How to Cut Down on the Cost of Owning a Car

February 15, 2024

In 2023, the average cost of owning a new car was $12,182 a year or $121 a month according to AAA. In addition to car payments, insurance, and maintenance costs, the price of gas is $5 a gallon,, which means that most U.S. households will spend $2,750 on gas per year. “If you are living paycheck to paycheck, it could put you over the edge,” says Ivan Drury, senior manager for Edmunds.com, a car shopping site. “But even if you are not, it’s very emotional. It’s in your face twice a week.”

The good news is that by cutting your expenses in other areas, such as with car insurance, you can save money and make up for the added charges at the pump. Besides simply driving less, which isn’t an option for many people, here are a few ways to make car ownership more affordable.

1. Shop Around For Car Insurance

According to J.D. Power, only 1 in 7 drivers changed auto insurers last year, but shopping around for lower premiums could save you a lot of money. In addition to your location and the type of car you own, other factors affect your rates, including your age and credit score. If you’ve improved your score within the last year, this one factor may lower your car insurance bill.

You can collect quotes through an insurance agent or use an online search engine, such as Experian, who claims to have saved drivers an average of $961 a year or $80 a month in 2021. Calling around or doing a quick search takes only fifteen minutes and could shave a lot of money off of your premium.

2. Check For Discounts and Adjust Your Existing Policy

Your existing carrier may offer discounts you don’t even know about, such as for paying your bill online and in advance. According to Zebra, paying your bill early online saves the average customer $170 a year. Bundling insurance policies, such as combining your homeowners and auto insurance, is another way insurance companies incentivize their policies through discounted rates.

There are usually three types of coverage on any given insurance policy, including liability, collision, and comprehensive. While most states require drivers to carry some amount of liability coverage, eliminating collision and comprehensive coverage could save you up to $900 a year. You may also opt to lower your car insurance premium by raising your deductible from $500 to $1,000. This makes sense if you don’t have a new or expensive car and can afford to pay the deductible if anything were to happen.

3. Outside Financing And Refinancing

One of the smartest ways to avoid high interest rates on a car payment is by securing outside financing. Compared to what the dealership will offer you, this can save you a ton of money in interest alone. Your local bank or credit union can help you shop around for the best offer. If you already have a monthly car payment, the next best thing to do is to look into refinancing your loan. Drivers who benefit the most from refinancing are those who have improved their credit score since initially securing their loan.

Of course if you can purchase a car outright, avoiding any kind of financing is always the very best option. If it’s possible for you to stick to a budget and save up, you may even be able to negotiate a better deal on the purchase price of your desired vehicle. Forty percent of the cost of owning a car is actually depreciation, which can equal more than $3,000 annually. That means that buying a gently used car is a great deal, without the rapid decline in value.

4. Sell One of Your Cars or Trade it Out

If you have a luxury or oversized vehicle, then trading your vehicle or a more practical car is always an option. Once you have a simpler car, you’ll save money on gas, insurance, and even maintenance costs. “Less fancy cars are more reliable,” says editor of Autotrader Brian Moody. “They have fewer gadgets.”

If your family has more than one car, then you may be able to sell one of them and end up saving a lot of money every month. Many families find that they adjust to sharing a vehicle, and when you need your own car for some reason, using Uber or Lyft periodically may still cost less than owning a vehicle. 

5. Save on Gas

Nearly twenty percent of the cost of car ownership comes from fuelling up. Unless your vehicle requires premium fuel, save by filling up with regular gas. You may also choose to slow down as gas mileage increases at lower speeds. If you can, try driving less, such as by walking to close destinations or starting a carpool for work. If you are able to get your annual mileage below 7,500, then your insurance company might even give you a discount on your coverage for that too. 

6. Save up for Maintenance

The cost of vehicle maintenance is equal to fourteen percent of the total cost of owning a car. By keeping up on routine maintenance and using synthetic oil, you will avoid more expensive issues down the road. When a large repair does arise, always call around to get quotes and go with the best deal. Since emergencies happen, setting up a sinking fund for unplanned car expenses is always a good idea. By putting away only $83 a month, you’ll save up $1,000 a year, which could be used for an unforeseen mechanic bill. “You could set aside money every week,” suggests Lauren Fix of Car Smarts. “Then the money will be available rather than using a credit card at a high interest rate.”

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The less money you spend on your car, the more you’ll have for other expenses in your life, from groceries to vacations. With Insureyouknow.org, you can store all of your vehicle and financial records in one place. That way when it’s time to refinance, shop around for better insurance, or sell your car, everything you need will already be at your fingertips. There’s never a good reason to throw away your hard-earned money on unnecessary expenses.

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Which is Best: Health Savings Account or Flexible Spending Account?

February 1, 2024

While a health savings account (HSA) and a flexible savings account (FSA) both help you to set money aside for health care costs, they are not the same. Both accounts are often offered by employers, but it is possible to open an HSA independently as long as you have a HSA-eligible health plan in place. FSAs however are strictly employer-based and can only be contributed to if your employer offers them to you. Here are six key differences to know between HSAs and FSAs.

  1. An HSA Belongs to You, Not Your Employer

Whether or not you opened up a HSA through your employer-offered insurance, the funds within your HSA belong to you forever. You may even use your HSA to cover health insurance costs if you leave your current job. On the other hand, FSA funds belong to your company, and when you leave them, you forfeit your FSA.

