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E-newsletter November 2014

Holiday Budget Tips

You may have been a last minute holiday shopper last year, but planning now can help you have a happier, stress-free holiday season this year. Here are a few tips to help you create (and stick to) your holiday budget.

Make a List and Check it Twice
Creating an effective holiday budget means including everything you plan to spend. Budget for decorating, new outfits to buy, food estimates, travel costs, and the gifts on your expense list. Be sure to include any money you plan to receive, too. Does grandma give you $50 every year? Include that in your calculations. Will you be buying a joint gift and then receiving cash from the others going in on it? Include that, too. The best budgets encompass all of the spending and saving you do throughout the holidays, not just how much you spend on gifts.

Review your Receipts and Bills from Last Year
This will give you an idea of the amount you actually spent and how long it took to pay for it all. This will help when determining your budget.

Shop for Bargains
Once you have an idea of what you're looking for, and for whom you are buying, shop around for deals on the items that you want. In addition, if you are purchasing a number of items from the same online retailer, buying all the items together can cut down on shipping costs.

Curb Impulse Shopping and Spending
Buy only what is on your list. If you've forgotten someone, add them to your holiday budget and, if necessary, adjust the amounts you spend on others so you keep the same total. 

Keep Track
The most important key to remember with your budget is to not forget about it after you create it. Keep track of all the purchases you make, especially ones made with cash, and adjust your budget if need be. It is a good idea to hold a weekly "reckoning" meeting, especially if you're not the only one making the purchases for the year. Sit down and check your real spending against your planned spending (the budget). If you've gone over in one area, these meetings give you the chance to adjust by lowering the amount set aside for another area to make up the difference. That way you'll keep your overall spending on track.

Cash or Credit
Determine in advance what you'll purchase with credit and what you'll buy with cash. Using cash for everything during the holidays isn't feasible sometimes, but it's also not a good idea to put every purchase on the credit card. One example of a plan would be to use cash for all food and decoration purchases, and then use credit for gifts. The most important piece of this strategy is to give your budget a credit spending limit. It can be tempting to run up a big bill on the credit card, but limit yourself to what you can pay off by Valentine's Day to avoid falling into a cycle of debt.

If you follow some of these simple tips, you should have a successful and financial stress-free holiday season!

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6 Tips for Saving for Your Down Payment 

Before you can make the transition from renting your home to owning your home, you will need to have a substantial down payment, typically 5 to 20 percent of the home’s value. The American Bankers Association suggests the following tips to help save for it:

1. Develop a Budget & Timeline 
Start by determining how much you’ll need for a down payment. Create a budget and calculate how much you can realistically save each month – that will help you gauge when you’ll be ready to transition from renter to homeowner.  

2. Establish a Separate Savings Account 
Set up a separate savings account exclusively for your down payment and make your monthly contributions automatic. By keeping this money separate, you’ll be less likely to tap into it when you’re tight on cash.   

3. Shop Around to Reduce Major Monthly Expenses
It’s a good idea to check rates for your car insurance, renter’s insurance, health insurance, cable, Internet or cell phone plan. There may be deals or promotions available that allow you to save hundreds of dollars by adjusting your contracts. 

4. Monitor your Spending 
With online banking, keeping an eye on your spending is easier than ever. Track where most of your discretionary income is going. Identify areas where you could cut back (e.g. nice meals out, vacations, etc.) and instead put that money into savings. 

5. Look into State and Local Home-Buying Programs 
Many states, counties, and local governments operate programs for first-time homebuyers. Some programs offer housing discounts, while others provide down payment loans or grants. 

6. Celebrate Savings Milestones
Saving enough for a down payment can be daunting. To avoid getting discouraged, break it up into smaller goals and reward yourself when you reach each one. If you need to save $30,000 total, consider treating yourself to a nice meal every $5,000 saved. This will help you stay motivated throughout the process. 


November Qualification Cycle: October 31st - November 26th 

resized.jpgAs a friendly reminder, the monthly qualification cycle starts on the last business day of a month and ends on the second to last business day of the next month. With the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, November 27th, the second to last business day will be Wednesday, November 26th.

To qualify for your monthly rewards, please make sure to have all of your monthly requirements posted and settled to your account by November 26th. All transactions posting on Friday, November 28th (the busiest shopping day of the year) will be credited towards your qualifications for December. Please contact us at 866-784-9550 if you have any questions.

