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school

Back-to-School Savings

Kids aren’t the only ones who get anxious about going back to school. As summer winds down, many parents are financially stressed because all of the supplies & extras they’re going to purchase. Here are some tips to save a few bucks this year.

Reading

Research it beforehand. Check out popular sites for discounts on backpacks, folders, laptops, calculators, colored pencils and whatever else you need. Follow your favorite stores on social media to see when deals are available. Sales occur at different times, so keep a list and compare prices.

You don’t have to shop exclusively online or at big-box stores, either. Get your local supermarket’s ads and browse dollar stores for inexpensive essentials. You may even find some great bargains at secondhand stores or yard sales.

Writing

Make a combined list of what each child needs for the upcoming school year. Picking out cute accessories or extras is fun, but they can add up—especially if you have a large family. Stick to what you wrote down and you won’t find yourself surprised by the total tab.

Consider sending an email or group text to other moms & dads about buying school items in bulk. A teacher may request two highlighters, for example, but you can go in with five others and buy a pack of ten, sharing the cost.

Arithmetic

First, do the math to see how much you’re going to spend. You can even involve your kids in this process to teach them basic budgeting techniques. Have them chip in with some of their own money if they want to buy something extra or upgrade to an item that features their favorite movie character on it.

Buying early can also lower your bill. If you know the basics of what your child should have, you can spread out the purchases during the year. Alternatively, since prices are usually lower after classes start, you can stock up on cheap supplies for the following year. A stockpile of school items will make you feel more prepared and you’ll save more, too.

The Cost of Cycling

If you’re searching for a new hobby, cycling is a fun & healthy choice. But if you’re going to take it seriously—even train for races such as the Tour of Utah—you’re going to spend some money. Here’s a brief cost overview:

The bicycle itself ($500 – $2,000)
Absolutely the most expensive component. Road bikes are far more aerodynamic and lighter than those made for trails. High-end models are also more expensive because they have carbon fiber and titanium construction. Those you see in the Tour de France run around $12,000, but that’s certainly not necessary for those on the entry level.

Headgear ($25 – $300)
If you’re going to ride fast, a safety should be your first concern. You can be more frugal here, because all bike helmets must pass standardized safety tests. Those that are the most expensive are usually designed for function and aesthetics. These versions weigh less, provide better venting and are more technologically advanced—yet a cheap one will protect your brain from injury just as well. Most manufacturers recommend you replace helmets every five years.

Clothing ($30 – $350 each)
For casual riding, you can wear whatever you have on. However, if you’re going long distances, traditional cycling gear is more comfortable and effective. You may feel a little self-conscious wearing the shorts at first, but they’ll prevent painful chafing. Moisture-wicking jerseys and gloves help regulate body temperature and keep blisters away. Lots of cyclists also buy cleats to improve their pedaling. Once again, these items aren’t required, but they make a difference.

Misc. equipment ($20 – $200 each)
Of course, you’ll also need glasses to keep the bugs out of your eyes, a water bottle to hydrate on the go, a compact bike pump, a multitool for minor repairs, a mirror, sunscreen, and a pack to store all the extras.

When you start riding, you’ll learn what’s essential and what isn’t. Make your initial investment wisely and you’ll get a lot of benefit in return.

credit cards

Smart Spending: Use Credit Cards Wisely

Credit cards may have an iffy reputation, but the truth is that they’re beneficial financial tools if you make wise choices. They can boost your credit score, bring some cash back, and generate rewards. Use them carelessly and you’ll pay for it—literally. Here are some best practices.

Maintain zero balances

Treat your credit cards like personal loans to yourself. Don’t spend more than you have. Carrying a balance means you’re being charged interest, which is money you don’t need to spend. Pay in full and on time every month to avoid this cost. If that’s not possible, at least submit the minimum or more so you don’t rack up fees. And mark the statement closing date on your calendar so you don’t forget to pay when the bill comes due.

Track your spending

Never treat your card like a bottomless pit, create a budget to track spending. Review monthly statements to figure out how often you’re charging, then determine where you can cut back. Also, look at the transaction history regularly and set up balance alerts that tell you when you’re nearing the established limit.

Don’t max out

If you’re consistently reaching your credit card limit, you’re either spending too much or your available cap is too low. Raising your limit is not a bad thing if you’re sensible about it. In fact, using less than 30% of your total available credit can improve your credit score, while repeatedly reaching a smaller limit can make a dent.

Avoid fraud

When you shop online, only enter your card information on reputable sites. Look for URLs that begin with https:// and have a green padlock icon next to the address bar, which means they’re properly encrypted. At gas stations, look for pumps nearest to the shop. Choose indoor ATMs when possible and always check for signs of tampering before inserting a card. If you suspect your card has been compromised, contact your financial institution immediately.

