Identity Theft Prevention: Should You Freeze Your Credit Reports?

young woman talking on a mobile phone and holding a credit cardUnless you live in a bubble, it is hard to totally prevent Identity theft.  After all, many entities other than you have your personal information –financial institutions, doctors, schools, etc.  The goal is to put measures in place that make it more difficult to steal your identity – so thieves go looking for an easier target.

Important prevention methods include: buying a good shredder and shredding anything with personal information before it gets tossed; keeping personal information out of your mailbox when possible; protecting account information and personal information in your possession –by locking it up at home; and carrying very little personal information with you if possible.  For other ideas, check out this website from the FTC: 

Credit monitoring or other protection services don’t prevent ID Theft because they let you know AFTER the FACT that it has happened to you.  With a little planning and time – you can monitor your own credit reports and accounts for fraud FREE – right?   You can check your financial statements every month either online or by opening your mail.  And, you can order your free credit reports every 12 months, or alternate several times a year at  Using a source like Credit Karma can help you monitor your credit score for potential problems.

It turns out you DO have a very important and FREE ID Theft prevention tool in your toolbox – if you choose to use it.  It is called a Security Freeze/Credit Freeze.  As of September 21, 2018, nationwide and at no cost, you can freeze your credit report at all three credit bureaus (and unfreeze for free as needed).  You will also be able to freeze credit reports for your children who are under 16. And if you are someone’s guardian, conservator or have a valid power of attorney, you can freeze the credit reports for that person too.

Freezing your credit file prevents someone else from pulling your credit report and makes it difficult for them to open NEW credit in your name.  The most difficult type of ID Theft to clean up is when an ID Thief opens new credit in your name and then misuses those accounts.  A security freeze puts a lock on your credit report so that in order to open new credit, you have to temporarily unlock your report.  Sounds inconvenient right? Turns out this is not the case at all.  If you request a freeze online or by phone, the agency must place the freeze within one business day. If you request a lift of the freeze, the agency must lift it within one hour. If you make your request by mail, the agency must place or lift the freeze within three business days after receiving your request.

To place a freeze on your credit reports, contact all three of the national credit reporting agenciesEquifax, Experian, and TransUnion.   A security freeze DOES NOT prevent you from being able to pull your own credit reports at any time, nor does it prevent business entities you already have a relationship with (your mortgage, your credit cards, etc.) from being able to review your credit.  BEWARE  – The credit bureau websites may discourage you from freezing your credit reports by emphasizing the delay associated with unfreezing your report; REALLY? –  an hour delay at the most is unlikely to create problems on most credit purchases.  Most people know when they will be applying for credit and can unlock their report in advance.  Spur of the moment opening of credit accounts is not usually in your best interest anyway….

The average person opens one to two new credit accounts a year – so, if that is the case with you, it may be a much safer and cheaper option to freeze and unfreeze your credit report a few times a year rather than pay for other types of protective services.

Posted in Credit, Financial Decision Making, Identity Theft, Uncategorized

Getting Organized Financially: Take Small Steps To Make It Happen.

images-2First ask yourself why. Why take the steps you are considering taking to get organized in your financial life? Will you feel better mentally and emotionally by reducing clutter? Will you save money and time by being able to find important papers when you need them? Will you be better able to address financial challenges that come up because you have a household inventory, a net worth statement, or other important documents filled out and can find them easily? It is important to determine the WHY getting organized matters to YOU so you follow through and accomplish your goals.

Avoid becoming overwhelmed.  Whether it is organizing important paperwork, creating a household inventory, or getting done other important financial tasks needed to get your financial house in order, it can be challenging just to get started. So keep a few important points in mind to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed: 1. Break big tasks down into a series of little tasks; 2. Don’t try to do too much all at once; 3. Recognize each small success; 4. Realize that small steps are still moving you forward. You are more likely to accomplish what you set out to do by doing it in small parts rather than trying to do too much at once.

Break any task into small, bite sized pieces. Determine how long is reasonable for you to keep at it during a session – 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes? It is better to start small when trying to accomplish a challenging task, or develop a new practice or habit. Make an appointment with yourself for the same time each day or week – for example, early Saturday or Sunday morning each week for 15 minutes. Give yourself permission to get up and do something else when the time is up – and recognize your small success in following through.

