Financial Education

snow

(Safely) Dashing Through the Snow

As soon as snow starts to fall, it seems people suddenly forget how to drive in a reasonable manner. So, we have pointers for avoiding costly accidents in the winter.

Proper Preparation

Check the weather and your route before a trip. Give yourself plenty of time so you can drive slowly and arrive safely. Tell others an estimated time of arrival. That way, if you do get stuck, people will know where to look.

Make sure your tires are properly inflated and that they have sufficient tread to handle icy roads. Cold weather can reduce pressure and increase the risk of blowouts. Keep your gas tank at least half full—running out of fuel in the middle of a blizzard is a miserable experience. On a related note, keep your phone’s battery full in case you need to call for help.

Stock your vehicle with winter weather basics such as a snow scraper, jumper cables, mobile charger, and blankets. Clear off your headlights and keep them on so everyone can see you coming. And make sure your windshield wipers are working correctly so you can see others coming.

Acceptable Acceleration

Everything you do in a car—stopping, starting, turning—takes a little longer in the snow. Move at a moderate, steady pace. Don’t rely on cruise control when the streets are slippery, wet and icy. Keep your eyes on the road & your hands on the wheel.

Also, just because the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour doesn’t mean you should go that fast. In fact, you can be ticketed for driving the limit if conditions are deemed unsafe. Drive slowly enough that you can retain control and move with the flow of traffic.

Don’t punch the gas pedal when you start out or begin ascending a hill. Gradually applying pressure is the best way to avoid spinning your wheels or skidding off the road. If you drift, take your foot off the accelerator and let your car slow down until you get back on track.

Beneficial Braking

Stopping is one of the most dangerous parts of driving in the snow. In fact, if you can avoid coming to a complete halt, you’ll maintain your inertia and have less chance of getting stuck. Allow plenty of room when approaching a stoplight or an intersection, then decelerate naturally. If you’re behind another commuter, give yourself eight to 10 seconds instead of the usual three or four.

Become familiar with brake functions in both wet and dry conditions. Most modern vehicles have anti-lock features, but slamming on the brakes will almost certainly cause skidding. And don’t think you’re invulnerable just because of four-wheel or all-wheel drive—this won’t help when you hit a patch of black ice.

During the winter months, drive slow, smart & safe. You’ll save some money and your stress levels will decrease dramatically.

seasonal

Seasonal Jobs are Coming to Town

With all the spending taking place over the holidays, many look for ways to earn extra money. Luckily, it’s also a time when employers need individuals to fill temporary positions dealing with the influx of shoppers and shipments. Here are some seasonal jobs you can find almost anywhere in the country.

Warehouse Worker

Warehouse facilities are full of electronics, furniture, clothing, toys, jewelry and so much more. During the busy months, they need people to perform lots of tasks, including forklift drivers to stock the shelves, pickers to find items, and packers to fill boxes. Additional workers load trucks at night for the next day’s runs.

Delivery Driver

Companies like FedEx and UPS hire seasonal employees every year. If you don’t feel comfortable driving a delivery truck, you can also be hired on as a helper, who acts as an assistant to the driver, doing whatever’s needed and getting packages to porches. Either job is highly active, involving lots of lifting and walking. So, along with gaining some extra cash, you may also lose a few pounds.

Retail Associate

While malls are not the holiday haven they used to be, many retail stores require employees this time of year. There are cashiers who interact directly with customers, stockers who ensure the shelves are full and presentable, and security personnel who help prevent shoplifting and loss to the business. People skills and patience are usually the most important qualifications for seasonal retail jobs.

Customer Service Representative

Call centers are often seeking assistance at Christmastime. These employees handle both inbound and outbound calls, whether they’re from customers troubleshooting products or those filing complaints. You’ll be trained on specific subjects, so you shouldn’t stress about not knowing the answers immediately. And, if there’s a problem, it can always be escalated to your manager.

Event Staffer

All those company parties at hotels, country clubs, and conference centers have staff to set things up, cook meals, serve guests, bartend, run audio & video presentations, and clean afterward. Since these events normally peak at the end of the year, the venues are a great place to find seasonal work.

Finally, if you’re looking for meaningful part-time work with flexible hours that could easily turn into a full-time career, check out the open positions at America First Credit Union.