This is not to say a FSA can’t be advantageous, as long as you intend to stay with your current employer. “The FSA basically works with any kind of health insurance plan,” says Roy Ramthun, president of HSA Consulting Services. “So from that perspective, the ‘flexible’ in the name is pretty good.”

  1. Both Accounts Have Contribution Limits

Each year, the IRS determines maximum annual amounts that can be contributed to both HSAs and FSAs. Employers may also apply their own limits to their employee FSAs. For 2024, the IRS individual contribution limits for HSAs will be $4,150, while the family limit will be twice that. In 2024, the maximum contribution for FSAs will be $3,200. While a HSA has a higher contribution limit, your employer may be contributing to your FSA for you, which may allow you to contribute more of your earnings into your own HSA.

  1. HSA Funds Carry Over

With an HSA, you may carry over unused funds from year-to-year indefinitely. This is helpful when you have more in your account than you can use before the year’s end. With the HSA, your funds won’t go wasted. This is why it is a great way to save up for unexpected health costs down the road.

Alternatively, FSA funds must be used before the year is over, or you’ll forgo the existing funds when the calendar year starts over. Some employers may allow you to carry over part of the funds or provide you with a grace period to use your funds, which is generally two and a half months. Since FSAs are offered through your employer, it will be important to inform yourself of their policies around the account.

  1. FSAs are More Accessible at the Beginning of Each Year

While your FSA funds don’t rollover, if you or your employer plan to contribute your entire limit at the beginning of the year, then that entire amount is available to you immediately. HSA funds accumulate over the year, which means that if you need access to more coverage midyear, you may not have enough money in your HSA to pay your medical bills. The upside to this is that you should be able to reimburse yourself for previous medical expenses from your HSA once those funds become available.

  1. The HSA Can be an Investment Strategy

Unlike an FSA, the HSA can gain interest over time. Couple this with the fact that your funds carry over year to year, and the HSA offers the potential for growing quite a sizable nest egg for potential health care coverage. According to the Fidelity Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate, an average retired couple age 65 in 2023 may need up to $315,000 saved just to cover health care expenses in retirement, while a single individual will need approximately $157,500.

  1. At 65, the HSA Can Act as a 401K or IRA

Before the age of 65, you will be subject to a 20% penalty if you use your HSA or FSA funds for anything other than medical expenses. But once you’re 65 or older, that fee is waived, which means that those HSA funds are only subject to income taxes no matter how you use them. While you avoid the 20% penalty over the age of 65 with a FSA as well, those funds can still only be used for health care coverage.

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Both HSAs and FSAs can prove to be valuable parts of a health coverage plan. Whether or not your employer offers a FSA to you in addition to health insurance coverage for you and your dependents will of course factor into your decision making about whether or not an added HSA will be necessary. Insureyouknow.org can help you store all of your financial and medical information in one place so that you can stay organized and make the best decisions when planning for your family’s health coverage.

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Saving for Your Next Vacation is Easy With a Plan

November 15, 2023

With world oil prices up, so is the cost of everything else. And now that interest rates are on the rise in an effort to combat inflation, hotel prices have risen by ten percent at many popular destinations. The benefits of traveling though are not worth foregoing due to rising costs. Travel is beneficial to your mental health by helping you feel calm and relieving stress and tension. With a little bit of creativity and determination, anyone can save up for a vacation and even get a great deal on travel costs.

How to Save for a Yearly Vacation

The best way to save for a vacation is to plan for it. If you have a specific trip in mind, start thinking about how much it will cost. Then create what is known as a sinking fund. If you think your vacation a year from now is going to cost $2,400, then put away $200 into an account every month. In a year’s time, you would have what you need for that vacation. If you continued the habit, then you’d have that vacation money saved every year.

When bills come in and unexpected expenses pop up, it can become difficult not to dip into your savings. This is why it’s important to keep your vacation account or sinking fund out of reach. Set up an automatic transfer for your savings every month instead of relying on yourself to transfer the money when you get paid. Gaby Dunn, author of Bad With Money, advises separating your money from your general savings so that you don’t use it for a different expense. “It’s also a good idea to open a specific account just for your vacation fund,” she suggests.

Once you’ve determined how much you’ll need to save, it then becomes time to get serious about sticking to a budget. “Many times, people will design their vacation and then attach dollars to it,” says Jesse Mecham, the founder of You Need a Budget. “But it’s better to come up with a reasonable number first, then whittle away at it when you start planning the trip. The reality is that we have only so much money.”

