Friday, February 5, 2016

Winter Weekend Getaways On A Limited Budget

Question: We’d love to get away for a fun weekend, but don’t want to dip into savings. Can you give me some ideas for a low-cost, weekend getaway during the winter?


There are many ways to escape the winter doldrums without breaking the bank. You don’t have to take an expensive ski trip or visit a tropical island paradise to receive the intended benefits-namely getting away for some rest and relaxation so you can return revitalized and ready to face winter again. Here are some tips and creative ideas for planning an inexpensive trip that won’t leave you in the red:

Stay close to home
Sometimes all you need is a slight change of scenery or break from the routine to feel refreshed and revitalized. Is there a cute bed and breakfast the next town over that you’ve been meaning to try? A nearby local attraction? If you’ll be driving instead of flying, you’ll have more money in your budget for lodging and dinner. If you can, reserve a room with a fireplace or spa, since there’s little that beats staring into a crackling fire with a glass of wine or relaxing in a bubbling hot tub. Find a bed and breakfast offering specials near you at bnbfinder.com.

Avoid popular destinations
Save yourself some time: Don’t even bother thinking about Maui or Cancun. Winter is also peak season for ski destinations such as Aspen, Park City and Jackson Hole. If you want to hit the slopes or bask on sun-drenched beaches at the most popular resorts this time of year, you’ll be paying top dollar. If your goal is a ski getaway, why not try out a resort that’s close to home? Or if your heart is set on a tropical beach, try out one of the up-and-coming areas where prices are still low. Chances are, you’ll have just as much fun. In addition to saving money, you’ll escape the crowds.

Visit a national park
National parks are one of America’s most treasured resources. Together, the U.S.’s 400 national parks draw 275 million visitors per year. Summer is peak season in most of them. A visit during winter would let you enjoy nature without crowds of tourists. If you’ve already been to the national parks in your area, try taking a road trip to one in the next state over. There’s a reason these areas have been preserved-they contain some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the country. Many parks don’t charge admission, and those that do will usually offer three-day passes. You can often find interesting accommodations within the park boundaries, but better deals can usually be found at motels in surrounding towns.

Do your Internet research
The Internet is definitely your best friend for finding the best travel deals. Make it a point to bookmark budget travel pages and sign up for their email alerts. Receiving alerts on great deals can fill up your in-box, but you can always set up a special folder for travel planning. Alerts can save you hours of online research, and if you’re lucky, one will pop into your inbox at exactly the right time. Many travel websites, including Budget Travel, the Travel Channel and Kiplinger, have put together lists of the best sites for finding good travel deals. There are new websites popping up all the time to help find the best deals on airfare,car rentals,hotels,bus and train travel and even all-inclusive packages. It’s just a matter of deciding which ones are your favorites.

Use your air miles
If you’ve been saving up frequent-flier miles through an airline rewards program, now might be the time to use them. Often, these programs have expiration dates, so if you don’t use them, you may lose them. And with airfare for your getaway taken care of, that only leaves food and lodging to worry about.

Take advantage of coupons
Tons of amazing travel deals can be found through online coupon sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial and Travelzoo. And besides saving you money, they can take you on an adventure. Many merchants who are offering deals through these sites are just getting established or are up-and-coming. They may not have a premier location or a big advertising budget, but since they’re seeking new business, they’ll most certainly appreciate it when you show up. Signing up for multiple online-coupon sites can easily overwhelm your email inbox. Luckily, there are now several aggregators, including DailyDibs, that can compile deals from online coupon sites and send you a daily report.

Use Airbnb
Although the hotel industry is not a fan of Airbnb, travelers certainly are. Not only can you save substantially on lodging, but you can stay in a place with all the comforts of home, including kitchens where you can save even more by cooking your own meals. The site offers 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries, so it’s likely there are available accommodations in the vacation destination you’ve chosen. Reviews of hosts provide a measure of security. Choose wisely however: Airbnb properties range from rooms in someone’s home to short-term luxurious vacation rentals. The plus: most are in desirable neighborhoods and contain all the comforts of home.

Take couch surfing to a new level
You can’t get much cheaper than free! Operating on the same principles as Airbnb, couchsurfing.com lets you send out queries to people who might be interested in hosting you in their home for free. Popular among Millennials looking to travel and meet new friends, couchsurfing lets you experience a locale on a local level. Often your hosts will not only put you up for the night and feed you in the morning, but also take you sightseeing and introduce you to their friends. The idea is that if you’re part of this network, you’ll reciprocate by hosting travelers in your home sometime, too.

