Sometimes it’s just way too hard to choose only one topic for my weekly writing adventure. This week there are two things that both seem to need urgent attention, so the Moneywise Tip is going to be a twofer.
First up, September 4 is the last day for students to purchase the Penn State Student Health Insurance Policy (SHIP) for fall semester. And while you are young and healthy it’s easy to think you can get away with not having insurance. But you really shouldn’t. One broken bone. One bad case of the flu. One inflamed appendix. Any one of these can happen at any time, and without health insurance it can easily set you on the path to a lifetime of medical debt. You can read more about that here. But know that the choice to skip insurance is a game of Russian roulette you really shouldn’t play.
And for the second topic of the day, a student came to me last week to discuss something that scared both of us. She came in to say, “I came to give you the information you called me about this morning.” She went on to tell me that she had received a phone call from me asking for her birthdate and Social Security number for a student job she was applying for. One big problem: I hadn’t called her. The caller had used my name, but I didn’t place the call. It was a scammer. The reality is, anyone with access to the internet would be able to figure out that she is a student at Penn State Law, and I am the Financial Aid Director at Penn State Law. I’m actually kind of stunned that someone would do this level of research to try to run a phone phishing scam. But it happened. So how do you protect yourself against this kind of thing? My rule of thumb is that I never give out personal information on a phone call that I did not initiate. No date of birth. No Social Security numbers. No credit card numbers. If I didn’t place the call, no one is getting that kind of info out of me over the phone. Period. And thankfully, this student was smart and didn’t share that info on the phone, even though she thought it was me on the other end of the phone. WHEW! (Just so you know—I would never ask for that kind of info on the phone. I would always ask for you to bring physical documentation of these things.) Scammers are still everywhere, so make sure to protect yourself!
My best friend had her bank account hacked last week. It was likely a skimmer that got her debit card number. They managed to drain her of over $1,000 before the bank caught it and shut down the card and the account.
On the surface this isn’t a huge deal. Her credit union is going to make it right and restore all of her funds. But in the short term it’s turned into a bit of a nightmare for her. There is a bit of a process involved in getting the funds back and getting a new bank account, new debit card, and new checks. In the meantime, there are bills to be paid. She can’t access cash through an ATM. She can’t write a check. And the money she had in her savings (thank goodness!) is having to cover her for the time being. If that little bit of savings weren’t there she would be in an even bigger mess.
I like to protect myself against situations like this by using a credit card rather than a debit card for everyday purchases. When a credit card is compromised (which has happened to me several times), they shut off the card, refund the fraudulent charges, and send a replacement card. Not a big deal. I just have to use a different card in the meantime. And I do have a backup card, so not a problem.
I asked my friend why she was using debit instead of credit, and she said she doesn’t trust herself not to charge up a credit card. She budgets best by using debit. And it’s great that she knows that about herself. But she left herself with very little protection for this situation. She doesn’t have a backup plan. She has her savings, but no easy way to make payments on bills that are coming due this week. She may have to lean on her friends to make payments for her by check or by card until she is able to get herself restored.
What would you do if you didn’t have access to your checking account and bills were coming due? Do you have a backup plan? A second checking account? (Yes…I have one of those, too). A credit card you can turn to in emergencies? It’s worth thinking about. Hacks and fraudulent charges happen. And banks protect you from them. But you should always be prepared just in case.
It seems that telephone scams are alive and well even in this digital age. Several times a week I’ll get a phone call (on my cell phone) from a number I don’t recognize. Sometimes I don’t answer. Sometimes I do.
Recently I decided to answer one of these calls and ended up listening to a computer voice tell me that this was my last chance to save money on my student loans before certain federal programs end. Since my student loans have been paid off for a very long time, and I also happen to know more than a little about federal student aid programs (such as that no federal student aid programs are currently scheduled to end), I decided that I would try to have a little fun.
The computer voice told me to press 5 if I knew my FSA ID or 8 if I needed help retrieving it. So this was a cue to me that the mission of this scammer was likely to get my FSA ID and use that to retrieve other private information about me (like my Social Security number and birth date). I pressed 5 and then was put on hold for a minute or so. This seemed weird since I was on the receiving end of the phone call. But I held. I wanted to play. Eventually I was greeted by someone who asked if I was having trouble making my student loan payments. I said that no, that wasn’t really a problem, and then they promptly hung up. But much to my delight, they called back just a few minutes later, so the game could continue. I pressed 5 and waited my turn again. And this time the voice on the other end asked me if I had student loans. I said that I assumed they knew I did, since they had called me about this issue. Again…a hang up.
The student loan people have not called me back since that day. My game wasn’t much fun. I’ve had financial aid administrator friends keeps folks like this on the line for up to half an hour. My experience pales by comparison. But the message was received. Phone scammers are out there, disguised as student loan consolidators. Beware if you get a call from these folks. They are not trying to help you. And if you do have questions or concerns about your student loans, your answers are best found with either your loan servicer or your friendly neighborhood Financial Aid Director in suite 105 of the Katz Building. And never give out any personal information on a telephone call you did not initiate.
