personal. If holiday expenses really have you worried, talk about it with friends and family; they might be just as eager to set limits on gift spending.

Food for thought for the New Year
Employ multiple saving strategies in addition to savings accounts, such as the whole family pooling and saving change over the year. Every little bit only serves to help, and you might be surprised just how much you can actually save in a year while still making ends meet.

If you do especially well this holiday season and spend under your budget, consider getting a head start on Christmas for the following year. After-Christmas sales are competitive with Black Friday deals; cards, decorations, and Christmas-themed gifts will be hugely discounted.

Don’t miss out on a workshop that is sure to help make your holiday full of cheer! This month’s Credit Club “Creating Memorable Christmas Traditions” on Thursday, Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. will help you create those wonderful Christmas memories for you and your family that will last a lifetime! Click here to learn more and register.

Written by: Sarah Cornwall, Marketing Resources, at Family Services, Inc.

Monday, November 18, 2013

SC Credit Monitoring Update

If you were affected by last year’s South Carolina Department of Revenue security breach (SCDOR), be sure to enroll in the free credit monitoring service that opened enrollment on October 24th. The State of South Carolina has signed a year contract with CSID, a leading provider of comprehensive identity protection. 

All eligible SC Taxpayers may enroll at www.scidprotection.com or by calling 855-880-2743.

Once you enroll yourself, be sure to add your minor child or children. As a courtesy the state is offering Child Monitoring coverage through CSID for children under age 18, for up to 12 months. This coverage allows you to monitor any addresses and aliases associated with your child’s Social Security Number, and see if your child’s personal information is being bought or sold online.
Be sure to watch out though; last year’s provider of ID protection, Experian, is still sending offers to extend their identity protection services to SC Taxpayers for 99 cents a month, despite the free protection offered by the state through CSID. Experian would make about $18 million if all of the 1.5 million affected taxpayers who signed up last year with them took the offer.
Check with SCDOR at http://www.sctax.org/security.html for updates. The state is anticipating that it may have to pay for taxpayer protection for years.

Further Security Tips

As a preventative and an effective layer of security, our experts here at FSI advise not to pay out for protection, but rather freeze your own credit report and self-monitor. Credit freezes are one of the most effective tools against ID theft available to consumers.  And it is completely free!

Make sure any online websites where you input sensitive information is secure. A good indicator of a secure website is an https versus http web address. If you're just browsing the web and not entering any sensitive information, http is fine. However, on pages where you enter your password, credit card number, or other financial information, you should always look for the https prefix. Additionally, never store your information, specifically passwords or Social Security Numbers, on Internet browsers.

Identity manipulation and theft victimizes more than 15 million United States residents each year. That is SEVEN percent of all adults, with financial losses totaling near $50 billion. ID and credit protection is important. By taking the time to secure your credit, you will save yourself from the havoc, time, stress, and expense it takes to resolve ID theft.

Written by: Sarah Cornwall, Marketing Resources, at Family Services, Inc.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bargains for a Happy Halloween

Halloween is expensive and although it is over, the immediate week after is perfect for taking advantage of steep discounts. Decorations and all other overpriced Halloween accessories are priced for cheap; which usually reflects the quality of Halloween-themed products.

Think about stocking up for the following year. With decorations and costumes already purchased you will have more time and money next Halloween for carving pumpkins and enjoying hayrides.

If you miss the window for after-Halloween sales, there are plenty of other ways to save big. Purchase candy after other big holidays such as Easter or Valentine’s Day. Make the decorations yourself—this pairs as a great Halloween activity for kids.

Shop online to price compare and be sure to check reviews. Many reviews will not be great, but if it’s a cheap price, then you’re getting the expected value.

Avoid those Halloween-themed retailers that appear every October. Their items are almost always over-priced.

There are many ways to save money on costumes, which, once purchased for the whole family, can add up to a hefty price. Try to reuse or repurpose costumes from previous years. Swap costumes with friends or relatives. More and more funny costumes tend to be the simple but clever ones.

For more ideas, check out this list of easy, cheap, and humorous costumes: http://www.essortment.com/halloween-costume-ideas-50-funny-ideas-52248.html

Trick or treat!

Written by: Sarah Cornwall, Marketing Resources, at Family Services, Inc.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How to Save Big on Healthcare

You have probably heard that big changes are coming to healthcare this month, but you might not be sure how it affects you. Here's what you need to know to save big on healthcare this year.

