Resources

Budgeting

Military Finance: Benefits & Programs for Service Members

Life as a United States military service member, and later on as a veteran, comes with great experiences and special financial circumstances. You’re now able to take advantage of benefits civilians don’t have access to, but navigating programs such as the GI Bill and VA home loan can be complicated. Plus, there are a whole host of other financial assistance programs that are now available to you.

Keep reading to learn about all of these services and how they can best benefit you.

Mortgage programs

VA Home Loans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps veterans, service members, and eligible surviving spouses become homeowners by providing VA Home Loans. These are guaranteed mortgages issued by private lenders, such as banks, credit unions, or mortgage companies.

A VA Home Loan can make it easier to buy a home because they usually don’t require a down payment. And most times, the lender is able to loan you the money with more favorable terms.

Education benefits

The GI Bill

If you’re a veteran, the GI Bill could be your golden ticket to getting a college education completely debt-free. It’s helped qualified vets and their family members get enough money to pay for college, graduate school, and training programs since 1944. In fact, the program was started after WWII. In a post-9/11 world, you could be eligible for up to 36 months of college or career training, although not necessarily consecutive, if you served on active duty after September 10, 2001. You can also get a monthly housing allowance and yearly book stipend for the period being covered under your GI Bill. 

If you didn’t serve at least 36 months on active duty or received a 9/11 Purple Heart, you won’t receive all the benefits. But you can still take advantage of a portion if you served less active time.

Saving for retirement

Thrift Savings Plans (TSPs)

A Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a type of retirement investment program available to federal employees and members of the uniformed services. A TSP is also known as a defined contribution plan, or a retirement plan that’s tax-deferred like a 401(K) and offers federal employees similar benefits to those working in the private sector.

An employee will contribute a fixed amount of their paycheck to an account designated for future retirement use. A portion of the employee contribution will be matched as an added benefit. These plans have certain restrictions that control how much and when an employee can make withdrawals from their account.

Roth IRA contributions

A Roth IRA is another alternative plan for saving for your retirement. It stands for Individual Retirement Account and allows the account owner qualified withdrawals on a tax-free basis as long as certain conditions are met. And unlike a traditional IRA, this kind of retirement account enables your investments to grow tax-free.

You can only contribute to these accounts periodically, and the amount changes every year. Plus, you can’t contribute if you make too much money. However, this option is a good idea if you believe your taxes will be higher in retirement and you meet the eligibility now.

The Blended Retirement System (BRS)

In 2016, the National Defence Authorization Act created a new retirement system for members of the Uniformed Services. This system is called the Blended Retirement System and combines elements of the legacy retirement pension (or military retired pay or defined benefit) with a defined contribution benefit into a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). It provides a monthly pension payment for life after 20 years or more active-duty services and allows you to contribute to a retirement savings account the same as you would with a normal TSP.

Financial savings benefits 

DoD Savings Deposit Program (SDP)

The Department of Defence Savings Deposit Program (SDP) was created to provide members of the uniformed services serving in designated combat zones the opportunity to build their financial savings. To participate in the program, members must be receiving Hostile Fire Pay and be deployed for 30 consecutive days (or 1 day in each of 3 consecutive months). Once enrolled, members can deposit up to $10,000 and will earn 10% interest annually.

Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA)

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides legal and financial protections for active-duty service members and their families. The details can be fairly complicated depending on your individual circumstances, so it’s important to get professional legal advice on how it will directly affect you. Here are examples of the kinds of benefits you could receive.

  • Reduced Interest Rates. Creditors will reduce the interest rate on debts to 6% for any liabilities incurred before you entered active duty. This applies to credit card loans, car loans, business loans, some student loans, and more.
  • Postponement of Foreclosures. The SCRA provides protection against the sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property if made during or within nine months after your service on active duty, unless it’s carried out by a valid court order.
  • Deferred Income Taxes. The Internal Revenue Service and your state and local taxing authorities must defer your income taxes before or during your military service if your ability to pay the taxes is affected by your service.
  • Postponed Civil Court. You will be allowed to request a 90-day delay in the proceedings of a civil court action if you cannot participate because of your military service.
  • Other protections include eviction prevention, protection against default judgements, prevention of repossession of property, and so much more.

Military Spouse Residency Relief Act (MSRRA)

If you’re a spouse of a military personal, you might find yourself moving from place to place a lot. This means a lot of change and effort on your part! That’s why the SCRA (Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act) was amended to include the Military Spouse Residency Act (MSRRA) in 2009. This allows military spouses to maintain legal residence in whatever state they lived in before a permanent change of station move to be with their active-duty service member. This saves time and energy spent on filling out multiple tax forms and makes the overall relocating process much easier for the spouse who has to move.

Veterans Benefits and Transition Act of 2018 (VBTA)

The Veterans Benefits and Transition Act of 2018 was another amendment made to the SCRA that provided much needed additional benefits to military spouses. Military spouses can now also choose the legal residence of their service member, regardless of whether or not the spouse actually lived in that state. This allows them to follow the same state and local tax regulations as their spouse and has the potential to save everyone money.

Fee Assistance & Respite Child Care Programs

Childcare is a top priority for any family, but it’s especially important for military families who may find it extra challenging to juggle work and family life balance. As a member of the United States military, you may be eligible for the Department of Defence child care and fee assistance program. This connects families to a network of over 10,000 licensed child care providers and may also help you cover the cost of any fees associated with the care.

Leisure & entertainment benefits

Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC) resorts

AFRCs, or Armed Forces Recreation Centers, are resort hotels created to make vacations affordable and accessible for service members and their families, military retirees, and other authorized individuals. These facilities are owned by the Department of Defence and are run by the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM). They’re located in some of the world’s top vacation sites, such as Shades of Green at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, or the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul, South Korea.