Sometimes when I’m driving, the road rage words that jump from my mouth, aimed at the car in front of me, will be, “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” (Full credit for this gem goes to my husband’s grandfather, who spouted an abundance of what we call “Wilbertisms.”) But there’s a lot of wisdom in this particular phrase that goes way beyond the driver who can’t figure out what he or she wants to do.
This is still the season of New Year’s resolutions. I made a couple of them this year. One is to make healthier food choices and to run more, with the goal of running a half-marathon in the fall (which I’ll now be held accountable for, since it’s out there in the blogosphere). The other is to create and live by a budget in an effort to pay down some debt I’ve been lugging around with me.
Right now you are likely thinking in wonder about the money lady who doesn’t have a budget and has a bunch of debt. I know….I know. It’s one thing to understand the principle. It’s quite a different challenge to put it into practice. I know that the secret to weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume. But I like cheese! And chocolate! And pizza! And I know the secret to budgeting is to spend less than you earn. But I like restaurants! And music festivals!
So here we are at the start of a new year. And I’m going to do something. Even if it’s wrong. Because doing nothing will not change anything. If I do something, it may lead to a positive change in my life. Or it may be wrong and lead to a learning experience. But either way, doing something is better than doing nothing.
My “healthier choices” plan includes using my fitness tracker’s app to monitor my food intake and calorie burn. My half-marathon dream is right now in week 3 of Couch to 5K. And I’m currently in my free 34-day trial of You Need a Budget, as well as reading the accompanying book by the guy who created it. I’m not sure how this will go (though I’m sure I’ll keep you posted as I progress). But I know that I’m doing something. And doing something (even if it’s wrong) is better than doing nothing.
Winter is here. Full-blown freezing cold and snow. And while you may not realize it, there are some things you can do to help keep your seasonal costs down.
If you are paying for your own heat, turning the thermostat down a few degrees can save you a LOT of money. But it may lead to you feeling cold in your home. There are a few easy things you can do to combat this, however. If you feel cold air coming in around your windows, it’s easy to cover the windows with plastic. You can pick up inexpensive kits at any hardware or big box store that give you what you need to put double-sided tape around the windows, cover it with plastic, and use a hair dryer to stretch it tight. It’s amazing the difference this will make in how much cold air sneaks in! And if you’re still feeling chilly, the quick and easy answer is to add more clothing. Long underwear goes a long way this time of year. Turtlenecks and scarves can keep you toasty. Wool socks are awesome on the feet (and there’s no shame in doubling up on these when it’s really cold out!). And for the ladies, fleece tights are a game changer if you like to wear skirts. I’ve often been heard saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.” I stand by that statement.
So you are now warm in your home…but you still have to leave the house. There are things you should know about how to care for your automobile when the temperature has dropped beyond belief. Those stories you’ve heard about how you shouldn’t let your gas tank get below ¼ of a tank? That’s really true when it’s cold. Condensation in the gas tank can freeze and cause you some real grief if your tank is too empty. It’s definitely cheaper to keep your tank closer to full than to repair the car. And while you are taking care of the gas, it’s best to make sure you keep your washer fluid topped off, too. Winter roads can be sloppy and salty and you want to make sure you have some anti-freeze washer fluid available if you need to clear the windshield. Driving around looking through a salt-smeared view isn’t safe for you or the drivers around you. And finally, it’s a good idea to check your tire pressure. Air expands with heat. Likewise it contracts with cold. If the last time you checked your pressure was at the start of fall semester, it’s likely that they are a lot less full now than they were then. And you could be causing undue wear on your tires because of it. Your local Sheetz has an awesome digital air pump available for free. Better to pump them up than to need new shoes for the car sooner than you’d like.
I could go on and on (winter being my favorite season), but I think you get the idea. Be aware that life is a bit different in the winter and will demand different things of you. But if you are prepared, you can safely and warmly enjoy our winter wonderland!
This shirt recently popped up in my Facebook feed. And I love it!
Everybody makes mistakes. And every single mistake is proof positive that you are putting forth effort. You are taking risks. And from great risks come great rewards. And sometimes great disappointments. But if you never take the risks, you are guaranteed not to achieve the rewards.
There are a lot of risks involved with money. And you always hope they lead to reward. Should I borrow money to buy a house? Should I buy a used car instead of a new one? Should I buy stock? How much should I put into my 401K plan? Can I take the lower paying job that I’ll enjoy instead of the higher paying job that I’ll hate? Will the store brand product work as well as the name brand? If I join the warehouse club, will I get my money’s worth? Should I buy the extended warranty? If I go to law school will I get a great job?
Every time you spend money, there is some level of risk involved. You can’t predict anything with certainty. And you will make mistakes. It’s inevitable. But mistakes, while they may feel bad at the time, teach us things. And mistakes are proof that you are trying. The person who never tries never makes mistakes. But they also never move forward or learn or grow.
Mistakes are proof that you are trying. So keep making mistakes. Keep trying!