Budgeting really becomes about determining where you’re wasting money and where you can save money. Here are five easy ways to save for your next vacation::

  • One of the best ways to cut back on spending is to eat out less often and cook more meals at home. “Anyone I’ve talked to who has saved up a lot of money or paid off a lot of debt has cut back on eating out,” says Mecham. “Learning how to meal plan has been the overarching approach that has worked.” It might take some getting used to, but meal planning on the front end of your week can save a lot of money in the long run that you can put toward your travel budget.
  • Study your spending habits and cut back on buying unnecessary items. It might be coffees to-go, books that could have been borrowed  from the library, or impulse clothing purchases. Notice your spending weaknesses and then get disciplined about avoiding  those temptations.
  • You may have some sneaking subscriptions to streaming services, apps, or memberships that you’re not using often enough to make them worth the added strain on your budget. Take an inventory and see which subscriptions you could go without. The twenty or so dollars you’re spending a month on something you’re not even using could easily go toward your sinking fund instead.
  • Savings account interest rates are often higher with online banks than brick and mortar banks. Kelly Johnson of the travel blog, Snap Travel Magic, suggests finding the highest-yield savings account. Then, “Put 5% of each paycheck,” she advises,
    directly into the account.”
  • Use credit cards that reward you, whether it’s a bonus sign-up offer, regular cash back percentages on money spent, or points that can be put toward travel expenses. “Many credit cards offer sign up bonuses in which you can earn free cash back, extra airline miles and travel points for spending a certain amount of money within the first few months of account opening which you can use to cover a big portion of your travel expenses,” says shopping consultant Andrea Woroch.  

The most important thing when it comes to saving for your travel goals may be to stay motivated. Keep in mind why you’re budgeting by placing a picture of your desired destination somewhere you look often or making it the background image on your phone or computer. This way, if you’re tempted to make a purchase through your phone, you’ll be reminded of why you’re working so hard to save money for your dream vacation.

How to Get the Best Deals on Travel Costs

If you’re willing to be flexible with where you travel to, there is another way to score inexpensive tickets. Companies such as Scott’s Cheap Flights and Secret Flying allow you to seize temporary deals. By entering your home airport into Google Flights, choosing a desired departure date, and leaving the destination blank, people can find startling low prices on round trip tickets. This is not to say you should forego your dream trip for a deal on plane tickets. This is just one strategy to consider if you’re more in need of a break than of an actual place you have in mind.

Knowing how to avoid the high season in certain places is an artform worth mastering. Besides dealing with less crowds on your vacation, you can also take advantage of lower prices on almost all of your costs. While school schedules affect peak travel times, time off varies depending on the location. The ideal time in most places is likely going to be in between seasons or “shoulder season,” such as May in tropical destinations and October in colder places, including Europe. A little research will tell you when it’s best to travel to the destination you have in mind.

Next, shop around and compare the prices of hotels and rental properties. For instance, the advantage of having a kitchen in a rental may vary widely based on where you’re going. In some places, it will be less expensive to eat out than to cook and vice versa. Whichever you choose – hotel or rental – pay close attention to reviews, especially with Airbnb, where only travelers who have stayed there are allowed to leave a review.

How to Save Even When Traveling

Once you’ve worked hard saving up for a trip and doing your research to get the best deal on transportation and lodging, you’ll want to avoid getting caught up in the moment on your trip and go crazy with frivolous spending. The biggest trap people fall into is the cost of meals on vacation.

One way to avoid overpriced dining is to eat where the locals do. Walking fifteen minutes in any direction out of the city can make a huge difference. Not only will you spend less at restaurants, but you’ll have a more authentic dining experience. Asking the locals for suggestions is another best practice to find places to eat, as most people will love the opportunity to share their recommendations.

Just as in avoiding the peak time to travel somewhere, the same goes for restaurants. Making reservations a little earlier or later than when everyone else is will cut down on the costs of that meal, as many restaurants provide specials outside of peak times. Another way to budget is to plan on one splurge meal a day. If you eat a light breakfast and grab a small lunch on the go, then spending more on dinner won’t feel as glutiness.

Beyond eating, be open to free activities, and again: do your research ahead of time. There are many museums that offer free or reduced admissions on certain days and times. Then there’s the gardens, parks, and general sightseeing that are always free-of-charge. Always check for local markets to get a taste of local fare and the unparalleled experience of people-watching in a new place.

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Getting serious about saving money for travel will also help you to get your finances in tip-top shape and make the most out of your money in your everyday life. While you keep your eye on your goals, Insureyouknow.org can help you stay organized by storing all of your financial records, budgets, and plans in one place. Making a plan and sticking to it will be well worth it when you have the means to take a well-deserved holiday, perhaps even more than just once a year.

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Legal and Financial Planning for Those with Alzheimer’s and Their Caregivers

November 1, 2023

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, then there are certain things that you will need to plan for legally and financially. An estimated 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and it is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that slowly decreases memory and thinking skills, while dementia involves a loss of cognitive functioning; both cause more and more difficulty for an individual to perform the most simple tasks. Though a diagnosis can be scary, the right planning can help individuals and their families feel more at ease.

Putting Legal Documentation in Place

Christopher Berry, Founder and Planner at The Elder Care Firm, recommends three main disability documents that should be in place.

First, there needs to be a financial power of attorney, a document that designates someone to make all financial decisions once an individual is unable to do so for themselves. If an individual lacks a trusted loved one to make financial decisions, then designating a financial attorney or bank is an option.

The next document that needs to be in place is the medical power of attorney that designates someone to make medical decisions for an individual. In many cases, it may be appropriate to appoint the same person to be the financial and medical power of attorney, as long as that person is well-trusted by the individual. In the event that something happens to the original power of attorney(s), successor (or back-up) agents for power of attorney(s) should also be designated.

The last document is the personal care plan, which instructs the financial and medical power of attorney(s) on how best to care for the individual in need. For instance, those entrusted to the care of an individual will need to make sure they sign medical records release forms at all doctor’s offices; copies of the power of attorney or living will should also be given to healthcare providers.