Space-A travel

Space-A travel is a great resource for service members and their families to travel around the U.S. and worldwide for little to no cost! Formally known as the Military Airlift Command (MAC), these somewhat unpredictable flights are perfect for military families with flexible schedules and limited budgets. These are military flights going on a mission, not commercial, so there will be certain travel restrictions including:

  • Eligibility. Only service members, retirees, and family members are allowed on MAC flights. With special qualifications, reservists, National Guardsmen and family members unaccompanied by an active-duty sponsor are permitted.
  • You need to prepare. The flights are usually free, but be sure to contact your closest MAC, passenger terminal, or the terminal at the location you intend to depart from for specific information.

Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Digital Library

The Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWF) Digital Library is a great (and free!) resource for service members and their families. It provides free, online resources such as eBooks, audiobooks, databases, and reference books on almost every subject imaginable. This is a great way to learn a new skill, relax, or help keep your children engaged with school and their homework.

The Veteran Tickets Foundation (VetTix.org)

Vet Tix, or the Veteran Tickets Foundation, is a program dedicated to giving back to military members, veterans, and their families. They’ve teamed up with major sports teams, organizations, venues, and promoters to give free tickets to anyone who qualifies. It’s a positive way for service members and veterans to relax with their families and create fun memories! 

Other benefits for active duty, veterans, & their families

In-store & shopping discounts

As an active military servicemember or veteran, you may be able to receive in-store and shopping discounts at some of your favorite stores. Hundreds of companies across the U.S. offer benefits, from auto businesses to grocery stores. Be sure to ask an employee when you get to the store, or you can check ahead of time at MilitaryBenefits.info.

Money Sensei™ financial insights

Organizing a budget that works for your individual needs can be overwhelming at times, especially when your schedule is as unpredictable as military life requires. Money Sensei takes the headache and stress out of your finances (and might even save you some cash!). It’s a budgeting app and money tool that also offers a free credit score. Get started and see just how easy it can be to change your finances to fit your lifestyle, and not the other way around.

Free financial coaching for military members, veterans, and their families

Being a service member or veteran comes with a lot of responsibility, but also free coaching for when you need help the most. If you have questions about your finances, turn to an expert who can provide free advice, support, and guidance towards achieving your money goals. Reach out to one of our financial coaches and start your plan towards becoming debt free, fixing bad credit, and bettering your overall financial situation!

Resources

Budgeting

Military Budgeting 101 – Tips for Service Members

Military service members and their families understand there should always be a plan. And having a budget is just that! It represents financial structure, freedom, and much less stress. We’re here to help you learn how to set one up and answer all your personal finance questions. 

How to create a budget

Given you make a certain amount of money each month, how do you decide how to split it up to cover the costs of housing, food, insurance, health care, debt repayments, and fun on top of all of that? A budget is your answer. It’s not a magic solution, but it’s a way to organize your funds to make sure you cover what you need, a little of what you want, and prepare for the future. Keep reading to learn more.

Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army Green Beret (Ret.) John Wayne Walding breaks down the budgeting basics.

The 50/30/20 rule

The 50/30/20 budget rule became popular because of its simplicity. And the rule is truly simple: divide up your after-tax income and allocate it to spend 50% on your needs, 30% on your wants, and 20% on your savings. Let’s get more specific. 

Allocate 50% of income for “Needs

Needs are anything that you absolutely must pay for and are necessary for your daily life. This can include rent or mortgage payments, groceries, health care, utilities, and minimum debt payments. Dedicate 50% of your after-tax income to cover any and all obligations. After budgeting to cover these expenses, you might see areas in your spending habits you could downsize, such as taking public transportation instead of Uber every time or cooking at home instead of eating out. 

Set aside 30% of income for “Wants

Wants can be anything you buy that isn’t essential. A new handbag, the latest iPhone, dinner and a movie, or tickets to a sporting event. Basically anything in this category is considered optional (although you may try to argue otherwise). Of course it’s important to spend money on things that will make your life more enjoyable, but get thrifty when you need to budget. Watching sports on TV with your friends or working out at home instead of paying an expensive gym membership. 

Don’t touch 20% of your income for “Savings

The remaining 20% of your net income should be set aside for savings and investments. This could be adding money to an emergency fund, investing in the stock market, or making IRA contributions to a mutual fund account. Aim to have at least 3 months of emergency savings available just in case the worst happens. Best case, you continue to save that money for retirement or reaching other financial goals in the future.

Choose a budgeting plan and stick with it

Whichever budget plan you utilize, it must cover all your needs, some of the things you want, and have leftover for emergency savings and the future. Some budgeting plan examples include the envelope system and the zero-based budget, but more on that later.

First start by calculating your after-tax income. If you get a regular paycheck, that amount has probably already had all your taxes taken out–things like health insurance and deductions for a 401(k). Then, add in any other types of income you might have, such as freelance work or side gigs. Subtract anything that would reduce those figures, like taxes and business expenses. This should give you a picture of how much money you have to allocate each month. Keep in mind your income, expenses, and priorities will change over time though! Adjust your budget as need be, it’s just important to always have one.

Envelope System

The envelope system is a budgeting method that requires you to physically separate your monthly income from your different spending categories. It’s basically like having multiple piggy-banks but you’re actually #adulting. Here’s how it works: Buy a box of envelopes and label them with specific expense categories, things like rent, groceries, and loans. Then, put the money you plan to use towards those expenses into its designated envelope. You can do this with actual cash or download an app like Goodbudget.

Zero-based Budget

The zero-based budgeting method encourages you to give every cent of your income a purpose. Meaning, you should allocate every penny you make each month–but not on one big shopping spree. Also known as a zero-sum budget, the goal is to make your income minus your expenditures equal zero by the end of the month. Create spending categories and aim to spend the same each month, and if you spend under budget, simply add the remaining amount to next month’s budget. Or even better, move it to an emergency fund.

Money Sensei™ by Credit & Debt

Money Sensei is an online tool that uses personalized AI to understand your finances and help you make better decisions with your money. It’s super easy and quick to use (plus, it’s free!). Simply sync your bank and credit card accounts to get instant, personalized recommendations specific to your finances. You’ll see an increase in cash flow, plus create a plan to pay off any outstanding debts.

