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Clean Up Discrepancies On Your Credit Report

Monitoring your credit report is probably one of the most proactive moves you can make concerning your finances. A poor credit rating can affect everything you do - from applying for a loan to employment - so it is important to keep tabs on your credit activity and make sure all the items listed are accurate.

How do you to this? Each year you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report. AnnualCreditReport.com is a centralized and secure service for consumers to request free annual credit reports. It was created by the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

If you find discrepancies on your credit report, contact the creditor regarding the dispute (their contact information will be listed on the report). Sometimes this can be handled online; other times you'll need to contact them in writing. Either way, make sure you keep thorough notes until the dispute is rectified.

Additionally, be cautious of any companies that offer to help you repair your credit for a fee. Often times the error is simply an oversight and can be quickly cleared up by you - for free.

Favorable credit history doesn't happen overnight, but by taking care of your credit, over time, you will establish good credit history. Remember, you can get a free copy of your credit report every year. Here's how to order one:

Online: www.annualcreditreport.com
Phone: (877) 322-8228
Mail: Print and complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form
and mail it to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
PO Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Save For Your Child's College Education

Saving for your child's education can be a daunting thought - considering how much the cost of college has inflated since you attended. But instead of dreading writing out those tuition checks years from now, take it one step at a time. Start by saving what money you can by utilizing a Coverdell Educational Savings Account.

A Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA), formerly called an Education IRA, is a custodial account organized for the purpose of paying education expenses for a child. It was created as an incentive to help parents and students save for education expenses.

Why use a Coverdell Educational Savings Account:

  • Earnings on a Coverdell ESA grow tax-free until withdrawn to pay for qualified expenses.
  • Withdrawals for certain qualified education expenses are tax-free.
  • Funds can be transferred from one child's account to an account for another child in the family.
  • Generally, any individual (including the beneficiary) can contribute to a Coverdell ESA if the individual's modified adjusted gross (MAGI) income is less than $110,000 ($220,000 if the individual is filing a joint return). The $2,000 maximum contribution per beneficiary is gradually reduced if the contributor's MAGI is between $95,000 and $110,000 ($190,000 and $220,000 if the contributor is filing a joint return).
  • Qualified educational expenses include tuition and fees; the cost of books, supplies and equipment; the amounts contributed to a qualified tuition program; and if the student is enrolled at least half-time, the cost of room and board.
  • Eligible educational institutions are any college, university, vocational school or other post-secondary educational institution eligible to participate in student aid programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education. You can also use withdrawals from a Coverdell ESA for certain elementary and secondary education expenses.
  • A beneficiary (the child) may receive tax-free distributions from a Coverdell ESA in the same year he or she claims the Lifetime Learning or HOPE Scholarship tax credits.
  • No one can deduct contributions.
  • Contributions are not allowed after the beneficiary reaches age 18 (except for special-needs beneficiaries).
  • Although there isn't a limit on the number of separate Coverdell ESAs that can be established for a designated beneficiary, the total contributions for the beneficiary cannot be more than $2,000, no matter how many accounts have been established.

Streamline Your Small Business' Money-Management

When you own a small business, you are often required to perform many tasks. Sometimes all the things that need done can be hard to juggle - especially if you don't have a solid knowledge-base in those areas.

When it comes to the financial side of business, for many business owners this simply isn't their area of expertise. They need someone they can trust to streamline cumbersome processes and help their business grow.

Some small business considerations:

Does your business always have sufficient cash flow? If not, you may want to consider a line of credit for your business. Other types of business loans include those designed for commercial real estate, investment properties, financing equipment and even purchasing a new vehicle (or fleet of vehicles).

In addition to your business checking account, your business may consider having other deposit accounts. Just like a family, a business, too, wants to have different "pots of money" to save and develop financial stability. Those can include savings accounts, money management accounts and business share certificates.

Credit and debit cards are also a good money-management option for businesses for a few reasons. When given to employees, it simplifies the administration of "petty cash" and expenses. It also itemizes the purchases, so you - the business owner - can see precisely where the money is going.

Business and financial services help you increase sales, reduce costs and minimize risk.