These three documents provide a foundation to make decisions for the individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia when they no longer can themselves. It’s ideal to include the individual in these conversations in the early stages of their diagnosis, so that they may be a part of the decision-making process and appoint people that they will feel most comfortable with during their care.

How to Pay for Long-Term Care

Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, the level of care an individual needs will increase over time. Care costs may include medical treatment, medical equipment, modifications to living areas, and full-time residential care services.

The first thing a family can do is to use their own personal funds for care expenses. It’s important for families to remember that they will also pay in their time, as many children of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia will become the main caregivers. It may be wise to meet with a financial planner or sit down with other family members, such as your spouse and siblings, to determine how long some of you may be able to forgo work in order to provide full time care.

When personal funds get low or forgoing work for a period of time becomes difficult, long-term care insurance can be a lifesaver. The key to relying on long-term care insurance though is that it needs to be set up ahead of the Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnoses, so considering these plans as one ages may be smart.

Veterans can make use of the veterans benefit, or non-service-connected pension, which is sometimes called the aid and attendance benefit. This benefit can help pay for long-term care of both veterans and their spouses.

Finally, an individual aged 65 or older can receive Medicare, while those that qualify for Medicaid can receive assistance for the cost of a nursing home. If someone’s income is too high to receive Medicaid, then the spenddown is one strategy to know; under spenddown, an individual may subtract their non-covered medical expenses and cost sharing (including Medicare premiums and deductibles) from their available income. With the spenddown, a person’s income may be lowered enough for them to qualify for Medicaid.

Minimizing Risk Factors During Care

Research published recently in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that nearly half of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia will experience a serious fall in their own home. Author Safiyyah Okoye, who was at John Hopkins University when the study was conducted, recommends minimizing risks such as these by safeguarding homes early on in diagnoses. “Examining the multiple factors, including environmental ones like a person’s home or neighborhood, is necessary to inform fall-risk screening, caregiver education and support, and prevention strategies for this high-risk population of older adults,” she states.

The good news is that since the progression of Alzheimer’s is often slow, families have plenty of time to modify the home for increased safety.

In addition to fall prevention modifications, other safety measures may include installing warning bells on doors to signal when they’re opened, putting down pressure-sensitive mats to alert when someone has moved, and using night lights throughout the home. Coats, wallets, and keys should also be kept out of sight, because at some point, leaving the home alone and driving will no longer be safe. Conversations about these safety measures, such as when an individual will have to stop driving, are ones that caregivers should have early on with their loved ones. Including individuals in their future planning while they are still cognitively sound will help both them and their caregivers feel more comfortable with the journey ahead.

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It’s important to remember that even though receiving an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis can be devastating, it is not the end. People with Alzheimer’s can thrive for many years before independent functioning becomes difficult. Both patients and caregivers will feel more calm through planning ahead. Insureyouknow.org can help caregivers stay organized by storing all of their important documents in one place, such as financial records, estate planning documentation, insurance policies, and detailed care plans. Above all, there is hope for those with Alzheimer’s; research is happening every day for potential therapies and future treatments.

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Five Things To Know About the Capital Gains Tax

September 15, 2023

It’s never too early to start planning for tax season. While much of what you own will experience depreciation over time, any profit made from something you sell may be subject to the capital gains tax. So if you think you’ll be making a return on a previous investment this year, then you’re going to want to be well-versed in the capital gains tax.

Understanding the Capital Gains Tax

A capital gains tax is a tax on profits made from the sale of assets, such as stocks, businesses, real estate, and other types of investments. When you sell anything and make a profit, the U.S. government views that profit as taxable income. The capital gains tax is calculated by deducting the original cost of the asset from the total sale of that asset. It’s important to understand the capital gains tax guidelines, such as profits made from real estate or collectibles, which come with their own unique rules. Understanding the rules can help you make the best decisions about your capital gains income.

In order to minimize losses and maximize your gains, here are five things to know about the capital gains tax.

The Real Estate Rules

If a person sells their home for $250,000 or less, or a married couple sells their home for $500,000 or less, then they are exempt from the capital gains tax; this exemption is only available once every two years. If you sell your home or any other investment property for more than that but reinvest the money made from the sale into a new property, then you would also be exempt from paying taxes on your real estate gains; this is known as the 1031 exchange. Cory Robinson, financial portfolio manager says, “That’s the beauty of taking gains: You can immediately reinvest.” For a home to qualify as a primary residence, you must have lived in it for at least two years, or two years out of a five year period. It’s important to understand the rules around property sales, so speaking with an advisor is always recommended before selling your home. “Familiarize yourself with the capital gains tax exclusion rules and consult a tax advisor,” says financial analyst Greg McBride. “If the property has been your primary residence for less than 24 months, for example, you may decide to hold off until you’ve reached that threshold to avoid capital gains tax.”

The Difference Between Short and Long-term Capital Gains

Put simply, if you have held any asset for less than a year before selling it, then that asset is considered a short-term capital gain and is subject to a higher capital gains tax; if you own that asset for longer than a year before selling, then your profit is considered a long-term gain and subject to a lower tax rate. This is why selling any asset before you’ve owned it for at least 12 months should be avoided if possible.