Try house-swapping
Know some friends in another city who may want to escape for a little while, too? Arrange for a house swap. With accommodations taken care of, all you’ll need to worry about is the cost of travel. If you’re flying, you should be able to find a good deal by using one of the plentiful cheap airfare finders. If you don’t have friends interested in switching abodes, you can look for places on sites such as HomeExchange.com and LoveHomeSwap.

Call Your Credit Union
Wherever you go, make sure you alert your credit union that you will be traveling.  If they see suspicious activity or activity outside the norm for you they may flag your account, so be sure to give them a ring to let them know your itinerary.  They'll make sure to keep an eye on your accounts.

Whatever you do, make it a fun vacation. Set a budget and reward yourself for sticking to it by planning your next getaway when you get back!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Do I Do With My Refund?


We don’t normally like to tell you how to spend your money.  Our members tend to be very good at that, often finding creative ways to turn the hours they’ve spent at the office into new ways to enjoy their lives.  More often, we tell you how to not spend your money by letting you know about our fantastic savings options that can produce dividends in varying amounts of time, or we’ll often tell you about ways to use your good credit for getting a loan that can make your life better or save you money in the long run.

At tax time, however, we thought we’d take a different direction.  If you’ve got a windfall coming from the IRS and don’t want to watch it disappear as you spend an extra $50 or $100 here or there, we’ve got some plans that can turn your refund into lifelong memories, earn you money in the long run or both, all while spending time doing what you want to do.

We’re working with a hypothetical assumption that you have around $1,000 coming, because it can be an awkward amount of money.  It’s not enough to pay off a big chunk of debt or fund the purchase of a life-changing item like a house or new car, but it’s too much to ignore.  $1,000 is a lot of money to spend, but not a lot to have.

Tackle one home improvement project

We’ve all got a list of things we’d like to do around the house.  Maybe you’d like a deck for grilling once the winter lets up, or you’d like a more welcoming front entryway to your home, or you’d like to drag the kitchen into the twenty-first century.  Talk to your spouse, your kids or whoever might enjoy what you’re planning to build.  See what they have to say and what their interest levels might be in helping you out.  Once you come up with a plan, watch some YouTube videos to make sure it’s something you can handle, and then mark your calendar.  Set times to work, and make it a family project.  By the time you’ve finished, you’ll have improved the value of your home, spent time building something tangible with your family, and you won’t have to suffer through a summer without your deck.

If you can’t think of a fun project your kids might enjoy, what about building a wood-fired outdoor pizza oven?  They’re simple enough to assemble, the kids will definitely enjoy it, and most home kitchens are ill-suited to making really good pizza.

Once that project is done, you can always go back for more.  If everyone had a great time, take a look at what’s next on your list and tackle that.  Once your ambition to improve your home outpaces your refund, come see us about a home equity loan or line of credit and we’ll help you turn your house into the home of your dreams.

Take a parents’ weekend

Getting an evening away from the kids can be difficult, and a weekend might seem impossible, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  You’re holding a refund check from the IRS and it might be enough to ship the kids off to grandma and grandpa’s house, or pay for a couple of nights at a hotel in a nearby city.  If you haven’t tried it yet, AirBNB has made it easier than ever to find a great rate on a place to stay, even at the last minute.  Guys: you get bonus points if you take her somewhere for Valentine’s Day; dinner and a show might be lame at home, but in another city it can be romantic.  When was the last time she got to wear her favorite dress or jewelry?

A parents’ weekend is a great way to invest in your future, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.  Study after study says that Americans don’t vacation as much as the rest of the world, and that those who do tend to be more productive.  Watch how much more smoothly everything goes at work when you get back.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive getaway, try New Orleans.  It’s got haunted tours, antiquing and brass bands during the day, while still offering you world-class restaurants (Commander’s Palace is a must for upscale restaurants, Mother’s Po Boys for downscale, and try the chargrilled oysters at Acme for a taste you can’t get at home that is priced right in the middle) and Bourbon Street at night.  Mardi Gras is just around the corner, but you can save a bundle by heading down afterward.  Maybe while the kids are on spring break?

Encourage a gifted child

Many families find that they’d rather splurge on the kids than on themselves.  If that’s the case, why not use your tax refund to invest in your child’s future?  Purchase an instrument, a trainer or a tutor for a child who’s shown an interest in a special activity.  The college admissions process has gotten incredibly competitive since you went through it, and the leadership and talent demonstrated through extracurriculars could mean the difference between getting into that prestigious East Coast school or having to stay home at football state university.  Beyond admissions, talents your child can demonstrate will also help him or her get scholarships, making the investment you put in today a sound one financially, as well as spiritually.