Black Friday Shopping Tips

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and has earned the reputation of being the busiest shopping day of the year. If you’ll be rushing to the stores for all the best deals, take a look at these tips to get the most out of your Black Friday shopping.

Check Out the Ads and the Apps:
Your local Thanksgiving Day newspaper will be stuffed with ads, coupons, and circulars. This will be a major source to local Black Friday savings. It will also help you organize your day to maximize savings, since many stores offer special discounts (early bird sales and doorstoppers) that are time specific.

There are now many Android and iOS apps designed to make shopping for the best deals on Black Friday easier. There are apps that will help you find the best place to park at the mall, help you find the best route to stores, alert you when the stores that you to go to have coupons and special deals, and help you compare prices while you shop. Here are some top picks on Black Friday apps:

  • TGI Black Friday App (TGIBF) makes available every major store's Black Friday sales ads. Users can download PDF ad scans, create a personal shopping list, search over 10,000 Black Friday deals across stores and categories, and compare prices on items.

  • is a simple application that lets you browse advertisements and circulars from major retailers before Black Friday. Through Push notifications, you can receive an alert when new ads are posted. You can also shop for the best prices by utilizing the price-comparison tool.

  • The Coupon Sherpa helps you locate coupons and current deals for retail stores, restaurants, travel, and some grocery stores. Search coupons by category and store name, share the coupon with a friend, and create a shortcut list of your favorite stores. The GPS tracking system will also help you find the nearest store with the lowest prices.

  • RedLaser is a price-comparison application that utilizes barcode scanning of any item in retail stores. You simply scan the barcode and let the app locate the stores that have the item at the lowest price. It also gives product features and reviews from Google, TheFind, eBay, Milo, and many more.

Do Your Research Before Friday:
If you are hoping to scoop up a deal on a big-ticket item during Black Friday sales, go ahead and get your research out of the way as soon as possible. A bad product is a bad deal no matter how cheap it is, and being knowledgeable about the products you want to buy will help you avoid being tricked with loud advertising for poor products. is chocked full of buying advice on a wide variety of products from professionals who have the knowledge to help you make good decisions.

Compare Prices:
Utilize price-comparison Internet shopping sites such as to assist you in comparing product prices. Compare the "options" included with the product. Some retailers will low-ball the advertised price on a stripped down product, and then you will be charged extra for the necessary parts that will make the product perform as expected. A good example of this is often seen with super low-priced computer printers that come without the cable (cord) or printer ink.

Beat the Crowds:
Internet shoppers can shop online in the pre-dawn hours of Black Friday. Many retailers will be posting their Black Friday specials, which can be ordered online and picked-up at your local store. Special "Web-only" deals will also be available starting as early as Thanksgiving Day.

Bring the Ads:
Many stores offer a "lowest-price" guarantee; however, you may be required to produce a copy of the exact product being advertised for less. Most local retailers will not meet Internet prices even when the product is advertised on the same company's website, but it cannot hurt to try.

Know the Store Policies:
Knowing the store policies on returns can help you determine where to buy. A previous trend of extending "return days" during the holidays is being seen less this year. Many retailers are including restocking fees and shorter return deadlines. Almost all of the major retail chains have clamped down on requiring receipts for returns and exchanges.

Ask for Gift Receipts:
Gift receipts generally include a description of the item purchased but do not disclose the price paid. Including gift receipts inside the gift box will make returns or exchanges easier for the gift recipient. Without proof-of-purchase, the recipient may be turned down for returning or exchanging the item or risk receiving an exchange for the current selling price of the item.

An enormous amount of advertising, locally and online, can be confusing and nearly paralyzing to the Black Friday bargain hunter. To maximize the benefits of hitting the stores on a day where there are big crowds and a better deal around every corner, developing a plan and doing preliminary research will help insure that the day is a shopping success. Have fun saving money while you shop!


Security Q-Tip: Secure Online Banking

Almost every financial institution is using the Internet to communicate and allow customers to conduct transactions online. Customers today expect this convenience and, if done securely, these transactions can be as safe as those conducted in person.

Start with the Basics
Ask yourself the four questions below. If your answer is yes to all, your chances of being impacted by a cyber incident are low. If any of your answers are no, then your chances of being impacted by a cyber incident are high. Understand these risks and take the recommended actions.