Investment and Rental Property Strategies

The rules around investment property are different since their value typically depreciates over time. A 25 percent rate then applies to the gain from selling real estate that depreciated, because the IRS wants to recapture some of the tax breaks you’ve been getting due to depreciation, known as Section 1250 property. If you sell a rental property that you have not lived in for at least two years for over $250,000 (or $500,000 if married), then that property could be subject to not only the depreciation rate but a capital gains tax that is based on your income bracket. One wat to avoid this could be to invest in property in opportunity zones, areas identified as economically disadvantaged, which are tax-free when sold after ten years. Deducting expenses, such as home improvements, repair, and even closing costs, is another way to lower the amount of profit that is subject to the capital gains tax.

Your Income Bracket Determines Your Capital Gains Tax Rate

Tax rates are determined by your tax bracket, so a lot of people will actually pay no capital gains tax on the sale of long-term assets if they fall in the 0% tax rate. For the 2023 tax year, a single person that made up to $44,625, and a married couple that made up to $89,250 jointly would not have to pay any capital gains taxes.

Keep Track of Both Gains and Losses

When an asset is sold for more than what it cost, it results in a capital gain, but when the asset is sold for less than it cost, it results in a capital loss. If you have both gains and losses, it will be important to know your net gain, or your gains minus your losses; only net gains are subject to the capital gains tax. If you only have losses in a given year, then capital losses could actually lower your taxable income. This loss is limited to $3,000 per year per person (or $1,500 if you’re married). If you have an excess of $3,000 in losses, then those losses can actually be carried forward to future tax years.

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It’s never a good idea to buy or sell assets solely for tax purposes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be well aware of the rules around the capital gains tax. Insureyouknow.org can help you store all of your financial records in one place, so that it’s easier for you to keep track of your assets and taxable income. Before selling any investment, it’s important to know the laws unique to your state and speak with an advisor, who will know best what taxes you may be held responsible for. It’s good to know that for many, zero taxes on gains are actually possible.

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5 Benefits of Paying Off Your Mortgage Early

August 17, 2023

For many Americans, a home mortgage is one of the heftiest and lengthiest investments they will make in their lifetime. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, mortgages accounted for 71% of combined household debts in 2022. The good news is with proper planning, this stressor can be eliminated. Depending on your financial position, opting to pay off your mortgage early can make a positive impact on your finances. It can simultaneously offer you a sense of peace and stability and provide greater financial freedom.

“Paying off your mortgage is a major milestone,” said Meaghen Hunt of Bankrate. “It’s a moment to celebrate, but also to take specific steps to ensure you’re the legal owner of the property, and to continue paying your homeowners insurance and property taxes on your own.”

  1. Reduce Interest Costs

The more time you carry a mortgage for, the more interest you will pay. Paying off your mortgage early allows you to save significantly on interest. Laura Tarpley of Business Insider estimates that paying off your mortgage early could save you tens of thousands of dollars. “Just make sure to clarify with your lender that all extra payments will just be going toward your principal, not interest,” she cautioned.

  1. Live Debt-Free

Forbes estimates that nearly 10 million American homeowners who are still paying off their mortgages are 65 years of age or older. That is a significant number of individuals still saddled with debt well into their old age. The increased financial security of having a paid-off mortgage means greater room in your finances to address other debts. The funds spent to make a mortgage payment can be redistributed to pay off other outstanding debts such as loans, credit card balances, and more. Overall, the ability to live debt-free without the stress of having to make a substantial payment is a significant benefit.

Hunt cautions that you may see your credit score suffer after paying off your mortgage especially if it was the only debt you carried. Although there is a brighter side. “In some cases, your score can improve, depending on what other kinds of credit you’ve borrowed,’ she added.

  1. Eliminate Monthly Payments

Most homeowners can expect to pay off their homes in 30 years making normal monthly payments. Not having to meet monthly payments frees up a sizable amount of money that can be invested in other, potentially high-earning, endeavors. This could allow for more wealth to be generated over time. Additionally, if you are unable to make your monthly payments due to financial instability, you are protected from losing your home.

  1. Be Financially Free

Mortgage payments often make up a substantial portion of one’s expenses and are also multi-year, with the average mortgage spanning between 15-30 years. Paying off your mortgage ahead of schedule frees up funds and allows for greater room to direct funds to other places.

 “For people nearing retirement, a paid-off mortgage means they have that much more free cash flow from their fixed income when they stop working,” said Miranda Marquit of Bankrate. “It allows you to tap the equity in your home if you need money in the future.”

  1. Have Peace of Mind

Arguably one of the most advantageous benefits of having a fully paid mortgage is the right to own your home outright. Additionally, it protects you from the instability of the housing market which can lower the value of your home.

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Having a mortgage paid off early provides many advantages, such as money saved long-term that permits debt and interest-free living and greater availability of funds to direct towards other investments. While not having to keep up with costly monthly payments into your retirement sounds appealing, it is important to take inventory of your finances before making the decision to pay off your mortgage early. Use insureyouknow.org to keep a track of your payments and debts to determine if an early mortgage payment is the right fit for you.

