With the third round of stimulus checks, many Americans are receiving a small financial windfall. If you received a stimulus check or an unexpected sum of money, it can be very tempting to immediately spend it on a new phone, car, or electronic device that you have been wanting. You should, however, take a moment to reflect on how best to spend and/or invest your windfall. Here are some ideas:
- Pay bills.
- Make a substantial payment or pay off high interest debts such as credit cards, personal loans, etc.
- Start or add to your rainy-day fund (this account should have enough funds to cover 3 to 6 months of expenses).
- Invest in your retirement through a 401K, IRA, etc.
- If you have children, consider opening a college savings account (i.e., 529 plan, custodial account, savings account, etc.)
- Invest in certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or savings accounts.
- Spend your money in your community and help out local businesses.
- Donate to causes and charities that you care about.
No matter how you choose to spend your financial windfall, just be sure to consider all your options carefully and not make an impulsive decision.
Credit cards can be particularly useful in an emergency or for building credit when they are used wisely. Ideally, you want to pay off your balance monthly to avoid interest charges, and you do not want to spend more than 10% of your available credit. If you, however, already have credit card debt, you should develop a plan to pay off the debt. The first step is to stop using the credit cards and only pay with cash or your debit card. The next step is to get organized. Figure out exactly how much you owe on each card and what each card’s interest rate is. Create a budget that allows you to pay the minimum on each card. Then, if you have extra money in your budget, allocate it to pay more than the minimum on the credit card with the highest interest rate. Or you can allocate it to pay extra on the credit card with the lowest debt. That way, you will pay it off faster and be motivated to continue paying down your debt. As you pay off cards, use the money budgeted for those cards to pay extra on your remaining cards. Another way to pay off debt more quickly is to do a balance transfer to a card with a lower interest rate. Nerd Wallet and Investopedia have articles about how balance transfers work and what to look for in a card to use for a balance transfer. Credit Card Insider offers more information about the different approaches to reducing debt and their pros and cons. It is important to create a plan that works best for you, your situation, and is feasible. If you aren’t able to stick with the plan one month, don’t give up. Keep trying and keep working towards your goal!
It is a new year and a great time to start saving. Whether you are wanting to save for a project, child’s future, retirement, or rainy-day fund, it is important to remember that it is never too late (or too early) to start. Even if you are only able to save a small amount each month, it is important to start saving. Once you begin to see your savings grow, it will help motivate you to keep saving and to save more.
There are lots of online resources to help you navigate the different savings options (i.e., savings accounts, stocks, mutual funds, etc.) and motivate you to reach your savings goals. The Federal Trade Commission and Nerd Wallet list ways to get started saving and links to resources that can help you save. CNBC provides strategies that people have used to successfully save hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Balance also provides 100 ways to save money on everyday expenses.
Remember, taking the first step towards any goal is always the most difficult. But, once you have set a goal and started saving, it will gradually become easier until you do it automatically out of habit.
Tax season is right around the corner and there have been a few changes to the tax laws for 2020 that you should be aware of when preparing your taxes. Below are a few of the changes:
- The CARES act allows for you to claim more for charitable donations. Even if you take the standard deduction, you can claim up to $300 for cash charitable donations (it does not apply for any other items such as: clothing, food, furniture, etc.). Additionally, if you itemize your deductions, you can deduct more than in previous years.
- The stimulus payments were an advance refundable credit and are not taxable.
- There have been adjustments for inflation. For example, the standard deduction for heads of households is $18,650 (up $300), for married filing jointly it is $24,800 (up $400), for single and married filing separately it is $12,400 (up $200). Marginal tax rates, Earned Income Credit, limitation for transportation fringe benefit and parking, and other credits and deductions have also been adjusted. For a complete list of these adjustments you can go to the IRS website.
- The SECURE act retroactively reversed the kiddie tax rate for a child’s unearned income to reverse the negative impact that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created for many families. The IRS has a topic page with more information.
- More of the tax changes can be found at Investopedia.com.
It is always important to plan ahead and get started on your taxes early to avoid late penalties. This year, however, it is especially important to give yourself more time with all the tax changes and challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRS has a special webpage with some helpful tips to prepare for tax season.
