Tips for Financial Spring Cleaning

By Celeste Lohrenz

Now that the weather is finally getting nicer, there are countless projects around the house you may want to tackle.  Maybe you’ve already gotten your lawn into better shape, or planted your garden, or even done some annual spring cleaning.  Have you given the same attention to your finances?  Just as you go through spring maintenance in and around your home, your finances may be in need of some polishing to make sure you’re getting the most out of your money.

Here are some tips to help get you started on getting your finances in shape.

Reduce clutter – If you’ve changed jobs several times during your career, you may have old retirement accounts that you aren’t managing anymore.  Looking into closing or moving them into your more active accounts will help you track you overall financial health, and will reduce your security risk by eliminating those accounts you don’t monitor.

Organize your documents – Take some time to make sure all your financial documents are organized in one place.  That way, you always know where they are when you need them, and it gives you a chance to do an inventory and locate items you may have misplaced or lost over the years.  You can do the same with your digital records – create folders in your computer storage and email specifically for financial records.  Be sure to password protecting those files and emails for added security.  Physically or digitally shred any old documents you no longer need.

Clean your home – In addition to your financial clutter, you may have acquired a host of items over the years you no longer use.  Go through your home and collect those items and sort them into three groups: sell, donate, throw out.  You may be able to claim your donations as a tax deduction if you itemize your returns, or you can sell them using local social media sites.

Retirement planning – If you don’t regularly re-assess your retirement finances, take a look at your IRAs and 401k accounts to make sure your contributions and savings are on track for a comfortable retirement.

Look over your budget – Take a close look at your monthly budget.  See where you may be overspending or paying for things you don’t need of use, like redundant digital services.  It may take several modifications to get to a budget you’re comfortable with.  If you haven’t created a budget, this could be a great time to do it.  Tracking you spending is the easiest way to start saving more.  In addition to a monthly budget, you can set an annual goal for savings.

Create a bill schedule – Most of your bills can probably be set to pay automatically.  This will help keep your payments on time and reduce the risk of late fees and credit damage.  You can also create a spreadsheet with every monthly bill (mortgage/rent, loans, credit cards, utilities, phone, etc.), so you can more easily track your payments and keep them on time.  If you’re living with roommates, this can be a great way to manage combined bills.

Emergency fund – If you’ve had to dip into your emergency fund during the coronavirus pandemic, you should consider making a plan for replenishing it as things start to return to normal.  If you don’t have an emergency fund, the current situation is a great example of why you should.

Automate saving – There are many tools that can help you automate saving, like Plinqit, a free tool that lets you set your personal savings targets and schedules based on your budgeting needs.  You can even earn additional money in several ways, like reaching your goals, referring others, and using financial education resources.

Cyber security – Make sure all your digital devices have good security software installed, including your smartphones, to reduce the risk of your accounts and finances being compromised.  Be sure to use very secure passwords and multiple layers of authentication.

It’s a good idea to regularly monitor all your financial accounts and credit reports to make sure everything is in order and you haven’t been compromised.  Going through this financial spring cleaning list can make it easier to manage your financial health.  If you need advice or information on any of your accounts, services, or tools, your we are ready to help.

Are You Getting the Most From Your Digital Banking Tools?

For the past two months, most of us have been working from home as our businesses have closed physical workspaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It’s been a challenge for many, and we are hopeful that we can all start to get back to our offices and ease back into more normal environments soon.

Throughout this crisis, even though our lobbies have been closed, The Milford Bank has continued to provide the banking services you need through our drive-thru tellers, ATMs, and phones.  We also hope you’ve discovered the many digital banking services we offer.  They are not only helpful now, but offer a convenient way to manage your finances going forward – so you can spend more time doing the things you enjoy.

Through mobile apps for phones and tablets, as well as online banking via your browser, digital banking gives you access to most of the services you need on a regular basis.  One very important thing to always keep in mind is to only use your digital banking tools on secure networks – and never use public WiFi to access your accounts.