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Scammer on the Rise: How to Protect Yourself in Retirement

June 1, 2023

A change in your retirement savings balance could be the result of recent stock market volatility, or because your account has been accessed by someone else and compromised. The National Association of Plan Advisors reported that hackers have been targeting retirement accounts, either through large-scale attacks on financial institutions or by using stolen personal information. Bryce Austin with TCE Strategy said that a hacker can get into your 401(k) two ways, either by “retrieving your credentials with the financial institution” and pretending to be you or by convincing you to do it “on their behalf.” Scammers have been known to contact people posing as the police, claiming that their funds are at risk and convincing them to transfer their retirement money into a “safer” account. If someone does so, then there’s no legal recourse, because they are doing so deliberately; the savings are “just gone,” Austin said. It’s important that retirees are aware of this trend and make sure that their accounts are secure.

Set Up Online Access to Your Accounts

First, make sure that you have online access to all of your retirement accounts. This will allow you to monitor your own accounts regularly. If you ever notice any unusual activity or changes that you have not made yourself, contact the institution immediately. Some firms will not reimburse account holders for fraudulent transactions if they aren’t reported during a certain time frame. Establishing online access also prevents someone else from doing so before you can, since thieves have been known to use stolen information to access and retrieve funds. Create your own Social Security account at ssa.gov while you’re at it, so that hackers don’t divert your Social Security benefits to their own accounts. When out and about, do not use public WiFi connections to check your accounts. Unfortunately, hackers can access these networks and steal your personal information by viewing your online activity.

Access your Accounts Safely

Once you have access to your accounts online, make sure you use a strong password and change it regularly. Your password should be something that a hacker cannot easily guess, such as your or a loved one’s birthday. Next, use multi-factor authentication if your institutions offer this step. Requiring multiple verifications to access your account can stop thieves in their tracks, as well as alert you if someone else is trying to access your account. If you are able to, financial author Cameron Huddleston suggests naming a trusted contact. A trusted contact cannot access your account, but your institution can contact them and make sure that it is actually you who is trying to access your funds.

Periodically Check Your Credit Reports

In addition to monitoring your own accounts, checking your credit reports regularly is one more easy thing you can do to catch any unusual activity on your accounts. A credit report shows all accounts that you have opened, balances, and can even find data breaches. A data breach can compromise your personal information and alert you to change your passwords or close a compromised account. A sudden fluctuation in your credit score can also be a sign that something isn’t right.

How to Recognize (and Avoid) a Scam

If you receive a suspicious phone call, text message, email, social media message, or letter that doesn’t seem right, then trust your gut. The caller or sender may not be who they say they are and it’s likely a scam. If you want to be sure, then you can call the company’s customer service line and verify that they meant to contact you. No matter how official the message may seem, that doesn’t mean it’s authentic. Many scammers pretend to be from the Social Security Administration, Medicare, IRS, or credit card companies. Lawyer and author Steve Weisman says, “The IRS and the SSA will never initiate contact with people through a phone call, so you can be sure that the person calling you is a scammer.” The same goes for Medicare. Your Medicare number is valuable and can enable a criminal to steal health benefits, so if anyone is asking you for your Medicare number, then this is a sure red flag that they are a scammer.

Perhaps the number one rule for protecting yourself against a scam is to never provide anyone with personal information without verifying their true identity. Again, this can be done by hanging up or ignoring the message and calling the company directly. Also, be mindful of your mail. Any documents with sensitive information should be shredded, and if anyone else is retrieving your mail, make sure they are someone you trust. Opting for paperless statements is another safeguard against anyone stealing personal information via your mail.

Anyone who is trying to rush you into making an important financial decision likely does not have your best interests at heart. It’s important to research any company that you plan to invest with. Before buying stocks, you can even check the SEC’s EDGAR database. Be especially skeptical of anyone who is pitching something in a time-sensitive manner, such as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” A true financial advisor will respect your desire to think it over and even encourage you to do so. Before making any important financial decisions, it’s not a bad idea to refer to a trusted professional anyway. That being said, anyone telling you to “leave everything to me” may not deserve that much of your trust. At the end of the day, you should always be your own expert on your retirement and finances. 

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The best defense against retirement theft is your willingness to take a few extra steps to protect your accounts, such as using multi-factor authentication and monitoring your own accounts on a regular basis. Most of all, remain diligent about who you’re providing sensitive personal information to. These are simple ways to protect your nest egg and gain valuable peace of mind. Insureyouknow.org can help you store all of your financial information in one place so that your retirement accounts and other finances are easy to monitor. Then you can get back to worrying about what’s really important, such as how you’ll be enjoying your retirement.

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Do You Realize How “Precious” a Child Is?

September 15, 2022

The cost of raising a child through high school has risen to $310,605 because of inflation that is running close to a four-decade high, according to an estimate by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC.  

In 2017—years before the pandemic and during an extended period of very low inflation—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projected that the average total expenditures spent on a child from birth through age 17 would be $284,594. This estimate assumed an average inflation rate of 2.2 percent and did not include the expenses associated with sending a child to college or supporting them during their transition to adulthood. Since 2020, the inflation rate has skyrocketed— 8.5 percent as of July 2022—partly due to supply-chain issues and stimulus spending packages that put more cash into Americans’ pockets. The Federal Reserve has now raised interest rates substantially to control inflation.

