Credit Education Bureau

Resources & Materials

Featured Resource: Managing Your Finances During the Holidays

Searching the internet for good, reliable, and up-to-date financial resources can be an overwhelming task. It can be difficult to find the best options for even our simplest money management needs – putting together a budget, getting a credit report for free, or checking a credit score.

At the CEB we make it our aim to stay informed of the latest and greatest financial resources out there so that we can connect you with the information that will help you the most. We’ve also created some materials from our own experiences and expertise that we’ve field tested through the work that we do.

One of the first resources we encourage you to take advantage of is My Money Checkup offered through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. This tool offers a great starting point for anyone looking to take steps to improve their financial health. Sign up, complete the questionnaire and get a full analysis of your financial picture…

My Money Checkup Logo


Click on one of the options below to let us know what you’re looking for help with.

 

I need help with my credit report…

Getting a free copy of your credit report

There are a lot of television advertisements out there claiming to offer free credit reports. While these commercials use catchy jingles and funny skits, many times their claims of free credit reports come with a catch – paying for expensive credit monitoring or some other service. On September 1, 2005 the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) gave each consumer the right to receive one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. In response to this new law, the credit reporting agencies created a website where consumers can access their “annual” credit reports. This site acts as a portal into each of the reporting agency’s sites to request the annual reports. These reports can be ordered all at once, or staggered throughout the year. Staggering is typically the preferred method as it allows consumers to monitor their credit history every few months and check for problems such as identity theft or reporting errors. To get your free annual credit reports:

Go to: www.annualcreditreport.com

Call: 1-877-322-8228

Or write: Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

 

Reading and Understanding Your Credit Report

Getting a copy of your credit report is one thing, being able to interpret the information on your credit report can be a whole different story. The first thing to understand about credit reports is that they are all created from information located in the databases of the “repositories” – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These companies represent the information “warehouses” where data is collected and stored after it is received from the companies who furnish information about the repayment of loans and debts – banks, credit unions, finance companies, credit card companies, collection agencies, county court houses, etc. A credit report is created when there is a request for information relating to events such as a loan application. Each credit report can have a different format, appearance, and different information depending upon the repository that the credit report is created from. For example, the Trans Union annual credit report will show payment history information in a matrix dating back two years or more. On the other hand, the Experian annual credit report will report individual late payments at the end of each account appearance. No matter where you get your credit report from, each report will have the same basic elements of information: 1. Your personal information – name, address, date of birth, social security number, 2. Public records such as bankruptcies and judgments, 3. Inquiries – any time someone has checked your credit history, and 4. Account information – open and closed loans, etc.

The following Sample Credit Report will give you an idea of how to read and understand your annual credit report. This tool provides a breakdown of each section of an annual report and how it should be understood. Use this as a cross-reference when looking at your own credit report so you can better understand what you find.

Sample Credit Report
 

Correcting an error on your credit report

Some estimate that 70% of all credit reports contain inaccurate or incomplete information. Needless to say, it’s likely that the average consumer will need to have items corrected on their credit report. The sample letter below is a vital tool to help you begin the dispute process on the right track. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), consumers have the right to dispute anything on their credit report that is not being reported accurately. The law also states that Credit Reporting Agencies have to begin an investigation within 30 days of receiving a written dispute. Disputes should be sent directly to the Credit Reporting Agency that is reporting the error – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. It’s also important to include copies of any proof of your dispute and to send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested.

Sample Credit Reporting Error Dispute Letter
 

To complete a dispute contact:

Equifax 
Onlinewww.ai.equifax.com/CreditInvestigation 
By mailClick here to download the dispute form 
Mail the dispute form with your letter to:
Equifax Information Services LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
By phone: Phone number provided on credit report or (800) 864-2978

Experian 
Onlinewww.experian.com/disputes/main.html 
By mail: Use the address provided on your credit report or mail your letter to:
Experian
P.O. Box 4000
Allen, TX 75013
By phone: Phone number provided on credit report or (888) 397-3742

TransUnion 
Onlinewww.transunion.com/personal-credit/credit-disputes-alerts-freezes.page 
By mailClick here to download the dispute form 
Mail the dispute form with your letter to:
TransUnion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000,
Chester, PA 19022-2000
By phone: 800-916-880

 

If you prefer to initiate a dispute online, you can click on the link below for the agency you wish to initiate a dispute with:

 

How long can negative information remain on a credit report?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) limits the amount of time that negative information can be reported on a credit report. Some of the most common time frames are:

  • 7 years for late payments, collections, judgments, and chapter 13 (repayment) bankruptcies
  • 10 years for chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcies
  • 2 years for inquiries
  • No limit for unpaid student loans, child support or taxes

In most instances, the reporting period begins the date the negative event occurred. This means that a collection account will remain on file for 7 years from the date that it was originally referred to a debt collection agency. The transferring of an account from one collection agency to another does not constitute a new event and therefore does not initiate a new seven-year reporting period.