Get rewarded

Many cards offer rewards. Visa® Platinum from America First, for example, gives you 1.5% cash back on every purchase. Or you can get one point for every dollar you spend, redeemable for merchandise, hotels, flights, gift cards and more.

Using your credit cards wisely means you’ll earn more and pay less.

IRAs

Traditional vs. Roth IRAs

Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, are a way people can save money specifically for when they leave the workforce. The two primary types of retirement accounts are traditional and Roth. Here’s a quick rundown of the differences between these options.

Traditional

With traditional IRAs, you normally won’t pay taxes until you withdraw the money. Some or all of your contributions may be tax deductible, depending on your gross adjusted income, and your earnings can also grow in a tax-deferred environment. Any money you put into a traditional IRA will lower your taxable income that year, which could help you qualify for other tax incentives.

You may continue to contribute to traditional IRAs until you reach the age of 70½. After that, you are required to begin taking distributions. Also, if you withdraw funds before you turn 59½, you’ll pay a 10% penalty. However, there are some ways to not get penalized for early withdrawal, such as if it’s for a first-time home purchase or the disability or death of the account holder. If you want to know more about these exceptions, contact a financial professional.

Roth

On the other hand, Roth IRAs are taxed now, but can be pulled out tax-free when you begin distribution. So your contributions aren’t deductible, but your earnings will grow untaxed with this type of retirement account. If you believe that you will be in a higher income tax bracket when you retire, then a Roth IRA might be right for you.

You can make contributions at any age to Roth IRAs. Distributions aren’t required, either. Plus, you won’t pay any penalties for early distribution, as long as it’s not more than the total amount that you’ve contributed. If you want to withdraw your earnings, you can do so tax-free if the Roth has been open for five years and you’ve turned 59½, you’ve incurred a disability, you need it to make a payment for your first home, or the account holder’s death.

Setting up an individual retirement account is easy, and the earlier you start, the more you’ll have when it’s time to retire. If you want to learn more about investing in IRAs, visit americafirst.com.

tires

All-Wheel Savings: Caring for Your Car Tires

You should always take care of your wheels—and we’re not just talking about the car itself—because it will save you money in several ways. Properly maintained tires get better mileage, so you’ll spend less on gas. Regular checks and rotations will help them last longer and prevent blowouts, which could cause costly damage to your vehicle and potential injury. Here are some tips on how to take care of your ride:

Monitor the Pressure

Air pressure is measured in pounds per square inch or PSI. The PSI number on the sidewall is the maximum amount of pressure, and therefore should not be the number you use when inflating. You can see the ideal PSI in the owner’s manual or on the driver’s side door frame. Check the pressure regularly, because even a perfectly healthy tire can lose up to two PSI per month. Underinflated tires have more rolling resistance, which means the engine burns additional fuel. It can also lead to heat buildup, causing treads to wear down more quickly.

Look at the Tread

Check your wheels monthly, looking for damage, cracks, punctures and bubbles on the sidewalls. You should also monitor the treads, as bald tires won’t grip the road well and affect steering and handling. Underinflation will cause your tires to wear on both edges, whereas center-worn treads indicate overinflation. Use a tread depth gauge or, alternatively, a penny. Insert the coin in the grooves upside down and facing you—if you can see the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head, your tread is too low. Replace damaged or bald tires immediately.

Remember to Rotate

If your tires are unevenly worn, it’s because they haven’t been properly rotated. During this process, each wheel is taken off and moved to a different position, making them last longer. Most tires should be rotated every 6,000 to 8,000 miles, or roughly every other oil change. However, if you notice any irregular wear on your wheels—even if you haven’t reached 6,000 miles yet—go in for a rotation.

Watch Your Speed

Going fast means a greater chance of tire damage due to heat buildup or road hazards. Excessive spinning can also cause faster wear. Check your owner’s manual to learn the vehicle load limit to avoid unnecessary stress wheel or engine stress.

Take care of your vehicle and it will take care of your wallet.

moving

Moving Out & the Cost of Independence

Living on your own is an essential part of growing up, but it comes with a price and independence isn’t cheap. If you’re thinking of moving out, here are some costs to consider. This isn’t intended to scare you, but rather prepare you for the budget realities you’ll face.

Housing

One of the biggest monthly expenses is your rent or mortgage payment. The average one-bedroom apartment in downtown U.S. cities can range from $600 to over $3,500, depending on where you live. Some places also require security deposits, as well as first & last months’ rent. Plus, if it’s unfurnished, you’ll need some money for a bed, tables, chairs and other furniture. And let’s not forget about the basics, such as light bulbs, utensils, shower curtains, toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Utilities

In addition to housing payments, you’ll pay utilities to keep the lights on and the AC running. On average, Americans spend over $100 per month for electricity, another $100 for gas, and around $40 for water & sewer. Sometimes these bills will be rolled into your rent, but if not, be careful with your thermostat.

