Wise Ways to Spend Your Refund
Over a month has passed since tax day, and many Americans have recently received a refund from Uncle Sam. If you're one of the millions of consumers who received a check from the IRS, here are a few smart ways to use that money.
Get Rid of High-Interest Debt
If you're currently carrying a balance on high-interest debt like a credit card or payday loan, using your refund to pay off some or all of that debt can save you thousands in the long run. While high-interest debt can be a quick and easy way to get by in the short term, carrying a long-term balance on these credit products will have a serious (and negative) impact on your finances.
Start an Emergency Fund
The extra cash from a tax refund is a great source of funds to jump-start an emergency fund, if you don't already have one. Whether it's unexpected car repairs, home maintenance, or a medical emergency, you're more likely than not to run into an unplanned expense this year. Building up an emergency fund with your tax refund is a smart way to get ahead of those financial pitfalls.
Get a Will
If you've been procrastinating hiring an estate planning attorney to draw up the legal documents you know you need to take care of, now is a good time to move forward. Having a current will, revocable living trust, power of attorney, and advance directive documents may cost up to $2,500, but the peace of mind you'll have makes this a good way to invest your tax refund.
Treat Yourself, Within Reason
Maintaining a balance between saving and spending is difficult, but never spending money to treat yourself or your family can actually make it harder to save. The key is to determine how much of your refund will go to leisure purchases in advance. Before you spend a dime of your tax refund, make a plan for where the money will go. For example, you might put 80 percent of it toward your debt and other finances, and spend 20 percent on yourself. Another strategy is to immediately divide your refund by 12. That gives you the amount you can spend each month and can remove some of the temptation to splurge.
Plan Your Summer Vacation on a Budget
Summer vacation time is just around the corner. Planning ahead can keep your vacation from blowing your entire budget for the summer. Here are a few planning and budgeting tips that will keep your vacation relaxing and reduce the stress on your wallet at the same time!
Time it Right
Picking the right time for your family vacation is difficult. There are several schedules to juggle after all! When you're selecting the best dates, keeping pricing in mind will save you money. Hotel rates fluctuate with supply and demand, so it really pays to go against the flow. In many popular summer resort destinations, prices peak between July 4 and mid-August. Consequently, vacationing in June or late-August can translate into significant savings. Tourist attraction admission prices fluctuate in much the same way. If you're flying to your destination, keep in mind that it's typically less expensive to fly on Wednesdays than on Fridays.
Watch for Freebies and Coupons
Whether you're selecting a hotel/resort or setting up your itinerary, be on the lookout for cost-saving bonuses, such as free continental breakfasts and cheap transportation to attractions or tourist destinations. Before you leave, look for coupons for activities and events near your destination. Planning your vacation around the savings - rather than trying to find ways to save on events or activities you've already committed to - will make keeping the budget in check easier.
Pack your own Meals
Packing your own meals is one of the most effective ways to save money on a vacation. Eating out for every meal will cost hundreds of dollars each week. If you plan to stay at a hotel or resort that provides cooking space, simply plan to go grocery shopping on the day of your arrival; just have a meal plan prepared so you don't over-shop! If you want to avoid grocery shopping in a new location, you can pre-make freezable meals such as casseroles, soups, and lasagna to bring along.
If you don't have access to a kitchen where you are staying, you can get creative and still save on food. For example, if you are going to the beach or the park for the day, instead of buying lunch, pack a picnic in a cooler. Head to a grocery store or deli before you reach your destination and pick up the basics for sandwiches, plus some fruit and other snacks.
Finally, you can get the most bang for your vacation buck by avoiding travel altogether. If you plan sightseeing trips and activities that are within a few hours’ drive of your home, your hotel costs disappear and you definitely save on gas. Careful planning can result in a week-long "staycation" that's more relaxing than a trip across the country!
Security Tip of the Month: You’ve Been Hacked; Now What?
Maybe you opened an email attachment that you shouldn't have and now your computer has slowed to a crawl and other strange things are happening. Or perhaps you’re running outdated or unpatched operating system software (such as Windows® XP) and have started to see anti-virus warnings.
