Don’t Miss These 5 Opportunities for Automatic Savings

By Janet Alvarez, Wise Bread

Most of us understand that saving regularly is one of the simplest ways to reach our financial goals, but we don’t all take advantage of easy ways to automate our savings. As part of America Saves Week, we’ve devised a list of five automatic savings opportunities that are often overlooked. These go a step beyond mere automatic transfers from checking to savings. They’re easy, straight-forward ways to save money automatically that most of us don’t take advantage of yet, and they increase your chances of reaching your goals even faster.

1.  Direct Deposit Your Tax Refund Into Savings
According to the IRS, the average American’s tax refund now stands at over $3,100. Don’t let that windfall slip through your fingers. Deposit all or part of it into your savings account, instead, and watch your money grow. Plus, the IRS allows direct deposits into one or more accounts, such as a checking and savings account, which means you can choose to spend a portion and save the rest. (I’d recommend saving all you can.) Conveniently, you can also direct deposit all or part of your refund into your Individual Retirement Account (IRA), or use it to purchase up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds. You can split your refund using tax preparation software, or Form 8888, if you use paper filing.

2. Don’t Forget Bonuses or Commissions
Do you get quarterly or yearly bonuses? Are commissions a part of your earnings? Then don’t forget to direct deposit all or part of these funds into your savings. Consult with your employer about direct depositing the funds into your savings account, or set up automatic transfers from your checking to savings accounts when you expect the funds.

Another alternative? Increase the contributions on your employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k), during those times you receive extra earnings. It’ll help you max out your contributions faster and earn any applicable company match to boost your savings even further. Consult with your HR representative or your company’s online retirement plan portal to manage your contributions.

3. Save Your Spare Change
Some banks and credit unions offer programs which automatically round up to the next dollar on any purchases you make, and transfer the spare change from your checking to savings account. These programs are free, and provide a fool-proof way to jumpstart your savings and always pay yourself first. You probably won’t miss the spare change in your checking account, but your savings will sure be glad for the extra boost. Even small amounts saved over time add up.

4. Credit Card Rewards Can Boost Savings, Too
Many popular credit cards rewards programs offer several rewards options, ranging from airline miles or hotel points to cash back. Sadly, many credit card rewards perks often go unused, making them less than rewarding. But if you choose to receive rewards in the form of cash back, instead, many cards will deposit the rewards sum directly into an account of your choice. If you’re limited to receiving the funds into checking, you can always transfer the funds to savings. Either way, you’re boosting your savings painlessly. Don’t forget to pay off the balance on your card at the end of every month to avoid costly interest fees, otherwise you’ll spend more on interest than you’ll receive in rewards.

5. Set Your Savings Rate Higher
So, you think you’re a savings pro now that you’ve got regular transfers or direct deposits into your savings account? Well, you can go a step further still by periodically increasing your savings rate, whether to your employer-sponsored retirement plan or your savings account. Many 401(k) plans allow users to opt-in to periodic increases in their savings rates, such as a 1 percent increase in their contributions per year. If you prefer to contribute to a savings account or other savings vehicle, consider increasing your contributions regularly, such as every time you get a raise.

Having the foresight to automate your savings can help you beat temptation and stay ahead financially. And the techniques described above are easy ways to take your savings to the next level.

Janet Alvarez is the Executive Editor for Wise Bread and a contributor to TheStreet.com and U.S. News & World Report.

Saving Money In College

Jar with label and money on the table.

College is an exciting time. For many college freshmen it’s the first step to “freedom.” However, with that freedom often comes a new responsibility; managing money on your own for the first time. Doing so without the watchful eye of mom and dad can be quite stressful as well. There are ways to avoid becoming the “broke college student” stereotype. Being mindful of your finances and creating a budget is step number one.

A college student’s budget doesn’t have to be overly complicated. A simple budget outlining how much money you receive and what your expected expenses are each month is a good way to start. Adding an allowance for extra activities, such as special events, games and concerts, is another aspect to include in your budget. By setting an allowance, you are less likely to overspend. This also means you will still have money available for necessary purchases, such as textbooks and meal plan costs.