Groceries

If you’re single, you’ll be spending up to $50 a week on milk, eggs, fresh produce, bread and other groceries, but you’ll also want the staples—flour, sugar, salt, oil, condiments and spices. A fully stocked fridge is the best way to avoid the cost of eating out too much.

Entertainment

A television or computer can keep you entertained and connected, but they come at a price. While many people are cutting cable TV, the internet is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. Service providers charge between $40 and $70 monthly for basic packages, and that doesn’t include the cost of router and a modem.

Insurance

Your place should also be insured, protecting you against huge losses due to fire, flood or injury. Homeowner’s insurance is common, but renter’s insurance is also an option. If you own a vehicle, you must get it covered and you’ll need health insurance, although it’s offered as a benefit by many employers. All this adds hundreds or thousands of dollars to your yearly expenses, but it’s worth every penny in case of emergency.

Miscellaneous

If that weren’t intimidating enough, there are also a bunch of miscellaneous things to pay for: car repairs, maintenance, appliances, tools, fire extinguishers, etc. Even the act of moving out will dent your budget, because might be paying for boxes, tape, packing materials, renting a truck and feeding everyone who came out to help.

Finally, you don’t want monthly expenses to exceed 30% of your net income. If it’s more than that, you might want to take on a second job or cut some spending. Otherwise you may find yourself moving back in with your parents.

phone scams

Fraud Prevention: Avoiding Phone Scams

While many criminals are online stealing information, thousands are still affected by phone scams every year. Here are some tips to avoid being victimized.

Be Skeptical

Getting a call from a number you don’t recognize naturally raises skepticism. That’s good. Treat any unsolicited call as a potential threat. However, some scammers spoof numbers, so the call appears as if it’s coming from someone you know or a business you’ve worked with before. Stay on guard and spot red flags early.

Listen Closely

There are a few ways to identify phone scams. If the caller repeatedly tells you to trust him or her, for example, it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t. And if the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of contests you don’t remember entering and remain suspicious of anyone who needs a wire transfer or prepaid debit card transaction. Also, watch out for those who ask for your credit card information, account numbers and PINs—you should never give that information over the phone.

Take Time to Think

These crooks want as much data as they can get, as fast as they can get it. Many scammers will use high-pressure language to make you respond immediately. Don’t fall for it. Take your time and think about what’s going on. Ask clarifying questions. Get the caller’s information and tell him or her you’ll call back. If they seem hesitant or reluctant to let you off the phone, it’s likely fraudulent. Don’t be afraid to hang up if you feel uneasy.

Do Your Research

Look online for the originating phone number and see if others have reported it. Search for the company name with the words fraud or scam and watch if anything pops up. If a suspicious caller claims to be from a bank or credit union, go to the institution’s official website, call the listed number, then ask if they’re trying to reach you. If not, report it.

Act Swiftly

If you run into something suspect, file a complaint with the FTC. If a telemarketer calls you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., report them to the FTC—the law prevents solicitation during those hours. Additionally, if you ever receive a pre-recorded call from a company that didn’t get your permission to contact you, report that, as well. On robocalls, don’t press a number to speak to a person or to be removed from a list, because that may cause more unwanted calls. Reporting phone scams will help you and prevent others from being hassled by the same treatment.

freezer meals

Freezer Meals: Store Up Some Cold, Hard Savings

Freezer meals are becoming an increasingly popular way to save time. But did you know that they can also save you money? If you’ve ever thought about freezing your meals, here are some way to get the most out of your efforts.

What are freezer meals?

When we say freezer meals, we’re not talking about store-bought TV dinners that heat up in the microwave. These are home-cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners that you make and store for later. A surprising variety of foods can be frozen to feed your family, including soups, sandwiches and casseroles. You can also freeze partial meals or ingredients for future courses.

Freezer cooking can save you time on decision-making and cleaning up. Some people will cook a month’s worth in one day, while others will simply double or triple a recipe and freeze the extra. Find the method that works best for you.

How do I save?

When dinner’s ready to go, you won’t grab grab some take-out on the way home after a busy day or when you just don’t feel like cooking. Plus, you’ll be eating healthier for less money. Freezer meal prep goes hand-in-hand with meal planning. By determining what you’re going to have beforehand and setting limits, it’ll mean less time at the store and fewer impulse buys. Freezer cooking also helps decrease the unplanned shopping trips that can kill your monthly budget.

Your frozen dishes can also be made with whatever’s on sale. Look for discounts on more expensive ingredients like meat and divide it into manageable portions before freezing. Buying in bulk can also generate savings and food that’s frozen doesn’t spoil as quickly.