Get A Mortgage

Whether you are buying your first home, a vacation home, or if you plan to relocate or refinance, there are several programs available to finance your home and fit your needs. However, before you begin, there are a few steps you should consider:

  • Look at your household budget to determine how much you can spend on a mortgage every month.
  • Request copies of your credit report. Each year you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report through www.annualcreditreport.com.
  • Familiarize yourself with all the variables that make up the total housing payment. Not only do you need to consider the interest rate and principle of the mortgage, but you also need to weigh items like fees, points, taxes and insurance into the equation.

Now that you've done your homework, it is time to take the next step by getting pre-approved for a mortgage. Before you start shopping for a home, you need to make sure you can actually qualify for financing. This will make the process easier once you find that perfect home.

Finally, now that you've found the house you want, it is time to figure out what type of loan is right for you. There are fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs). These are a popular choice for many families because, as the name says, the interest rate is locked-in (fixed) for the life of the loan. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) are another option that can be beneficial, since the interest rate will go up or down depending on what the market is doing.

For first-time home buyers, active-duty military or veterans, there are programs available to provide you with minimum out-of-pocket expenses to help you secure your home. These government-guaranteed programs are also fairly easy to qualify for.

To figure out which loan may be right for your needs, check out our mortgage products or talk to one of our qualified mortgage experts.

Ensure All Your Paperwork Is In Place "Just In Case" The Unthinkable Happens

Life can throw us curve balls, so it is important that we have all of our paperwork in place just in case disaster strikes. This can include everything from death, illness, accidents or property devastation (from floods or fires).

Once a tragedy happens, it is too late. People who don't have the proper insurance coverage and documents in place have lost them forever. Don't let this happen to you. Things to consider:

Medical Insurance
Make sure you have adequate medical insurance and know what your deductible is.

Long-Term Disability Insurance
This type of insurance provides for your family if you're disabled and can't work. Check to see if you are covered by your employer and for how much. If you don't feel it is enough, get more.

Life Insurance
Make sure the beneficiaries are up-to-date and that your policy covers what you need. Additionally, it is smart to have a copy of your beneficiary statement in safe-keeping.

Auto Insurance
Auto policies may cover much more than just your vehicle. Some policies include benefits for car rentals, hospitalization, disability and life. Read your policy carefully so you know all that you are entitled to.

You also want to make sure important papers - those that are irreplaceable or that you'd have difficulty replacing - are kept in a safe and secure location. Papers you should keep in a safe deposit box or self-service security box include:

  • Birth, death and marriage certificates
  • Divorce, child custody, adoption and other legal documents
  • Copies of powers of attorney and wills (Also keep copies where they are easily accessible)
  • Government-issued documents such as record of citizenship or service paperwork
  • Bonds and stock certificates
  • Deeds to property and other mortgage paperwork
  • Important contracts
  • Automobile titles
  • Household inventories - lists and photos of your "stuff"

By carefully planning now, not only will you be prepared should the unthinkable happen, but you also have peace-of-mind knowing that everything is organized.

The above document(s) is in Portable Document Format (PDF) which can be read by Adobe's Acrobat Reader. If you do not have Acrobat Reader, you can download it free from Adobe's download site.

Calculate Your Debt-To-Income Ratio

Your debt-to-income ratio is important to know because it is used to determine your overall credit worthiness. It is also useful in establishing a budget - so you can get out of debt and establish a path for financial freedom and security.

Here's how to calculate your debt-to-income ratio.

[sum of all your monthly expenses] ÷ [sum of your total monthly income] = your ratio (%)

When you calculate your total monthly expenses, include the following:

  • Mortgage or rent
  • Minimum credit card payments
  • Monthly car loan payment
  • Other loan obligations (such as student loans)
  • Utilities, cell phone, insurance, cable, Internet, memberships and other monthly bills (don't forget automatic payments like EZ Pass for turnpike tolls)


When you calculate your total monthly income, include the following:

  • Monthly gross salary (pre-tax amount)
  • Other monthly income
  • Monthly alimony received

For example:
Monthly expenses are $1,650 ÷ Monthly income is $3500 = 47% (ratio)

If your ratio is …
36% or less: This is an ideal debt load to carry for most people. Showing that you can control your spending in relation to your income is what lenders are looking for when evaluating if you are credit-worthy.

37% to 42%: Your debts still may seem manageable, but start paying them down before they begin to spiral out of control. At this level, credit cards still may be easy to obtain, but acquiring loans may be more difficult.