Opening a checking account is another great tool for college students to better manage their money. Not only does a checking account provide a safe and secure place to keep money, it also can make sticking with a budget easier. At Ohio Valley Bank, customers’ ages 16-25 are eligible to open a Right Start Checking account. This account is perfect for students on a tight budget as there is no monthly service fee. Right Start Checking customers are also allowed five free non-OVB ATM transactions per month. In addition, Right Start Checking enables access to eDelivery statements as well as free online and mobile banking. Mobile banking is especially beneficial to college students who are attending school away from home. Through this feature, students are able to deposit a check using their smartphone from the comfort of their dorm room! By taking advantage of mobile banking students can keep their relationship with their hometown bank.

There are other steps college students can take to cut costs. We recommend the following tips to make the most of your college experience without breaking the bank:

1. Look for student discounts. Many businesses and restaurants offer student discounts, however this is not always advertised. Make sure to keep your college I.D. with you at all times and ask if there are student discounts available. This can help you save tremendously.

2. Avoid spending too much on textbooks. Of course textbooks are a necessary item for most classes, however the cost for such items can vary greatly. Most new versions of textbooks in campus bookstores will carry a high price tag. However, many bookstores offer cheaper, used versions of the same textbooks for purchase at a much lower cost. In addition, retailers such as Amazon.com, usually offer textbooks at a significantly reduced price. At the end of the semester, most bookstores will allow you to sell back your textbooks as well.

3. Limit off campus dining. If you are already paying for a college meal plan, make sure you are actually using it. While it may be tempting to frequent restaurants with friends or order pizza with roommates, it can also be a contributing factor to quickly running out of spending money.

4. Avoid extra ATM charges. Be careful when using ATMs that are not affiliated with your financial institution. Additional service fees often result if you do not have an account with the ATMs institution. If your bank does not have an ATM near campus, take advantage of cash back opportunities when using your debit cards at businesses that offer this service, such as grocery stores. Also, ask your bank if they belong to a surcharge free network such as Money Pass.

5. Use credit wisely. College might be a time when you get your first credit card. However, it’s important to remember that a credit card doesn’t equate to “free money.” A credit card can be a great way to build your credit if you use it responsibly. Make sure to not spend more than you have with a credit card. Only use the card when you know you have enough money to pay the balance. Before choosing a credit card be sure to research the card’s annual percentage rate as well as any annual fees and penalty fees that might be associated with it.

6. Consider working a part-time job. If you have time to balance a part-time job while you are in school it can be a good way to earn extra money. Many colleges offer work study programs on campus to qualifying students.
7. SAVE. Even though college budgets are usually pretty tight, try to always keep money aside in savings. Saving money while in college can help you pay off your debt faster when you graduate. It’s never too early to think about your future, especially when it comes to your finances.

College is a time of learning, growth, and excitement. Hopefully these tips will help you on your successful college journey. Best wishes for what is sure to be a wonderful school year!

Save Money with Summer Staycation

Family laying in tent on lawn

Camping in the backyard is fun, easy, & cheap!

The summer season is often associated with travel. Every year many families pack up and head to the beach, amusement park, or other vacation destination. While vacations are fun, they can also be quite expensive – especially for families.

There are ways to enjoy summer fun without breaking the bank. Staycations are a popular option for both fun and frugality. It might seem boring to not travel far for your vacation, but with a little creativity you could end up having a great time.

Here are some great low-cost ideas to help you save money as well as make the most of your staycation:

  1. Explore your local area or nearby towns/cities. While you may live in and/or work in a town, you might have missed some of its “nooks and crannies.” Even if you’ve lived in the same place your entire life, there could still be some places you’ve never been or didn’t even know existed. Consider it an adventure!
  2. Visit your local parks or outdoor walking trails. This can be a great way to relax and let the kids have some fun. In addition, parks and walking trails enable you to enjoy the sunshine as well as get in some great exercise. To make it a day of fun bring a picnic lunch along.
  3. Check out your town and surrounding areas for museums. Not only are museums educational, but many local ones offer an unique experience. Several museums also offer special events and classes.
  4. Keep an eye out for any local festivals that might be occurring in your area. Many of these summer festivals often offer free concerts, activities for kids, and fun for the entire family to enjoy.
  5. Have a special movie-night in. Allow each member of the family to select a movie of their choice. Pick movies from your home collection or see what Redbox, Amazon Prime and Netflix have to offer. Settle in with some microwave popcorn and have a relaxing, entertaining time in your family room-turned cinema!
  6. Go camping from the comfort of your own backyard. If you have the supplies, set up a tent and spend the whole night under the stars. If you don’t own the necessary sleeping supplies, you can still enjoy the fun parts of camping like sharing ghost stories around the fire pit or roasting s’mores.
  7. Start a new project. Maybe you’ve been wanting to better organize your home? A staycation could be the perfect time to finally do so. Other projects could include taking up a new sport or hobby.
  8. A staycation is the perfect opportunity to take an art class. Many places now offer one night paint lessons, where you not only learn but also end up with your very own artistic creation that you get to take home. This could be a great activity for the entire family to enjoy.
  9. Consider going unplugged for the week. In today’s fast-paced technology savvy society, we often don’t realize just how much time we spend looking at our smart phones or surfing the web. Turn off your devices, except for emergency uses, and just enjoy being together as a family. This could leave you feeling rejuvenated after your vacation and ready to return to work.
  10. Go Geocatching in your local area. Geocatching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geochache (container) hidden at that location. Your local Chamber of Commerce, library, or visitors’ bureau is a great place to get started.
  11. Not into Geocatching? Instead you could create your own scavenger hunt for your family to enjoy. Offer prizes to winners, such as “no chores for a week” or “choose dinner for one evening.”
  12. Have a “theme day” with your family. For example, you could do a tropical theme and decorate for the occasion as well as enjoy a seafood meal.
  13. Check out your local library. In addition to having a variety of books and movies to choose from, many libraries offer special events and activities during the summer months.
  14. Host a family game night. From board games to console selections, you could even turn the event into a tournament with prizes for winners.
  15. Plan to see a sporting event together. While MLB games are always an option, costs can add quickly for a family. Fortunately, there are many minor league affiliates to choose from that offer a much lower ticket price. Research to see which minor league teams are near your area.
  16. Visit an area theme park or zoo. You might have to travel a couple hours to do this, but it would be a wonderful day trip for everyone to enjoy.
  17. Hit up your local swimming pool or waterpark. What better way to enjoy the summer sun than with some water fun?
  18. Go see a local theatre production. This is a great way to spend the evening out as well as support your area arts programs.

These are just a few of many ideas to make the most of your staycation together. Remember a summer vacation doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun!

Spring Cleaning Your Finances

Housewife holding bucket with cleaning equipment

Here in the Ohio River valley spring is in the air. It’s time to start thinking about cookouts, walks in the park, gardening, and…spring cleaning. It’s always struck me as a little odd how spring cleaning became a thing. If we spend the whole winter cooped up in our homes why don’t we just clean them then? I mean you’re stuck indoors so  But I digress. Spring is a time of renewal, and with it comes a renewed determination to clean up our homes and lives. Spring cleaning doesn’t (and shouldn’t) just apply to your home. It also applies to any other part of your life that might be a bit messy, including your finances. So let’s take a look at a few reasons why getting our financial houses in order this spring can be a big boost…

  1. Being Organized Saves You Time & Trouble. Do you have a drawer stuffed with receipts? Is your desk swamped with paperwork? Set aside some time to specifically file and organize your financial documents; whether this means putting them in a filing cabinet, using binder clips, color-coded tab folders, or whatever you like is up to you. Whatever works best. You will soon find that having your finances organized neatly and orderly will make going over them far less daunting.
  2. Your Financial Awareness Will Increase. During the process of organizing and filing you will get a good idea of where you stand financially. This is a great time for review and reflection on the services you pay for, and a great time to trim some of the fat from your expenses.
  3. Going Paperless Saves. While you’re getting organized you can take it one step further by taking your financial life digital. Having your statements delivered to your email and paying bills online not only saves paper waste, but it saves you time, effort, and money spent on postage. The convenience this provides you will make you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
  4. Being Organized Can Help Keep You Safe. Organizing all of your financial documents helps you know where they are, what information they contain, and what you can get rid of. Your financial documents likely contain sensitive, personal information that identity thieves would love to get their hands on. Use this as an opportunity to shred some of the old documents you don’t need anymore before tossing them out.
  5. Less Chaos & Clutter Can Relieve Stress. Studies have shown that being organized can help one feel more relaxed and increase peace of mind. The ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui is rooted in having an organized and clutter-free home.