Black Friday

Black Friday Survival Guide

It’s Black Friday! And even if you’re reading this article after the sun has come up, here are some tips on how to save some cash on one of the biggest shopping days of the year without sacrificing your well-being.

Have a plan

If you haven’t already done so, set your budget and decide which items are most important as well as which ones are likely to go quickly. Map out your route to minimize wasted travel time. Then, after that, make a backup plan. There may be a few times when the deal you want won’t be available. If you don’t have an alternate option, you may take too long to decide, and you could lose out on yet another deal.

Divide & conquer

Don’t bring your young children with you, they’ll only slow you down. Find another adult friend or two and split up the list. They can visit the toys section while you shop electronics. Or you can visit entirely different stores on opposite sides of town. Just make sure that you’re in constant communication so you don’t accidentally double-buy something.

Price check

Don’t automatically believe that every discount you see is the best deal. Take a moment to look online for similar items at other locations. If you find a lower price elsewhere, determine whether the difference is worth the cost of going to another store. Also, make sure to check the return & exchange policies on any bargain you may encounter, just in case you find a better deal elsewhere.

Shop virtually

Many retailers offer the same deals online that they do in-store. You can do your Black Friday shopping from the comfort of your own couch while wrapped in a blanket and sipping hot cocoa. You can even choose the store pick-up option if you want to get out of the house and people watch for a little bit. Just make sure that you only make purchases from trustworthy sites.

Don’t panic

Yes, there are lots of so-called doorbuster deals on Black Friday, but many retailers offer week-long or even month-long discounts in the weeks preceding Christmas. And you may find that they rival the ones offered on the evening of Thanksgiving. If you don’t want to stay up late, wake up early, or battle the unruly crowds, consider visiting stores another day.

There’s always next year

If you couldn’t snag the stuff you wanted this year, learn from your mistakes. Start making a plan of attack, which may include following specific stores and brands on social media and signing up for emails and mailing lists, so you can be notified as soon as items start to go on sale for the next Black Friday.

underwriter

What Does an Underwriter Do?

If you apply for a loan or an insurance policy, your documents must be reviewed by an underwriter. But what functions does the underwriter perform? How do they fit in the process?

The backstory

The word underwrite simply means signing under or below something. In the early days of banking, underwriters would place their names below the amount of risk they were willing to tolerate, in exchange for a premium. If anything went wrong, the underwriter would have to answer for it.

Underwriting now

Today, underwriters are trained on all lending guidelines & procedures. They assess loan risk and determine if an institution is wise to invest in an individual. Auto financing, credit cards, mortgages and insurance policies are all underwritten. These professionals evaluate all the paperwork and examine your income, debts, credit score, property, assets, job stability and borrowing history.

After an underwriter examines the facts and crunches the numbers, that information and a proposed decision is delivered to a loan officer. This could be an approval, a rejection, or a call for further information, or a suggestion that adjustments need to be made. It is up to loan officers to give borrowers the verdicts.

Why they’re helpful

Underwriters mitigate the institution’s liability and stay apprised of economic trends, such as new types of fraud or a pending recession. If the underwriter does their job correctly, financial institutions and insurance companies don’t lend to or cover those who can’t or won’t make the required payments. However, underwriters are also beneficial for borrowers, because they’ll analyze your situation and ensure that you don’t get in over your head.

How to become an underwriter

Does this sound like a career you’re interested in? It helps to have computer proficiency, as well as experience in business, mathematics, economics or finance. Underwriters receive extensive training and then complete a series of certifications to stay up to date on changing policies and regulations and remain consistent in lending decisions.

If you’re interested in assessing finances and helping people get the loans they need, keep an eye on the America First job listings page.

veterans

Veterans Day Deals & Discounts

Veterans Day is when we as a country honor the brave men and women who fight for & protect the nation. Many businesses recognize those in the military with discounts.

Below are some deals service members, past and present, can receive on Veterans Day. Some require purchases, while others ask for identification or are dine-in only. Be sure to check the merchant’s official sites or call ahead for details, as these are subject to change and may apply to different days. For example, this year, Veterans Day falls on November 11, but will be observed on November 12.