Even though a negative account can remain on your credit file for such a long period of time, it does not necessarily mean that the account will negatively affect your credit for the entire time that it is on your credit report. As negative items grow older, their impact diminishes.

Be careful not to confuse the reporting period with the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations refers to the amount of time that a creditor has to pursue legal action on a debt. This time frame varies by state and transaction type. To understand the statute of limitations for a specific debt, it is always best to consult with a qualified attorney. For educational purposes, you can review the following list of states and statutes of limitation for various types of debt:

Statute of Limitations by State and Account Type
 

I need help with my credit score…

How credit scores work

Credit scores are so important to our financial picture. A poor credit score can cost us thousands of dollars over the life of a loan and make it difficult to qualify for credit in general. The subject of credit scores has grown exponentially over the past several years as market and industry changes have increased the use of credit scores in all types of lending. Additionally, there are dozens of different credit scores that consumers can purchase online adding to the overall confusion with this topic. Let’s take a look at how credit scores are created and how they work.

All credit scores are developed using the information found in our credit file. This means that with each credit scoring model, we actually have three different scores; one for each of the major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Since our score depends exclusively upon the information in our credit file, it also means that the accuracy of our score depends upon the accuracy of our credit report. To calculate a credit score, a special formula is used that compares the information within our credit history to a statistical model that is built from a sampling of thousands of credit reports. This statistical model is supposed to represent the average consumer’s credit file. If our credit report measures up to or exceeds the information in this statistical model, we earn points. If our credit report doesn’t measure up, then we lose points. There are several categories of information that are evaluated by our credit score – payment history, balances, utilization (balances compared to limits), length, recent credit, and types of credit.

 

Getting your credit score

There are a few very important things to understand before getting your credit score. First, is that there are many different credit scores that are available for consumers to purchase. This means that it’s possible to buy a score that doesn’t reflect the type of score that a financial institution actually uses. For example, most lending institutions use the FICO (Fair Issac & Company) scoring model which ranges from 300-850. Under this model, many lenders consider a score of 740 or higher to be a good score. On the other hand, for some scoring models, such as the Vantage Score, 740 might be viewed much less favorably given the fact that the Vantage Score ranges from 501 to 990. Additionally, most credit scores that are available for purchase online are considered to be “educational” scores – meaning they are only a ballpark figure of what our true score will be when a financial institution checks it if we apply for a loan. These “generic” versions of our credit score are sold because different types of lenders – mortgage, auto, credit card – actually use scores that are weighted for their lending interests. So in the end, our scores will differ slightly depending upon the type of credit we are applying for.

As you can see, purchasing a credit score isn’t as simple as one would hope. Moreover, it might not be worth the cost associated if you are checking your score for monitoring purposes only. For this reason, we suggest using a FICO score estimator, which is an online tool that offers a free way to get a ballpark figure of your credit score. Here are a few of the estimators that we have found to be helpful:

If you are thinking about applying for a loan in the near future and feel that you need to purchase your credit score, these are the sites where you can purchase your FICO score:

 

Improving your credit score

Before we talk about improving our credit score, it’s important to first discuss the circumstances that would warrant improving your score. As you may know, FICO scores – used by most lenders – range from 300-850 with 850 being the best. Many people strive to reach this mark of 850 when in reality; there isn’t a need for anyone to have a perfect credit score. When we think of scores in our culture, our minds immediately reflect back to test scores in school. Our thinking is that in order to be “the best” we need to score 100%. Credit scores operate a bit differently. Because credit scores are a prediction of how likely you are to repay a loan, your score only has to be high enough to show lenders that you are likely to repay. For most lenders, this would be represented by a FICO score of 740 or higher – meaning any score above 740 doesn’t necessarily provide any additional benefit. At this point, you are not only going to qualify for loans, but also receive the best interest rate available. Standards may change from time to time, and each lender has its own criteria for qualification, but this is a fairly accurate picture of how things work across the industry. Under some other special circumstances, such as buying your first home, the credit score standards might be much lower – possibly 620. This is why it’s always a good idea to simply ask your lender what the credit score requirement is before you apply.