Perhaps your financial institution called, informing you that there has been some unusual activity on your account. Your friends and family may start complaining about spam messages they are receiving from you. These are all signs that your computer may have been hacked.
If your computer system has indeed been compromised and infected with a virus or other malware, you need to take action to protect your data and prevent your computer from being used to attack others.
Secure Your Computer
Ensure your computer is current with all available patches, fixes, and upgrades. If you do not have your operating system set to automatically update, do so now by visiting your operating system’s website and following the instructions.
Please Note: Support for Windows XP ended April 8, 2014. This means Microsoft no longer provides new security updates for XP and it is therefore a significant security risk. Anyone using Windows XP is encouraged to migrate to products that are supported, such as Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8.
Your computer’s security software should also be up to date. To check its status, click on the icon for the security program on your system. If an update is needed, it will be indicated here. If you don’t have security software installed, you need to get it. Make sure you have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed and a firewall enabled.
Confirm that your browsers are up to date. Tools such as Qualys® BrowserCheck or WhatBrowser can help assess their status.
Secure Your Accounts
You probably access numerous online accounts, including social media, banking, news sites, online shopping, and others. If you’ve been hacked, there is a chance that important passwords have been stolen.
Reset the passwords for your critical accounts first, starting with your email account and followed by financial and other critical accounts. It is important to start with email accounts, since password resets for all of your other accounts are typically sent to your email. Use separate and unique ID/password combinations for different accounts, and avoid writing them down. Make your passwords more complicated by combining letters, numbers, and special characters, and change them on a regular basis.
If you are unable to log on to one of your accounts, contact the service provider or website immediately. Most service providers include an online form, an email address to contact, or a phone number to call.
Secure Your Mobile Devices
Our increased reliance on smart devices — including Smartphones and tablets — for everyday activities has resulted in an increased number of hacking attempts against these devices.
As with our personal computers, we have to ensure the proper steps are taken to protect the information on our smart devices. This includes installing security software, where available, and keeping all installed software up to date.
10 Reasons to Take Your Business Paperless
The office desk littered with paper is quickly becoming a thing of the past in many businesses.
In an effort to improve efficiency, while also helping the environment, many businesses are transforming their operations to paperless systems. Rather than hold on to every sheet of paper, businesses are using document management systems to digitize everything.
This software gives businesses the tools needed to convert paper documents into electronic versions that can easily be sorted through, edited, and distributed to others. While a paperless office can take some getting used to, many who have adopted the practice have found a variety of benefits. Here are 10 of the biggest advantages of a paperless office.
1. Easy to Search
Karen Walker, founder of ONETEAM Consulting, thinks one of the biggest benefits of going paperless is that it is easy to find the files you need, when you need them.
"I can search my documents easily and from anywhere," Walker said. "My consulting projects generate a fair amount of information over the course of several years, and the ability to search for and retrieve presentations and notes is invaluable."
2. Environmentally Friendly
“Aside from the benefits companies gain for themselves from going paperless, there is the added plus of helping to protect the environment,” said Carol Haeck, director of credit and billing for BlueGrace Logistics. "Not only are we saving trees, but less paper is less pollution. And by emailing invoices, there is no courier driving and polluting the air from gas chemicals."
3. Saves Space
Randy Jourgensen, owner of Digital Office Solutions, said he converted his office to a paperless environment 15 years ago and has seen a variety of benefits. One of the best is the physical space he has saved in his office. "We have converted former storage space into revenue-producing space," Jourgensen said.
4. Customers Love It
In addition to the efficiency going paperless has brought to the office, Michael Cruz, office manager of the Dee for Dentist dental care practice in Las Vegas, said the practice has upped his business' status in the eyes of its patients. "Our patients love to talk about the coolness factor of doing all their paperwork on tablets and iPads," Cruz said.