Arrange the task in a way that you can leave it after your designated time is up, but you can easily pick up where you left off the following week. If you are going through and organizing paperwork, create a space out-of-the-way of traffic that you can come back to easily each week – near a trash can and shredder. You need to start somewhere. Pick a pile and start sorting. Ask yourself what would happen if you did not keep each piece of paper.

Remember many small steps lead to reaching goals.  If you are doing something like creating a household inventory, pick a room and do it in sections, or pick a subject matter/category and start with the contents contained in one room each week. If you are trying to create a net worth statement or take care of other financial paperwork, start by collecting related documents or information you need with each 10 or 15 minute session, then move on to sorting and starting to record the information.

Here are some resources to help you move forward: – Keeping track of documents and records. MU Extension publication on Replacing Important Papers  – i.e. – car title, birth certificates, etc.  – article on reducing clutter  – Dan Heath’s video on shrinking change (work and personal life related).  Dan Heath and Chip Heath wrote the book Switch:  how to change things when change is hard.  – Decluttering and getting organized website mentioned in Dan Heath’s video above. – Home Inventory Checklist from Missouri Department of Insurance  – free household inventory software and app  – Insurance Information Institute

MyHome – free household inventory app from National Association of Insurance Commissioners.  Find more info on


Posted in Financial Goals, Financial Records, Getting Organized, Insurance, Uncategorized

Tax Identity Theft – Be Aware!

download-1Tax ID theft is a growing problem.  It occurs when someone uses your stolen Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return claiming a refund.  The ID Thieves try to file early in the tax season using fake documents so they get the refund before you get your returns filed.  You may be unaware that this has happened until you efile your return and discover that a return already has been filed using your SSN;  or your tax preparer may notify you that a tax return was already filed or attempted in your name;  or, the IRS may send you a letter saying they have identified a suspicious return using your SSN.  If you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, continue to pay your taxes and file your tax return on paper.

Here are steps to take if you suspect you are a victim or attempted victim of Tax ID Theft:

**File your current taxes on paper.  Your CPA or Accountant should provide instructions on filing your tax returns in paper form attaching a form 14039.  Visit the IRS website at  In the past, the IRS, has said victims had to submit a paper return along with the form 14039, a copy of state issued ID of person whose SS was used fraudulently, and a copy of the related police report.

(Get a notebook or something to keep all the information together before you start.)

  1. Call FTC Identity Theft Unit – 1-877-438-4338 and file a report. They will give you a reference number for your report – write it down.  You will need to call them back at a later time and provide case number of police report.
  2. File a police report with your local police. Give the police the reference number you received from the FTC.  Ask when the police report will be available and get a copy when it is ready. Call the FTC back with the police report information when you have it.
  3. Call one of the three credit reporting agencies and let them know you have been the victim of Tax ID fraud and place a fraud alert on your credit report. Make sure you write down the fraud alert verification #.  They will notify the other two credit bureaus – you only have to call one. Fraud alerts only lasts 90 days unless you send the police report later. .
  4. Get copies of your credit reports from all three bureaus and review them for fraud or errors – you should be able to get them free with a police and FTC report, or just use your free annual credit report by going to and calling the phone number listed or using the mailing order form.  Correct any errors other than address mistakes – by mail, not by using the credit bureau online dispute service (or do both).  You can find sample dispute letters online.
  5. Check with your bank and credit card companies to make sure no one has accessed your accounts.
  6. Consider freezing your credit report. Once you have the police report and FTC report – send copies and other required documentation to all three credit bureaus to freeze your credit reports.  See blog entry for more information about freezing your credit report.
  7. Contact any government agencies that may be interested in the Identity Theft such as the State Attorney General’s office, if there was any mail fraud, the Postmaster General, etc.
Posted in Financial Records, Getting Organized, Identity Theft, Taxes, Uncategorized

Keep Your FUN Goals on Track with an Emergency Fund!

MP900385310So, how do emergency funds keep fun goals on track?  If you don’t have that emergency fund set aside when the emergency happens, the money you end up using is what would have been used for things like vacation, planned home improvements, a new/new used car, holidays and birthdays, education, or other goals that help move you and your family forward financially.