Now let’s talk about improving your score. There are several areas of our credit history that the FICO scoring model evaluates: payment history, balances, utilization (balances compared to limits), length, recent credit, and types of credit. FICO provides the following pie chart showing the relative importance of each category to your score:

“This information is provided by Fair Isaac Corporation, and is used with permission. Copyright© Fair Isaac Corporation. All rights reserved. Further use, reproduction, or distribution is governed by the FICO Copyright Usage Requirements, which can be found at www.fico.com.”

From this it’s fairly clear to see that your payment history and the balances you owe are the two largest influencing factors to your credit score, but there could be other reasons why your score isn’t higher. Following is a breakdown of each category and the primary effect each one has on your score:

Payment History

  • Points are gained for regular on-time payments
  • Points are gained for a greater number of accounts showing no late payments
  • Significant points are lost due to recent late payments
  • Significant points are lost due to reported collections or public records – judgments, foreclosures, suits, wage attachments, liens, and bankruptcies

Balances

  • Points are gained as balances on all loans and credit cards are reduced
  • Points are gained as the number of accounts with balances are reduced
  • Significant points are lost when balances approach credit limits on credit cards

Length of credit

  • Points are gained for credit histories that have been established for a longer period of time. This takes into account the age of your oldest account, the age of your newest account, and the average age of all of our accounts

New credit/Inquiries – (Inquiries are instances when your credit has been checked)

  • Points can be lost when “hard” inquiries are made (Hard inquiries are credit checks that are initiated because of credit applications)
  • Even though inquiries can remain your credit history for a 2 year period, they will have no affect on your score after 1 year

Types of credit

  • Points are gained if our credit history shows experience with both revolving (credit cards, etc.) and installment (car loans, etc.) accounts
  • Points can be lost for having too many accounts of each type. This varies depending upon your overall credit picture
  • Significant points are lost due to reported collections or public records – judgments, foreclosures, suits, wage attachments, liens, and bankruptcies
 

Depending upon the situation, there are several actions that can be taken to address several of these issues and improve your credit score. For example:

  • Find ways to make sure that regular, on-time payments are being reported to your credit history on both revolving and installment accounts.
    • One great way to get started in establishing or re-establishing your credit history in this area is with a secured credit card.
    • A secured credit card is one that is backed by a deposit that is made at a bank or credit union.
    • Once the card is obtained, simply make one small purchase each month and pay the card in full each month.
    • If local institutions are not offering secured cards, bankrate.com provides a search tool for finding the best secured credit card offers – Get started
  • Keep credit card balances below 30% of their overall limits.
    • For example, if you have 2 credit cards with limits totaling $1,000 between them, you should keep your overall balances below $300.
    • If it will take a significant period of time to pay down your balances below this 30% threshold, it might be worthwhile to request limit increases to encourage a better utilization ratio.
    • Understand that in requesting limit increases with credit card companies, they may perform a “hard” inquiry (credit check). Hard inquiries can potentially lower your credit score.
    • It’s best to ask if a “hard” inquiry will be performed before requesting limit increases.
  • Avoid approaching the limit on any single card.
  • Keep older accounts open and avoid opening a lot of new accounts.
  • Only apply for credit when needed and shop around within a short period of time.
    • Inquiries for installment loans performed within a 30 period are viewed as one inquiry against your credit score.
  • Make sure our credit report is accurate.
    • Since your credit score is generated from the information in your credit report, correcting inaccurate information will also generate an update to your credit score.
 

Many people wonder how quickly their credit score will improve. This is very hard to say as various actions can affect each person’s credit report differently. The good news is that your credit score is always changing as the information in your credit report changes; meaning a low score will not remain low forever as long as the right steps are being taken. In general though, it is possible for a credit score to improve by as many as 100 points over the course of 12 months if the right action is taken.