The Affordable Care Act caused state healthcare exchanges to open on October 1. A healthcare exchange is a kind of marketplace where insurance companies offer different plans to consumers.

However, just because these plans are available to you does not mean that you should automatically drop your employer's insurance. This is because, under your company's insurance, your employer is actually paying for some of your coverage. 

On the other hand, there are specific circumstances that may make shopping the healthcare exchange worth your while. If you fall into one or more of the categories listed below, you should consider shopping the exchange for a better deal on your healthcare coverage:

  • More than 9.5% of your household income goes to health insurance. Even if you have your company's healthcare insurance, you may be paying a significant portion of the cost. If so, you can drop your company plan and find assistance in the state healthcare exchange. 

  • Your employer pays for less than 60% of your healthcare costs. This is another indicator the government uses to identify inadequate coverage. It usually applies to high-deductible plans. 

  • You work for a company with less than 100 employees. The Affordable Care Act only requires companies with more than 100 employees to provide health insurance. If  your employer offers no or minimal coverage, you might be able to find a better plan at the exchange. 

  • You earn less than 400% of the poverty level. If you qualify for a government subsidy, shopping the healthcare exchange is a good idea. To qualify for a subsidy, you must earn between 133 and 400% of the poverty level. If you fall below the 133% mark, you qualify for Medicaid. If your income is above the cutoff point, you can still use the exchange to shop for health insurance. However, you will not receive a tax break. 

Whether or not you are enrolling in the healthcare exchange, there are other ways that you can save on your medical expenses. One way is to have a healthcare savings account. It could save you money on taxes as well as provide free money for medical bills. Here are THREE types of healthcare savings accounts to consider:

  • FSA - A Flexible Savings Account is set up through your employer and puts pretax dollars aside for medical expenses. FSAs are especially helpful for expenses that you know are coming, such as paying for children's braces. In order to be reimbursed, you must turn in your receipts. When using a FSA, it is important to budget carefully since the money must be spent within the calendar year or it returns to the company. 

  • HSA - The money in a Health Savings Account can be invested, so it could earn more for you than if it was just sitting in savings account. The earnings are rolled over every year, and you can withdraw all of it when you turn 65. These accounts are available through employers and banks, and many of them come with fees. To sign up, you have to a high-deductible insurance policy.You must also be careful not to use the funds for a non-qualified medical expense before you turn 65. If you do, the IRS will add an extra 20% to your federal taxes. 

  • HRA - The only type of account that employers completely fund is a Healthcare Reimbursement Account. The money in this account will stay there from year to year, and it covers nearly everything that a FSA or HSA would. While some require you to file a claim, others simply give you a check card to use for your health expenses. However, you do not keep the money once you leave that job, so keep that in mind if you are preparing to retire or change careers. 

With these tips in mind, you should be well prepared for the coming healthcare changes. If you have any other ideas on how to save money on medical expenses, please share them in the comments below!

Written by: Meg Thompson, Marketing Resources, at Family Services, Inc.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Quick tips to get you on the path to homeownership

Owning a home is a great way to build an investment and see return on all the “rent” you’re already paying month to month. Right now, interest rates are STILL at an all-time low. If you’re mortgage ready, take advantage of this and get yourself a good deal!

1.   Look at your budget and determine how a house fits into it. Fannie Mae recommends that buyers spend no more than 28 percent of their income on housing costs. If you pay more than 30 percent of your gross monthly income to put a roof over your head, you are living ABOVE your means. The term “HOUSE POOR” will have real meaning.

Keep in mind: Owning a home is not like renting – you are the landlord. When it breaks, you fix it. EXPECT unexpected costs. When new appliances, roof repairs and plumbing problems pop up; these costs can drain your bank account.

2.   Go to a bank or lender to get pre-qualified. This initial step allows you to assess any goals or needs you may have regarding your mortgage with your lender. From here, you can learn about your various mortgage options and the type that might be best suited to your situation.

Keep in mind: Being pre-qualified is NOT the same as pre-approved. It is strongly advised that those seeking homeownership do not house hunt until they are pre-approved, which is much more extensive.

3.   Find a realtor once you are pre-approved and set on what you can afford. Meet with a few agents, to find one you feel confident with. An agent who is a member of the National Association of Realtors is a good sign as they adhere to a strict ethics code.

Keep in mind:  A good real estate agent can help guard against any pitfalls you may encounter during the process, so choose wisely.