1. Is My Computer as Secure as Possible?
Using an unsecured computer is like leaving the door of your house wide open; you are making it easy for someone with malicious intent to access your property. An unprotected machine can become infected with malware in a matter of moments, leaving you vulnerable to identity theft or other crimes.

Having up-to-date security software protection isn’t an option; it’s a requirement and should become as automatic as locking your doors when you leave your house. Be sure your computer is current with all operating system and application software updates. Anti-virus and anti-spyware software should be installed, running and receiving automatic updates.
In addition to taking precautions when using your own computer, practice vigilance when using someone else’s. Don’t use public computers or public networks for financial or other sensitive transactions. You have no control over the security of a public computer or public wireless network.

2. Is My Connection to the Internet as Secure as Possible?
Simply connecting to the Internet makes you vulnerable to a potential attack. Using a firewall helps minimize risks by blocking malicious traffic to your computer. Make sure you have a firewall that it is turned on and kept updated. New computers may be shipped with it on by default, but you should double-check.  

When entering sensitive information onto a website, look for the “https://” and check that the lock icon is present in the URL bar. This indicates that your communications are encrypted. Also pay attention to the browser you use to connect to the Internet. Keep it updated and patched, and set to auto update. If you are using a wireless network to connect to the Internet, make sure encryption is enabled and change the default network name and password that come with the wireless router.

3. Is My Password as Secure as Possible?
Strong passwords don’t have to be hard to remember, just hard to guess. A good password is at least 10 characters and uses a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, and numeric or special characters. Each of your online accounts, especially financial ones, should have its own strong password so that if one is compromised, the attacker does not have automatic access to your other accounts. 

4. Do I Know How to Recognize a Scam?
Keeping your computer secure is only part of the equation when conducting online banking. You need to be alert for scams and the things you can do to protect yourself. Phishing is one of the most common scams attackers use. A phishing scam typically consists of an email that tries to entice the recipient into clicking a link or downloading an attachment. A phishing scam targeting your financial accounts will consist of an email message notifying you of a “problem” with your account and asking you to click on a link to your “financial institution’s” site and submit sensitive information. This site, however, is a very convincing fake version of the legitimate site. This website may then prompt you to provide personal information such as Social Security number (SSN), financial institution account or credit card numbers, and/or it may download malicious software onto your computer.

Instead of clicking on the link to your financial institution's website embedded in an email, navigate to the financial institution’s website on your own by typing the address directly into your browser. Beware of attached files, as they may contain malware. Open attachments only from trusted sources, and if you are in doubt, don’t open it at all.  You may also consider using anti-phishing software to help block many phishing-related emails.
Remember, no legitimate financial institution will ask you to provide sensitive information in an email.


Business Article: No Money to Start a Business? No Problem.

You might be limited to a strict budget when you want to start a business, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any options. It is possible to start a business with very little money, if you have the right combination of skills, work ethic, and marketing know-how.

According to Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, “To succeed in a business project, especially one you’re excited about, it helps to think carefully about all the skills you have that could be helpful to others and particularly about the combination of those skills.” Follow these simple guidelines to start a business when you have little to no money.

Make Something
Yes, making something does take an initial cost in supplies, but oftentimes, these products can be sold for many times over their actual cost. What you decide to make is up to you, but there are several places you can sell your handmade options online:

  • Abe’s Market deals in natural and organic goods, such as lotions, candles, granola, and more.

  • Etsy is one of the largest online markets for almost anything homemade, from jewelry to wooden toys for kids.

  • Bonanza is another growing handmade marketplace, similar to Etsy. According to PC World, it boasts over 10 million visits per month.

  • eBay is one of the biggest online ecommerce marketplaces in the world, and its streamlined store options, easy checkout through Paypal, and customizable listing options make it a great choice for selling items.

Many business owners sell their products on multiple platforms to get the most exposure possible. It is important, however, to make sure your inventory stays updated on all sites you have a storefront on.

Resell Something
If you don’t want to make anything (or you don’t consider yourself a creative person), many business owners have grown large businesses just by reselling products that have already been made. This can be done through a variety of ways or channels:

  • Drop shipping: Set up an online store and partner with drop-shipping companies that will do all the order fulfillment for you. Online ecommerce platform Shopify has a great drop shipping guide, and Tim Ferriss does a good job of explaining drop shipping in his well-known book, The Four Hour Work Week.