  • Applebee’s – free entrée
  • Boston Market – buy a meal and a drink, get another meal free
  • Buffalo Wild Wings – free small order of wings & side of fries
  • California Pizza Kitchen – free entrée
  • Chili’s – complimentary meal
  • Chipotle – buy-one, get-one menu item free
  • Cracker Barrel – free slice of cake or Crafted Coffee beverage
  • Denny’s – free Build Your Own Grand Slam® breakfast
  • Dunkin’ Donuts – complimentary doughnut
  • Famous Dave’s – free two-meat combo
  • Golden Corral – free dinner buffet, drink
  • Goodyear Auto Services – free auto check and 10% off all tires
  • Great Clips – complimentary haircut
  • Hyatt Hotels – room rate discounts up to 15%
  • IHOP – free Red, White & Blue pancakes
  • Joe’s Crab Shack – 20% off entire check
  • Little Caesar’s – free Hot-N-Ready® lunch combo
  • Mattress Firm – 20% discount
  • Outback Steakhouse – free Bloomin’ Onion, drink
  • Red Lobster – free appetizer or dessert
  • Red Robin – Red’s Tavern Double burger & fries for free
  • Romano’s Macaroni Grill – free Mom’s Ricotta Meatballs & Spaghetti
  • Sizzler – free complete lunch
  • Sport Clips – complimentary haircut
  • Starbucks – free tall brewed coffee
  • Target – 10% discount on in-store & online purchases
  • Texas Roadhouse – free lunch
  • Tucanos Brazilian Grill – BOGO Churrasco meals
  • Village Inn – free INN-Credible breakfast
  • Wienerschitzel – free chili dog, fries, drink

And be sure to visit americafirst.com to see the benefits we provide to those serving in the military every day.

vehicle

Properly Pricing Your Vehicle to Sell

Setting a sale price for your vehicle is like fishing. If it’s too high, you won’t get any bites from prospective buyers. If what you’re asking is too low, you won’t get the full value of your investment. Here’s some advice for when you put your car, truck or SUV on the market.

Assess the Value

It’s important to check how much it’s worth online, because you can bet those thinking about taking it off your hands will do the same. Valuation sites like Kelley Blue Book® use an extensive database to evaluate factors such as recent vehicle transactions in your area. Enter the make, model, year and mileage for trade-in, retail and private party values. Be honest about your car’s history and condition to get accurate results. Additionally, search local classifieds for similar vehicles. If you can’t find your exact make and model, look for those with comparable miles and options.

Pick a Price

By now you should have a price range in mind. You can ask for more if your vehicle is still under warranty (that is transferrable) or you have new tires, new brakes or a new timing belt. Go lower if it needs major maintenance, was in an accident, or you just want it to sell quickly.

Once you have a base figure, decide the minimum you’d accept and work up from there. Build in a negotiation cushion, because many buyers will consider your asking price a starting point for bargaining. Most sellers don’t, in fact, receive their initial offer. Letting people negotiate will help them feel like they’re getting a good deal.

Pricing can also depend on the time of year. For example, sporty convertibles sell better in the summer, while the demand for four-wheel-drive increases during the winter. If your car gets good gas mileage, promote that fact when fuel prices are high; conversely, gas-guzzling SUVs probably won’t go as quickly then. Don’t underestimate your old trucks and vans, either. Some people might want them for work or hobbies.

Don’t overthink

Finally, keep it simple. Don’t ask for $12,999.99—you’ll sound like dealer. Private buyers enjoy nice, round numbers. Just remember to set the first asking price above what you’d take so you can negotiate and still make some money. Be patient. If no one drives off with your vehicle right away, you may need to start over and adjust accordingly.

Halloween

Financial Wisdom from Halloween Movies

Horror films aren’t just good for scares, they can also teach valuable financial lessons. Here are eight pieces of wisdom you can take from iconic Halloween movies.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

The Story: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) stalks the dreams of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and other teenagers in a quiet suburban town.

The Lesson: Dreaming is fun & healthy, but you need to keep your feet grounded in reality—otherwise you could get hurt. Develop a sense for what you can and can’t afford. Don’t buy what isn’t necessary or max out your credit on impulse items (like cool bladed gloves).

The Blair Witch Project

The Story: A group of filmmakers disappear while creating a documentary in a Maryland forest, leaving only their footage behind.

The Lesson: Heather, Josh and Mike lose their way in the Black Hills because they act irresponsibly and misplace their map. You can also get lost, financially, if you don’t have a plan. Create a budget and stick to it—then your money won’t vanish into thin air.