The multiyear total is up $26,011, or more than 9 percent, from a calculation based on the inflation rate two years ago, before rapid price increases hit the economy, reports the Brookings Institution.

The new estimate crunches numbers for middle-income, married parents, and doesn’t include projections for single-parent households, or consider how race factors into cost challenges. 

Expenses

The estimate covers a range of expenses, including housing, education, food, clothing, healthcare, and childcare, and accounts for childhood milestones and activities—baby essentials, haircuts, sports equipment, extracurricular activities, and car insurance starting in the teen years, among other costs.

In 2019, the typical expenses to raise a child were estimated by the USDA as follows:

  • Housing: 29%
  • Food: 18%
  • Childcare and Education: 16%
  • Transportation: 15%
  • Healthcare: 9%
  • Miscellaneous (included Personal Care and Entertainment): 7%
  • Clothing: 6%

Housing

Housing at 29 percent is the most significant expense associated with raising a child. The cost and type of housing vary widely by location. Other variables include mortgage or rent payments, property tax, home repairs and maintenance, insurance, utilities, and other miscellaneous housing costs.

Food

The cost of food is the second-largest expense, at 18 percent of the overall cost of raising a child. Over time, food prices have trended up, with food-at-home pricing increasing 12.1 percent and food-away-from-home pricing increasing by 7.7 percent from June 2021 to July 2022. The USDA expects rising costs for 2022, with increases as high as 10 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.

Childcare and Education

Childcare and education expenses in 2019 accounted for 16 percent of the cost of raising a  child, and it continues to increase.

The widespread acceptance by employers of remote work and letting employees work from home part or full-time has eased the burden of childcare costs for many families, cutting the cost by as much as 30 percent for some workers.

Education is a major expense when it comes to raising children. When it comes to kindergarten through high school, parents can choose between public and private schools. For private schools, the Education Data Initiative estimated that tuition costs an average of $12,350 per year. Associated costs, like technology, textbooks, and back-to-school supplies, could bring that up to $16,050. For a child to be in private school from kindergarten through eighth grade, the estimated cost could be about $208,650. Additional expenses for extracurricular activities such as sports, the arts—music, theater, and yearbook—and other clubs also add up and are accompanied by fees for participation, equipment, and travel, which have also increased due to inflation.

Healthcare

The total cost of a health plan is set according to the number of people covered by it, as well as each person’s age and possibly their tobacco use. For example, a family of three, with two adults and a child, would pay a much higher monthly health insurance premium than an individual.

Strategies

Raising children is rewarding and fulfilling to many people. But it’s also become very expensive. By preparing mentally and implementing financial planning strategies, you can be well-equipped to raise your child to adulthood comfortably, even on a budget.

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If you are a parent, you are responsible for raising your child and providing food, clothing, shelter, and security. Consider getting insurance coverage—including life, short- and long-term disability, and health insurance to avoid putting your family at risk financially in the event of unexpected hardship. To cope with the rising costs of raising children, live within your means, save money wherever possible, and shop around for home and auto insurance each year for the best deals. At insureyouknow.org, you can track your expenses to raise a child and file insurance policies that cover your family’s financial and healthcare needs.

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Ask or Be Asked: Executor of an Estate

March 2, 2022

An executor of an estate is someone called upon to settle a deceased individual’s financial affairs. In your will, you may name a close relative, friend, accountant, attorney, or financial institution to act as executor of your estate. You also may designate co-executors—more than one person to handle your affairs. If you are asked to be an executor, consider it a great honor. But at the same time, keep in mind that it is also a great responsibility.

You should select an executor with integrity and good judgment. The law requires an executor to act in the estate’s best interest—known as “fiduciary duty”—even if they are also an heir, which is often the case. You’ll need to make sure they understand and are prepared for the job. 

The Duties of an Executor of an Estate

An executor’s responsibilities can vary depending on the complexity of your estate, and the decisions you designate in your will. Following are some of the duties an executor of an estate performs.

  • Locate the last will and file it in probate court
  • Obtain certified copies of the death certificate
  • Notify the state department of health of the death if a funeral home, crematorium, hospital, or nursing facility has not
  • Distribute assets to beneficiaries
  • Pay creditors
  • Issue notices of death to banks, government agencies, and insurance companies
  • File final tax returns
  • Maintain property until the estate is settled
  • Arrange care for any pets
  • Make court appearances on behalf of the estate
  • Notify current employer, if applicable
  • Notify the deceased’s beneficiaries of the probate hearing
  • Keep accurate records
  • File the final accounting with the court and close the estate

As an executor, you may discover you need to hire a professional such as an accountant or attorney to help value and distribute certain assets, including:

  • Assets with disputed ownership
  • Business interests
  • Royalties
  • Out-of-state assets
  • Complex investments

Ambiguities in a will and substantial bequests to a minor also may require a professional’s expertise, which your estate will pay customarily.

The Decision to Serve as an Executor

If you are asked to serve as an estate’s executor, realize that it is a great honor and a great responsibility. Consider your decision carefully before you agree. Think about the time commitment as well as the skillset and temperament required to perform the duties. Find out why the person asked you to serve as an executor and discuss his expectations for you to fill this role.

With this disclosure, you should be able to decide if you are qualified for the job and your fulfillment of an executor’s duties will be appreciated.