Finally, we come to the question of how negative items affect a score. Do we automatically loose 50 points for a 30 day late payment? Will a bankruptcy lower a score by 100 points? This brings us to another startling discovery about credit scores; there isn’t a standard reduction in points for specific negative activities. Actually, the amount of points lost due to negative items is proportionate to how high your score is. Granted, certain actions will always have a greater impact such as bankruptcies or foreclosures, but the amount of the impact will be different for a score of 680 versus a score of 780. Below is an example provided by FICO showing the potential reduction in points for certain negative activities broken down between scores of 680 and 780:

  Effect on a 680 score Effect on a 780 score
Maxed-out card -10 to -30 -25 to -40
30-day late payment -60 to -80 -60 to -80
Debt settlement -45 to -65 -105 to -125
Foreclosure -85 to -105 -140 to -160
Bankruptcy -130 to -150 -220 to -240

“This information is provided by Fair Isaac Corporation, and is used with permission. Copyright © Fair Isaac Corporation. All rights reserved. Further use, reproduction, or distribution is governed by the FICO Copyright Usage Requirements, which can be found at www.fico.com.”

 

I need help with debt…

Negotiating a settlement on a debt

A settlement is an agreement where a debtor pays less than the full balance on an account and that payment satisfies the debt. In some instances, consumers receive discounts of more than 25% when negotiating settlements. However, there are a few issues to be fully aware of before agreeing to a settlement. The first thing to consider is how the settlement will have to be paid. The benefit to a creditor is that they receive a lump sum of money now rather than waiting for small monthly payments over an extended period of time. For this reason, most settlements have to be paid in one payment or just a few larger payments over a short period of time. Secondly, the discount you receive on the owed debt will be considered as taxable income if it exceeds $600. At that point, the creditor is required by law to report the discount on IRS form 1099 which will have to be included in your tax filing for the following year. Of course, the discount received through the settlement outweighs the amount of taxes that will have to be paid, but it’s very important to understand this implication, especially if negotiating a large settlement. Finally, you need to understand the impact that a settlement can have on your credit score. There are some debates regarding this issue, but some estimate that a settlement can take up to 65 points off of a FICO score of 680 and up to 125 points off of a FICO score of 780. On the other hand, with certain accounts that already have a negative status, such as a collection account or a judgment; the impact may be far less.

If you decide that a settlement is right for you, make sure that you get everything in writing before making a payment. Most creditors send offers through the mail and will agree to send you a statement if an agreement is made over the phone. Alternatively, you can draft an agreement using the agreed upon terms and request that your creditor sign it and return it to you. It’s also a good idea to send the letter via certified mail, return receipt requested. Below is a sample settlement agreement letter that you can use to develop written documentation of settlement arrangements that you make.

Sample Settlement Agreement Letter
 

How long can a creditor collect a debt?

The statute of limitations refers to the amount of time that a creditor has to pursue legal action on a debt. This time frame varies by state and type of account. To understand the statute of limitations for a specific debt, it is always best to consult with a qualified attorney. For educational purposes, you can review the following list of states and statutes of limitation for various types of debt:

Statute of Limitations by State and Account Type
 

How to deal with debt collectors

If you’ve ever received communication from a debt collector, you’ve likely had a less than positive experience. Many debt collectors have been known to harass consumers with abusive tactics and aggressive behavior. Thankfully, there is a law that protects consumers from abusive debt collectors called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Under this law, debt collectors are prohibited from using misleading or abusive practices when collecting a debt. Additionally, the law establishes consumer rights in verifying the validity of a debt or disputing a debt. Under the FDCPA, debt collectors cannot:

  • Threaten violence
  • Threaten to harm your reputation
  • Use obscene, profane or abusive language
  • Provide your name on a list to an individual or business (except for credit reports)
  • Call you repeatedly with intent to harass
  • Send you a notice that appears to come from an attorney
  • Threaten to ruin your credit forever
  • Falsely imply that a document sent to you is a legal document
  • Falsely imply legal action is being taken against you
  • Falsely claim they are affiliated with a credit bureau
  • Threaten to tell your employer
  • Imply that they are affiliated with the government
  • Misrepresent the amount or legal status of a debt
  • Sue you after the statute of limitations (see “How long can a creditor collect a debt?”)
  • Use any false, deceptive, or misleading means
  • Cannot use any written communication that openly reveals the fact that you owe a debt
  • Cannot contact you at an unusual time or place
    • Standard times 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
  • Must limit calls to what is convenient for you
  • Cannot contact you at work if they know it is prohibited by your employer
 

The FDCPA also stipulates what a debt collector must share when making first contact with a consumer in writing or by phone.