Freezer cooking tips

Don’t do all of your shopping and cooking on one day—that would be exhausting. If you’re new to the process, start small with a handful of meals you can pull out when needed. And make sure to let the food cool off before you freeze it so that you don’t thaw out other items.

Air is your enemy when it comes to these meals—it’s what causes freezer burn. If you’re using gallon or quart-sized bags, squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing them. Some people even use straws to create a vacuum in the container. And freeze things flat whenever possible so the bags stack easier.

Use labels with dates and descriptions. You’re less likely to eat a freezer meal if you don’t know what it is or how long it’s been in there. Keep things organized and maintain an inventory sheet, rotating through it regularly. These time & money-saving meals aren’t for long-term food storage, after all, they’re quick and easy sustenance solutions.

dads

More Financial Tips from Dads

We learned so much from last year’s post, so here’s another round of financial wisdom from local dads just in time for Father’s Day.

Tyler

Finances can be scary and intimidating if you don’t take the time to acquaint yourself with them. While sitting down each month and setting your budget doesn’t sound fun or enjoyable, it makes a big difference. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more confident you’ll be. Understanding your limitations is important, because it allows you to know your financial flexibility. Make a budget each month and push yourself to stick to it so you can reap the rewards down the road with a fun trip or exciting adventure.

Bob

Break down everything you’re looking to buy as wants and needs. At a young age, wants seem a lot more like needs, so you have to really separate your heart from the equation. Make sure your needs are met and you’ve got enough to fall back on, then you can let those wants have a little more room in your budget.

Cameron T.

It’s not what you make, it’s what you save. Live within your means. Invest early. Stay out of debt.

Jud

Don’t waste your money on worthless things. Work hard and earn your money. Make sure the things you buy are worth what it took to get them. Don’t spend everything, save something.

Brett

Money often costs too much. Be careful about what you are giving up to get it. Everything has a cost. Don’t spend money on something you don’t love at the store. The opportunity for wealth is often disguised in overalls and looks like hard work. Money is a terrible master, but an excellent servant.

Kent

It’s just fine to be seen as the cheap friend. Once you’ve set that standard, it will be a running joke and it will be assumed that you’ll always be that way. You’ll save plenty of money. Once you save and build a foundation of financial security, be generous and pay it forward.

Cameron M.

Sound financial management can help you avoid a heavy burden. Decide what you want most, instead of what you want now.

Rick

Get out of debt and stay out of debt. Never spend money you don’t have. Put money aside for a rainy day. Don’t invest anything you can’t afford to lose. Don’t plan on an inheritance, but be grateful if you receive one. Don’t involve yourself in any get-rich-quick scheme, as they rarely do anything but put you in a worse position than you were before. It doesn’t matter what job you have or what it pays, as long as you can be disciplined to live on the wages.

check

The Write Way to Fill Out a Check

With today’s quick ways to pay, such as credit cards & online transfers, writing personal checks is like a lost art. However, on the rare occasion you need to use a paper check, here are some tips on how to do it correctly.

Date

Being consistent will help identify check fraud, should it ever arise. When it comes to dates, some people put the month first, while others use the day. To avoid confusion, spell out the month in that field. Also, double-check the year during the first few months of the year, when you’re still getting used to the date changing.

Payee

Use full names and avoid acronyms whenever possible. If the check is to more than person—a wedding gift, for example—put the preposition or between the names. If you write Jon Snow and Cersei Lannister as payees, both must endorse it. If you write Jon Snow or Cersei Lannister, then either party can. Also, if it’s for a soon-to-be-married couple, use the names from the invitation. Even if one spouse is going to take the other’s last name, that process may take a while. The same principle applies to children who don’t have accounts—write their names followed by or and the parent’s name so the check can be cashed. And always use a pen to prevent any unauthorized alterations.

Amount

The two amount fields confirm one another. For the number in the box, start at the far left and fill the entire space. Make clear distinctions between dollars and cents with decimals. Clearly spell out the intended amount. Add a horizontal line through any empty space at the end to prevent unauthorized additions. If you make a glaring error, write VOID in big letters across the entire check and start a new one.

Memo

It’s optional and mostly for your records. However, it can help you avoid payment disputes—if your landlord says you didn’t pay your rent in June, but you have a carbon copy of the check that reads June rent payment on the bottom, you’ll be in the right. If you have an account or invoice number with a utility company, putting it on the memo line will help connect the check and the payment stub if they get separated.

Signature

These have power, because a check isn’t valid until signed. Complete all other fields first and then write your signature when you’re ready to give it to the payee. With joint accounts, either party can sign. Once again, consistency will help prevent fraud.