Signs

The Story: A family on a remote Pennsylvania farm slowly begin to realize they are experiencing an alien invasion.

The Lesson: When bad things start to happen, the Hess family hunkers down in their home for the night, seeking to protect themselves. Self-sufficiency will help you weather the hard times, and you can build up things like food storage a little bit at a time. And don’t forget to have plenty of water on hand!

Ghostbusters

The Story: After being fired from their jobs, three professors (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis) form their own ghost-hunting business and soon face an entity that could destroy the entire city.

The Lesson: Starting a company is difficult, requiring a lot of money and a lot of time. However, if you keep your costs low and your customers satisfied, soon you’ll be expanding and hiring new people to join your team (like Winston Zeddemore).

The Shining

The Story: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) brings his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son with him to work as caretakers of an isolated mountain hotel in the winter.

The Lesson: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, he claims as he slowly descends into madness. When you’re striving toward a big financial goal, such as paying off your credit cards or saving enough to build a giant hedge maze, it’s fine to reward yourself for achieving short-term benchmarks.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The Story: Matthew (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) notice their friends are acting strangely, only to discover that humans are slowly being replaced with alien clones as they sleep.

The Lesson: Identity theft is a scary thing. Don’t give sensitive information to unknown persons over the phone. Verify all emails are from legitimate senders before clicking on links. And don’t go to bed next to any alien pods.

Psycho

The Story: While driving to California, Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) stops by the isolated Bates Motel and meets Norman (Anthony Perkins) and his mysterious mother.

The Lesson: There will come a time when you need to leave your parents’ home and become your own person. But you need to be financially stable when you do. Learning skills such as saving a good portion of your income and how to pay bills. If Norman had enough money put away, he might have been able to leave the motel business and his overbearing mother.

The Exorcist

The Story: A young girl (Linda Blair) is overpowered by a dark force, so her mother gets the help of two priests to exorcise the demon and save her child.

The Lesson: It’s tempting to save some money by fixing things at home by yourself, but you need to know your limits. If you get in over your head, you could end up causing additional damage and spending even more. Sometimes it’s worth calling a professional and letting them take care of it (while you relax and enjoy a warm bowl of pea soup).

Happy Halloween!

ATM

Don’t Fear the ATM

It was a dark and stormy night. A young woman approached the ATM aside a dimly lit sidewalk to withdraw some cash. As she neared the machine, she heard a faint rustling behind a bush. She squinted her eyes and peered through the leaves, where she thought she could make out a large, dark shadow. She felt uneasy, so she walked back to her car and drove to another ATM with better lighting, making a transaction there without a problem. If you want to avoid potentially scary situations at ATMs, here are some tips stay safe.

Keep your eyes open

Take note of your surroundings. If anyone is loitering near the machine or in a parked car close by, consider another location. If you’re using a drive-up ATM, make sure all your windows are rolled up and your doors are locked before making a transaction.

Inspect the machine before inserting a card. Scammers can install skimming devices to steal your information for later use. Look for glue-like residue, excessive scratches, loose or crooked pieces, and other signs of damage. If you see anything unusual, don’t proceed and notify the building owner.

If you’re using an ATM at night, bring someone with you or try to find a high-traffic area with bright lights. Trust your gut. If you feel strange or if the person behind you seems to be peering over your shoulder at the keypad, hit cancel and go elsewhere.

Minimize the time

Park as close as you can, have your card available, and be ready to go. If you’re taking out money, decide how much you want before you approach the ATM. And don’t count it while you’re standing there; put it in your pocket or purse and do that later. For deposits, endorse your checks and fill out all the slips in advance.

Guard your information

Memorize your PIN & keep it a secret. Don’t write it down, especially not on the back of your card, as that will give thieves immediate access. Place your body squarely in front of the machine and cover the keys with your hand while entering the number. Never permit a stranger to help you.

When the receipt pops out, take it with you and, before throwing it away, tear it into small pieces. Regularly check your statements, as well, which is fast & simple with free online banking. If you discover any unapproved ATM withdrawals, contact your financial institution immediately.

Most ATM transactions occur without incident, but if someone does try to rob you, comply with any demands. After all, your life is worth more than the cash.

refinance

Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

You can refinance just about any loan, but doing so with a mortgage requires careful consideration. After all, paying off your existing home loan and replacing it could save you thousands. On the other hand, it could lead to foreclosure. Here are some reasons why people make this choice, along their related pros and cons.