Contributing to a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

A Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is an employee sponsored retirement savings plan. It’s very similar to a 401(k) plan, but it’s only available to federal employees and members of the uniformed services. You’ll then contribute a fixed amount of your paycheck to this account for future use (i.e. retirement). This type of account is tax-advantaged, so there are tax benefits for depositing money and saving it until retirement age. You can either choose to be taxed on your contributions now, which makes the most sense if you have a low tax rate. OR, you can opt to have contributions taxed when you withdraw them. Try to deposit as much of your income as you can. A good starting goal is 10% of your base pay, or a minimum of 5%.

Living off-base with Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)

Service members typically receive housing allowances or access to military housing facilities due to the nature of the job. You can use your Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) for barracks for single or unaccompanied soldiers or on-base or near-base housing or apartments for members with families. These accommodations are low-cost and sometimes free. Eligibility is entirely dependent on your marital status, dependents, rank, and the availability of housing near your duty station.  

If you are married and living with your spouse or minor dependents, you are eligible to live in on-base housing or you’ll receive BAH. If you are single, you’ll reside in on-base dormitories or barracks. Policies pertaining to single military members living off-base on the government’s dime vary by military service.

Army

Their policy allows single members in the paygrade of E-6 and above to live off-base at the government’s expense. On some bases, E-5s are also allowed to move off-base, depending on the occupancy rates of the barracks.

Air Force

Their policy generally allows single E-4s with three or more years of service to reside off-base at the government’s expense.

Navy

Their policy allows single sailors in the E-5 pay grades and above, as well as E-4s with more than four years of service, to reside off base and receive a BAH.

Marines

Their policy allows single E-6s and higher to live off-base at government expense. And depending on the barracks occupancy rates at certain bases, single E-4s and E-5s may also be authorized to reside off-base.

Contacting your service’s aid society

Emergencies happen, and sometimes you won’t have the extra funds to cover the relief. This can be anything from last-minute travel for leave or being a little short on rent. If and when that time comes, there are plenty of resources available that provide no interest loans and sometimes emergency grants for those who are active-duty. Keep reading to learn more.

Army Emergency Relief

The Army Emergency Relief (AER) is a non-profit, charitable organization independent, but closely associated, with the United States Army. They help soldiers and their family members who are experiencing financial emergencies by providing funds for situations like rent and utility needs or emergency travel. AER also gives emergency funds to surviving spouses, soldiers’ orphans, and offers undergraduate scholarships to spouses and children of active and retired army members. 

Air Force Aid Society

The Air Force Aid Society (AFAS) is the official charity organization of the United States Air Force. It’s a private, non-profit whose mission is to alleviate the financial distress of Air Force members and their families, as well as help them in financing their higher education goals. It’s available to all active-duty and retired Air Force members, their dependents, and any dependents of deceased Air Force personnel who died on active duty or in retired status.

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society

The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) is available for any actively duty and retired Navy and Marine Corps personnel and their families. They provide emergency financial assistance for basic living expenses, such as food, rent, and utilities, as well as help with emergency transportation, funerals, medical and dental bills, essential car bills, and other needs. The assistance is provided with loans or grants, depending on the individual’s financial needs.

Coast Guard Mutual Assistance

The Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (CGMA) is the relief society of the U.S. Coast Guard. It is an independent, non-profit charitable organization and is run by Coast Guard members for active members and their families. They believe in extending compassion towards one another in times of need, and serve as a vital safety net by promoting financial stability, general wellbeing, high morale, and a sense of loyalty to the Coast Guard. There’s a true sense of community and human compassion within the organization.

Other financial resources for military members and veterans

There are plenty of military financial benefits that could help you if you need it. It’s just about knowing all that’s available to you! Read on to learn about other financial resources that could be of service to you.

Free financial coaching

There are certain financial questions every service member asks themselves at some point:

  • Where do I go if I need a low interest loan?
  • How do I get help paying for emergency leave if I’m overseas?
  • I’m moving and don’t know how to apply for Advance BAH, what do I do?

When these financial questions pop up, turn to an expert who can provide free advice, support, and guidance. Our financial coaches are a great resource for achieving your money goals and answer all your questions.

Money Sensei™ budgeting app

We’ve gone over creating a budget, but talking about it versus actually doing it are two very different things. Especially when your schedule (and sometimes financials) are as unpredictable as military life requires. Money Sensei makes the “actually doing it” part completely stress free (and we might even save you some cash!). This budgeting app and money tool also offers a free credit score. Get started and see just how easy it can be to change your finances to fit your lifestyle, and not the other way around.

Resources

Budgeting

Filing Tax Returns: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve probably heard the old saying: “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” And while that’s true for most people, it can be a scary (and sometimes confusing) task to accomplish each year. 

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know when filing your taxes.

What are taxes?

Taxes are a portion of involuntary fees imposed on individuals or corporations that are enforced by a government entity, either local, regional, or national, in order to finance that government. 

In the United States, taxes help fund a large array of public works and services, including Social Security, Medicare, social programs like food stamps and disability payments, and our parks and libraries. 

All of the fees collected are to help support federal and local government initiatives and to support local communities. A portion also goes to paying off our nation’s debt.

What earnings are taxable?

Taxable money could include income earned from salaries, capital gains from investments, dividends received as additional income, payments made for goods and services, plus more. Here in the U.S., the job of collecting taxes is done by the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. 

There are several common types of taxes you could pay to the IRS including:

  • Income Tax – the percentage of an individual’s earnings filed to the federal government
  • Corporate Tax – the percentage of a corporations’ profits taken as tax to fund federal programs
  • Sales Tax – taxes levied on goods and services
  • Property Tax – taxes based on the value of land and other property assets

You’re probably already paying income tax if you get a regular, typical paycheck. This is when your employer withholds the amount of taxes you owe from your earnings and sends it to the appropriate state and federal governments on your behalf. 