Online and mobile banking apps ­– With our online tools and mobile app, you have a powerful set of tools to make managing your finances easier than ever.  With them, most of your banking needs can be handled from anywhere and from most digital devices, including:

  • Access your accounts
  • Check balances and transactions
  • Get copies of checks
  • Review loan/mortgage information
  • Transfer funds between accounts
  • Make deposits
  • Pay bills, set up/stop automatic payments
  • Make P2P payments
  • Find the closest ATMs or offices

You can access online services from any browser, and the mobile app is available for iPhones, Android phones, iPads, Android tablets, and Amazon tablets.

Plinqit– Saving money is never easy, and today, it may be even harder for many.  Savings apps like Plinqit can help you set aside even small amounts of money regularly for emergencies, college tuitions, weddings, mortgages, new cars, or anything else you may need extra money for.  All you have to do is set up your account, connect it to your savings account, and set your savings goals and a savings schedule.  Automating your saving – even if it’s only a small amount each week or month – will help you work towards those larger purchases.

ZelleZelle is a convenient way to send money to or receive money from friends and family, without having to make trips to the ATM or branch offices for withdrawals, and then mailing checks.  The funds are exchanged directly between bank accounts, so transfers typically happen within minutes.  You can access the Zelle service directly from our mobile app or online portal.

Notifi – One of the keys to effectively managing your finances is keeping track of transactions, not only to make sure they are legitimate, but to monitor your weekly or monthly spending.  Notifi allows you to set up text or email alerts for transactions across your accounts.  You can get alerts for all transactions, or certain types, or even those that exceed specified amounts.  Notifi is available through our mobile banking app.

Card Valet – Similar to Notifi, Card Valet keeps you updated on transactions made with your cards.  In addition to simply notifying you of transactions, which can immediately alert you to fraudulent activity – you can set geofencing parameters to help protect your cards, and even set limits on why kinds of transactions they may be used for.  These are also great features if you’re giving your kids access to cards for gas, meals, or other specific needs.  Card Valet is also available through our mobile banking app.

While we’re looking forward to welcoming you back inside our lobbies, we know many of you will prefer these digital tools for a while – and maybe permanently when you see how useful they are.  Of course, if you have questions, need help, or have other banking needs, our staff is always ready to help you, either by phone, or by emailing us at customerservice@milfordbank.com.

Staying Financially Healthy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Pam Reiss

As the world continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, life as we know it has come to a grinding halt. Millions of us are working from home, our children are getting their schooling through videoconferencing, and our normal social and sports activities are in limbo.

Unfortunately, the situation can create some uncertainty around how to manage financially. Whether you’re currently working or not, it’s very likely you’ve been thinking about how to manage your finances during this time. The good news is at least some typical spending has naturally been cut because we’re all staying at home. But, there are many ways you may be able to keep your financial situation as stable as possible and stretch your budgets a bit.

Takeout vs. cooking – Ordering takeout or delivery is a great way to support local businesses during the crisis, but if you need to cut your spending, since you’re at home anyway, try limiting how often you order out. Instead, enjoy more home-cooked meals. There are many resources online for inexpensive, healthy meals. You can plan your entire week’s meals, make a complete shopping list, and make just one trip to the grocery store. You can even have one night of the week reserved for leftovers. If you want to continue to support a few local restaurants, set aside one or two days of the week for that.

Buy what you need – We’re still able to go to the grocery store, despite having to follow public safety guidelines. If you initially stocked up on non-perishables or frozen items, start using those instead of constantly buying more. Also, when you’re at the grocery store, there are still many items on sale each week. You can check out your grocery store’s flyer online to see what’s on sale, and plan your meals for the week accordingly.

Other ways to save – Take a look at some of the other things you’re spending on each week and see where you can cut a little out of your budget. Things to look at include video services. If you’re a cable subscriber, you might think about switching to a lower service tier, at least temporarily, or if you have multiple streaming services, consider cutting one of more of them. The monthly savings can add up quickly, and you can certainly find other ways to entertain your family.

Low interest rates – With interest rates dropping, this may be a good time to look into refinancing your mortgage or student loan, or even consolidating multiple loans. While there will be paperwork involved, lower interest rates can provide significant savings each month.

