Category Archives: Financial Literacy

How Entrepreneurs Thrive in Uncertain Times

At the beginning of 2020, entrepreneurship probably felt like big risk for those who dreamed of owning their own business. Now, after months of a global pandemic, those same people may feel becoming an entrepreneur is downright impossible. Surprisingly, this line of thinking is simply not true; in fact, this may be a better time to start a business than even before the pandemic — especially if you have a system to follow and the right team to support you.

Big economic downturns have historically caused a growth in entrepreneurship, and it is often those very businesses that end up driving the new economy. It is also never too late to strike out on your own — studies out of Duke University, Northwestern, and other institutions have found that 40 years old is the average age for those who start their first business — and, surprisingly, these uncertain times might be one of the best times for you to follow that instinct.

Entrepreneurship in Changing Economies

Economic downturns have historically caused a growth in entrepreneurship.

The highest earners in this country are entrepreneurs. Owning a business of your own is practically the only way to reach an unlimited income. All you need is an idea and something people want and you can weather even the worst economic times.

In fact, history shows that entrepreneurship thrives during recessions. In 2009, the Kaufman Foundation found that a little over 50 percent of the Fortune 500 started their companies in a bear market or recession — the most recent being the housing crisis of 2008, when many who faced unemployment found success starting the tech companies found on almost every phone today, including Uber and Instagram.

This could be because entrepreneurship allows people to be flexible in times of crisis and gives them room to pivot as consumer demands change. Think of the rise of Zoom: as offices close and working from home becomes the new normal, teleconferencing software has seen a huge spike in demand, and its owners have benefited. Etsy has also seen record sales during the pandemic, proving that creativity and perseverance can overcome tougher times.

Life insurance has also remained in demand in 2020. For many, the global pandemic has highlighted the need for financial security and the peace of mind that comes from understanding the policies that protect their families. Seizing this opportunity is easier than one might think, especially with a broker like First Financial Security that makes entrepreneurship achievable.

Own a Business Without the Burden

Over 50% of Fortune 500 started in a bear market.

One of the hardest parts of starting a business is building your momentum: there are unforeseen costs on your path to independence, and entrepreneurship involves a steep learning curve. You have to learn how to build a team to help you administer your service, how to market your business to reach your audience of consumers, and how to maintain the type of technology that will make your business accessible in a digital world.

Our mission is to help people achieve the freedoms of owning a business while easing the burdens experienced in the beginning. FFS allows people from communities not usually represented in the insurance industry to learn along the way without the fear of failure.

As 2020 has progressed, we have seen a change in what consumers need and what types of industries will likely endure. People will always need financial security and peace of mind, and uncertain times will always need entrepreneurs to build the economy of the future. Do not let this year discourage you — with the right tools and a proven system, you will find that entrepreneurship holds no limit to your success.

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Understanding the Hidden Costs of Home Buying

Buying a house can be daunting, but it can also be exciting if  you come in prepared and understand the hidden costs of home buying. This is no decision to take too lightly, and you will want to do months of planning and research beforehand. Beginners may think buying a house stops at budgeting for the down payment and ongoing mortgage, but there are many other factors to consider before you put down any money on a new home.

First, you want to be as financially healthy as possible before you consider buying a house. Keep track of your spending to know how much you can afford for a mortgage. You also should have an emergency savings that contains at least six months of living expenses in addition to the money saved for the down payment and closing costs covered below.

After you meet these requirements, here are the fees you might pay when purchasing a home:

What You Will Pay in the Long Run

Your largest monthly expense will likely be your mortgage. The amount you receive from a lender will be based on your monthly income, your credit score, how much debt you carry, and how long you have been with your current job. You will have to get preapproved for a loan before you place an offer on any home; compare mortgages lenders to find the one that offers the best interest rate and lowest fees.

Alongside your mortgage, your monthly expenses will include:

  • Property Taxes - Your tax rate is calculated by the local government and based on the value of your property and land. Rates vary by type of property and jurisdiction, so it is important to understand the tax laws in any neighborhood you consider. Rates increase over time —sometimes significantly in a single year — so look into trends over the last few years and news of any forthcoming rate increases.
  • Homeowner’s Insurance - This form of property insurance will cover any loss or damage to your house, furnishings and other home assets. Compare different policies to find what works best for your needs.
  • H.O.A. Fees - Homeowners association fees may be applicable if you plan to buy a condo, townhome, or a home in a development. H.O.A. fees can cover a variety of expenses, from a community pool to exterior maintenance and repairs. Read any H.O.A. documentation carefully and ask questions about the regular maintenance on the property and any forthcoming renovations or improvements that would increase your costs in the next few years.
  • Maintenance Costs - Owning a home means that when something breaks, you can no longer call a landlord and have them take care of it for you. Maintenance costs are now on your shoulders, including the time, sweat and energy it will cost you to make certain repairs. It is recommended you set aside at least 1% of the cost of your home each year for maintenance costs. Consider this before paying less for a “fixer-upper” so you are sure you will be up to the challenge.
Estimate paying 1% of your home's value in maintenance costs every year.