Employers are required to report wage and salary information for their employees on a W-2 form, and this is a document you’ll need when filing taxes.

It sounds easy enough, but unfortunately the process doesn’t end there. Read on to learn how to file your taxes correctly (and make sure you aren’t paying more than you have to).

How to file federal tax returns in 2021

This year, the IRS announced that it will start accepting and processing the 2020 tax year returns in February, 2021. To file early, you need to have all your documents and forms ready.

Common tax forms & documents you’ll need to file

Common documents and forms you may need include:

  • Form 1040 – U.S. Individual Income Tax Return
  • Form 4868 – Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return
  • Form 1040-ES – Estimated Tax for Individuals
  • Form W-9 – Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification
  • Form 4506-T – Request for Transcript of Tax Return
  • Form 941 – Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return
  • Form W-2 – Wage and Tax Statement
  • Form 9465 – Installment Agreement Request
  • Form SS-4 – Application for Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  • Form W-7 – Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number

The most common tax form used is the 1040, the basic tax form. This form guides you through calculating how much you earned and how to make income adjustments.

Adjustments are either tax deductions or tax credits, and are any expenses you made that the government allows you to exclude from your annual income. Claiming any of these will require more forms (but no surprise there!).

1. Determine if you are required to file

Before you get started, figure out if you have to file a tax return. Chances are most likely yes, but it all depends on your income, filing tax status, age, and a few other factors, such as if someone can claim you as a dependent. Here are three common considerations to help determine if you need to file:

  • You had income tax withheld from your paychecks
  • You paid estimated tax payments or your refund from the following year was applied to this year’s estimated tax
  • You qualify for tax credits

2. Know when taxes are due

In 2021, the deadline to file your tax return is May 17. Traditionally, this day falls on April 15, but the IRS decided to push it back because of the delays related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The only exception to this deadline is if you file for a tax extension. This would give you until October 15 to file your tax return. Do so by filing the correct IRS forms by the Tax Day deadline. 

3. Evaluate your tax filing options

There are many different online services that are safe and easy ways of completing your tax return and filing electronically (a.k.a. e-filing). Whichever service you choose, it will guide you through filing out your 1040, or 1099-MISC/1099-NEC if you are a freelance employee. 

The IRS strongly encourages e-filing because it’s easier than paper returns, you’ll get your refund quicker, and it’s safer as the forms cannot get lost in the mail.

Free federal tax filing options

The IRS offers free federal tax filing options for those who qualify. You can pick a service with one of their partner sites depending on your income. These partner sites are associated with the IRS Free File Program or use Free Fillable forms that are easy, safe, and best of all, free.

The IRS also offers free help for preparing your tax return though the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. This is available to those who make less than $56,000, have disabilities, or speak English as a second language.

People above the age of 60 should consider utilizing the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program, which specializes in tax situations that involve pensions and retirement-related issues.

IRS Free File

As we’ve mentioned, the IRS offers a Free File Program (yes, FREE!) that helps taxpayers prepare and file their federal income tax online. It’s a public-private partnership between the IRS and many of the tax preparation and filing software programs available right now. 

Any taxpayer whose adjusted gross income (AGI) is $72,000 or less qualifies for this program. If your AGI is greater than $72,000, you could qualify for the IRS Free File option, which are electronic federal tax forms you can fill out and file online for free. You should only use this option if you already know how to prepare your tax return.

Be wary of other “free tax filing” offers

There are other online tax-filing services to use besides the IRS. The most popular are:

  • TurboTax
  • H&R Block
  • TaxSlayer
  • Credit Karma
  • TaxAct

All of these may charge you a fee for using their services, especially if your tax situation is more complex than average. So this could be a great option if you don’t meet the IRS free-filing criteria, but they aren’t necessarily “free.” Be sure to read the fine print before getting started.

Professional tax preparation services

If you need help or don’t have the time to file on your own, consider working with a tax accountant or other certified tax preparer. 

This is also a great idea if your particular tax situation is extra complex, or if your taxes have drastically changed from the year prior. Most times, an online service can do the trick, but they don’t have the experience and guidance of an actual person.

H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt are two common companies that have physical offices, or do a quick google search of local certified public accountants (CPA) in your community.

4. How to file a tax extension

As we mentioned, the only exception to the IRS Tax Day deadline is to file a tax extension. This is a viable option for those who need more time to prepare their federal tax return. 

Do so by filling out Form 4868 through the IRS Free File Program, or with your tax professional. Keep in mind that this does not grant you any extension of time to pay your taxes, and you should estimate and pay any owed taxes by your regular deadline to avoid possible penalties and fees.

5. Filing back taxes for prior tax years

Technically, the IRS doesn’t impose a statute of limitations on how long you have to file any past-due tax returns. They won’t decline your return whenever you do it, however, you only have three years to file if you do want a refund for a tax year. The IRS also may take action against you if you don’t file after six years. 

To file back taxes, you’ll need at least your W-2 and 1099 forms for any income you earned during the year you’re filing for. You should also include any supporting documentation of expenses that could be tax deductible or would qualify you for tax credits. Then, move forward the same as you would file any other return with an online service. 

How to file state tax returns in 2021

In most states, paying a state income tax is unavoidable. Each state has their own tax brackets and rates, so it will vary depending on where you live. 

Some cities, like New York City and Portland, OR, may also collect income tax. If you’re using an e-filing service to complete your federal taxes, it will most likely allow you to file your state taxes as well. This may cost extra, and some states may have their own e-filing systems. 

Be sure to check with your individual state department of revenue to learn more about filing state tax returns.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When are taxes due?

The last day to file taxes in 2021 is May 17.

Historically, the last day to file taxes is April 15.

Am I required to file a tax return?

It’s extremely uncommon to not have to file a tax return. But luckily, the IRS makes it fairly simple to figure that out with their Interactive Tax Assistant Form. You’ll need to know your filing status, amount of federal income tax withheld, and basic information to determine your gross income.

Is unemployment taxed?