If your child hasn’t displayed any gifts or specific interests, this might be a chance to spark something.  You could try paying for a school trip, which seems to happen every other month, or even take a family trip to Europe.  If you still can’t figure out what they’d like, you could always put the money into their college fund.  We offer several savings plans, which would allow you to earn interest toward their inevitably enormous tuition bill, which many experts think will be around $250,000 by 2030.  Yikes!

All in all, there's more than one way to make that refund last longer this time around.   Why not do something that will benefit your family long term?  Let us know if there's anything we can do to help!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Don't Get SMiShed!


Smishing is an identity theft scheme that involves sending consumers text messages containing a link to a fraudulent website or a phone number in an attempt to collect personal information. This scheme is becoming increasingly popular and consumers should know how to determine if they are being targeted by these criminals and how to ensure that their mobile devices are secure

Mobile phone users should not reply to such text messages, should not click on any link in them, and contact the business that the criminal is pretending to represent.

Take Action, Avoid Falling For the Scam

Consumers should also send these scam text messages to 7726 (SPAM), to cellphone carriers to have the number blocked.  If the smishing scam included the name of a financial institution, contact the bank to notify them of the text.

Tips to avoid falling for a SMiShing attack

Here are some general tips to help avoid falling victim to SMiShing.


  1. Avoid clicking links within text messages, especially if they are sent from someone you don't know. But, be aware that attack messages can appear to come from someone you do know, so think before you click.
  2. Don't respond to text messages that request private or financial information from you.
  3. If you get a message that appears to be from your bank, financial institution, or other entity that you do business with, contact that business directly to determine if they sent you a legitimate request. Review this entity's policy on sending text messages to customers.
  4. Beware of messages that have a number that says it is from "5000" or some other number that is not a cell number. Scammers often mask their identity by using email-to-text services to avoid revealing their actual phone number.
  5. If a text message is urging you to act or respond quickly, stop and think about it. Remember that criminals use this as a tactic to get you to do what they want.
  6. Never reply to a suspicious text message without doing your research and verifying the source. If your bank is really going to cancel your credit card, you should be able to call the number on the back of your card to discuss this matter with them.
  7. Never call a phone number from an unknown texter.
  8. Expect SMiShing to become more prominent in the coming year. The statistics are in the criminals' favor, and it's up to cellphone users to be smart about their behavior.
Take a breath and think through what you're about to do in response to an unidentified text message, and you should be able to avoid getting SMiShed!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Is Now The Perfect Time To Buy A New Car?

Americans have a definite love affair with driving – and there’s nothing like falling fuel prices to speed our heartbeats. As prices at the pump go down, if you’re like everyone else, your thoughts may be turning toward buying a new vehicle or planning that next road trip or family vacation.
With gas prices at their lowest levels since 2009 and interest rates probably the best they’ll be all year, now might be the perfect time to do both.


The $2 average per-gallon price of gasoline this week is less than half its 2008 high of $4.10, according to GasBuddy.com. And in some locales, a gallon of regular costs far less than a cup of coffee. In Houghton, Mich., for instance, prices at one station reached a ridiculously low 47 cents per gallon, causing long lines, exuberant motorists showing up with extra gas cans and low-price selfies.
Consumer excitement was palpable. “How low can gas prices go?” tweeted one NBC news affiliate in response to the reverse sticker shock.

Nationwide, the cheapest average price per gallon can be found in Charleston, S.C. at $1.30, while the most expensive is $2.87 is in Los Angeles. According to GasBuddy.com, the cheaper prices will save American consumers a whopping $17 billion this year.  “Buyers seem quick to respond to changes in gas prices, both up and down,” Brandon Schoettle, a project manager studying fuel economy at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, told CNNMoney recently.

One definite way consumers are responding is by heading to their neighborhood car dealership. Last year was a banner year for car sales. And industry analysts expect 2016 to be just as good, if not better.

Many foresee the strong market for auto sales lasting at least as long as the low gas prices. Because the bargain-basement gas prices are caused by global conditions, they’ll probably stick around at least until spring, when prices rise in advance of the summer driving season.

Consumers held off on buying new cars and trucks during the Great Recession, a period that also coincided with record-high gas prices. But U.S. car sales have since rebounded. Sales of new cars and trucks came in at 17.47 million last year, breaking the previous record of 17.35 million in the year 2000 and marking the sixth year-over-year increase in sales. Analysts chalked up the gains to a strong economy, interest rates at historic lows and higher consumer confidence.