Inspecting for Maintenance Costs

After you have made an offer but before you close on your home, have a professional do a home inspection for the overall safety and condition of the place. Depending on your home, you may want to hire a structural engineer and a surveyor in additional to a home inspector. These experts can evaluate the integrity of your home’s foundation and your property lines, which may be different from what the homeowner has presented. Do as much research on the front end to ensure you are not saddled with any costly repairs or replacements you didn’t anticipate. Take into account the expected lifetime of the following structural components and appliances:

  • Roof: 20–30 years.
  • Carpet: 8–10 years.
  • Linoleum: 25 years.
  • Vinyl: 50 years.
  • Marble, slate, or granite: 100 years.
  • Wooden Decks / Porches: 20 years.
  • Central Heating / A.C.: 17 years.
  • Stove: 20 years.
  • Refrigerator: 11 years.
  • Washer / Dryer: 9–12 years.Dish Washer: 9 years.

In addition to your down payment, you will have to pay the following closing costs (usually amounting to anywhere from 2–6% of the purchase price). These costs can be negotiated and paid by the seller, buyer or both.

  • Title Search - This is a fee charged to analyze the history of the property and deed, ensuring the property’s legal ownership and uncovering any disputes, claims or liens that might exist on such. The title must be clean to properly purchase the house.
  • Appraisals - An appraiser will come in and investigate the true value of the property. This helps determine how much a lender will give you as a loan and what terms it may require.
  • Lender Origination Fees - Fees that cover any administrative costs on behalf of the lender, typically 1% of the amount of your loan.
  • Mortgage Insurance - Your lender may require mortgage insurance if your down payment is less than 20% of the purchase price. In this case, they may also require you pay the first month of this insurance at closing.
Have an inspector determine the safety of your home before you close.

Take Your Time and Be Prepared

Buying a home requires a lot of information, more than anyone should expect to take in all at once. Remember that big purchases also bring out big emotions, so give yourself time to process any

How to Reduce the Hidden Costs of Car Buying

It can be tempting to budget for your next vehicle based on the price of the car, but there are a lot of hidden costs of car buying. From maintenance fees to the costs of registration to more costly insurance, it can be surprising how much more you pay to keep those wheels on the road.

A large purchase like this can be a huge emotional process. It is only natural, after all, as this will be a big change for your life. A car can bring freedom or even more stress if it becomes a financial burden. With big purchases, it’s so easy to get tempted by only $50 or $100 more a month for the car of your dreams versus the one you can afford. Having a plan in place that factors in hidden costs will help keep your emotions in check and your head clear.

First, you have to remember that a car is not a good investment — a vehicle decreases in value the minute you drive it off the lot, sometimes by 10% to 30%. A car is a utility purchase, not an investment vehicle, which is why you should almost always buy a used car. Do not get caught in the thrill of owning a new car. Think of your vehicle as “new-to-you” instead.

Picking the right model is important. You may think that buying the cheapest car you can find will be the biggest money saver, but if that car is too old or the parts for the model are expensive and hard-to-find, maintenance may end up costing you much more money in the long run than the more expensive cars on the lot. Be sure to search the model you are considering for purchase online to see if you may run into any of these issues.

A vehicle decreases in value the minute you drive it off the lot.

Costs at Time of Purchase

When purchasing a car off the lot, you might run into several costs that you may not be anticipating, including:

  • Registration Fee - Each state charges a certain amount of money to have your vehicle registered under your name. This fee includes license plate costs, but be aware that some states separate the two.
  • Title Transfer - This cost is for the legal document that proves you are the owner of the vehicle and that the title has been transferred from the previous owner. In some states, the DMV may also charge you a lien recording fee to record your loan on the title.
  • Sales Tax - Be sure to look up the tax rate for your state, as well as that of city and county governments who may add their own sales tax to the bill.
  • Emissions and Inspection Fees - Depending on your state, you may need to get the vehicle tested to make sure it passes state regulations for carbon emissions. Other states will require the vehicle to be inspected in full to cover their specific regulations as well.
  • Down Payment = This is one cost you should be expecting: the down payment is simply the amount of money you pay at time of purchase, before loans and financing.

Because so many of these fees vary by state, you can use this chart to find all the listed fees for your state. A good rule of thumb is to abide by the 20/4/10 rule. This means to put at least 20% of the price of the car for down payment, keep financing to four years or less, and keep your total ongoing expenses on the car to under 10% of your income.