Any unemployment compensation you received during the year must be included as part of your gross annual income. That said, it’s a bit more tricky to determine whether or not that unemployment is taxable. Head to the IRS website and use their online tool to help you understand your situation. 

How do I file a tax extension?

To file a tax extension, fill out IRS Form 4868 through the Free File service or with a tax software or professional. You should still plan to pay any owed taxes by your regular deadline to avoid fees and penalties.

I already filed my taxes – where’s my tax refund?

Due to COVID-19, it’s taking the IRS longer to process 2020 tax returns. Some reasons for the delay in receiving your tax refund could be:

  • Your tax return has errors such as an incorrect Recovery Rebate Credit amount
  • Your tax return was incomplete
  • You’re being affected by identity theft or fraud
  • Needs further review by the IRS in general

You can check the status of your tax refund on the IRS website here. Note it can take 21 days or more since you e-filed and you should not file a second tax return if you still have not received your refund yet.

How long should I keep my filed tax returns and related documents?

Generally, the IRS advises that you keep your records for three years from the date you filed your original return or two years from the date you paid the tax. If you file a claim for a loss of worthless securities or bad debt deduction, keep your records for seven years.

Resources

Budgeting

52 Week Money Saving Challenge [2021]

Saving money can be a challenge. Every time it seems as if you are caught up, an abrupt change of events occurs and your wallet is drained yet again. Life happens, and we’ve all been there. From the unexpected car maintenance, to the medical bills, to all the other unavoidable obstacles life throws your way. 

Unfortunately, while your expenses may increase, the chances are your paychecks stay the same. That said, there are ways to save a bit more by making a few, simple lifestyle changes. Join our 15-day savings challenge and rack up some extra change! The sooner you start, the more you’ll save.

Downloadable 52 Week Money Saving Challenge Spreadsheet

If you’d prefer to track your Money Saving Challenge progress in a spreadsheet, Credit & Debt is providing a free template you can use:

Instructions for Google Sheets – Money Saving Challenge Template

If you haven’t done so already, click here to open the spreadsheet template. You’ll need to make a copy of your own, so click File > Make a Copy and save it to a folder of your choice in your Google Drive:

Now that you have your own copy, you can edit the template each week. In the ‘Recommended Deposit’ Column, you’ll see our recommended weekly challenge dollar amount to help you save $1,170 in just 52 weeks!

Each week, note how much you saved in the ‘Actual Deposit’ Column. The first cell is filled in for you ($15,) and the ‘Total Balance Saved’ Column will update with each additional entry.

Instructions for Microsoft Excel – Money Saving Challenge Template

To use the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, first click here to open the template and click the download icon in the top right corner:

Save your copy to a location you’ll remember. Once you have your own copy, you can edit the template every week. In the ‘Recommended Deposit’ Column, you’ll see our recommended weekly challenge dollar amount to help you save $1,170 in just 52 weeks!

Each week, note how much you saved in the ‘Actual Deposit’ Column. The first cell is filled in for you ($15,) and the ‘Total Balance Saved’ Column will update with each additional entry.

Printable 52 Week Money Saving Challenge Chart

You can print this chart to help you track your savings each week:

We’d recommend putting it somewhere where it’s hard to miss, perhaps in an area where you sit down to go through your monthly finances.

How to Save $1,170 in Just 52 Weeks

So now that you have the template saved or chart printed, how can you start saving money each week? Here are 10 ways you can cut back on spending and save some extra cash:

1. Avoid Unnecessary Shopping

This is one of the most important rules to set if you want to save that extra cash. It’s easy to get caught up when we have credit cards and don’t always have to pay cash right upfront. However, this also leads to unnecessary shopping and purchases that might not be fundamental to your daily needs. We’ve all made purchases we look back on and regret, so sometimes being more strategic in your buying habits can actually make you feel better–allowing you to avoid clutter and save money. 

You can still allow room to reward yourself every now and then! We all deserve it. But do be thoughtful in your daily purchasing habits to avoid spending cash in unneeded places. Make lists to stick to when grocery shopping, ditch the weekend mall browsing, and make a budget that leaves no room for avoidable purchases. Making these small changes can help save you big bucks at the end of each month.

2. No Eating Out

We all love a good meal, but eating good doesn’t have to mean eating out. Sometimes stopping for fast food seems like the easiest thing to do, but those cheap meals add up! Refraining from spending money at fast food and dine in restaurants can easily save you hundreds of dollars a month. Instead, use the money you would typically spend on eating out towards your monthly groceries! Your money will go much farther–and who knows you might even find a new hobby!

Pro Tip: To save even more money on food, begin learning how to coupon. Pay attention to the weekly sales in your local grocer, and download your store’s app that offers digital coupons as well. Seeing your savings on the receipt at the end of each grocery store run can be rewarding and inspire you to start saving other ways. It’s simple, free and can even be fun. Saving money on things you are already going to buy will help you towards having a larger amount to save each month!

3. Cut The Drinks

Perhaps you’ve heard of –or even participated in–  “Sober October”, “No Drink November” or “Dry December”. The idea of this trendy challenge, which has really taken hold in the past few years, is to avoid drinking any alcohol for the whole month. Alcohol can get expensive, and cutting it out for a bit may help you grow your savings more than you think!

Not only does this help save money, but it also improves your health in many ways. Whether you enjoy a glass of wine in the evening or a couple of beers with dinner on the weekend, cut it out for a week and see how it positively impacts your wallet, and your health! Take it a step further and try it for the whole month. 

4. Hold The Phone!

In today’s world, convenience is a huge determining factor in most of our daily decisions. We have companies that bring you whatever we want all with the simple push of a button. While these services bring convenience and ease to our everyday life, they come with a pretty price tag. If you’re notorious for ordering food on UberEats, using Favor to have your midnight snack cravings delivered to you, or paying to have your groceries brought to your doorstep–stop for a week and see how you save by not racking up these extra fees.

