Summer Vacation on a Budget

Still want to travel this summer, but wondering how you can make it work in these tough financial times?  Despite the quickly rising costs for food, transportation, etc., there are ways to cut costs without cancelling your travel plans completely.  Here are some tips and suggestions:

  1. Choose a less expensive destination
  2. Take fewer trips or reduce the duration
  3. Choose a location with a shorter distance where you can drive rather than fly
  4. Sign up for price alerts on travel websites – shop around and check travel prices then book when rates are lowest
  5. Take a close to home weekend getaway
  6. Consider trying a staycation
  7. Bring groceries and snacks with you and meal plan/prep rather than going to a restaurant for every meal
  8. Try some cheaper (or even FREE) vacation activities such as local libraries, museums, art galleries, state or national parks, walking tours, etc.
  9. Stay at an Airbnb, bed and breakfast, or with family or friends instead of booking an expensive hotel
  10. Research all inclusive packages
  11. Be aware of any hidden fees
  12. Look into purchasing two one-way tickets rather than one round-trip ticket, as sometimes this may be less expensive
  13. Don’t buy souvenirs and let your photos be your memories
  14. Pull out your tents and air mattresses and try a camping trip
  15. Vacation in an area where summer is not peak season

Whether you use some, all, or none of these tips, the key takeaway is: PLAN, PLAN, PLAN!  Be flexible and creative – think outside of the box!  Set a budget and stick to it.  Research ahead of time.  Decide where you may NOT be willing to cut back and decide how you can cut back in other areas to offset.  Start saving NOW!

To speak with a Certified Financial Counselor and receive guidance and recommendations related to budgeting, credit, savings, debt, etc., please call us at 716-712-2060.  We are happy to help!

The Importance of Budgeting

How many times have you tried to create a budget and stick to it?  It’s something that’s so difficult for so many people, so it can be tempting to stop even trying.  But before you give up… know that budgeting can be critically important to ensure your financial health and stability.  There are concrete ways to make a difficult thing more manageable (and maybe even fun)!


Why is budgeting so important?

  1. Tracking your expenses helps you control your spending, and save more money.  When you manage your finances without a budget, there really isn’t anything preventing you from spending beyond your means.  You may have a general idea about how much money you spend on certain things, but without actual (accurate) numbers, it’s easy to let your spending habits get out of control.  When you live on a budget, it’s much easier to see where you may be frivolously overspending, and when you can see waste that can be eliminated, you now have an ability to put that “extra” money into savings that you didn’t think you had before.  Who doesn’t love saving money?
  2. It helps you make wiser financial decisions and be better prepared for emergencies.  As I’m sure you already know, life comes with all kinds of emergency situations that can many times be very expensive.  If you plan for (and stick to) saving for these potential emergency expenses, you can avoid financial difficulties in the future.  From emergency room bills to unexpected home repairs, without mindful and intentional planning, you put yourself at risk of going into (sometimes significant) debt… that you may not even have the means to pay.  It’s recommended that you have approximately 3-6 months of living expenses in emergency savings.  That may sound overwhelming to many of you, but the good news is you can start small!  $100 is better than $0.  $1 is better than $0.  Focus on what you CAN do, and not what you think you SHOULD be able to do.
  3. It can improve your mental health.  Finances are incredibly overwhelming and stressful for many of us.  How many nights have you tossed and turned worrying about how you were going to pay your bills?  With a concrete plan in place, it takes away some of the headache that comes from wondering if you’ll be able to make it to your next paycheck.  Budgeting may be the unexpected self-care that you didn’t even know you needed.


How can you make budgeting work for you?

  1. Keep it simple!  Track all fixed and variable expenses, but don’t overwhelm yourself with 200 detailed categories.  Know how much you spend on “needs” vs. “wants,” and use it as a guide for where to dedicate your money in a way that helps you work toward your personal financial goals.
  2. Reward yourself!  Sticking to a budget requires consistency and discipline.  It’s an achievement in itself if you manage to do it!  Keep in mind if you DON’T stick to it, there is no need to punish yourself.  Use any setbacks as an opportunity to realize what went wrong, and how to fix it.
  3. Find a system that works for you!  Budgeting is NOT one size fits all!  Start easy.  The NFCC (National Foundation for Credit Counseling) has a simple expense tracker that can be a good place to start – https://www.nfcc.org/resources/planning-tools-and-calculators/monthly-budget-planner/.  There are many budget templates on the internet.  Do some research and find one that you like!