Several hidden costs of buying a car are registration, license plate, tittle transfer, emissions and inspection fees.

Costs You Will Pay After Purchase

The payments do not stop once you drive the car off the lot, however. Here’s what to look out for as far as long-term expenses:

  • Loan Payment - If you’re financing your vehicle, you will be agreeing to pay back a loan monthly for a definite amount of time with interest. It is best to keep this loan term under four years because of how quickly a car decreases in value; your accumulated interest can eclipse the actual value of the car if you’re not careful. Dealers often offer a 0% APR to qualified buyers. Definitions of “qualified” vary but expect to get that deal only if you have a credit score of least 700 - 740.
  • Registration - You will be required to pay to register your vehicle in some way every year, usually on the month of your birthday and varying by your state.
  • Insurance - You need to have insurance in place to drive your car off the lot and you will have to keep paying to keep the car insured for as long as you own it. It is possible to save hundreds of dollars over the years, depending on which insurance company you go with, so it is crucial that you compare quotes from different companies to get the best rate you can find.
  • Maintenance & Repairs - Keeping your car running smoothly may be the most costly and frustrating part of owning a vehicle. At the dealership, be sure to ask about the vehicle’s history to ensure it has been well-maintained with routine oil changes and tire rotations. You will also want to have an independent mechanic inspect the vehicle to make sure there is no hidden damage that could prove expensive to

How to File Taxes as an Independent Contractor

Filing taxes for independent contractors can be a very different process than filing for employees. Contractors must pay a self-employment tax as well as income tax. Here’s what you need to know to file as an independent contractor:

Follow the Guidelines for Filing as Self-Employed

For IRS Purposes, independent contractors file as Self-Employed, which makes their earnings subject to Self-Employment Tax. Contractors are typically required to pay their estimated tax quarterly along with filing an annual return.

Self-Employment (SE) tax is basically the contractor’s way of paying the Social Security and Medicare taxes that would be withheld from the pay of most workers by their employers. The term self-employment tax does not include any other tax such as standard income tax.

Determine your SE tax and income tax by figuring the net profit from your business first — subtract your business expenses from your income. If this net profit from self-employment was $400 or more, you have to file an annual return; if it was less than $400, you only have to file an income tax return if you meet another other filing requirement listed in the these IRS instructions (use Charts A, B, and C on pages 8–11).

Independent contractors are typically required to pay their estimated tax quarterly along with filing an annual return.

Making Payments and Filing Your Return

To make quarterly payments, use the estimated tax worksheet found on IRS Form 1040-ES (be sure to have your prior year’s annual tax return handy, as you’ll need it to fill out this form). This worksheet has step-by-step instructions to determine and pay your quarterly payments, including the amount due on each date and a space to keep track of each payment’s date and confirmation number (check, debit or credit card). See the Estimated Taxes page and Self-Employment Tax page for more information.

Your annual return is then used to report the total income or loss from your business and the SE and income taxes you paid during the year. When it comes time to file your annual return on July 15, use Schedule C to report your income, and Schedule SE to report your Social Security and Medicare taxes. Follow these instructions for the Schedule C and instructions for the Schedule SE for step-by-step guides to filling out these forms from the IRS.

Take Advantage of Deductions

As an independent contractor, the IRS allows you to deduct many of your business expenses — costs for computers, printers and other technology used at work, plus the cost of phone calls, supplies, and travel, as long as all expenses were work-related. Deductions also apply to the costs of renting an office or running a home office. Additionally, half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes you pay are deductible.

You can apply home office deductions if you regularly use part of your home exclusively for your business. You have two options for deducting if you qualify: a simplified option that deducts $5 for every square foot of your house that qualifies as part of your business, up to $1,500; or a standard method based on actual expenses, adding up portions of your rent, utilities, mortgage interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance.

The details of these deductions are too extensive to summarize in all forms here. More information about tax-deductible business expenses can be found at this IRS Form, the home-office deduction factsheetForm 8829 (Expenses for Business Use of Your Home), the Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center and the IRS Tax Guide for Small Business. Further reading can also be found at this Kiplinger’s guide to the Most Overlooked Tax Breaks for the Self-Employed.

As an independent contractor, you can apply home office deductions if you regularly use part of your home exclusively for your business.

COVID-19 Updates to Taxes in 2020

It would be an understatement to say that many self-employed workers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Luckily, relief provisions have been put into place by the IRS in the form of tax credits for sick and family leave. For example, if you were forced to take sick leave for either your health or for the care of a family member, you may be eligible for a refundable tax credit for up to ten days of sick pay. Additionally, there is a tax credit for qualified family leave if your child was unable to attend school or daycare due to closed facilities. These credits are refundable, so if you are claiming a credit with an amount more than the taxes you owe, you will receive a refund for the difference. For detail on these credits, visit this IRS Overview Page.