5. No Online Shopping

Just like with using convenience apps, online shopping can seem like a good idea in the moment but later prove to be a wallet drainer. It’s easy to get distracted by all the promotional emails in our inboxes, the online sales, and free 2 day shipping provided by huge names like Amazon Prime. However, online shopping can lead to debts that you wouldn’t have accumulated otherwise. Go a week without logging in to your favorite online retailer and save the money towards something more rewarding than a quick impulse buy.

6. Check Your Subscriptions

Are you drowning in subscriptions? Do you NEED the subscriptions? Can you remember what all you are even subscribed to? Use this week to go through and clean out all the products and services you are subscribed to. Since most subscriptions are set up on autopay and come directly out of your bank account each month, they are easy to overlook and forget about. Having 5 different streaming services is probably not necessary and cancelling some that you can do without could be a great way to save monthly. 

Pro Tip: Talk to your friends and family and see what services they are subscribed to. You can all team up and get a different one and share accounts so that each of you is only paying for one, but can enjoy multiple! You pay for Netflix and your friend can pay for Hulu!

7. Sell Clothes or Home Items to Consignment Stores

Get a kick-start on spring cleaning and make some extra cash this holiday season by cleaning out your closets. There are plenty of consignment stores that buy clothes on the spot. 

Some require the items to be seasonal or trendy in order to hand over any cash. Other stores will pay you after your items sell. Dig through your drawers and see if you have any trendy items that don’t fit your lifestyle anymore! This is an awesome way to declutter, give back, and get some extra cash while doing it!

8. Become a Homebody

We all enjoy going out and spending time with friends. But if you are one to hit the town every weekend, your eventful Saturday nights might be catching up with you. Start hosting dinner parties, game nights, and get togethers at home instead. Everyone can bring a different dish, bottle of wine, etc., taking the weight off of you to provide it all and allowing you to still enjoy company and a drink all in the comfort of your own home. In just one weekend of staying in vs. going out, you could be saving well over a hundred dollars just by eliminating the need for Ubers, valets, expensive drinks and much more.

9. Carpool

Gas is expensive, and if you live in places like LA, you know just how expensive it can get. If you commute to work everyday, try getting a friend and carpooling instead. You can alternate weeks and save a ton on gas money. If you’re all going to the same place anyways, might as well utilize the opportunity! Think about it: if you spend $45 a week to fill up your tank for your work commute, you could carpool with 3 colleagues and each vow to drive one week. You just saved 3 weeks worth of gas money, equalling $135 a month! That could be a total of $1,620 savings or more each year.

10. Reward Yourself

Budgeting is hard and can make you feel like you’re a prisoner in your own home. Saving money doesn’t always have to be bad though. After you make a strategic budget for yourself and make simple changes in your everyday life, vow to reward yourself at the end of it all with a bit of the money you have saved. Don’t go overboard, as that will defeat the purpose, but do be sure to give yourself a nice treat for sticking to it. You will feel like your efforts were worthwhile and satisfied with saying no to certain decisions leading up. If you’ve stuck to our 10 week, you have most likely saved hundreds of dollars. So reward yourself for doing great, stick the rest in savings, and continue to find other creative ways to save!

Resources

Ask Abby

What should you do with your finances during a pandemic?

Resources

Ask Abby

What to do when your stimulus check runs out

Resources

Ask Abby

5 ways to get your cash flow problems in check

Welcome back to Ask Abby, our show where we discuss everything you need to know about finances, whether you’re thinking about retirement or trying to get through a recent job layoff, we have a show just for you. Today we are talking about cash flow. 5 ways to get your cash flow problems in check. We aren’t talking about skipping the Starbucks line today, we are talking about real-deal problems that many people have – and don’t realize they have – with their cash flow. So, stick around for a deep dive on some tips and tricks for cash flow. Plus, we have a sneak peak of a new tool on our website that breaks down your cash flow into a super simple way. You won’t want to miss that. 

1. You’re spending most of your money on rent 

It’s not uncommon to hear that  30% of your income should go to rent. ⅓ of your monthly income. So if you make $2400 a month, spend $800 per month on rent. Is that true? The answer is, I don’t know. Why? Because there are so many other variables that play into your rent payment:

  • Where you live
  • Where you work
  • Your other bills and debt
  • Etc

Generally, 30% is a good place to start. Break down your income and current expenses, and see If you’re spending more than 30%. If you’re spending 50% of your income on your rent, it’s probably pretty tight every month and you should look, if possible to move. Right now, property managers are looking for reliable tenants that can pay rent. So, start looking and see if you have an option to save a couple hundred dollars. 

If you’re having trouble paying your rent payment, we are talking about that in an upcoming Ask Abby episode so make sure to follow our page and sign up to get notifications when we go live! 

2. Your car payment is $$$$ 

Before we dive into that, I was to just remind everyone about our shows the last couple of weeks. We talked a lot about $$$ and cars. So, 

If you have a car, watch this video about refinancing:

If you have a car and can’t make your payments because of COVID-19, watch this video:

If you don’t have a car but would like to buy one someday, watch this video:

How much should you spend on your car? ~10% of your income is the general rule of thumb. This includes the expense of car insurance. If you don’t drive much, which right now, most of us don’t, ask yourself if the car you have is adequate for what you use it for. What’s your interest rate? Is the car reliable and is it worth more than what you owe? 

After you answer these questions, decide if you can find a car that will save you a bit of $ and still get the job done. If you sell your car and buy something less expensive, but equally reliable, you might be able to lower your car payment. Also look into your insurance. You might be able to save there as well, at least that’s what all insurance commercials have us believing, right? 

3. You have a lot of debt

I like to consider our coaches debt experts. So rather than diving into the nitty gritty details of your debt and how much you owe and what to do next, just call our coaches. It’s free and we don’t try to SELL you anything. The goal is to analyze your finances, your various debts and we provide you with options and let you take it from there. 