The  National Automotive Dealers Association expects sales of 17.71 million vehicles this year, driven in part by the low gas prices and interest rates. All the automakers enjoyed healthy sales increases last year. General Motors, Ford, and Toyota were each up 5 percent. But that increase pales in comparison with the increased sales of crossovers and SUVs. More than 2.2 million compact SUVs and crossovers were sold last November, a nearly 20 percent increase over the year before, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Some dealers sold so many crossovers and compact SUVs that there were reported shortages. Because of that, dealers have stocked up this year. You may want to get your auto loan before shopping for a car to speed up the process. Our credit union offers low rates on auto loans, so call (800) 944-2200 or apply online at First City Credit Union's website.  You can also get someone else to do the price-haggling for you by using our free auto-buying service, Autoland.

Interest rates are still low, although they are inching upward due to the strong job market and higher consumer confidence. Now could be the best time to lock in a low rate, since up to four more interest rate hikes are expected this year. First City has some of the lowest rates available in southern California.  To find out the lowest interest rates our credit union is currently offering,visit us here.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Meeting the Needs of Retiring Americans



Andrea Finley, AVP of First City's award-winning Real Estate Lending Department, was interviewed by CU Members Mortgage, our partner in mortgage lending, for an informative paper on serving the needs of retiring Americans.  The White Paper is located here:


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Saving At The Vet: How To Keep Your Furry Friends From Breaking The Bank

Dogs at play in the Antelope Valley - Credit K. Perkins
We all love our pets. Cats, dogs, ferrets and furry babies of all sorts are members of the family. They eat and sleep under the same roof. They give affection when you’ve had a rough day. Your fridge, mantle and social media are full of pictures of your animals clowning around, just like any other family member.

Also like every other member of your family, if your pets get sick, they need medical care. Medical care for a family member – whether they are furry or not – can get expensive. Unlike what you have access to for other members of your family, veterinary insurance is something offered by very few employers.

This unfortunate circumstance can set families up to make tragic decisions. If your faithful furry friend needs medical care to save its life or daily medication to keep dangerous conditions at bay, costs can add up quickly. Yet, putting a price on your pet’s life isn’t easy. If there are multiple animals involved, veterinary bills can become a real source of stress. Letting a pet die because of costs, though, can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being.

There aren’t easy answers to these decisions, and sometimes they’re unavoidable. However, you can take steps to avoid these challenges. Let’s take a look at three steps you can take to keep your furry friends safe and your savings account flush.

1. Stock a veterinary first aid kit
Lots of pet health crises can be handled by a compassionate hand and some basic interventions. Scrapes, burns, and bruises can all be handled without professional intervention. Many accidental ingestion incidents can be solved with an expert consultation and a little bit of caring.

A first-aid kit for pets looks an awful lot like a first-aid kit for humans. You should have supplies for dealing with cuts and scrapes, like gauze, adhesive tape and an antiseptic spray or cream. For general illnesses, you need a thermometer to check for fever (make sure to get a fever thermometer- small mammals have natural body temperatures between 100 and 103), diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergic reactions, and hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting if necessary. You should also include activated charcoal or milk of magnesia to protect against accidental poisoning. Other things to include in an emergency first-aid kit include a blanket, a leash and a muzzle.

It may be frightening to muzzle or restrain your pet, but try to see it from their perspective. Your pet is in pain and relying on instinct. Muzzling will help you feel more calm and secure, since you won’t be worried about being bitten. That calmness will translate to your pet, who will be easier to tend to when they are a little less panicked.

Before you take any steps to heal your pet, speak to an expert. Many veterinarians have emergency contact hours where they may be willing to walk you through basic first aid. The ASPCA also maintains an animal poison control number where you can speak to a trained representative. They can tell you if you need to induce vomiting, what dosage of activated charcoal to administer, or if you need to seek in-person veterinary help immediately.

2. Negotiate
Most veterinarians got into their practice because they genuinely love animals. They want to help your pet feel better. If you’re not sure about your ability to pay, be up front about that. There may be several options available to you.

If it’s prescription medication, you may be able to have it filled elsewhere at a considerable savings. Online pharmacies are usually able to offer discounted prices on many medications and animal medications are no exception. These institutions may require a phone call or a fax from your vet, but most veterinary offices are well-equipped to provide that authorization. When your vet recommends a medication, ask for a written prescription so you can shop around to find the best price.

You may also be able to negotiate the cost of a procedure. Veterinarians may know of local charities that help fund care for animals in need. They may also be willing to reduce the cost themselves, or work out a payment plan with you. No one – especially your vet – wants to see an animal life lost over finances.