4.   Know and understand the various mortgage products available to you. Factor in closing costs you can afford. This will help you choose the best mortgage program for you. As a first time homebuyer, options may be available to you, such as low interest programs and down payment assistance.

Keep in mind: If you plan to move within five to 10 years, an adjustable-rate mortgage (AMR) could be beneficial. However, if plans change and you stay in your home for longer, you may be stuck with payments you can’t afford.

5.   Try to hold off on big purchases or any decisions that could affect your credit once you’ve signed a contract and a closing date is set. Typically, lenders pull credit right before closing to make sure nothing has changed with your financial situation.

Keep in mind: If you feel over-stressed, lost, or uncomfortable with the homebuying process or any part of it, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The Homeownership Resource Center, a division of Family Services, Inc., not only offers help and guidance, but piece of mind.

To learn more about the workshops and individual appointments we provide with our licensed homebuyer coaches, contact us at 843.735.7862 or info@fsisc.org.

Written by: Revena Dawson, Home Purchase/Credit Advisor, & Sarah Cornwall, Marketing Rescources, at Family Services, Inc.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Making Ends Meet: Budgeting made easy!

Forget penny-pinching, unless you enjoy that. We like to make budgeting fun. Making minor adjustments to your financial behavior can make a world of difference.

Start with a WARM-UP. No one ever begins an exercise routine with a marathon. Pledge a few minutes a day for a week to get organized. Gather those bills and sort them into piles. Maybe even create a calendar with bill due dates. If you are “techy,” try a Google calendar with reminder emails.

Time to ASSESS. The next week, use that same few minutes a day to check in on your financial health. Look up your credit score on annualcreditreport.com (nowhere else, please!), check your bank account balances, and review your retirement plan.

Now... PLAN with a purpose! Choose a goal that would change your life in the short-term. Maybe you want to switch careers, go back to school, maybe BUY A HOUSE?!

STRATEGIZE. Break that goal into smaller pieces. Once you accomplish it,
move on to the next goal!

And, if you decide that buying a home may be one of your upcoming life goals, be sure to contact us!We can assist you in credit improvement, budgeting, debt management, and homebuyer education.

Call to learn more or to schedule an appointment at 843.735.7862 or email info@fsisc.org.

Written by: Jenna Johnson, Marketing and Development Director at Family Services, Inc.

Friday, February 1, 2013

4 ways to use your tax refund to strengthen your overall financial situation

If you are anything like me, you’ll be more than tempted to use your tax refund for that flat screen you’ve wanted, or maybe that weekend vacation you keep putting off. It feels good to finally get those material things you’ve “needed”. However, like most material indulgences, the charm wears thin and quick…especially when an emergency comes up, or reality hits that you should invest more in your future.

I asked our experts here at Family Services, Inc. for different ways to use a refund that will leave you feeling secure, and confident about your financial situation.

 1.       Pay off/down debt: This encompasses a lot. Who doesn’t have debt these days? Pay off a credit card balance. Double up on a mortgage payment. Doing this once a year can shorten your overall payment period (provided it's allowed under the terms of your loan). If you’re not a homeowner, apply this trick used for mortgages to your student loan debt. Paying down debt, whether it’s a credit card, car loan, mortgage, student loan, or any other kind, is usually a guaranteed return equal to the interest you would have otherwise paid.

2.       Make an emergency fund: If you have your debts under control, and don’t feel it’s necessary to make an extra payment, then your tax refund might be an excellent starting point for building an emergency fund. Personally, my refund will be put away as “emergency funds”. The other day I left work to find that I had a flat tire. Needless to say, I had NO money to pay for this unexpected expense and was forced to charge it, maxing out my credit card!

3.       Invest: If you have no debt and a healthy emergency fund (kudos to you), then you can always look to the future. A tax refund can be used to put a down payment on a house, buy a car, or help pay for an education for you, or the little ones (look to ESA plans and 529 plans). Try one of these: 401(k), 403(b), Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, SEPs. Have questions? One of our licensed financial coaches can help! The purpose and the time frame will help you decide the kind of investment you should be looking at.

4.       A savings account: Instead of a regular savings that would perhaps hold your emergency fund, try a Christmas club account. Christmas is the same time every year, but it still catches the majority of people off guard. Even better, invest in a Certificate of Deposit account, similar to a savings account but with higher interest for your benefit.

Go to www.fsisc.org or call 843-735-5522 for information or assistance.

Written by: Sarah Cornwall, Marketing Resources Assistant at Family Services, Inc.