43% to 49%: Your debt ratio is high and financial difficulties may be looming unless you take immediate action.

50% or more: Seek professional help to make plans for drastically reducing your debt before it becomes a real problem.

Balance Your Checking Account

Balancing your checkbook is one of the basic skills needed for good money management, but in today's technology age - where you can simply check your balance using your smartphone, many people falsely assume that the "old school" task of balancing the checkbook just doesn't apply anymore. They couldn't be more wrong.

For starters, the "funds available" when checking your account online or using your phone may not be accurate because it takes time for checks and debit card transactions to be reflected in that total. You can quickly get yourself in financial hot water if you rely solely on the online balance.

When you balance your checkbook, you are verifying that your records match the financial institution. Mistakes happen - you forget to note a transaction, and yes, even the bank makes a mistake from time to time. Additionally, with an increase of identity theft, there is always a possibility that your account was changed for something that you didn't do. It is important to balance your checking account on a monthly basis so you can catch any discrepancies early and rectify them.

Account statements are made up of three components:

  • Deposits to your account
  • Withdraws from your account (i.e., checks written, electronic funds transfers (EFTs), ATM withdraw, debits)
  • Fees and/or interest

The next step is to use your account statement to verify transactions against your check register. Once you've checked off all the transactions that your financial institution also has listed, it is time to reconcile your account.

Use our Checking Account Reconcilement Form. This will provide you with a step-by-step guide to balancing your account.

The above document(s) is in Portable Document Format (PDF) which can be read by Adobe's Acrobat Reader. If you do not have Acrobat Reader, you can download it free from Adobe's download site.

Organize Your Finances In 5 Easy Steps

Do you know your net worth?
Do you know how much you spend each month, and on what?
Do you know how much you can expect from your pension plan or Social Security when you reach retirement?

If you answered "no" to at least one of these questions, you aren't alone. The majority of Americans don't have an accurate pulse on their finances. Sometimes it is because they are just too busy with the daily grind of life to organize their finances; for others, the task of "organizing finances" can be overwhelming because they don't know where to begin.

However, it is important to understand where you are financially and where you want to be down the road. This will allow you to enjoy those short-term gains, while still being on track to meet your long-term goals.

Here's a five-step action plan to help you take control of your money:

  • Set up a financial filing system. This can be as simple as making sure that all bills you receive by mail get put in the same spot every month. It also includes setting up a budget so you know your monthly income and expenses.
  • Gather important records. Look through your records to identify missing information. For example, you need an estimate of your Social Security retirement benefits. To request one, contact the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213.

Additionally, gather copies of your health, disability, life, homeowners and vehicle insurance policies, and get a copy of your credit report. Keep these records all in one spot, and each year, replace the old copy with the updated one.

Finally, request your free annual credit report from www.annualcreditreport.com. If you find any discrepancies, correct them immediately.

  • Size up your situation. Add the estimated current value of all assets, including your home, car, personal property, savings, investments and retirement accounts. Next, add all liabilities, including mortgage, credit card balances and any other outstanding debt. Then subtract liabilities from assets to figure out your net worth.

From there, make a list of income and expenses by reviewing paycheck stubs, your checkbook register and credit card statements from the past year. Finally, track spending for a month by saving all of your receipts or recording cash purchases in a notebook. A spending plan form or a money management software program helps organize spending by category.

  • Chart a course. Once you know your net worth and you've developed a baseline for your monthly spending habits, the next step is to set financial goals - both long-term and short-term - and figure how much money you'll need for each. Create a target saving and spending plan that meets needs using your list of income and expenses. For a month or more, track actual spending to see how you're doing, making adjustments as necessary.
  • Brush up on money-management basics. This can include developing a budget, being diligent at balancing your checkbook and even visiting your financial advisor.

By taking these actions to organize your finances, you'll start to see true enjoyment in reaching your short-term goals, as well as have peace-of-mind that you are also working toward attaining those long-term goals you set.

Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

Unfortunately in today's electronic age, many of us either have known someone who was a victim of identity theft or we've been one ourselves. Armed with little more than the name, address, birth date and Social Security number of a completely unknowing person, thieves are illegally obtaining credit cards and access to checking accounts. Others use their newfound identities to apply for employment, an auto loan, a driver's license or even to commit a serious crime. Worse, that unknowing person might be you.