Got debt? Go to: creditanddebt.org 

Those three major categories, auto home and debt are usually the problem causers when it comes to issues with cash flow. I want to know, are those the costs that are burdening you lately? Do you agree or disagree with me? I want to know, especially if you disagree with something. 

So, before we go any further, I want to show you that SNEAK PEAK I was talking about. 

Share screen with cash flow breakdown tool

These aren’t anyone’s real finances, just an example of how they might work, so if your finances don’t look like this, don’t be concerned. Just as an overview of the tool, once you sync your bank account, this all populates for you. So no manual budgeting breakdown needs to be done, which is a great way to simplify it. Plus, we customize your recommendations and you can just call a coach right from the page to chat through any question you might have. 

The tool tries to line up your 7 or 8 major expense categories relative to income and look at the problem 

33% for rent

10-11 for car 

Credit card 

If your rent is 40% of your income and all of your major expenses are 70% and you haven’t eaten, does your Starbucks trip really matter? 

4. You don’t pay yourself first. 

This isn’t always possible, especially the common recommendation to save 20% of your income. But, make a reasonable goal. even if it’s $20 per month, always set up some sort of auto-payment to a savings account. Start somewhere. This is where we talk about Starbucks. If you have problems 1-3, skipping the Starbucks line won’t make much of a difference. But, if you’re comfortable with your cash flow breakdown and are ready to make some smaller changes, this can actually be helpful. 

Stop right here, look at that number for food/dining, and dive in a little deeper. If you’re bank statement charges look something like line item restaurant, restaurant, coffee, ice cream, restaurant, coffee, coffee, (tag your friend, you know who your are.) and grocery store is nowhere to be found or you spent $20 on laundry detergent and called it grocery shopping, you can probably save some money here and start paying yourself first. 

5. Having too many open accounts. 

We talked about debt potentially being a problem so what’s the difference between debt and too many accounts? Why is this a problem? Because you can’t keep track of everything. Store cards, various credit cards and travel cards, gym memberships, streaming subscriptions, all take away from the big and essential line items that we’ve talked about like car payments, insurance, rent, student loans, retirement, and existing debt payments. 

SIMPLIFY your finances.
We did a video on this. Watch this video to simplify your finances: https://www.facebook.com/creditanddebt.org/videos/703394243797791/

Before you know it, if you have too much going on, you’re spending more on your subscriptions than you are on your car insurance or you don’t even know how much all this is costing you – that’s a definite cash flow problem.  

That’s our show today guys, we talked about 5 major cash flow problems, 1. Pay too much for rent 2. Your car payment is too high 3. You have a lot of debt 4. You don’t have savings 5. You have too much going on to track it all. 

If you have questions or thoughts on all this. You agree or disagree with anything I said, I want to know. Especially if you disagree, we want to hear from you. So, you can comment on this post, please hit that like button. If you like and share our stuff, we benefit because more people see it and you benefit because if you really do like it, you’ll see it more often. You can also email me at askabby@creditanddebt.org, go follow my FB page, ASK ABBY, subscribe to our YouTube Channel and opt to get notifications on FB when we go live at 12:30 pacific on wednesdays! As always, thank you so much for tuning in and we will see you next week on Ask Abby. 

Resources

Basic Finance

How to Budget – the Basics

Resources

Budgeting

The Ultimate Guide to Money Management

We’ve been helping people be more financially responsible for over 40 years now. We’ve boiled some of our most common advice down to some essential rules that will be your ultimate guide to money management.

PLAN YOUR FUTURE 

Planning for the future is key to money management because major purchases and periodic expenses come up along the way, and when they do you want to be prepared. If you are spending all of your extra money after each paycheck on nonessentials rather than saving, when an emergency happens you likely will not be ready to financially address it. Instead, saving a little from each paycheck to plan for the future allows you to handle these emergency situations as they come without having to go into debt. It’s best to assume that you will always need savings for emergency situations, even if you end up not actually needing it. You might have a year where your car needs a lot of maintenance, new tires, and you had to take a pay cut. While all of these situations are unpredictable, saving for them will prevent you from turning to credit cards. Saving for the future and what might be to come is a great first step to arrive at financial freedom. It will teach you to budget and save each month and to secure your financial standing in the present and future. 

SET FINANCIAL GOALS 

Setting financial goals is another great way to manage your money properly. Determine short, mid and long range financial goals for yourself or your family. Continue to nurture and adjust your goals monthly. Writing your goals down and how you are working on reaching them will allow you to evaluate your shortcomings. Being able to visually see what methods are working and which are not in regards to reaching the financial goal you have set will teach you self discipline and will give you motivation to further reach your goals. Try setting financial goals for you to achieve each month, for the end of the year, and in 5 years. Then, celebrate your achievements! Reward yourself after each milestone–you are learning how to manage your money!

SAVE YOUR MONEY

This goes without saying, but saving your money is a surefire way to help you manage your money. Save for periodic expenses, such as a car and home maintenance. Save 5%-10% of your net income each month. Accumulate at least 3 to 6 months salary in an emergency fund. Saving for the unpredictable and inevitable will ensure you don’t go into debt or rely on credit cards when you need extra money for emergencies or larger expenses. 

Check out our 10 Week Money Saving Challenge to help you cut some expenses each month to help you save for your future. 

KNOW YOUR FINANCIAL SITUATION 

Determine your monthly living expenses, periodic expenses and monthly debt payments. Compare outgo to monthly net income. Be aware of your total indebtedness. Living outside of your means indicates that you are not managing your money properly. Make adjustments in your day to day life to fit your financial situation to ensure that you are not spending more than you make each month. Being more aware of where your money goes and how it is spent is key in money management.

DEVELOP A REALISTIC BUDGET

Learn to budget, and follow your spending plan as closely as possible. Evaluate your budget and make adjustments in your spending habits accordingly. Compare actual expenses to planned expenses. Allocate where your money is going and leave room to save. By planning out a monthly budget for yourself according to your income and needs, you are protecting your money and yourself. Hold yourself accountable and budgeting will be a great way to achieve financial freedom and manage your money.

