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E-newsletter September 2014

Keys to Building an Emergency Fund

 Maintaining an emergency fund is a key component to reaching financial stability. Most consumers understand how important having this "rainy day fund" is, but it can be difficult to figure out how to start one. Another common question is how much you need to save. Here are three steps to help you get your emergency fund started or rejuvenate it if you've already started one.

Identify your Savings Goals
The first step in any savings plan is to determine how much you want to save and how quickly you want to set that money aside. Generally, experts advise keeping between three and six months’ worth of your living expenses set aside in your emergency fund. Once you've calculated that amount, (be sure to include scheduled payments like rent/mortgage, student loans, etc.) determine a reasonable timeframe for achieving your goal. For example, if you want to save $9,000, a target of three months would mean putting $3,000 into the fund every month. For most households, that is not realistic. A better timeframe goal would be eight or nine months.

Start Small
Whether your goal is to set aside $1,000 or $10,000, it all starts with that first extra dollar saved. If you're just starting your emergency fund, even finding $25 extra each month to put away can increase your confidence. Gradually increasing the amount you save will keep you from getting discouraged. Setting up an automatic transfer with your bank can help with this. You can start by transferring $25 each month from your checking account to your savings account. Then, start adding any windfalls or budget surpluses. That way, each month you're saving at least your minimum; anything in addition to that is a bonus to yourself.

Finding the Extra Cash
This is the most difficult part for most people. Sometimes, finding the money to deposit into your emergency fund account each month will be a struggle. If you can't tighten up the monthly budget any more, consider adding profits from garage sales. Another strategy is to start taking a bagged lunch to work and/or school. Put the money that you would have spent on lunch directly into your emergency fund so you're not tempted to spend it elsewhere. Another quick way to save is on your morning coffee. Even if it's only $4.00 each day on your way to work, that's $85 that could be sitting in your emergency fund at the end of the month if you brewed at home instead.

Taking these three steps will help you start and grow your family's emergency fund, giving you peace of mind that you can weather unexpected financial storms. For more advice about setting up an emergency fund, talk to your local banker about specific accounts that fit your needs.

Money Saving Ideas for Gardeners

Late summer is a great time to assess your garden and start planning for next year. One thing to consider as a money-saving tool is to convert an existing flower garden into a vegetable garden. Even if you're starting from scratch, your whole family can enjoy fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs for much less than store-bought produce.

Do your Research
Whether you scour the Internet or seek advice from your local garden center, find out what plants grow well in the climate, sunlight, and soil available to you. If you've never gardened before, it can be especially wise to seek advice from friends or neighbors who are more experienced to help prevent expensive mistakes.

Make a Planting Plan
Planting a vegetable garden according to your tastes can drastically reduce your grocery bill when it comes to produce. For example, if you're spending $10 per week on fresh herbs, then you might be smart to cultivate those, rather than the cabbage you can get for $0.22 per pound. Simply look at your groceries and do the math. You'll get the most bang for your gardening buck by growing the more expensive items at home.

Avoid Overplanting
Not only do you spend more on seeds or starter plants, you'll also get less yield if you overcrowd your vegetable garden. For example, you can get more production out of six tomatoes planted three feet apart than out of 12 tomatoes planted 18 inches apart. Remember, more is not always better!

Use Good Soil
A high-yield garden needs direct sunlight and good quality soil. If it clumps and sticks together when you squeeze a handful, it's too thick to allow roots to grow freely. Cut it with compost to loosen before planting. If you have the space, consider making your own compost from the organic waste you create at home anyway. Coffee grounds, fallen leaves, and plant cuttings can all make for great - and free - compost.

Whether you enjoy growing herbs, tomatoes, or berries, strategic planning and proper care for your garden can ensure you and your family enjoy fresh produce for a fraction of the price!