For victims, the nightmare might begin when someone steals a wallet or check. Or when someone pilfers through a trash can to get financial information. Or it might occur when the perpetrator legally obtains credit bureau records while working for a credit grantor, such as a financial institution, auto dealer or insurance company.

Identity theft happens. Here are 10 steps you can take to prevent your identity from theft:

1. Examine all your financial statements. Promptly reconcile your monthly share draft account statement. Save check stubs and credit, debit and ATM receipts. Make sure you report discrepancies between your records and monthly statements to the appropriate company. Check credit bureau reports at least once a year.

2. Shred it. Shred all pre-approved credit offers, credit and debit card receipts, insurance forms, financial statements, and other paperwork containing personal and financial information.

3. Limit the paper trail. Store receipts in a safe place, or rip them up, especially when account numbers are visible. Destroy blank checks from closed-out accounts, and expired or unused credit cards. And tear up any "old school" credit card receipt carbons.

4. Guard your purse or wallet. Thieves often target unoccupied vehicles, unlocked office drawers and health club locker rooms.

5. Protect your personal identification number (PIN). Never keep your ATM PIN in the same place as your card, and never share your PIN with someone else.

6. Protect your Social Security number. Don't print your Social Security number on your checks, and don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet. In fact, never give this number out for any reason.

7. Beware of phone scams. Never give personal financial information to an unknown caller. Be hesitant about giving personal or financial information over the telephone - make sure you know the caller and know how the information will be used.

8. Check your mail. If you haven't received mail for a few days, you may be the victim of mail diversion fraud. This scam involves a crook forging an individual's signature on a change-of-address form to divert your mail and obtain financial information. If you suspect your address has been changed without your permission, contact your local branch of the U.S. Postal Service. Use a secure mailbox when mailing anything containing a check. Don't put bills in your home mailbox for pick up.

9. Track financial statements. Find out when financial statements and plastic cards are due to arrive. If they're late, contact your credit union or appropriate issuer.

10. Protect yourself online. New technology allows online vendors to assure customers reasonable security from online theft. If you doubt the security of the vendor, order the items over the telephone.

If you suspect identity theft, don't waste time. Report it to your financial institution and local authorities immediately. Additional information is available on our Fraud & Security Center section.

Budget After College

You're all grown up, graduated and ready to go. You're eager to move out of your parents' house, to buy your first car, to live your life!  Once you've landed your first job and the paychecks are rolling in, it's a good idea to do a bit of planning. The first step is setting up a budget.

Budgeting means determining how much available income you have versus the amount of bills you have to pay. You must strike a balance so that your income is more than your output.

  • Make your budget flexible. Make sure to leave room in your budget for those unexpected expenses. They will happen, that's a given. However, the amount is not. Money tucked away for "just in case" moments, like for car repairs and emergencies, can actually save you in the long run.
  • Keep your budget simple. Creating a budget you can understand is half the battle. The easier it is to follow, the easier it will be to continue using, and the more successful it will be.
  • Be honest with yourself. Try to make a truthful reading of expenses in each area of your budget.
  • Keep records accurate. At some point you will have to take a look at your records over the past few months to determine where you are at with your expenses. Do your best to keep every receipt. This will only make things easier a few months down the road. Getting a folder or box to keep them in is easy and convenient.
  • Pay yourself first. When you see where you can cut or reduce money, make sure you move the extra money somewhere else. A savings plan is a good idea and an effective place to keep money for future expenses.
  • Save money. Limit your trips out to restaurants, and when you do go, don't order the most expensive thing. Another tip is to make a list before you go to the grocery store so you are not picking up extra items when you're there.
  • Paying off loans. As a recent college graduate, you are likely focused on landing your first job, finding a place to live and settling into the real world. Although you have years to pay off your student loans, you may want to consider shortening the time it takes you to pay them off. Do you really want to be paying for college into your 30s?
  • Be proactive. Find out what kind of loans you have, what your total debt is, where they are held and who you must pay.
  • Make payments on time. Paying your loan on time each month will help you establish good credit. The total interest that accrues on the loan will also decrease with accurate payments.

For more information, check out our Life After Graduation brochure.

The above document(s) is in Portable Document Format (PDF) which can be read by Adobe's Acrobat Reader. If you do not have Acrobat Reader, you can download it free from Adobe's download site.

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