When I look back on my life, it amazes me how much energy and money I have put forth trying to fight against nature to look different than I actually look. I was a teenager in the 1980’s. Hair was big. Very, very big. Mine was naturally straight and fine. So I spent lots of dollars on perms and curling irons and hot rollers. And lots of time trying to make my hair do things that it just didn’t want to do (like be big). The same kind of effort went into makeup. Paint on a layer of foundation. Add blush. And eye shadow. And eye liner. And mascara. And lipstick. Being oh so careful to make it look like I’m not wearing makeup at all. Baffling! And today’s contouring makeup trend baffles me even more. I can’t even imagine trying to paint on that many layers to make my face look like something my face doesn’t even resemble.
The older I get, the more I realize just how futile the whole exercise is. “Doing my hair” now involves using a blow dryer and adding a little smoothing cream to tame the flyaways. I have absolutely no intention of covering my increasing grey with hair color (though I spent a fortune on coloring my hair red and blonde throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s—and am very happy to have arrived back at my natural color). I haven’t touched my curling iron in years, and on weekends how it lands after I wash and air dry is how it will be.
I gave up on nail polish years ago. So much effort and time and money and it’s just going to chip off anyway. “Doing my nails” now means using a clipper and a file to make them short and smooth.
Makeup is now something I use for the theater. And if and when I feel like it (I pulled it out for New Year’s Eve this year). It’s not something I feel like I need to do because it’s a day that ends in the letter Y.
There are two things I’ve noticed since I made this transition into being a lower-maintenance woman. First, I have more time. Time spent in the beauty shop or in the bathroom at the mirror is time invested in something I don’t really care about. I’d rather spend that time watching Netflix or reading a book or sleeping. The other thing I’ve noticed is that I have more money. The beauty industry is built around separating women from their money. The less makeup I wear, the less makeup I have to buy. If I don’t color my hair, I don’t have to pay for dye. It’s amazing how that stuff can add up!
I feel pretty. My husband thinks I look pretty. I’m not fighting against nature. And I’ve recouped a lot of my time and money.
Have you been fighting against nature? If so…should you be?
When you fly on an airplane there is always a safety speech before takeoff. And the thing that has been ringing in my head since my last flight is, “Please secure your own mask before assisting others.”
That one sentence pretty much sums up the last half of 2016 for me. I’ve always prided myself on getting out the Moneywise Tip of the Week regularly. And last semester I failed big time. I know many of you noticed I was missing from my office quite often throughout the semester. It was rough for me health-wise (and I’m very grateful for the health insurance that made that manageable!). I was run through test after test and in and out of the hospital. And I wasn’t writing the Moneywise Tip. I was busy securing my own mask before I could assist others. You simply can’t effectively help others if you are in risk of not keeping yourself going.
But I’m healthy now. I’m running again and eating the right foods and happy to be available to help students as much as I wish I could have last semester. Prepare yourself for a full semester of regularly scheduled Moneywise Tips!
The “secure your own mask” bit also hit close to home in a different way over the holidays. It seems like every charity I’ve ever donated to was reaching out for an end of year contribution. And I wanted to assist others. But the year’s medical issues were challenging financially. So rather than stretching myself to assist others as much as I would have liked, I smiled, politely said no, and proceeded with securing my own financial mask. It won’t be this way every year. And it’s ok to say no to charities if you’re not feeling particularly financially secure yourself.
I am certain that 2017 will unfold differently for me. But it’s only because I secured my own mask first. Now I can proceed with assisting others.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a concert that included a set from one of my favorite artists, Sheryl Crow. And she played a song that I quote all the time, “Soak Up the Sun.” This is a favorite of mine, not just because it’s a catchy tune, but because I love its message.
There are two ways to be rich. One is to have enough money to be able to get everything your heart desires. This one is difficult to achieve. But the other is easier. My favorite line from Sheryl Crow’s song is, “It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.” The second way to be rich is to count your blessings and be thankful for the things that you already have. It’s all about perspective.
I could bemoan the fact that my Subaru is twelve years old. But instead I’m choosing to be grateful that I have a car that runs well and does what I need. I could be upset that I’ve been sick a lot recently. Instead I’m choosing to be grateful that I have good health insurance that I’ve been able to use to get through the illness.
I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. But with the help of perspective, my life is quite rich. “It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.” Take a look at your life. Count your blessings so you can see just how rich you actually are. And soak up the sun.
This afternoon I received a text message from my sister. We use the same credit union for our banking and she and her husband had just received the same text, supposedly from this credit union, notifying her of an “alert” on her account. My sister is smart. She was suspicious of this text. She sent me a text message to see if I had received anything similar. I had not. Then I checked my account online to see if there were any alerts there. Still nothing. So then my sister called the credit union directly….not at the number that came in the text, but instead on a number she found on the credit union’s web site. My sister’s suspicions were confirmed. This was a phishing scam.
Crooks have gotten pretty clever with their attempts at identity theft. Phishing scams are everywhere. It could be a text from “your bank.” Or an email from “your student loan servicer.” A phone call from “Microsoft.” A phone call from “the IRS.” It’s everywhere. Protect yourself. Be suspicious. Never just click on the link in the text or email. Find a genuine phone number for follow up. Never give out your personal information on a phone call that you didn’t make. Never let someone who called you have remote access to your computer. Be smart. Be suspicious. Don’t be scammed.