8 Financial Tips for Young Adults

Unfortunately, personal finance has not yet become a required subject in high school or college, so you might be fairly clueless about how to manage your money when you're out in the real world for the first time. If you think that understanding personal finance is way above your head, though, you're wrong. All it takes to get started on the right path is the willingness to do a little reading - you don't even need to be particularly good at math. 

To help you get started, we'll take a look at eight of the most important things to understand about money if you want to live a comfortable and prosperous life.

  1. Learn Self Control: If you're lucky, your parents taught you this skill when you were a kid. If not, keep in mind that the sooner you learn the fine art of delaying gratification, the sooner you'll find it easy to keep your finances in order. Although you can effortlessly purchase an item on credit the minute you want it, it's better to wait until you've actually saved up the money. Do you really want to pay interest on a pair of jeans or a box of cereal? If you make a habit of putting all your purchases on credit cards, regardless of whether you can pay your bill in full at the end of the month, you might still be paying for those items in 10 years. If you want to keep your credit cards for the convenience factor or the rewards they offer, make sure to always pay your balance in full when the bill arrives, and don't carry more cards than you can keep track of.
  2. Take Control of Your Own Financial Future: If you don't learn to manage your own money, other people will find ways to (mis)manage it for you. Instead of relying on others for advice, take charge and read a few basic books on personal finance. Once you're armed with personal finance knowledge, don't let anyone catch you off guard - whether it's a significant other that slowly siphons your bank account or friends who want you to go out and blow tons of money with them every weekend. Understanding how money works is the first step toward making your money work for you.
  3. Know Where Your Money Goes: Once you've gone through a few personal finance books, you'll realize how important it is to make sure your expenses aren't exceeding your income. The best way to do this is by budgeting. Once you see how your morning java adds up over the course of a month, you'll realize that making small, manageable changes in your everyday expenses can have just as big of an impact on your financial situation as getting a raise. In addition, keeping your recurring monthly expenses as low as possible will also save you big bucks over time. If you don't waste your money on a posh apartment now, you might be able to afford a nice condo or a house before you know it.
  4. Start an Emergency Fund: No matter how much you owe in student loans or credit card debt or how low your salary may seem, it's wise to find some amount - any amount - of money in your budget to save in an emergency fund every month. Having money in savings to use for emergencies can really keep you out of trouble financially and help you sleep better at night. Also, if you get into the habit of saving money and treating it as a non-negotiable monthly "expense", pretty soon you'll have more than just emergency money saved up: You'll have retirement money, vacation money, and even money for a home down payment.
  5. Start Saving for Retirement Now: Just as you headed off to kindergarten with your parents' hope to prepare you for success in a world that seemed eons away, you need to prepare for your retirement well in advance. Because of the way compound interest works, the sooner you start saving, the less principal you'll have to invest to end up with the amount you need to retire, and the sooner you'll be able to call working an "option" rather than a "necessity". Company-sponsored retirement plans are a particularly great choice because you get to put in pretax dollars and the contribution limits tend to be high. Also, companies will often match part of your contribution, which is like getting free money.
  6. Get a Grip on Taxes: It's important to understand how income taxes work even before you get your first paycheck. When a company offers you a starting salary, you need to know how to calculate whether that salary will give you enough money after taxes to meet your financial goals and obligations. Fortunately, there are plenty of online calculators that have taken the dirty work out of determining your own payroll taxes, such as Paycheck City. These calculators will show you your gross pay, how much goes to taxes, and how much you'll be left with, which is also known as net, or take-home pay. For example, $35,000 a year in California will leave you with about $27,600 after taxes in 2008, or about $2,300 a month. By the same token, if you're considering leaving one job for another in search of a salary increase, you'll need to understand how your marginal tax rate will affect your raise. A salary increase from $35,000 a year to $41,000 a year won't give you an extra $6,000; it will only give you an extra $4,200 (again, the amount will vary depending on your state of residence).
  7. Guard Your Health: If meeting monthly health insurance premiums seems impossible, what will you do if you have to go to the emergency room, where a single visit for a minor injury like a broken bone can cost thousands of dollars? If you're uninsured, don't wait another day to apply for health insurance. You can save money by getting quotes from different insurance providers to find the lowest rates. Also, by taking daily steps now to keep yourself healthy, like eating fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, not smoking, not consuming alcohol in excess, and even driving defensively, you'll thank yourself down the road when you aren't paying exorbitant medical bills.
  8. Guard Your Wealth: If you want to make sure that all of your hard-earned money doesn't vanish, you'll need to take steps to protect it. If you rent, get renter's insurance to protect the contents of your place from events like burglary or fire. Disability insurance protects your greatest asset - the ability to earn an income - by providing you with a steady income if you ever become unable to work for an extended period of time due to illness or injury. You'll also want to protect your money from taxes, which is easy to do with a retirement account, and inflation, which you can do by making sure that all of your money is earning interest through vehicles like high-interest checking/savings accounts, money market funds, CDs, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.