Emergency fund – If you’ve been following good financial habits and have built up an emergency fund, don’t automatically fall back on it. First take a look at ways you can reasonably adjust your spending. Then, if you find you need to dip into it, you can hopefully use just a little of it. If you’re fortunate enough to be working, this is a good time to add to or start your emergency fund. Since at least some of your normal extracurricular spending has been put on hold, consider putting that toward your emergency fund. You never know when you’ll need it.

Investment funds – It can be difficult watching retirement accounts and other investments lose money with the current market instability. The good news is they have historically bounced back reasonably quickly. Before you move or sell your investments, talk to your financial advisor, who can give you advice on whether it’s a smart move or not. Making a rash decision could actually end up hurting your investment funds.

Protect your credit – If at all possible, continue to pay your bills on time. If you’ve been using your credit cards, at the very least, pay the minimum on those to avoid hurting your credit score. If you are in a situation where you can’t pay some of your bills, contact your lenders. some lenders are allowing extra flexibility with payment terms or interest rates to help during the pandemic. You should also check your credit reports regularly. Fraudulent activity often increases during crises, and consumers and businesses are under a constant barrage from cyber criminals. Be extra cautious with emails, websites, and phone calls. There are thousands of malicious COVID-19 websites out there, and many phishing emails and phone calls looking to exploit uncertainty and fear.

The good news is most of the financial resources you normally have at your disposal are still available, though not in an in-person capacity. But, you can still contact us if you need advice.  Even though we’re all dealing with this pandemic, you can do things to help keep your finances in order and limit any long-term impact.

So You’re a First-Time Home Buyer, Here’s What You Need to Know

By Paul Mulligan

Buying a home is one of the biggest milestones in your life – right up there with marriage and starting a family.  Being a homeowner has several benefits, including possibly lowering your monthly payments compared to renting and earning equity as your home value rises and you pay down your principal.  The immediate benefit, of course, is the happiness and security of owning instead of being beholden to a landlord.  As a homeowner, you have the ability to do what you like with pets, landscaping, renovations, and anything else that will make your house a home.

But, buying a home is also probably the biggest financial commitment you’ll make. There are many things to think about as you begin the process that can help make the process as enjoyable as it should be.

Here are several tips that can help make your first home purchase a positive experience.

Buy within your means – Many people tend to look at houses they can’t afford or that are too large.  Do the math to determine how much you can realistically spend while still allowing you to meet your monthly budget needs, as well as continuing to save for retirement and other future needs – including home maintenance and repairs.

Understand all your costs – In addition to the basic monthly mortgage payments, be aware of all the other costs that may impact your budgeting.  That includes property taxes and homeowners insurance, as well as mortgage and hazard insurances, depending on your financing need and location of the home.  You should also expect an increase in your utility bills, including heating and HVAC maintenance contracts – especially if they were previously included in your rent payments.

Plan ahead – Don’t rush into a home purchase.  Make sure you have all the information, have the financial resources to comfortably support the purchase, and are buying a home you will be happy in for many years.  Try to avoid draining all your savings and make sure you still have an emergency fund to fall back on should the need arise.  That’s particularly important as a homeowner so you don’t risk losing your house if you’re suddenly unable to make payments for a short period.  In fact, it’s even better if you can continue to grow your savings, so you have the resources to make improvements.

Manage your credit – It’s always important to follow good spending and credit habits, but especially when you’re looking to buy your first home.  Lenders will pull your credit reports, possibly several times, to make sure you are credit worthy and nothing has changed during the buying process.  Make sure you pay your bills on time, and be cautious opening up any new lines of credit before your loan is approved.

The perfect home vs. the right home – It’s rare that you’ll find the absolute perfect home for all your current and future needs.  Have a reasonable list of must-have features, and a second list of nice-to-haves.  Look for a home that checks off the first set, and maybe some of the second (you can always make improvements to check off more items later).  But don’t forget location.  Your neighborhood can be as big a factor in your long-term happiness as the house itself.  Do your homework and learn about the school system, commuting options and time, crime rates, tax rates, and other geographically dependent variables that may influence your decision.

Start the loan process early – As you start thinking about buying a house, don’t think you have to find the house first.  In fact, you may be better off starting the loan process while you’re looking, or even before you start.  Good houses can sell quickly, and once you find the house you love, you want to be able to move quickly.  Being pre-qualified for a home loan may give you an advantage over other potential buyers, especially if the seller wants to move quickly.