Need some further help with budgeting?  CCCS of Buffalo offers Financial Coaching Sessions, where you would meet one on one with one of our Certified Financial Counselors.  From budgeting advice to suggestions for more positive spending habits, you and your counselor would work as a team to create an individualized budget and determine the best plan of action to achieve your financial goals.  Your counselor would go over your income, expenses, and Experian credit report with you, and even review ways to build on and improve your credit.


Call us today at (716) 712-2060 to schedule an in person or telephone appointment!

Dealing with Inflation

As most of us are well aware, trips to the grocery store and the gas pump are emptying our pockets and draining our bank accounts more than ever before…

 

People talk about “inflation” all the time, but what does that really mean?  In plain terms, inflation simply refers to the increase in prices over time.  The inflation rate is a measure of how quickly those prices go up.  When the inflation rate is high, consumers lose purchasing power, meaning your dollar won’t go as far tomorrow as it did today.  The current annual inflation rate for the United States is 8.6%, up from 7% in 2021 – the largest annual increase since December 1981.  It averaged 3.27% from 1914 to 2022, reaching an all-time high of 23.7% in June 1920, and a record low of -15.8% in June 1921.

 

Inflation can have a serious impact on everyday expenses.  Energy prices have risen 34.6% and food costs are up 10.1%, but most of us likely have not seen wage increases to keep up with those rising costs.  So how can we manage our own financial situations to minimize those effects?  Here are four tips:

 

1. Consider (strategically) downsizing

 

Do you own any assets that may be worth more now because of inflation?  If so, now could be a good time to get rid of them.  Some items to consider could be used vehicles, furniture, equipment, and recreational goods such as toys and games, since these items have all seen major prices increases due to inflation.

 

2. Reduce or delay certain purchases

 

Many items, including everyday essential expenses, have seen drastic price increases.  Here are some examples that you may want to consider reducing or eliminating:

  • Gasoline
  • Cars
  • Clothing
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Toys/games
  • Furniture/home goods
  • Travel
  • Entertainment

 

3. Keep investing in your future

 

When money feels tight, it’s normal (and easy) to focus only on immediate needs and lose sight of longer-term goals.  You may be tempted to stop saving for retirement.  Even during difficult times, keep in mind that continuing to contribute to retirement and other long-term investments can be one of the best ways to fight the effects of inflation because it helps your money increase in value.

 

4. Review your budget

 

Any time prices go up, it’s important to revisit your budget – which can be as simple as making a list with all of your monthly income sources and current monthly expenses.  Budgeting may feel like it’s all about decreasing expenses, but it can also be a good opportunity to revisit your income and consider ways to bring in more money or resources.

 

Some questions to ask yourself about your expenses:

  • What can I reduce or eliminate?
  • Is there something I can put on hold, even if it’s just for a few months?
  • Am I being charged for services I don’t even use?
  • Can I negotiate or shop around for a lower price on expensive items?  Or perhaps consider secondhand?
  • Am I eligible for any discounts based on my individual situation (income-based, military/veteran, senior citizen, etc.)?

 

Some questions to ask yourself about your income:

  • Is there a way I can temporarily (or permanently) bring in more money?
  • Am I eligible for a pay raise or a promotion?
  • Do I have a product or service I could sell?
  • Am I eligible for any government benefits or other assistance?
  • Can another member of my household earn money or qualify for financial assistance?

 

If creating a budget to fight the effects of inflation seems impossible, you’re not alone!  Only about 1/3 of US adults say they have a plan for how they’ll spend each paycheck.  Instead of avoiding the task, why not get help from a professional?

 

Call CCCS of Buffalo, your Money Mentors, at (716) 712-2060 today to schedule an appointment to speak with one of our knowledgeable certified financial counselors!

Should I Get a Credit Card?