3. Consider pet insurance
“Pet insurance” sounds like a ridiculous luxury good for the mega-rich. In truth, it’s no different than any other kind of insurance that protects against expensive calamity. Compared to a veterinary emergency, these plans are very affordable. If you have an older pet, it’s worth considering.

Programs like PetAssure offer a 25% discount on any veterinary services you need at “in-network” veterinarians. There’s no deductible and no limits or exclusions. At $100 per year for 1 dog, the program offers considerable savings.

Every part of veterinary care is expensive. Blood tests on a dog, for example, can easily cost $200. If you need two blood tests in a year, PetAssure pays for itself. In fact, on average, dog owners spend between $500 and $1,000 each year on veterinary services. Getting a 25% discount on that price for $100 is an incredible savings.

Other programs offer more coverage for more money. Healthy Paws, for example, offers 90% coverage for about $230 per year. How much you choose to insure is a matter of personal risk tolerance, but getting some form of insurance is a great way to get peace of mind.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Years Resolutions

By the end of January, many of us will have forgotten all about our New Year’s resolutions. It can be difficult to change our lives, even when it’s for the better.  Knowing this, we want you to know that, in your financial life, there are changes you can make today that will last the entire year.  Here are three resolutions you can set today and some follow-up goals for the rest of the year.

Today:  Save money automatically.  If you want to improve your net worth, build financial security or make a big purchase at this time next year, the easiest way to do so is simply to automate your savings.  You can set up an automatic transfer to savings so you won’t be tempted to spend it.  With many of our savings products, you can even access the money if an emergency arises.  Check out our savings plans here:
 
Later:  Set up an emergency fund.  How much do you have set aside for a rainy day or to cover the unexpected?  If an emergency came up, would you have to sell investments, cash in your retirement or borrow from family?  Make this the year for setting up your emergency fund.  You’ll eventually want to have at least six months of income put aside where you can get to it. for now, start with $1,000, a month’s income, or whatever feels realistic.  It might be difficult to get in the habit of saving money, but this is the resolution you’ll be really happy you kept if something unexpected happens.
 
Today:  Pay down your debt.  If you’re struggling with debt, there are three basic solutions for paying it down, getting your payments under control and getting ahead of debt.  You can make more frequent payments, pay more each month or lower your interest rates.

Paying more frequently makes sense if you get paid every two weeks: You might already know about the advantage of bi-weekly payments, which let you make the equivalent of an extra monthly payment every year.  If you’re already doing that or you don’t get paid on a weekly schedule, you can also increase the amount you pay every month.  Even an extra $25 per month is $300 per year, and you can set up those payments automatically.  Make sure you increase your payments the most on the bills with the highest interest rates first, even if they don’t have the largest balances.
 
Finally, you can get ahead of your debt by lowering your interest rates.  You can call the creditors who are charging you the highest interest rates and pay the bill, transfer the balance to a credit card or loan with a lower interest rate, or see if they’ll offer you a lower rate due to improved credit.  One way to make this work is to arrange a home equity loan at a lower fixed rate, then move your balances with the highest interest rates to the loan.  You can apply for a loan here:
 
Later:  Get control of your spending.  It’s time to make a budget and stick to it.  Build rewards into the budget so you’ll actually be happy to follow it.  Take a look at what you use your credit cards to buy, then budget at least some money for those items or activities.  You’ll never keep a resolution like “stop eating out,” but you have a good chance of keeping a resolution like “don’t go over the eating out budget.”  This also gives you 12 chances to succeed:  Every month you can do better than the month before.
 
Today:  Make a drawer.  Many of us who have had the misfortune to act as the executor on a loved one’s estate have had the terrible task of finding all the savings, debts, insurance policies and other financial parts of their lives.  Don’t do this to whomever is taking over your life.  Empty a drawer in your kitchen or study and put as many relevant documents in it as you can find.  Make a list of everything in the drawer and everything that’s missing.  Put a copy in the drawer and another with your will so it’s as easy as possible for the grieving individual in charge.  As with any sensitive, personal data, keep this information in a safe place that only you and the likely executor(s) of your estate will have knowledge.
 
Later:  Fill the drawer.  What’s missing from the drawer?  Do you have a will?  How much life insurance do you have?  Do you have enough savings to take care of your children?  What about a plan for how they will receive that money?
 
Talk to a financial planner and insurance specialist to make sure you’re set.  With any luck, 2016 won’t be the year you need it, but if it is, it’ll be better for everyone involved if there’s a plan.
And that’s it … three things to do today and three projects to complete during the year.  None of them are out of reach, so you’re setting yourself up for success by making resolutions you can keep.