5. Easy Access
John Bustrum, CEO and founder of My403bCoach.com, said going paperless many years ago transformed his business procedures. He said the biggest plus is the quick access he has to his clients' accounts. "Information is literally at your fingertips," Bustrum said. "I no longer stockpile
files on my desk, and if a client calls into the office, the information is
6. Added Security
Increased security is a huge advantage of moving to a paperless office system, said Andrew Southard, general manager of the Indiana-based Data Management Shredding, Inc. "The document management technology has given us the option to track each document and assign privileges to
every individual who reads these documents," Southard said. "Having the capability to
provide proof to customers, clients, or auditors of a chain of custody from
cradle to grave is essential in today's business environment."
7. Better Collaboration
Gary Tuch, founder of the Professor Egghead Science Academy, said getting rid of hard copies of the group's papers has made it easy for his staff members to work with each other. He said it has allowed his company to be more collaborative and stick to deadlines.
"If several people are working on one document and editing is constantly happening, there is no time wasted
on printing revisions and double checking. You have the most up-to-date
copy," Tuch said. "Because everything online has a timestamp, it makes it easier to
manage the office remotely and make sure people are staying on task."
8. Disaster Recovery
Small businesses that have all customer records stored in half a dozen filing
cabinets in the office face the risk that these files might be
damaged or destroyed, or that the business may lose access to the documents for a time, said Alan Baker, President and Chief Consultant at
have personally seen an office fire, a burst water pipe, a flood, an extended evacuation, and a malicious employee damaging and altering files," Baker said.
"In each case, the paper files were recoverable, but if they had been
electronic and stored somewhere in the cloud, there would have been little
or no impact and the business would still be able to operate."
Paul Schwada, director of the management consulting firm
Locomotive Solutions, said running a paperless office improves everyone's discipline; it forces workers to think about what paper they want to keep and what they can throw away.
"When you're paperless, anything that arrives in hard copy
has to be scanned in, so you have to decide whether it's worth it," Schwada said. "But when you can just toss it onto a pile of papers, why not?" In the end, he said, the "paper keepers"
end up with more stuff than they really need, and they have the added task of constantly having to sort through those papers to see what's there.
10. Always Accessible
As someone who often works outside of her office, Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, said storing all of her documents digitally provides a key benefit: She can get stuff from anywhere. "Having
access to all our documentation, no matter where we're physically working
from, is amazing," she said. "I know that if I go to a conference or even just the
coffee shop to work for the afternoon, all my documents come with me."
Coulee Investment Center: Plan Ahead to Ease Travel Headaches
Waiting in a winding airport security checkpoint line is just one of many potential headaches that today's travelers experience. Worrying about what to pack, what kind of identification is required, and how much cash to bring can add to travel headaches. To help ease the stress level before and during your next trip, it might help to review some guidance from the officials who oversee our nation's travel rules and regulations.
What Do the Experts Recommend?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) keeps up-to-date information on all rules and regulations concerning travel by air, rail, and sea. The U.S State Department also offers advice for travelers, particularly those heading overseas. Tips from both organizations include:
- Don't carry large amounts of cash. Consider using credit cards instead of cash, but leave unnecessary cards at home.
- Try not to look like a tourist and minimize the appearance of affluence.
- Be sure to bring any medication you will need, and consider an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses as well.
- Make sure your name, address, and telephone number are on the outside and inside of all your luggage. Note that covered luggage tags will conceal your personal information to the casual observer.
- Leave a copy of your itinerary with friends or family members back home.
- Check your credit cards and homeowner’s and health insurance policies to see what's covered while traveling.
- Keep your bank's telephone number with you. In case of a financial emergency, you may be able to have money transferred to a local financial institution or travel agency.
The State Department also recommends familiarizing yourself with your destination prior to arriving. On their website, http://travel.state.gov, you'll find many informative documents, including "Background Notes," which provide brief overviews on 170 countries. You’ll also find "Consular Information Sheets," which offer more detailed information about crime, security, and areas of instability.
Traveling, especially for vacation, shouldn't create more stress in an already hectic life. Knowing what to expect before you pack your bags will help ease your troubles while you travel.
If you have questions or would like to speak with me, please call me at 608-784-3904. You may also stop into the Coulee Investment Center, located inside Coulee Bank at 1516 Losey Boulevard S., La Crosse, WI 54601.
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