Compensation Considerations

Many executors perform their duties without compensation, especially if they are one of your estate’s beneficiaries. But executors can get paid for their work, and this arrangement is more common if the executor is a person outside your family or if settling your estate requires significant expenses such as travel, filing court documents, or overseeing the sale of your real estate.

Another option for you is to limit in your will the fees to a specific dollar amount. Or you may specify the payment of reasonable fees based upon state law.

Typically, executors can expect to get paid once the estate is settled. If they incur out-of-pocket expenses, such as utilities, property taxes, insurance, and storage fees before the estate is settled, they can usually reimburse themselves during their estate administration. But again, compensation is a subject that should be spelled out before you accept an executorship. Spending down any estate monies can be an area of great sensitivity, especially if heirs believe their inheritance was reduced because of your executorship.

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When you select an executor of your estate who accepts the responsibility to carry out your wishes regarding your estate upon your death, ask yourself the following five essential questions. Let the executor know if the answers can be found on your InsureYouKnow.org portal.

  1. Where is your original will? If you keep your will in your house, be specific about where to find it. If you filed it with your attorney, provide contact information. Don’t store it in a safe deposit box, where it may be difficult to access after your death. You should share your InsureYourKnow.org access credentials with the executor of your estate to be able to find a copy of your will online.
  2. Who should be notified? Compose a list of people and organizations with contact information for your executor to contact. If you keep this list at InsureYouKnow.org, you can update it regularly.
  3. What are your passwords and access codes? Let your executor know how to retrieve your passwords and access codes for email, social media, other media accounts, cellphones, and computers. Store and keep this data current at InsureYouKnow.org.
  4. Who will receive your possessions? If you have nonfinancial items such as family recipes, photos, heirlooms, and memorabilia, keep details with designated recipients at InsureYouKnow.org.
  5. Do you have any secret items? Let the executor or another person you trust know if you possess personal items that need to be dealt with on a confidential basis. Such items may include correspondence, photos, or documents personal in nature. You can keep a secure list of these items at InsureYouKnow.org.

Selecting a trusted executor to carry out your will is an important part of estate planning. Experts recommend updating your will every few years to make sure it still reflects your chosen executor and decisions to be carried out after your death. If you need to create or update your will, you can file copies at InsureYouKnow.org.

Whether you are the person asking or are the person being asked to be an executor of an estate, carefully consider and execute the responsibilities and duties required.

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The Great Resignation Continues in 2022

January 29, 2022

“The Great Resignation” is a term coined in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University who predicted the mass exodus of employees abandoning jobs during the pandemic.

In April, a month before Dr. Klotz made this prediction, a record 4 million people quit their jobs, many of them in low-paying, inflexible industries such as retail trade sectors and food services. He explained that during the pandemic, employees have been able to reflect about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means which led workers to consider alternatives to their current positions.

Because the latest data suggests this trend, also called the “Big Quit,” will continue through 2022, employees, as well as employers, must prepare for changes in the workforce.

Employees

Before you submit your resignation, consider the following suggestions to guide your decision:

  • Reassess your duties: Expanding your responsibilities within the company may offer the growth that you’re looking for without leaving your workplace. Promotion within your company may lead to a higher salary and additional benefits. On the other hand, you may feel overworked or are experiencing burnout, resulting in work-related stress, and seeking a less demanding opportunity may be a solution during this difficult time.
  • Meet with your employer: If you prefer to work remotely, meet with your employer and plead your case to work all or part of your workweek away from the corporate office, especially if you have health and safety concerns, childcare issues, or COVID-related care responsibilities. Explain how important work/life flexibility is to you and ask if your employer is willing to consider your needs for your home life situation. Take this opportunity to ask if your salary, benefits, and health insurance could be improved to entice you to stay.
  • Be flexible with your transition: If possible, notify your supervisor in person when you decide to resign and be flexible about the ending date in your position. Be professional in your exit interview, request a letter of recommendation for your files, find out when you’ll receive your last paycheck, and ask about the continuation of your benefits.
  • Assess your financial situation: If you determine that you need to continue receiving a steady paycheck and insurance benefits, secure another position or outline a solid self-employment opportunity before you resign. If you are close to retirement age, figure out if you can delay collecting Social Security and retirement benefits so you can collect higher monthly payments in the future.

Employers

Employers who want to reduce staff turnover and retain experienced employers may benefit from the following tips adapted from the article, “How Employers Can Overcome The Great Resignation” from the Worth Media website.

  • Be creative in putting together benefits packages that can support a diverse workforce with broad, varying needs.
  • Remain flexible when employees choose their work locations.
  • Keep an open line of communication with your employees.
  • Emphasize the importance of employees’ mental and physical well-being.
  • Prioritize pay equity and adopt a spirit of transparency.
  • Remind your employees about your company’s mission, values, and vision.
  • Treat employees who do leave with respect, a sense of professionalism, and kindness.

Employers’ main goal during this tumultuous time should be to remain calm, listen to employee feedback, and use it to make any necessary changes to their business model, benefits package, and salaries.

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Are you planning to join “The Great Resignation” in 2022?  If so, consider not only how you can improve your present work situation but also what the future may hold for your career choices, continuing education, home life, insurance coverage, and financial goals. As you put each of these options in place, keep records regarding your decisions at insureyouknow.org.

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