KEEP A RECORD OF DAILY EXPENDITURES 

Be aware of where your money is going. Use a spending diary to assist you in identifying where adjustments need to be made. If you find that you are short on cash at the end of each month or don’t have enough to cover your expenses–it’s time to sit down and evaluate exactly where the money is going.

DISTINGUISHING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WANTS AND NEEDS 

Take care of your needs first. Money should be spent for wants only after needs have been met. 

DON’T ALLOW EXPENSES TO EXCEED INCOME 

Avoid paying only the minimum on your charge cards. Don’t charge more every month than you are paying to your creditors. Try to only use credit cards if you can pay the balance off each month. Getting yourself into debt means you are not managing your money properly.

USE CREDIT WISELY 

Use credit for safety, convenience and planned purchases. Determine the amount that you can comfortably afford to purchase on credit. Don’t allow your credit payments to exceed 20% of your net income. Avoid borrowing from one creditor to pay another.

PAY YOUR BILLS ON TIME 

Maintain a good credit rating. If you are unable to pay your bills as agreed, contact your creditors and explain the situation. Contact credit.org for professional credit and debt advice, and inquire about our credit counseling service. It’s easy to set sensible rules like these, but sometimes living by them is harder than it sounds. We’ve got counselors standing by to help you make sense of your budget, plan to pay off your debts, and answer any questions you have about your credit or personal finances. Call us today for free counseling or get started online. Look for more free tips and budgeting advice in our FIT Academy.

Resources

Budgeting

Financial Goals Examples and Tips

When it comes to personal finance, everyone’s situation is unique. No one has the same bills, rent, debts, or lifestyle. When you’re ready to take control of your financial lifestyle, you need a plan that will answer your specific problems, not your neighbor’s.

At Credit & Debt, our trained coaches are ready to review your unique situation and help you plan your path to financial freedom. The first step to tackling these problems is to define your financial goals.

What Is a Financial Goal?

A financial goal is a target to aim for when managing your money. It can involve saving, spending, earning or even investing.

Creating a list of financial goals is vital to creating a budget. When you have a clear picture of what you’re aiming for, working towards your target is easy. That means that your goals should be measurable, specific and time oriented.

Types of Financial Goals

There are several types of financial goals:

  • Short-term goals
  • Mid-term goals
  • Long-term goals

Short term financial goals

These are smaller financial targets that can be reached within a year. This includes things like a new television, computer, or family vacation.

Mid-term financial goals

Typically, mid term goals take about five years to achieve. A little more expensive than an everyday goal, they are still achievable with discipline and hard work. Paying off a credit card balance, a loan or saving for a down payment on a car are all mid-term goals.

Long-term financial goals 

This type of goal usually takes much more than 5 years to achieve. Some examples of long term goals are saving for a college education or a new home.

7 Examples of Personal Finance Goals

Still not sure what to aim for? Here are some personal financial goal examples to help get you started.

1. Start an Emergency Fund

Life is unpredictable, and it’s important to be prepared. Saving for emergencies is one of the only goals that is a necessity. It should be the first one you should set, regardless of your situation.

It’s up to you to decide what qualifies as an emergency. There are a lot of different situations that can fall into this category, including:

  • Medical expenses
  • Job loss
  • Accidents
  • Broken appliances
  • Car repair

When something unexpected and expensive occurs, emergency funds are there to keep you from suffering the financial blow.

How much you save toward an emergency will vary. Statistically, it takes 9 months on average to find a new job after a layoff. With this in mind, it is in your best interest to save roughly 9 months’ worth of income for emergencies.

2. Pay Off Debt

Paying off debts is one of the most common financial goals. No one feels comfortable knowing that they owe large sums of money. And because the amount you owe is already a specific number, paying off debt can easily be translated into a financial goal.

In addition to making every monthly payment, the best way to make real progress is to stop borrowing. Adding to your debt will only push you away from your goal, so it’s important to stay strong and diligent. In some cases, this goal is probably a mid-term goal, but there are ways to get out of debt fast

3. Save for Retirement

Saving for retirement is a goal you may be working towards your entire life. It is the perfect example of a long term investment.

It is important to consider exactly what your retirement needs are. Setting up a 401(k) or another retirement plan is the most lucrative way to save for your future. Remember, the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be in the end. 

4. Strive for Homeownership

Buying a home is a common long-term financial goal. Whether you’re saving for a down payment or working to pay off a mortgage, homeownership is one of the largest financial targets to aim for.

Saving up a sizable down payment is the best way to get a reasonable home loan. And if you save enough, you can avoid the cost of Private Mortgage Insurance, which will save you even more money.

5. Pay Off the Car

Having a monthly car payment is not a staple in life. A great example of a mid-term goal is paying off a car loan. Somewhat sizable, paying off the balance should only take a few years.

Once you’ve completed paying off your auto loan, don’t run straight back to the dealership. It’s a signal that you should use those loan payments for other bills or savings. You’ve already finished one debt – there’s no reason to hop into another loan right away. It’s important to know the best time to sell or trade in your car to make the most of your investment. 

Instead, continue to drive your old car until you have a sizable down payment for the next one. Make it your goal to pay for your next car in full, without borrowing at all.

6. Invest in a College Education

Unfortunately, due to the increasing cost of college, paying off student loans has become a modern long-term goal. Whether you’re a student paying off your own balance or a parent saving for your child’s education, college tuition is easily a substantial goal to base your budget on.

7. Plan for Fun

While most financial goals are oriented around being responsible, you should always try to aim for one “fun” goal. This could be a vacation, a big-screen TV, a boat or any other thing that you want that isn’t necessarily essential.

If you work hard and save diligently, you deserve to reward yourself with fun savings goals. Plus, working towards something you truly want is a great way to practice self-discipline and goal setting.

Need Help Defining Your Financial Goals?

No matter what your financial situation is, our expert coaches are ready to help you reach your goals. Contact us today and start your path to financial freedom.

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