The first contact in writing from a debt collector must include:

  • The amount owed
  • The original creditor
  • Your right to dispute in writing within 30 days
  • Your right to written verification of the debt
  • Your right to request the name and address of the original creditor
 

In the first contact made by phone, a debt collector must:

  • Read the “mini-miranda”: “This is an attempting to collect a debt any information you share may be used to collect a debt.”
  • Give you their name, the name and address of their employer, phone number, and address of the creditor
 

When dealing with a debt collector, it’s always a good idea to document the details of any communication and to get everything in writing before making any transactions. If you feel that a debt collector has violated the law, you can contact a consumer law attorney who specializes in FDCPA litigation. You can locate an attorney in your area through the National Association of Consumer Advocates – www.naca.net. The worksheet listed below will assist you in documenting any calls that you receive from debt collectors so violations can be identified and addressed when they occur.

Debt Collection Contacts Worksheet
 

I need help with my credit cards…

Selecting a good credit card

In choosing a good credit card there are a couple of obvious considerations that come to mind – getting a low interest rate and low fees. It’s no secret what the goal is, but how do we compare apples to apples so we get the best deal? A lot comes down to knowing what to look for and how to interpret credit card offers.

One of the most important documents to scour over when looking into credit card offers is the required Credit Card Disclosure that credit card companies have to include with their offer. These disclosures are required by law to provide consumers with a specific breakdown in a standard format of: interest rates and interest charges, fees, the grace period, how the balance will be calculated, how late payments will be calculated, and how interest will be calculated.

When it comes to the interest charge, you will be looking at APR – Annual Percentage Rate. This is the annual cost of credit expressed as an interest rate. This means that the actual amount of interest you will be charged each month will be equal to the APR divided by 12 – for example, 12% APR equals 1% per month. In this case, a consumer who is carrying a balance of $1,000 will be charged $10 in interest.

Penalty fees can get creative. Of course, the most common are late payments and over-the-limit fees, but there are others that are less well known. For example, some companies charge for opening or closing an account, or transferring a balance.

The grace period is also something important to consider. Most companies use grace periods anywhere between 20-30 days. This can make a big difference in your ability to make timely payments so be careful.

Under the new CARD Act (Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act), consumers have greater protection from some of the abusive practices of unscrupulous credit card companies. Below is a document provided by the Federal Reserve Board highlighting some of these important changes:

CARD Act Protections
 

Negotiating interest rates on credit cards

Getting a lower interest rate on your credit card isn’t an impossible task. It might not be as easy as it was several years ago, but with the right approach you’ll have a much better chance of success. When negotiating interest rates on credit cards, the most important thing is to get someone on the phone that has the authority to change your interest rate. At many credit card companies the first customer service representative that you speak with doesn’t have the authority to do so. Ask to speak to a supervisor or someone who has the ability to make changes to the terms of your account. A professional, bottom-line approach is always the most effective so do your best to keep your emotions under control throughout the conversation. If you’re not sure what to say once you have the right person on the line don’t fret, the worksheet below gives you a quick “cheat-sheet” to reference when you’re ready to make the call.

Negotiating Interest Rates on Credit Cards
 

Correcting Credit Card Billing Errors

Do you know how to handle credit card billing mistakes? For example, when a refunded purchase isn’t credited back to your credit card account, or maybe a recent payment that isn’t reflected in your account balance? The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) gives you the right to dispute these types of credit card errors and have them corrected. You should send a dispute in writing within 60 days of receiving the billing statement with the error. Send the letter via certified mail with return receipt requested so you have proof the letter was mailed and received. You must mail your dispute to the address the creditor provides for billing disputes. Don’t send your dispute to the same address as your payment unless your billing statement specifically says so. If you’re not sure to what address you should send your dispute, call your creditor’s customer service line and ask. The sample letter below provides the format needed for effectively addressing credit card billing errors in writing.

Sample Letter for Correcting a Credit Card Billing Error
 

Closing a credit card the right way

A word of warning is necessary before delving into the process of closing a credit card – closing a credit card can negatively impact your credit score in certain cases. This is an issue that has been addressed recently in the media and as always, there has been some confusion about the topic. Hopefully, the following will clear the air and help in the decision process of closing a credit card account.