7 Credit Card Safety Tips

We use our credit cards more than ever these days — which makes credit card protection more important than ever. There’s a lot you can do to ensure credit card safety, and most of it comes down to common sense. Read these credit card safety tips and learn simple ways to safeguard your card.

  1. Credit Card Safety First
    • Sign the signature panel on the back of your card as soon as you get it.
    • Never keep your PIN code in the same place as your card.
  2. Keep your Account Number Private 
    Thieves don’t need the card to get into your account, just the number. So for the sake of credit card safety:
    • Keep your card close to you — don’t let anyone see it when you’re out in public.
    • Don’t give the number over the phone unless you initiated the call and you’re talking to your bank or a merchant you trust.
    • Never answer an email that asks for your account number or personal information — even if it looks like it’s from your bank or a reputable company or organization.
    • Consider paperless statements to remove your sensitive information from the postal system.
    • Store paper statements and other documents with sensitive information securely and shred prior to disposal.
    • Tell your credit card issuer if you’re changing addresses so statements and other notifications about your credit card follow you to your new home.
    • Periodically check to ensure your bank or credit card issuer has your current phone number and email address on file so they can contact you quickly if necessary.
    • Use online payments where possible to avoid the risk of a lost or stolen check or account number in the mail.
  3. Be Careful with your Receipts
    • Extra spaces on the receipt? Draw a line through them before you sign, so nothing can be added later.
    • Keep your receipts and check them against your billing statements.
    • Don’t just toss receipts and duplicates — shred the ones you don’t need and securely file the rest.
  4. Make Sure your Devices and Networks are Secure
    • Make sure your computer is equipped with a firewall, which prevents unauthorized users from gaining access to your computer or monitoring transfers of information to and from the computer.
    • Be sure to download and install any operating system and software updates (sometimes called patches or service packs) in a timely manner.
    • Make sure your browser software is up to date.
    • Equip your computer with virus-protection software.
    • Utilize fraud protection software. Coulee Bank offers a full suite of Identity Theft Protection services with Deluxe Provent. Learn more by visiting
    • Avoid downloading software or programs from unknown sources.
  5. Think Credit Card Protection when you Shop Online
    • Shop with established businesses that you can contact easily if there’s an issue.
    • When shopping on your mobile device, check to be sure the sites are secure by looking for web addresses with https: in the address.
    • Don’t share personal information unless you absolutely have to and you know how it will be used.
    • Check payment terms, refund and return policies, shipping costs, and guidelines.
    • Print or save to your desktop: electronic copies of receipts, confirmation numbers and emails.
  6. Keep your Passwords Secret
    • Choose effective passwords that use both letters and numbers.
    • Avoid using names, birthdays, or anniversaries.
    • Never share your passwords, and never keep them near your card.
    • Consider changing your passwords periodically and don’t use the same password for all your accounts.
  7. Check your Account Often
    Reviewing your recent account activity is fundamental to credit card safety, and it’s easy. You can do it online or by phone. If your credit card issuer offers Email or Mobile Alerts about unusual activity, sign up to receive them. If you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft in the past, consider signing up with a credit-monitoring service like Deluxe Provent.
  8. Report Lost Cards and Suspected Fraud Right Away
    If you lose your credit card or suspect fraudulent activity, contact your bank or credit card issuer right away. Your credit card issuer can block your card and account number so no one else can use them, and then give you a new card and account number. Remember: Speed is of the essence. According to U.S. law, once you notify your issuer that your card was lost or stolen, the most you’ll have to pay is $50 — and many issuers waive that as long as you notify them promptly.