Seek advice – Especially as a first-time buyer, you will have many questions of your own, and many more you don’t even think to ask.  Contact one of our mortgage specialists, who can give help you find all of the information you need and help you throughout the process.  Also ask about our first-time home buyer program, which offers:

Keeping these tips in mind will help you have an enjoyable home buying experience and avoid complications that could arise.

*The Milford Bank is an Equal Housing Lender

What Does the New FICO Scoring System Mean?

by Paul Mulligan, SVP, Retail Lending

When you apply for a loan, lenders have access to a variety of information they use to decide whether to give you a loan and at what terms.  The most popular of those resources is your FICO score, a three-digit rating based on information in your credit reports, which helps lenders decide how likely to repay a loan, how much you can borrow, the length of you loan repayment period, and your interest rate.

While FICO scores give lenders a quick and consistent way to determine borrower worthiness, they also make sure you, the borrower, get a fair credit assessment and access to the funds you need.  FICO has become the de facto industry standard for lenders.

This month, FICO has updated its scoring system for the first time since 2014, which could impact your scores.  The new scoring places more emphasis on trend data in your credit report, looking at your credit utilization and payments over the past two years, as opposed to only current balances.  For instance, new data might include whether you tend to pay off balances quickly, carry extended debt, or consolidate loans, as well as your credit management predictability.

The other major change reflects changes in credit reports.  Tax liens, insurance-paid medical collections, and judgments are no longer part of credit reports, and healthcare defaults won’t appear on credit reports for at least six months.

At the end of the day, though, the real question is, how will the new scoring impact you?

The new scores will be less forgiving of risky credit behavior.  That means, if you regularly run up your credit, don’t pay off balances consistently, carry too many credit cards, or consolidate debt into personal loans in order to free up your credit cards, you may see your score go down.

On the other hand, some spending habits that may have previously been viewed negatively may no longer hurt you.  For instance, if you run up seasonal balances – such as during the holidays or summer vacations – and then pay them off, your score may not be negatively impacted because those are predictable one-time spikes, not regular habits.

Ultimately, what you need to keep in mind is the basics of good credit haven’t changed.  Payment history (35%) and credit usage (30%) are still the two biggest components of your FICO score.  If you follow good credit practices – pay your bills on time, keep balances below your credit limits, and don’t apply for too many new lines of credit (or too often) – you should have nothing to worry about.  In fact, if you manage your credit well, the new scoring could actually improve your score.

If you’re concerned about your credit rating and want to work to improve your score, the sooner you start following good financial habits and budgeting, the faster you can see positive change.  Of course, it’s not always easy, so if you need help or want advice on how to become more responsible with your spending, talk to our specialists.  They can provide information on financial best practices, budgeting and saving tips, and improving your credit.  On the other hand, if you have managed your credit responsibly, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.  Just continue to follow smart banking habits.

Don’t Let Emergencies Sink You into Debt

By Celeste Lohrenz

Emergencies are, by definition, unexpected and unpredictable.  They can also have significant financial ramifications – either due to high costs or loss of revenue or both.  By nature, emergencies aren’t easy to deal with and most can’t be avoided, but there are ways to make them more manageable, starting with making sure you have an emergency fund.  The question you should ask yourself is, “If I lose my job, if my roof starts leaking, or if my car needs a new transmission, am I financially prepared am I to deal with it?”

Why start an emergency fund?

An emergency savings fund or account could be the difference between being able to manage unexpected expenses and falling into deep debt.  If a significant expense comes up, knowing you have the funds to support at least some of it can keep you from having to worry about your monthly fixed expenses without taking out loans or maxing out credit cards.

How much do you need?

How much to save is really a question of several variables, including income, monthly fixed costs, lifestyle and other variable expenses, size of family, and certainly how much can you actually afford to save each month.  A common goal is to have 3-6 months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund, but even as little as $500 can cover many unexpected expenses, like a leaky bathroom pipe or bad brakes on your car.