  • Thrift stores and garage sales: If you know where to look, you can find items at thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets, and garage sales and resell them online or in your local community for more than you purchased them for. One extremely successful example of this is Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal. Amoruso started buying and reselling vintage and unique fashion pieces on eBay, and her company has grown to a net income of $24 million in 2011 with over 200 employees. Her book, #GIRLBOSS, is an inspiring look into how she got started.

Sell your Services
One way to start a business with little to no startup capital is to sell your services, instead of a physical product. There’s a huge variety of services you can offer, depending on your background and interests. Some will require advanced degrees, such as accounting, while others require little more than a working knowledge of how it’s done (such as babysitting, lawn mowing or personal assistance).

Because you are selling your services, you will need a branding plan to make sure your name and company gets in front of the people who may need the service. Some places that are free for promoting your services include Fiverr, Craigslist, Elance, Taskrabbit and Skillshare. It’s also useful to have a website to show examples of your work, list your experience, and blog about your industry to draw visitors.

Barter to Get what You Need
Unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to start a business without any type of funds at all. Even creating a freelance-writing business utilizing Elance and a free Wordpress or Wix website will still require a computer to work on as well as Internet. However, there are ways to get supplies you need for starting your business without money. For instance, if you find yourself in need of a used laptop, try to barter for it. Build a new website for a used electronics supplier, or offer babysitting services to your neighbor for their old Macbook.

Utilize Low-Cost Services
As mentioned previously, you can use sites such as Fiverr or Elance to advertise your products and services on, but you can also use these platforms to build up your own company. For instance, many designers offer $5 to $25 logo designs (that come with free revisions). Sort by reviews and look at past examples to find a designer or service provider that matches your style.

This is a great way to get branding materials, printed items (Vistaprint and Zazzle are great places to buy personalized items), or other needed items without much cost. And for additional savings, be sure to look for coupon codes on sites such as RetailMeNot before checking out at any online retailer!

Starting a business requires ingenuity and a passion for what you are doing. Once you find yourself doing something you enjoy, you will be more likely to find ways to make it all come together.


Coulee Investment Center: Yours, Mine, and Ours - A Couple's Guide to Retirement Planning

Shari-Hopkins.jpgWhile the reasons for earning two incomes may vary from couple to couple, these families often face a similar financial challenge: Participation in separate retirement programs. As a couple, your combined retirement assets are not just limited to what you may have accumulated in your current employers' retirement plans. You also need to consider any older accounts that are still sitting in former employers' plans, or assets that have been moved to rollover IRAs. After inventorying your various retirement assets, consider some areas where a joint planning effort may help enhance your investment outcome.

Setting a Mutual Goal
Pursuing the goal of retiring together requires a long-term approach. Start by determining how large a combined nest egg you will need. This will depend on how much you have already saved and when you hope to retire, as well as your retirement lifestyle choices -- where you plan to live, whether you plan to maintain more than one residence, and what you plan to do with your time. All of these factors will affect your retirement income needs.

Keep in mind that Americans are living longer and that one or both of you could spend 20 or more years in retirement. Also, carefully review the potential financial benefits of delaying retirement. Working for an extra few years could enable you to continue making contributions to your IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan and delay taking withdrawals.

Asset allocation
As with any investment portfolio, your retirement accounts should work in unison to pursue a single accumulation goal. Ask yourselves whether your overall asset allocation is appropriate for your combined objectives and risk tolerance. Are the portfolios adequately diversified? Are they overweighed in any one asset class or individual security? Also, consider how your retirement portfolios complement your other assets, such as taxable investment accounts and real estate.

For couples in or near retirement, an equally important part of the planning process is determining when and how to withdraw money from retirement accounts. Consider which accounts (i.e. taxable vs. tax-deferred) to tap first. It may be better to liquidate assets in taxable accounts, allowing assets in IRAs and qualified retirement plans to continue growing tax-deferred. However, remember that with few exceptions, the IRS requires individuals to begin withdrawing money from tax-deferred accounts no later than age 70½, at which point you may want to rethink your distribution strategy. For instance, might it make sense to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA to avoid taking distributions altogether? Your tax advisor can help you consider the tax consequences of conversion, as well as the potential benefits of a Roth IRA.

These are just a few of the issues dual-earner couples need to consider when managing their individual retirement plan accounts. Since no two couples' financial situations are alike, the best course of action may be to speak with your financial advisor about devising a coordinated plan for meeting your future financial needs.

If you have questions or would like to speak with me about retirement planning, 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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