Security Q-Tip: Cyber Security and Your Vacation

Vacation season is still going strong, and for many of us that means lounging on sunny beaches, reading a book under a shade tree, or hitting the road for a new adventure. It can also mean identity theft and other crimes if we aren’t careful about our online activities and protecting our information. Cybercrime does not take a vacation; we need to remain vigilant. Fortunately, by following some best practices, we can minimize the risk of becoming the next statistic.

Save the Social Media Vacation Posts Until You Get Back Home
It may be tempting to post details of where and when you’ll be traveling, but don’t do it. By revealing such specifics, you are providing information that could be used by criminals to target your home while you’re gone. Another common scam involves compromising email accounts to contact your friends or family with requests for help, claiming that you were robbed while on vacation and need money.

Sending private posts and photos during your vacation to family and friends is OK, but if you post them publicly, you increase the risk of someone using that information for malicious activities. Also, make sure your children understand what, and when, they should post regarding your vacation plans.

Do Not Use Public Computers and Public Wireless Access for Sensitive Transactions
Whether you're entertaining the kids by streaming a video on a tablet, downloading new travel apps on your smartphone, or even taking your tablet poolside, there are precautions you should take to make sure your personal information is safe. Wi-Fi spots in airports, hotels, train stations, coffee shops and other public places can be convenient, but they're often not secure and can leave you at risk.

If you're online through an unsecured network, you should be aware that individuals with malicious intent may have established a Wi-Fi network with the intent to eavesdrop on your connection. This could allow them to steal your credentials, financial information, or other sensitive and personal information. It's also possible that they could infect your system with malware. Any free Wi-Fi should be considered "unsecure." Therefore, be cautious about the sites you visit and the information you release.

Consider turning off features on your computer or mobile devices that allow you to automatically connect to Wi-Fi. Also, consider using a cellular 3G/4G connection, which is generally safer than a Wi-Fi connection.

Protect Your Smartphone, Laptop, or Other Portable Devices While Traveling
Don’t let your devices out of your sight. Just as your wallet contains lots of important and personal information that you wouldn’t want to lose, so do your portable devices. Never store your laptop as checked luggage. If there is a room safe available at your hotel, use it to securely store your devices. 

Also, make sure your laptop and other mobile devices have the latest software installed. Your device manufacturer should notify you whenever an update is available. Use of security software is a must. Many of these programs can also locate a missing or stolen phone, tablet or other similar device. These programs will back up your data and can even remotely wipe all data from the phone if it is reported stolen. Make sure you have strong passwords and encryption, where possible, on these devices in case they are lost or stolen.


Business Corner: Are You Protecting This Important Digital Business Asset?

When it comes to data security, most businesses focus heavily on protecting sensitive corporate information and personal details about employees and customers. But there's another digital asset that companies should guard just as carefully, and most organizations don't realize it until after a breach has occurred.

That asset is a business's social media presence. In today's highly connected world, a large percentage of a company's branding efforts happen on social networks. All the time and effort you've spent creating a positive brand image can be undone in a matter of seconds if the wrong person gains access to your accounts.

You don't have to look very far to find examples of corporate PR disasters due to a compromised social media account. Burger King and Jeep were victims of highly publicized Twitter hackings last year. While social media teams were able to get the situation under control quickly in each of these cases, it's easy to see how damaging a social hack can be to a brand. 