These are just a few reasons for getting motivated and adding your finances to your annual spring cleaning. It’s a great time to look at your budget, savings, debts, and everything else that concerns your money. Take the time to sit down and figure out which direction you want to be headed, and whether or not you are, in fact, headed that way.

Do you “spring clean” your finances? Have any tips to share? Leave them in comments below…

6 Smart Things To Do With Your Tax Refund

Pink piggy bank with a dollar bill in the slot

Tax Day. Two of the most dreaded words in the English language. So ominous that even Benjamin Franklin famously remarked in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Tax Day in the United States has long been derided and viewed as something awful, and for good reason. It’s tedious going through all of your receipts. It’s frustrating trying to navigate the labyrinthine tax code. The fear of an IRS audit looms large in today’s society. And let’s not even talk about the feeling you get when you have to write that check to Uncle Sam. *Ugh*

Despite all of the negative connotations Tax Day has earned, this is not necessarily the case for everyone. According to IRS statistics, it would seem that in 2012, around 70% of taxpayers received a refund. If you are the lucky recipient of such a windfall then the bigger question is: what to do with it? It’s no secret that retailers want that money, and will offers sales and deals to get you to part with it. While the urge to splurge on a big-ticket item like a new TV, smartphone, tablet, or some other toy or gadget is quite tough to resist, let’s look at a few things that you could do with your refund instead…

 

  1. Set Up An Emergency Fund. This is perhaps the most important, and easiest, thing you can do with your refund. A good rule of thumb for an emergency fund is to save approximately three months worth of living expenses. So tally up all of your bills for a three-month period and you’ll have a great starting point for your emergency fund. The critical thing to remember about an emergency fund is this: only use it for emergencies! Don’t use the money for something frivolous. Only use it for things like repairing your car after an accident, paying medical bills after an injury, or paying bills if you find yourself between jobs.
  2. Pay Down Debt. After you have an emergency fund established paying off debt is the best thing you can do. Carrying a lot of debt (student loans, car loans, credit card etc.) is a big drag financially and emotionally. So this tip is to simply use your refund to pay off some of that debt. Choose one of your higher-interest debts (since that interest is only adding to your debt) and put your refund towards the balance. You will save money in the long run by paying less in fees and interest, while reducing the amount of debt you owe.
  3. Make Home Improvements. Take a look around your home. Do you need any repairs? Perhaps a new roof? Maybe you could use some new appliances that are more energy-efficient? Whatever the case may be, putting money back into your home is a good investment. You can increase your property value while increasing your comfort level all at once.
  4. Set Up A College Fund. Invest in your children’s future by using your refund to establish a college fund for your kids.
  5. Donate To Charities. Giving to charities frequently is hard if you’re on a budget or carrying a lot of debt, so your refund can be a chance to change that. Choose a cause meaningful to you and your family and make a generous donation. Remember you can claim the donation on your taxes next year.
  6. Start Your Business. If you’ve always wanted to be your own boss then put your refund towards making that happen. If you already run your own business then reinvest your refund in your business to help it grow, increasing your income for years to come.

 

This list is just a primer, there are many sensible things you can do with your refund. Always remember to take a moment to look at your financial situation and determine your own best course of action.

 

Are you getting a refund this year? Let us know what you’d like to do with it in the comments below…

 

Financial Lessons We Can Learn From Star Wars

The Star Wars logo.

®Lucasfilm/Disney

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Ever since those famous words first scrawled across silver screens back in 1977 our pop-culture was forever changed. Sure Star Wars is a fun space opera about an orphaned farm boy who goes on to save the galaxy with magic powers, spaceships, robots and lightsabers, but it ended up being so much more than that. Nobody expected it to be the hit it was, nor to have the cultural impact that it did. These movies added new words and phrases to our language (droids, Jedi mind-trick, padawan), new ways to view the world, and they have certainly inspired multiple generations to new heights of creativity. “Yeah that’s all well and good you scruffy-looking nerf herder, but what does that have to do with my money,” I can hear you say. Surprisingly quite a lot as you’re about to see… Read more of this post