Lower rates & better terms

The most common thinking behind refinancing is to get lower interest rates. However, if it’s only a marginal decrease, it’s likely not worth the switch. There are several expenses that go along with the process, including appraisals, processing, and application & origination fees. Make sure you factor these in before deciding.

Determine your break-even point by dividing the total closing costs by your estimated savings. For example, if you’re spending $200 less per month, but paying $4,000 in closing costs, it will take almost two years to break even. In this case, if you’re planning to move soon, it’s not the best idea.

Sometimes rates can fall low enough for homeowners to shorten their repayment periods and have only slightly higher mortgages. You’ll only want to do this if you’re at the beginning of your term or you’ll be starting all over again.

Lock it in

Adjustable-rate mortgages are for those seeking low initial rates that rise or fall with the market. If you have such a loan and you’re getting nervous about rising payments, you can refinance to a fixed product. On the flip side, you can usually change to an adjustable loan when rates are falling. This could be a good option if you’re not planning on staying in your house for more than a few years.

Cash-in equity

Some will refinance and tap into their equity. This can be a quick way to free up some cash for a large expense, such as remodeling or paying for school. Improvements do add value to a home, and an education may lead to a higher-paying job, but if you should be careful that it doesn’t bring along higher rates and longer terms.

Consolidate debt

And finally, some people refinance and use the equity to pay off other debts, such as credit card bills, car payments, student loans, etc. While a mortgage might bring a lower rate, you should only take this route if you can avoid getting back into debt again. If not, you’ll end up with the same problems, as well as a potentially problematic loan. Not to mention that you could lose your house if you don’t meet your obligations.

If you’re considering refinancing, the first step should be analyzing your existing mortgage and comparing it to your what’s available and what you might qualify to receive. This is easy with America First’s free online calculators.

birthday parties

Birthday Parties That Won’t Break the Bank

Checking Pinterest & Instagram is a great way to find fun ideas for kids’ birthday parties, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you see how much other people are spending. There’s no need to take out a loan for your next bash, however. Here are ten tips on how to save while celebrating.

  1. Themes – Decide with your child what kind of party is ideal. Picking a theme helps keep you focused on what you need to buy. Find inexpensive treats, decorations, games and party favors that fit. A little creativity can go a long way and make the occasion more memorable.
  2. Limit the guest list – While your son or daughter may want to invite everyone in your neighborhood (as well as the next one), it’s best to keep the guest list short. Try keeping it to close friends and family.
  3. Find a free venue – These usually require that you do most, if not all, of the set-up and clean-up yourself, but hosting birthday parties at your own home is the least expensive option. If you need more space, consider going to a park or reserving a room at a local community center.
  4. Sign up for savings – If your little boy or girl is intent on going to a restaurant or family fun center, sign up for the company’s birthday club. These loyalty programs typically offer discounts on reservations, free game tokens, or even free admission. Register early, though, because processing may take a few days.
  5. Cut out the cost of decor – The dollar store has a wide variety of paper goods, decorations, and even costumes to fit your theme. However, don’t assume that everything there is a good deal. Compare prices online and get the best bargain.
  6. Get crafty – Your kids can be involved in making the invitations and decorating the space. They will love expressing themselves and putting their work on display for all to see. You can even make crafting part of your festivities and have guests make something to take home instead of candy and toys.
  7. Bake the cake – Cake mixes are less expensive than store-bought items. Make your own with your child and, remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Kids can add their own touches with the frosting and sprinkles.
  8. Time it right – If you don’t want to spend money on food for a large group, have the party start after 2 p.m. and end before 5 p.m. so guests don’t expect a meal. If your child wants treats in addition to cake and ice cream, have everyone decorate cookies or cupcakes, which is an activity and treat combined into one.
  9. Examine the entertainment – Keep the activities simple. Well-known games such as freeze tag, musical chairs, charades, Simon Says, limbo and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey can be modified to fit the theme and don’t require many supplies. You can also check out movies from your local library to put on as things are winding down.
  10. Combine the celebrations – Finally, consider having joint birthday parties with friends or family members who were born around the same time. Then you can split the costs, saving you even more money.