Devin Redmond, CEO and co-founder of Nexgate, said that the consumer-oriented, viral nature of social media makes it much more difficult to keep track of this content, especially when something does go awry. "Social media is outside the abilities of traditional IT departments," Redmond said. "Once you create a page, it gets a life of its own and grows quickly. By the time IT can catch up with it, it's already very robust. Anything that goes on social media lives in these external environments, and there's nowhere near [the level of] traditional IT controls."

The first line of defense against a social media breach is, of course, proper password protection. Branded social media accounts are often managed by more than one person, and bad passwords and password-sharing practices can greatly increase your risk of a breach. "Consider who has access to the accounts, where the passwords are kept, and how they're stored," Redmond said. "At some organizations, social accounts are on a spreadsheet shared with workers, contractors, and external agencies."

To avoid some of the risks associated with password sharing, Redmond recommended using a good password management system, or a social media management solution that allows users to publish and edit content without inputting the social account's actual password. You should also keep a close eye on the apps and devices attached to your brand's social accounts. Third-party apps accessed through Facebook and Twitter often list "posting to your account" as one of the terms you agree to when you authorize them, so be sure the ones you use are trusted and secure.

If you've been lax about social media security in the past, you always face the possibility of a breach, even if you're more careful now. Bigger brands have a lot more at stake than do smaller ones when social accounts are hacked, but those larger companies also have more resources to deal with the fallout as quickly as possible. At a small business, where social media management is likely someone's side project rather than full-time job, a hacked account may go unnoticed until it's far too late. For this reason, Redmond emphasized the necessity of a strong social-media security policy.

Spend time creating a policy and process for what to do if an account is hacked. Think about how to notify followers. What's your recovery plan? Diligent daily monitoring of your social accounts can aid in recovery time should someone hack into them. Redmond advised proactively looking for unusual activity, such as "spammy" direct messages, automatically published content that comes out at odd times, and unauthorized changes to profile pictures. Deleting all traces of this activity and immediately changing your passwords will stop further hacker efforts, and set you on the road to brand recovery.


Coulee Investment Center: Life Assurance Audit Review

As always, my goal is to provide you with world-class service.  In an effort to meet and exceed this expectation, I’m pleased to offer you a new Life Assurance Audit service. An annual review of your insurance is something that makes perfect economic sense.  Just like our regularly scheduled review of your investment portfolio, an annual Life Assurance Audit is necessary to track performance of your insurance against your objectives to make sure they still coincide.

Now is a good time to review your life insurance policies for three key reasons: 

  1. Life insurance contracts issued more than five or six years ago may not guarantee your death benefit even if your premiums have been paid as planned.
  2. Older policies may not have earned as high a return as originally projected.  This not only decreases the cash in the contract, it also increases your total cost of insurance deductions – potentially accelerating the decline of your remaining cash value.
  3. Changing life events in families can also trigger the need for a life insurance policy review.   These may include situations such as retirement, changes in marital status, becoming a parent, as well as changes in jobs or careers.   If these or other life events have occurred since you purchased your life insurance policy, now is the time for you to gain insight into your current life insurance needs.

The Life Assurance Audit service can assist you in monitoring the performance of your life insurance coverage.  In the event that your policy is not meeting your needs, we can review alternatives that will allow you to make an informed decision based on unbiased information. 

If you want to get started now, contact my office at: 608-784-3904 to schedule a meeting. In the meantime I will follow up with you in a few days to answer any questions you may have regarding the Life Assurance Audit.  As always, thank you for your continued trust and confidence in my services.


Shari Hopkins, CFP®
Financial Consultant

Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.  Insurance products offered through LPL or its licensed affiliates.  Coulee Bank or Coulee Investment Center are not registered broker/dealers and are not affiliated with LPL.

 Not FDIC Insured  Not Bank Guaranteed  May Lose Value
 Not Insured by any Federal  Government Agency  Not a Bank Deposit