Opting for a new credit card is a decision that will impact your financial health in one way or another, so it should come with a careful analysis of your personal financial spending habits and goals.  Credit cards can be useful when they are used responsibly, but they can also be harmful if proper care is not taken to use them only when it would make sense to do so.

When does getting a credit card make sense?

  • If you want to build or rebuild credit history.  Without sufficient credit history, lenders will likely see you as a higher risk.  If you have limited or no credit, consider a secured card.  To build or rebuild credit with a credit card, it’s important to make 100% of your payments on time 100% of the time, and to keep your credit utilization ratio low.  The general recommendation is under around 30%, but people with high credit scores tend to keep it closer to around 10%.
  • If you need help financing a purchase or paying off debt.  Some credit cards offer introductory periods of 0% interest on purchases and balance transfers.  If you are able to pay the debt or major purchase during the promotional period, you will have essentially gotten an interest-free loan.
  • If you want to reward your spending.  Using a cash back or travel rewards card responsibly can help you save money by being rewarded for the things you purchase the most (think: gas or groceries).
  • If you want added payment security.  Credit card issuers typically offer a zero liability policy on fraudulent credit card charges, whereas if you use a debit card attached to your checking account, there aren’t as many protections.  Banks or credit unions may require written confirmation of the error and investigations can take much longer, which means your own funds may be tied up for a longer period of time.
When may getting a credit card NOT make sense?
  • If you want to increase funds available to you.  Generally speaking, applying for more credit to get out of debt or to make additional purchases is not ideal.  If you’re using credit cards for things that you aren’t able to pay off right away, you may end up paying a significant amount of interest on those balances.
  • If you’ve recently applied for a major line of credit.  If you’ve recently applied for credit for something significant (mortgage, auto loan, etc.), a credit card application will add an additional hard inquiry on your credit report.  This may also raise some red flags to lenders, who may suspect that you may need additional credit in order to keep up with payments on the major line of credit.
The bottom line is that you should carefully analyze your personal situation and weigh your options.  Opening a credit card account could be a great step toward reaching your financial goals, but keep in mind that managing it requires diligence and responsibility.
To speak with a Certified Financial Counselor and receive guidance and recommendations on appropriate steps to take to improve your credit situation, please give us a call at (716) 712-2060.  We would be happy to help!

*ACTION REQUIRED* Free Credit Monitoring from Equifax Data Breach Settlement

 

In September 2017, Equifax announced a data breach that exposed the personal information of 147 million people.  A settlement has now been reached and finalized, which will include up to $425 million to help affected individuals to receive free credit monitoring services, help recovering from identity theft that may have occurred, and even cash reimbursements for certain situations.

 

If you were affected by the breach, you are eligible for at least 4 years of FREE credit monitoring from all three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – and up to 6 more years from Equifax, for a total of 10 years.  The settlement administrator recently began sending emails and letters to people who filed a valid claim requesting these monitoring services.

 

*ACTION IS REQUIRED!*

 

  • Eligible claimants will get free membership in Experian IdentityWorks℠ for four years.
  • This service is free for you. You do not need to provide any payment information to enroll, and you do not need to cancel the service when it ends.
  • To enroll, visit the Experian IdentityWorks website: www.experianidworks.com/equifaxsettlement, and enter the Activation Code from the email or letter you received.  You can also call 1-877-251-5822.
  • You must use the Activation Code by June 27, 2022. Your activation code will not work after this date.
  • Legitimate emails about this settlement will come from Equifax Breach Settlement Administrator info@equifaxbreachsettlement.com.  The administrator will NOT call you about the settlement, but you can reach the administrator by phone at 1-833-759-2982.

 

Unsure if you were affected, or if you are eligible for the free credit monitoring provided by the Equifax Data Breach Settlement?

 

 

CCCS of Buffalo offers Credit Report Review sessions, where you would speak one on one with one of our certified counselors who will pull all three of your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, review everything that appears on your reports with you, go over ways to build on and improve your credit, and show you how to dispute anything if necessary.  Please call us at (716) 712-2060 to schedule an appointment!