I know you may often hear an emergency fund should be 6-9 months of expenses, but realistically, most people are doing well to have $500 or $1000 in an account earmarked for emergencies.  So, getting past a month, two months or even three months of expenses may be unrealistic for some – at least for the immediate future.  Whatever the amount, it is better to have emergency money earmarked in a separate account, not mixed together with your regular checking or savings account.

A great approach to saving for emergencies is to make savings automatic every month into a “liquid” account (savings account or money market).  Check to see if your employer offers the option of direct deposit into a second/ separate account, or if not, setup a system to have your bank or credit union move the money to that earmarked account on the same date every month.  Making it automatic means you don’t have to think about it every month – it just happens.   Then that money is available for the unexpected.

Start small so the idea of saving for an emergency is less intimidating.  Focus on working up to one month of expenses (if not there yet), and when and if you get there before an emergency happens, then start to work towards saving two months of expenses, then three months, etc.

When that emergency happens, and it will (I have yet to have a year where it doesn’t), you take what you need and start to rebuild by keeping your automatic savings plan going.  Another idea to help you build or rebuild emergency savings is to use part of your tax refund or any other windfall you might get during the year to give it a bump up.  Remember – financial success is all about setting and reaching your goals; some are just more fun than others.  Keep your fun goals on track by having an emergency fund to come to the rescue.

Posted in Banking, Emergency Fund, Financial Goals, Financial Plans, Saving

Holiday Spending Part 2 – Staying Out of the Red

Planned holiday spending is a great way to prevent financial stress in the new year!

Set limits on overall holiday spending:  Decide how much you are really comfortable spending on gifts.  A quick rule of thumb might be to keep your spending under 1.5 percent of your yearly gross income.  For example, if your income is $30,000, try to keep your spending under $450.  Set limits on how much you spend on food, decorations, travel, entertainment, holiday cards, etc.  See the Holiday Spending Planner at

How do I set these limits you ask?  Make a list and stick to it!  Your list should include all the people you need a gift(s) for, and their priority level.  Then, by priority, assign each person a dollar amount.  Hint – don’t exceed your limit just because you have more people than dollars. This is when you have to be creative and either 1. Eliminate people from your list, 2. Make them something instead of buying, 3. Give coupons for your time or talents 4.  See part one. 5. Look at the holiday spending planner or Internet sites for gifts that stretch your dollars.

Once you have your list of people and amounts to spend, make a list of the possible gift(s) for each person and estimate the cost.  Because actual purchase prices may vary, allow a 10-15% margin.  Look online, in newspaper ads, catalogues, etc. to get an idea of the cost, and plan out your spending and shopping before you leave the house.  To get the best prices, make use of  bar code scanning phone apps or online price tracking tools such as CamelCamelCamel (  tracks prices on Amazon).

Tips to stick to your limits:

  • Use cash and bring only the amount of money you need or can afford to spend when shopping.
  • Consider using the envelope method of planning.  Create an envelope for each person with their name and the amount of money you have allocated to spend on them. Also do this for the limits you have set on food, decoration, etc.   Don’t borrow from other envelopes unless the purchases have already been made for that person or category.
  • Use cash, use cash, use cash. Bring only the amount you can afford to spend (this may give you leverage to negotiate more on purchases).
  • Keep track of what you are spending.  Each time you make a purchase, write down the price you paid.  If you are using a credit card, make sure you are keeping a record of your spending for each person or category and subtract it from the amount you agreed to spend.  It is easier to stay on track if your holiday spending planner comes shopping with you.  There phone apps available to help you keep track of holiday spending.  Most seem to have an upfront cost, but Santa’s Bag for IOS is free (although has in app purchase available).
  • Set aside money each month for these end of year holiday expenses if you are not doing it yet. Set a limit in January for what you plan to spend at the end of the year and set aside 1/12 each month.   If you have difficulty doing it yourself, consider using a special account at a bank or credit union that will help you save monthly and release the money towards the end of the year.
Posted in Credit, Debt, Expenses, Financial Decision Making, Financial Plans, Non Financial Resources, Spending

Staying Out of Debt for the Holidays – Part 1

  • It is getting to be that time of year again; the winter holiday catalogues and holiday decorations are making an appearance.  So…..I am going to start the discussion on holiday spending.