When it comes to credit scores, one of the main influencing factors is something called a “utilization” ratio. This is a comparison between credit limits and balances. The higher the utilization ratio, the greater the impact on a credit score. For example; a consumer has five credit cards with limits of $1,000 each for a grand total of $5,000 in available credit. Of these five cards they only use one card for all of their monthly expenses and regularly carry a balance of $900. Overall, their utilization ratio is less than 20% – well within what is considered to be an acceptable utilization ratio. On the other hand, if that same consumer closes the four cards that they do not use, they will reduce their overall available credit down to $1,000, of which they are using $900 and thereby increasing their utilization to 90% – far above the commonly recommended threshold of 30%.

If this is not of concern in the decision to close a credit card, the best approach is always in writing. Send a letter via certified mail with return receipt requested to the address the creditor provides for billing inquiries. Don’t send your request to the same address that you send your payment unless your billing statement specifically says so. If you’re not sure to what address you should send the letter to, call your creditor’s customer service line and ask. The sample letter below will help you get started and provides a template for closing credit cards the right way.

Sample Letter to Close a Credit Card Account
 

I need help with budgeting and saving…

Creating a money management plan

Many people have tried to develop a budget but often find that what they create doesn’t produce the results they were hoping for. Additionally, very few people realize that developing a solid money management plan takes more than just a comparison of monthly income and expenses. Developing an effective budget actually requires seven steps:

  • Creating goals
  • Finding your current bottom line
  • Evaluating your spending
  • Considering adjustments
  • Finding your new bottom line
  • Creating a cash-flow tool, and
  • Creating a savings plan

In discussing the topic of budgeting, or creating a spending and savings plan, there are a few very important considerations to take into account. First, is that the process of budgeting is just that – a process. It’s foolish to think that any plan will remain the same and not require any adjustments. All great teams understand that adjustments will be necessary at halftime. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your spending and savings plan (budget) as often as necessary. Secondly, expect the unexpected. There are only two things that can hurt us financially; 1. Income exceeds expenses – thus the necessity for a budget, or 2. Something unexpected happens – such as a car repair or broken appliance. Therefore, it’s vital to our financial health to not only have a spending plan established, but to also have a savings plan established for emergencies. Make this a process as well. Don’t be discouraged by what you might hear other experts recommending for an emergency savings (3 to 6 months worth of living expenses). Instead, start with a small goal, such as $200, and continue to build on your emergency savings indefinitely – without setting an arbitrary limit on how much to save. Finally, don’t feel pressured to get totally caught up in details. Budgeting isn’t necessarily about knowing every detail; it’s more about having the ability to stay in control. If your spending and savings plan is giving you the power to remain in control, then you are getting the job done and moving forward financially. The reference sheet below provides further detail regarding the seven steps of creating a money management plan and leads you through the process of building a budget that stands the test of time.

7 Steps to Creating a Solid Money Management Plan
 

One of the most overlooked steps in the budgeting process is cash flow. Just having one piece of paper that lists expenses and income doesn’t give a full picture of how money should be managed in real time. Given the fact that most people are no longer paid on a weekly basis, it’s critical to know when and how much to reserve for future expenses. One of the best methods we’ve found for effectively managing household expenses and cash flow is by using a monthly calendar to “map out” everything according to due date or payment date. This way we can look ahead and have the ability to stay organized. Below you will find the most recent version of the CEB Payment Calendar, which allows you to develop a guide for bill payment and spending on a month-to-month basis. Additionally, the CEB Payment Calendar allows you to track all of your spending for an entire year!

CEB Payment Calendar 2013
 

Spending and saving wisely

Wise spending is a vital aspect of healthy finances. The better you are at maximizing our financial resources, the more opportunities you have for saving and building financial security. The first wise-spending area to look at is day-to-day spending. This tends to be one of the most overlooked areas when it comes to personal finances. Items that you purchase regularly for only a few dollars can really add up over time. Consider the fact that purchasing coffee every day from a coffee shop for $3.00 will add up to over $1,000 in one year! The first key to gaining control over these day-to-day expenditures… Journal your spending for one week! This is one of the most beneficial exercises to developing controlled spending. The document below provides a worksheet with the days of the week and spaces for recording out-of-pocket expenses for each day. At the end of one week, add everything up and see what the damage is. Most are surprised by the results. If you find areas that need improvement, set small goals for making changes and take it one step at a time rather than attempting to cut out expenses entirely. For example, if you are spending $100 a month on a luxury expense and you want do better, set a goal of reducing the expense by 25% next month. It’s likely that you will accomplish this goal and then you can move forward with positive momentum on your side.