VITA – Free Tax Preparation Services in Niagara County

CCCS Buffalo has officially launched our 8th year of providing free tax preparation services in Niagara County through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

If your 2021 income was $57,000 or less, you can have
your federal and state taxes e-filed for FREE!
Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, the service this year will function similar to last year’s, in a drop-off/virtual manner, to minimize exposure by limiting face-to-face interactions.  Masks are required.
Individuals will visit one of our two sites to speak with a trained VITA tax volunteer for a short time, drop off their documents, and provide identification and completed intake/consent forms.  Volunteers will conduct the intake process by scanning and uploading documents to secure tax software, then prepare the tax returns offsite/remotely.  Taxpayers will then come back to the physical site 1-2 weeks after their initial appointment to finalize their return, sign off on the e-filing, and obtain a paper copy of their return.
Call us now at (716) 712-2060 to schedule an appointment,
as slots are filling up very quickly!
LOCKPORT: Tuesdays through 4/5/22
Lockport Public Library (Community Room)
23 East Ave
Lockport, NY 14094
Access through the lower level on Grigg Lewis Way, across from Cornerstone Ice Rink
NIAGARA FALLS: Wednesdays through 4/6/22
Pinnacle Community Services
1522 Main St
Niagara Falls, NY 14305
Corner of Main St and Linwood Ave, parking available on Main St or parking lot on Linwood Ave

NYS Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) is Now Available!

The NYS Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) is a federally funded program to help support homeowners who experienced financial hardship (loss of income or increased living expenses) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  HAF assistance is customized to the applicant’s individual situation and may involve free housing counseling, legal services, negotiations with a mortgage servicer, and possibly even financial assistance to cover past and future housing related payments, including water and sewage charges.

Applications are now being accepted for this $539 million fund for eligible homeowners at risk of default, foreclosure, or displacement.

Are you a homeowner who is:

  • Behind or in forbearance on your mortgage?
  • In default on a reverse mortgage?
  • Behind on your property taxes, water, or sewage bills?
  • Behind on monthly maintenance charges for your co-op or condo?
  • Behind on chattel loans, retail installment contracts, lot rent, and/or other types of home purchase loans?

You may be eligible for HAF assistance, and WE CAN HELP!  For more information about the fund, help in determining eligibility, and/or assistance in completing an application, call us at 716-712-2060.  We will schedule you for a telephone appointment with a knowledgeable, certified housing counselor to assess your situation and assist you in the process.

NYS HAF expects to receive significantly more applications than can be funded by the program, and applications will be processed in the order they were received – so don’t wait, call us today!  (Note: Application submission does not guarantee that you will receive financial assistance.)

Resources:

NYS HAF Frequently Asked Questions – https://www.nyhomeownerfund.org/faqs

NYS HAF Call Center, Monday-Saturday 7am to 8pm EST, with application support and translation in English and 10 additional languages – 1-844-776-9423

Start HAF Application – https://www.nyhomeownerfund.org/apply-now

Application Guide and Document Checklist – https://www.nyhomeownerfund.org/application-guide

COVID-19 Student Loan Relief Extended through May 2022

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced* a further extension of the COVID-19 emergency relief for student loan repayment, interest, and collections.  The pause was previously extended until January 31, 2022, but an additional 90 day extension was approved through May 1, 2022.

So what does this mean for you?  Eligible** loans have been granted the following relief measures:

    – Suspension of loan payments

This suspension will help 41 million borrowers save $5 billion in student loan payments per month.  There is no fee for this, and your loan servicer will automatically implement the suspension.  There is nothing you need to do on your end!

    – Temporary 0% interest rate

Your loans will not accrue (accumulate) any additional interest until May 2022.  Optional payments made during this time can allow you to pay off your loans faster, and lower the total cost of your loans over time.

    – Stopped collections on defaulted loans

Throughout the emergency relief period, tax refunds will not be withheld, wages will not be garnished, Social Security payments (including disability benefits) will not be withheld, collection calls will stop, billing statements will not be sent, and interest will not accrue.

When your student loan payments are set to resume, you may have some questions on what that will look like for you.  If you are interested in having your federal or private loans evaluated by CCCS of Buffalo’s student loan experts for various options you may have available to you (consolidation, income based repayment, forgiveness, deferment, forbearance, etc.), please give us a call at (716) 712-2060 option 1 to schedule a student loan counseling session!