Start by setting an attainable goal and, once you’ve reached that target, you may find you want to increase the size of your emergency fund, so you can set a second target.  When your emergency fund has reached a point with which you’re comfortable, you may have found it easy to live with the reduction in spending.  In that case, you can use the same philosophy to start a new account to start saving for a larger planned expense, such as a vacation, wedding, mortgage down payment, college  tuition, etc.

How to grow the fund?

There are many ways to find money to add to your savings, from cutting expenses to finding supplemental income sources.  One place to start is the change you get when paying with cash.  The coins, $1 and even $5 bills can add up quickly if you put it into a jar at home every day, then deposit it each week or month.  But, you have to have the willpower to avoid dipping into it for an iced latte or other items.

One of the most effective ways to save, though, is using automatic deposits.  We can help you set up automatic monthly transfers into your emergency fund, so you don’t even have to think about it.  Saving apps are another very useful tool that help automate your emergency fund growth.  The Milford Bank has partnered with Plinqit to help customers not only save, but earn money in the process as they reach their goals.

Where to put the money

The key is to make sure you have access to your emergency fund should you need it, but you don’t want it to be so convenient that it becomes a daily temptation.  Interest-earning savings accounts are a good option, because they can be accessed at any time without penalty, but you should keep your emergency fund in a separate account from your regular savings to avoid using it.  Your bank’s specialists can help you determine exactly what kind of account is most suitable for your individual needs.

When should you access this account?

The point of an emergency fund is to have it available if unexpected expenses come up that you can’t handle with your monthly budget.  if you’re faced with an expense you weren’t expecting, consider whether it’s actually an emergency – something you absolutely can’t avoid doing – and whether you may be able to cover the costs with your monthly budget, even if you have to adjust it slightly.  By using automated tools to fund the account, you will be less likely to spend it until an emergency arises – out of sight, out of mind, as they say.  But remember, emergencies can happen at any time, so if you do need to dip into your fund to cover an expense, you should start saving again right away to build it up again.  You never know when the next emergency is going to happen.

Is a Home Equity Loan Your Path to Eliminating Credit Card Debt?

By Paul Mulligan,

Senior Vice President, Consumer Lending

Now that the holidays are a distant memory, everyone has settled back into their “normal” routines, which inevitably includes paying the bills. Hopefully, you didn’t max out all your credit cards, but if you did, that may create strain on your budget, especially if you also have other debts you’re paying off as well, like college loans.

The reality is this situation can happen to anyone, at any time. You may run into some unexpected expenses or you simply aren’t budgeting wisely, or you haven’t figured out how to save enough and the next thing you know, you have multiple debtors hitting you with high interest rates every month. It can make it hard to make a dent in your balances and become financially secure.

If you own a home and have built up equity, there is an option that could help get you out of debt faster than paying off all your credit cards each month. You could look into a home equity loan. Especially if you’ve been paying of your mortgage for several years, or your home value has increased significantly, you may actually have an easy time securing a home equity loan.

Using a home equity loan to pay consolidate multiple debts has some advantages. For instance, home equity loans often come with lower interest rates than credit cards, making the interest you’re accruing each month lower. With a home equity loan, you are also only paying a single creditor, making your monthly budgeting a little easier to manage, and a longer repayment period may help you reduce your monthly payment, giving you a little breathing room in your budget. In addition, if you are also using the home equity loan to fund a major home improvement project, the interest may also be tax deductible.

But, you should be aware there are risks with consolidating debt into a home equity loan. Perhaps the biggest is that, if you default on the loan, your home can go into foreclosure. Unlike credit card debt, it’s almost impossible to discharge a home equity loan. In addition, if your home’s value drops, you could end up paying more than it is actually worth at that point.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is loan consolidation doesn’t address the spending habits that got you into a debt problem to begin with. In addition to paying off your loans, you should also get into better spending habits to make the most of your paycheck and avoid getting into even more debt. It’s very easy to start running up credit card balances if you aren’t careful. So, if you are having a hard time putting money into savings, there are several ways you can help yourself become more financially responsible, including using a savings app like Plinqit.

But, if you think a home equity loan could be the right option for you, come speak with one of our financial specialists, who can help you make a smart decision and get your finances back on track.