Spending Journal
 

Another way to gain control over our spending is through the effective use of lists. Lists help us to curb impulse spending and focus our spending efforts so we stay on track with our original intent. Shopping with a grocery list, in particular, is beneficial as there are so many opportunities for temptation and unplanned spending at a grocery store. Unfortunately, it can be time consuming and tedious to assemble a list each and every time we do our shopping. As a result, we fly by the seat of our pants and wind up spending more than we want. Instead of creating a list for each trip to the grocery store, consider using the spreadsheet below. With it you can compile an ongoing list of the items that you purchase on a regular basis and track the differences between prices from one trip to the next.

Ongoing Grocery List
 

Making the decision to adjust expenses is never an easy one. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to begin when facing a budget that is already tight to begin with. First, understand that there are always ways to make improvements if you keep an open mind and do your homework. Countless articles and books have been written on this topic, so there’s no shortage of information available. After finding the right information it really comes down to using what works for your situation. Additionally, combining several small changes usually makes a greater impact than focusing on one major area. Secondly, it’s important to see that adjusting expenses doesn’t have to be a negative experience if the right approach is taken. There are two motivations that we typically identify when we decide to spend less; either we say that we “can’t afford it”, or we say that we “need the money for something else”. The latter of these two motivations is usually the one that produces a more positive outcome. Adjusting your expenses is always less painful when you can see that the adjustment helps you to make improvements in other areas that are important to you. For example, most individuals are going to feel good about the fact that reducing their spending on entertainment by $100 a month enables them to save for emergencies, holiday expenses, or family expenses. On the other hand, the same individual could reduce their spending on entertainment by $100 just for the sake of spending less, but it’s less likely this will produce an outcome that is more beneficial to their financial picture or personal well-being. The document below contains several tips and strategies that we have found to be helpful for many individuals who are looking to make improvements to their bottom line. By no means are we suggesting that you attempt to do everything that’s suggested, but rather find those that make sense for you and begin implementing them. You’d be surprised the big difference a few small changes can make.

Ways to Save and Earn
 

Having disorganized financial records can not only be frustrating, but harmful to your financial outlook as well. Being able to access information about your spending, saving, and borrowing in a convenient manner is crucial to your success. Many experts recommend having a dedicated “money space” where you keep all of your financial records and conduct all of your money management activities. This should typically be in a quiet place where it’s possible to get away from other day-to-day distractions and solely focus on finances. Additionally, it’s important to have consolidated records of each aspect of your personal finances. The worksheets below help you to organize and track critical areas of your personal finances – savings, investments, insurance, goals, loans, credit cards, medical, and payments – in one place for convenient reference and effective management.

Money Worksheets
 

I need help with identity theft and fraud…

Steps for identity theft prevention

Identity theft – or ID Theft – is a crime where personal information is stolen and used to open fraudulent accounts or commit other crimes. Similarly, account fraud occurs when a criminal obtains a credit card number or bank account number and makes unauthorized charges or withdrawals. It’s estimated that the average victim of identity theft will spend 100 hours and $1,000 clearing their name and credit after discovering that the crime had occurred. For this reason, it’s imperative to take steps to minimize the risk of falling victim to ID theft. First, a quick look at how ID theft commonly occurs:

  • Dumpster Diving. Criminals rummage through trash receptacles to locate documents that contain sensitive personal information or account information, such as social security numbers, credit card account numbers, bank account numbers, etc.
  • Skimming. Skimming is a practice where a special storage device is used to “swipe” your card and store the card number when processing your payment. Many times these devices are small enough to be concealed in the palm of a hand.
  • Phishing. Phishing is the practice of sending email messages or displaying browser pop-ups that appear to be generated by a legitimate financial institution. They ask for updates to personal information in an attempt to grab something sensitive that can be used to commit fraud.
  • Changing Your Address. Criminals will complete a “change of address” form at a post office diverting your billing statements to another location where they can access the information for their own gain.
  • Shoulder Surfing. Some ID thieves use less technical means to commit their crime. Shoulder surfing happens when a criminal simply observes while you complete a transaction to hopefully see or hear sensitive personal information, such as a PIN or social security number.
  • Stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel records from their employers, or bribe employees who have access.
 