Resources:

* https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/biden-harris-administration-extends-student-loan-pause-through-may-1-2022

** https://studentaid.gov/announcements-events/covid-19/payment-pause-zero-interest#which-loans-eligible

Student Loans – Huge Changes Coming to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)!

On October 6, 2021, the Department of Education announced an overhaul that is coming for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program for federally backed student loans!  For a limited time (now through October 31, 2022), borrowers may receive credit for past payments made on their student loans that would not have otherwise qualified for PSLF.

 

Key parts to this announcement include:

  • Implementing a limited PSLF waiver to count prior payments
  • Simplifying what it means for a payment to qualify for PSLF
  • Eliminating barriers for military service members to receive PSLF
  • Automatically helping service members and other federal employees access PSLF
  • Reviewing of denied PSLF applications and identifying/correcting errors in PSLF processing
  • Improving outreach and communication with PSLF eligible borrowers
  • Simplifying the PSLF application process
  • Making long term improvements to PSLF through rulemaking


Helpful links:

Press release, fact sheet on PSLF program overhaul

What borrowers need to know: summary of new rules, next steps, FAQs

PSLF help tool

Want to know what this may mean for you?  We at CCCS of Buffalo offer Student Loan Counseling!  To speak with a knowledgeable counselor about your student loan options, please give us a call at (716) 712-2060 today to schedule an appointment!

Common Financial Pitfalls… and How to Avoid Them!

It’s so easy for so many of us to fall into the trap of the little things that can set us back financially, even when we have the best of intentions to stay committed to our financial goals.  Here are 3 of some very common financial pitfalls, and even more importantly, tips on how to avoid them!

1. Impulsive Spending

Ever go to the grocery store hungry, and find yourself pulling more things off the shelves than you had initially intended?  Do you get a little click-happy when you’re shopping online, then have 10 items in your Amazon cart when you only planned on buying one thing?  Tempted by all the shiny and fun stuff on store endcaps and in checkout lines?  So much of what we buy is on impulse.  You’re not alone, and there are ways to reduce or even eliminate this!

How to avoid: Have a plan!

Don’t go grocery shopping without a pre-planned list (and stick to that list!).  Turn off “one click ordering” on your favorite online shopping sites, so you have an active barrier to just easily ordering whatever you wish (would you be as tempted to spend so much, if you knew you had to actively log in again and re-enter your payment information rather than just clicking a button?).  Set some time aside and make a budget plan for yourself.  Reward yourself when you stick to it (freely or inexpensively, of course!).

2. Using Credit Cards for Emergencies

As much as sometimes it is necessary to use a credit card for an emergency expense, it ideally should not be our first line of defense.  Credit cards can carry such high interest rates (sometimes upwards of 30%!) and if not paid in full, the balance carried over from month to month can grow very quickly.  It’s far better to use savings for emergencies wherever possible, and then use credit cards as an absolute last resort.

How to avoid: Build an emergency savings!

A good goal is to have 3-6 months worth of your monthly expenses in an emergency savings account, but don’t let that goal scare you.  START SMALL!  Saving just $50 a month into a separate savings account will get you to $1,200 in only 2 years (excluding any interest you may earn).  Once you hit a small goal (say, $250 in a savings account), challenge yourself and up your savings by 10% and see how much more quickly you can hit your next goal.  It may even be fun…!

3. Ignoring Your Retirement Fund

Planning for retirement should be part of your long term financial goals.  It takes more and more money for people to be able to retire comfortably, and if you’re not prepared, you just may end up having to work a lot longer than you had initially hoped for.

How to avoid: Start saving NOW!

It’s never too late to start!  Does your employer sponsor a retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b)?  Start contributing to it TODAY!  Be sure to ask if your employer participates in company matching, and maximize your contribution to get the most out of this benefit.  Every little bit helps.  Don’t fall into the mindset where you feel like since you can’t contribute a high % of your income then it’s not worth it.  It is absolutely worth it, and even 1% of your income is better than 0%.  It helps you get into the habit of saving, and it adds up faster than you’d think!

To speak with a knowledgeable financial counselor about how to make your money situation work for you, give us a call at (716) 712-2060 today!  CCCS of Buffalo is committed to assisting our community in meeting your financial needs!