The holidays are really about spending time with family and friends right?  Important aspects are holiday cheer, goodwill and giving to others.  Here is my question – does giving to others really have to mean spending yourself into debt?  Or is there a better approach?

Is it time to re-think holiday spending that may be keeping you from reaching your financial goals?   If it took way too long to pay off last year’s holiday spending, or you had financial goals that were delayed or unmet because of the cost of last year’s holiday, here are some things to consider this holiday season:

  • People will remember the time you spent with them and the fun things you did together more than they will remember what you gave them or how much you spent!  Fun times can be free and low cost community activities, games, arts and crafts, baking, teaching someone a skill, etc.
  • Make a big financial decision before heading out to do any holiday shopping – how much can you afford for the overall holiday – gifts, decorations, holiday food, eating out, etc?  When you set your spending limit, try to choose a figure that will not create any debt that needs to be paid off after January.  You up for the challenge?  You can use the holiday spending planner at:  to help you implement your plan.  This planner also has great ideas for inexpensive gift giving.  Another alternative for keeping track are holiday spending phone apps such as Santa’s Bag. (See for more info on the Santa’s Bag app.)
  • Limiting your spending on the holidays can lead to some tough but important conversations.  Your family may have been doing things the same way for years and you may be asking for a change in order to keep your finances on track.  What I often find, though, is that many people want to cut back on gift giving outside of their immediate family (spouse and kids) – but someone just needs to make the first move.  Even in your immediate family, consider changing the emphasis from buying lots of meaningless gifts that end up in the back of the closet or are rarely used, to buying just a few (or one) higher quality purchases.  Place more emphasis on spending time together.
  • Ideas people have implemented to reduce the emphasis on gift giving to  family and friends:  a.) Pick a name gift exchange with a dollar limit ($10-$15) – this way each person gets one gift to open; b.)  Giving gifts only to young children – no teens or adults; c.) Have a cookie exchange instead of gift giving; d.) Eliminate competition, and purchasing things people may not want or use anyway, by not exchanging gifts with anyone that is not your spouse, child or grandchild; or e.  Share your ideas….. I would love to hear what you have done to reduce gift giving expenses.
  • What many family members and friends really need is something you can do for them.  Consider giving coupons for your skills, talents, hobbies, or even just your time.  Can you take a great family photo for a sibling or friend?  Can you help your parent with things they need done around the house – gardening, home maintenance (lightbulbs, clocks, garage cleanup,etc.)?  Can you teach someone to bake, scrapbook, or help them organize their stuff?  There are many great ideas available on the Internet.
Posted in Credit, Debt, Expenses, Financial Decision Making, Financial Goals, Financial Plans, Non Financial Resources, Spending, Uncategorized

Reaching Financial Goals….means setting them first

MP900341322Early in the year is perfect timing to reflect on what you want to see in your life in the next six-months, next year, and even the next few years. You can start on your goal today or this week and through consistent, small steps, work your way up to even that long-term goal. The big question is: what small step will you take today to move you forward toward reaching your goals? The most important thing about goals is to actually write them down – that could be your small step for today. Make your goals specific, positive and uplifting.

An important step to reaching goals is to make an action plan: Why do you want to include this goal? What are your positive reasons for wanting to achieve this goal? What is your target date? How much is your total expected out of pocket cost? How much do you need to save each month?  What will you do today, this week and/or this month, and every week or month to make sure you stay on track to meet your goal? These are small steps you could work on over the next few weeks and months.

If you can go so far as to figure out how much you want to save per paycheck, and can have it direct deposited into savings automatically every paycheck (not into your regular checking and savings account), you will be ahead of the game with another small step. Think about what you want to be, what you want to do, and what you want to have in your life – then write these down and get started using a series of small steps over time. Don’t put it off or you may not get around to it.

You can find an online sample goal setting form at Rutger’s Extension website: Missing piece: when it says monthly amount to save, add a column for amount to save per paycheck if you don’t get paid monthly. Remember, your goals need to fit within your monthly spending plan.

Posted in Financial Goals, Saving, Uncategorized