Currently, there are over 12 million people in the United States unemployed and many more who are experiencing employment instability. Experiencing a job loss is an incredibly stressful time and more so now that it is the holiday season, and many parts of the country are facing renewed shutdowns due to the pandemic. There are, however, many resources available for people to receive economic assistance and opportunities to learn new skills. The Federal Trade Commission website lists steps that you should take to protect yourself and search for a new job. Indeed.com lists resources for unemployment support and job search tips. They have also compiled a list of job resources by state. AARP.org also provides a comprehensive list of job loss resources.
If you are unemployed or are concerned that you may lose your job, you may want to take it as an opportunity to learn a new skill and possibly find a better job. Career One Stop provides links to many federal employment and training programs. The US Department of Labor also has many programs for adults and dislocated workers.
Having a cell phone has become a necessity for most people, and because cell phone plans are becoming more and more complicated with plans that claim to have unlimited text, talk, and data but actually have limitations, 4G and 5G networks, cell phone upgrades, offers to keep or change your number and/or phone, etc., many people are overpaying for their cell phone plan or paying for unnecessary services without realizing it. It can be difficult to sort through all the different options and choose one that will not only give you the coverage and service you need but also not break the bank. There are a few different web sites that provide simplified comparisons of cell phone plans from different providers. Reviews.org and Nerd Wallet compare companies based on who has the best plan for a specific need (i.e., best value, best coverage, best unlimited, etc.). Consumer Reports lists the best low-cost plans. Tom’s Guide also provides a detailed comparison of some of the major cell phone providers’ plans. If you don’t want to switch companies, you should still contact your current provider to review your plan and make sure that you are receiving the best price. Companies are continually updating their services and plans. You may be able to switch your plan and save money each month. Additionally, you should always ask if there are any promotions or discounts available.
When a disaster strikes, your financial well-being may not be your initial concern. But, after the threat has passed and you start to look at rebuilding, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin financially. Even if you are well prepared and have a rainy-day fund, recovering financially from a disaster is difficult. However, there are many resources and trained individuals available to help you. MyMoney.Gov has a page dedicated to financial recovery resources including phone numbers for counselors to help you get started. The Red Cross has general information about how to replace lost or damaged vital records and a free guide for disasters and financial planning. DisasterAssistance.gov and USA.gov can help you find local resources and apply for assistance. Even if you have not experienced a disaster, these resources can help you prepare for the unexpected.
The creators of scams are constantly looking for new ways to confuse and trick people into giving them money or their personal information. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be multiple new scams being created each day. Some of these are very sophisticated and can be difficult to identify as scams. In order to keep people informed, The Federal Trade Commission has created a website dedicated to helping people identify, report, and avoid coronavirus scams. You can also sign up to receive alerts about new scams and ways to protect yourself. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has valuable information on how to protect your finances during the pandemic, avoid scams, and apply for housing assistance. If you are in need of assistance, you can also find legitimate coronavirus assistance programs on the benefits.gov website.
Learning about financial literacy can be somewhat dull even for adults. Thus, parents may find it especially difficult to engage children when teaching about budgeting, credit, insurance and saving. However, there are lots of websites and programs with inventive ideas for parents to use. A few websites with lots of free resources are Junior Achievement, EVERFI, and Mymoney.gov. There are also a lot of apps that that have gamified teaching about finances so that kids can have fun playing while learning. Here are a few of the best rated apps:
Many banks and credit unions also have programs designed to help teach teens money management. Be sure to ask your financial institution what type of savings and checking accounts that they offer for teens.
One way to raise your credit score is to pay off debts. Once you have created a budget and set aside money each month to pay extra towards your debt, it can be daunting trying to decide which bill to pay off first. One way to decide is to pay off the debt with the highest interest rate. For example, paying off a credit card with a 15% interest before paying off a car loan with a 5% interest rate. By doing this, you will pay less in interest for the money borrowed.
Or you can decide to pay off your smallest debt first. If you owe $9,000 on your high interest credit card and $5,000 on your lower interest car loan, you may want to pay off the car loan first. That way, when the car loan is paid off, you can make larger credit card payments by applying the money set aside for the car loan to the credit card payment. Additionally, it may help you stay motivated when you are able to pay off a debt and see that sticking to your budget is helping you become debt free.
If something unexpected happens and you are not able to pay extra one month, do not skip a payment on another bill or make a late payment to make up the difference. Be sure to always make at least the minimum payment on time for all your bills. Missing payments or making late payments will hurt your credit score and you will end up paying more in fees.