Financial Education

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.
savings

Comparing Savings & Checking

When it comes to banking, the two most common accounts are checking & savings. Some think they’re interchangeable, but understanding the differences can help you earn more and ensure funds are available when you need them most.

Regarding Spending

Savings is the basic building block for financial well-being. As the name suggests, it’s a safe place to store your money for a rainy day. Most credit unions, including America First, require a savings account for membership.

Because these are funds that should be set aside for later, accessing the account isn’t as easy as swiping a card at a gas pump. In fact, there are federal withdrawal regulations—no more than six per month are allowed and this includes transfers via online banking. There is no limit, however, to how many deposits you can make.

Checking is the highway to your money, with multiple access routes. Checkbooks and/or debit cards come with this account for daily transactions. You can also set up automatic withdrawals for reoccurring payments, such as utility bills, mortgages and auto loans. You should keep your liquid assets here, so they’re available at a moment’s notice.

Many banks require a minimum balance and a minimum number of transactions every month. Others charge you for maintenance or when certain criteria are not met. America First checking accounts offer unlimited transactions and you’ll never have any annual or monthly maintenance fees.

When it Comes to Saving

As easy as they are to use, checking is not a great place to save. Typically, checking accounts earn little to no dividends. If you want your resources to grow, keep them in savings—it’s a simple investment, where your balance will increase over time with virtually no risk.

Using both accounts in tandem is the best way to manage your money. Keep only what you need to cover your bills in checking, then put the rest in savings. It’s also smart to hold savings & checking at the same financial institution so you can quickly transfer money from one to the other. You’ll benefit from higher yields while maintaining access to your money.

winterizing

Properly Winterizing Your Watercraft

For boat owners, one of the year’s saddest days is their last on the water. Proper winterizing, however, can prevent further gloom when the season finally rolls around again. Many watercrafts suffer unnecessary and costly winter damage due to neglectful storage. We can help you protect your nautical investment and save you money with the advice below.

Inspect the exterior

Once your boat is on land, scrub the hull with soap & water, then scrape off any barnacles or plant life. Keep an eye out for any stress cracks or blisters in the body and repair them. If your hull is fiberglass, add a wax coat for cold-weather protection.

Treat the tank

A partially filled fuel tank can cause problems. Temperature shifts cause condensation, while old gas gums up the carburetor and fuel injectors. Manufacturers recommend either filling it to the top or draining it completely. Before doing either, though, they all suggest using a preventative fuel stabilizer to help prevent issues. Once you add the stabilizer, idle the engine for 15 minutes to evenly distribute it through the system.

Clean the engine

For outboard motors, flush the engine with fresh water to remove dirt and other impurities. With inboard and stern-drives, you’ll additionally want to do a final flushing with anti-freeze. Improperly drained engines leave residual water in the cooling chambers, that expands when it freezes—possibly cracking the manifolds or engine block.

Change the oil

Changing the oil & filter prevents potential moisture corrosion. Run the engine beforehand for faster and more efficient draining. Some owners will even change the oil while winterizing and do it again in the spring.

Care for the cylinders

Fogging oil helps protect the interior during storage. If you don’t fog the cylinders, pistons and rings, rust and other decay occur. Many engines allow you to spray this solution into the air intake while it’s running, or you can remove the spark plugs and apply it there.

Keep it covered

Most people don’t have the luxury of a climate-controlled storage facility, but at the very least you should use a tarp or sturdy cover during colder months. It’s important to keep the interior of the boat as dry as possible to avoid mold or mildew. Covers with ventilation deter ice accumulation and allow for some airflow. You can additional buy sprays or dehumidifiers to pull excess moisture from the air.

Winterizing may seem like a lot of work, but when it’s done correctly, it will save you time and money when the time arrives to get your boat out on the lake again. And these tips are only the basics—please consult your owner’s manual for additional instructions and recommendations for specific makes and models.

cruise

Low Costs on the High Seas—Saving on a Cruise

Some people have never gone on a cruise because they think it’s too expensive. However, when you consider that the room, the food, and the entertainment are all included with the price of your ticket, the cost is comparable to other vacations. If you want to save some additional money on your nautical voyage, here are some tips.

Right place, right time

Cruises range from luxury liners to economy trips—and the cost can vary even more depending on the time of year. Decide where and when you’d like to travel, then look for the cruise line that will give you what you want for the best price. You’ll save some extra money if you go during the off-season, which is typically late spring or early fall.

You can also spend less by either planning far ahead or waiting until the last minute. Some companies will offer early-bird specials for those who book their trip more than a year in advance. On the flip side, when the sail date approaches and the companies want to fill their cabins, some will drop their prices or add incentives to attract passengers, such as additional credits, room upgrades, and complementary amenities. Keep your eye on the prices throughout the year and note what’s included—then you’ll know when you’re getting a good deal.

When creating your budget, don’t forget to factor in the price of traveling to the ship’s location, which is not included with the price of a cruise. Consider using a travel agent—they usually know about the best deals and can bundle your admission with things like airfare and a hotel room, if necessary. Or pick a port close to home to save on travel costs.

Prioritize your perks

Determine what is a want and what is a need before you book your tickets. For example, it would be nice to have a large, private veranda where you can watch the ship pull away from the port, but you can also do this up on the deck. Inside state rooms are cheaper than ones with a view, and you only really need them for sleeping and getting ready. Plus, if you easily get seasick, inner rooms are usually more stable, too.

Many cruisers blow their vacation budget on unnecessary extras. There’s really no need to upgrade for fancy dining when buffets are included with the price of your ticket. Tap water, coffee and juices are usually free, but soda or alcoholic beverages will add up on your final bill. A wireless connection while you’re out to sea can also put you over budget. Unplug while you’re on the ship in order to save money. If you need to check your messages, find a café with a free Wi-Fi on the shore while the boat is docked.

When it comes to shore excursions, you don’t have to purchase the packages offered by the cruise line. You can enjoy a day on the beach, go on a hike and explore the port on your own. If you’re going to buy souvenirs, you can probably get them for cheaper by bargaining with vendors on land than you could in the ship’s gift shop. However, if you’re hungry, you should go back to the boat to get some food, since you’ve already paid for it.