While criminals are coming up with new ways to commit ID theft, the steps to take for prevention remain the same:

  • Use a cross-cut shredder to destroy documents with sensitive personal information before discarding them.
  • Reduce the amount of information that you carry in your purse or wallet. Make sure that you never carry anything that has your social security number printed on it – especially your official Social Security Card. Only carry credit cards with you when you plan on using them.
  • Don’t give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you initiated contact and you know who you are dealing with.
  • Never click on links sent in unsolicited emails; instead, type in a web address you know. Use firewalls, anti-spyware, and anti-virus software to protect your home computer; keep them up-to-date. Visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov for more information.
  • Make sure that you are on a secure web page when making an online transaction. This is identifiable by the prefix “https” at the beginning of the address.
  • Use passwords that are unusual. Most criminals who hack passwords begin with spouses or children’s names, dates-of-birth, maiden names, a simple series of numbers such as 1234, and other simple devices.
  • Check your credit reports on a regular basis to look for suspicious activity. If an identity thief opens up an account in your name, it will most likely appear in your credit report. You can get a free copy of your report every 12 months from each of the three reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or calling 1-877-322-8228.
 

Steps for identity theft recovery and clean up

If you have fallen victim to identity theft, know that there are resources available to help you restore your credit and financial life. Depending upon the type of identity theft that occurred, there might be very specific steps required to get back on track. In every identity theft case though, the following three steps are crucial:

  • Place a “fraud alert” on your credit report and review each one for suspicious or fraudulent activity. This alert will remain on your credit report for 90 days or 7 years if you choose an “extended” alert. The purpose of a fraud alert is to notify creditors of the fraudulent activity and to have them follow certain procedures to protect you. You can initiate fraud alerts with each of the reporting agencies by contacting:
  • Close any accounts that have been opened fraudulently or tampered with. Call the fraud departments of each company where the account was opened or used without your approval. It is also important to follow up in writing with copies of supporting documents. Below is a sample letter that you can use for this purpose. Additionally, some creditors will request that you use the official ID Theft Affidavit provided by the Federal Trade Commission. Once an account has been closed, ask for verification that your name has been cleared of the fraudulent debt. Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft. Below is a log that can be used for this purpose.
  • Many creditors will want proof of the crime before even taking action to investigate a claim of identity theft. For this reason it’s very important to file a police report with law enforcement officials and to maintain a copy for your records.
 

For a breakdown of steps to take based on resolving specific identity theft problems, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s ID theft website at http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

 

Placing a freeze on your credit report

A credit report security freeze is a procedure that all consumers are entitled to that makes a credit file off-limits to prospective creditors. This is a huge advantage to consumers who have fallen victim to identity theft or are concerned about fraud. In the typical credit application process, a creditor will check a consumer’s credit report before approving a new loan or line of credit. Without the ability to access a consumer’s credit report, most creditors will choose to deny a credit application. This is a good thing if an identity thief is attempting to apply for credit using the consumer’s information. This is a bad thing if the consumer is actually applying for a legitimate loan. For this reason, security freezes can be temporarily or permanently lifted using a personal identification number (PIN) that is assigned by the credit reporting agency with whom the freeze was initiated. A security freeze does not prevent creditors with whom consumers currently do business with from monitoring their credit history.

Pros to security freezes:

  • A security freeze stops identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name.
  • A security freeze is free for ID theft victims in most cases.
  • A security freeze does not stop you from applying for new credit if the freeze is temporarily lifted using the PIN provided by the credit reporting agency.
  • A security freeze remains in effect until you remove it.
  • A security freeze costs less than credit monitoring services and provides greater protection against identity theft.
  • A security freeze has no bearing on your credit score.

Cons to security freezes:

  • A security freeze must be activated with all three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
  • In certain states, non-victims will have to pay a fee in order to enact a security freeze (Security freezes are free for non-victims who live in Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York).
  • In most states, non-victims have to pay a fee to have a security freeze temporarily lifted.
  • It can take up to three business days to lift a security freeze.
  • A security freeze only protects you from fraud relating to your credit report and credit applications.
 

How to enact a security freeze:

 

I need help with bankruptcy…