The IRS will require proof that you qualify to claim each of these credits as well, so be sure to save anything you receive related to COVID-19 testing, your family’s medical care, and closures of schools and daycares. Note that these credits

The Best Ways to Manage Student Loans in a Financial Crisis

As many Americans wonder how they can pay off their debts in the wake of COVID-19, this pandemic has highlighted the importance of educating ourselves on what happens to student loans in a financial crisis. With college’s ballooning costs, 14.4% of adults holding some form of college debt and 54% of current college attendees taking out loans to pay for school, it’s become increasingly important to have a plan for paying off your student loans as soon as possible.

If you are a student loan borrower and you’re wondering what relief is available in a financial crisis like this current national emergency, as well as under normal circumstances, we outline some of the resources you should be aware of below.

Payment for federal student loans are paused until Sept. 30, 2020.

Student Loan Relief for COVID-19

With $1.41 trillion in student debt across America, representatives in the federal government understand the importance of student loan relief while we all practice social distancing. Under the CARES Act passed on March 27, 2020, all federal student loan borrowers are granted the following provisions through September 30, 2020:

  • Pausing of all payments.
  • 0% interest accrual for certain loans (Direct Loans, FFEL Program loans, Federal Perkins Loans and defaulted HEAL loans).
  • No garnishment of wages or tax refunds.
  • Ability for your employer to pay up to $5,250 of your student loans tax free.

Outside of legislation passed for COVID relief, there are other actions to help you pay back your student loans that you can take at any time:

  • Refinancing your student loans, consolidating existing balances into a single loan with a lower interest rate.
  • Change your repayment plan to one of the eight options for federal student loans.
  • Visit or call 1-800-4-FED-AID for information and advice on solutions for your particular loans.

These conditions will only apply to federally-held student loans, however. If your loans are commercially or privately held, you will have to contact your lender to see what measures they’re taking for their borrowers. Some lenders are offering to pause payments for up to 12 months, but it’s most likely that interest will still accrue during this forbearance. Be sure to contact your lender and familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of your loan. When you’re negotiating, be sure to ask all the questions you can so you’re well-informed on the status of your debt.

Take advantage of the payment hiatus to pay whatever amount you can for now.

The Perfect Time to Keep Making Payments

Take advantage of this unique payment hiatus by making whatever payments you can afford to anyway. This could help you pay down your student loan balance faster, because the full amount of the payment will be applied to the principal balance instead of interest accrued. Ideally, you’re saving money on other expenses like gas, auto insurance, dining out and gym memberships during this time. If it’s within your means, a good idea is to funnel some of what you’re saving in these categories of your budget to pay down your student loans. Now is a unique time to be proactive — take advantage of these provisions while you can and keep your eye on the goal of a fully-paid student loan.

Read our other articles in the Focus on Your Money series to get tips on prioritizing debt in a crisis, saving more money with budgeting, and how to improve your credit score.

FFS Agents – share this blog with your networks using our resources in the ABO..

How to Prioritize Your Debt in a Crisis

Unfortunately, payments and bills are still due even if you’ve experienced financial hardship in the wake of COVID-19. Debt management looks a little different during a crisis, but the essentials are still there — avoid late payments, put down as much as you can afford, and focus on certain debts over others.

Crisis situations are the ultimate times to re-evaluate your “needs” and “wants.” You have to ask one question about new purchases and ongoing expenses right now: “Can I live without this?” Everyone’s answers are unique. Maybe you can do away with your streaming services if you can’t afford living expenses — there is always free streaming content, jigsaw puzzles, and books that can entertain you and your family while you’re getting back on your feet. It’s possible, though, that Disney+ is keeping you sane with children at home, or your wellness app is keeping you centered. Your well being and saving your credit score for the future are your top priorities in a crisis. In this post, we’re offering a guide for what to pay first and what you can do for relief.

Your most important goal is having a safe place to live.

Mortgage & Rent

Housing expenses should be your highest priority payments. Your most important goal is having a safe place to live and keeping a home in which to shelter. While many states have put eviction freezes in place, you’re not completely off the hook. Failing to pay rent or mortgage can still result in eventual foreclosure or eviction; the freeze only makes it so you can’t be evicted right away. You may end up having to pay all of the back-logged rent at once when this is over. Keep up with your payments if possible and work with your landlord or mortgage lender to come to a deal that won’t leave you stacked with late payments when the freezes are lifted.

Household Utilities

Stay up to date with your water, sewer, electric, and gas. You don’t want to accrue fees that might bar you from energy assistance programs or shut off your utilities entirely, making it that much harder to stay healthy at home. If you’re having trouble making payments, reach out to your utility providers — many have hardship assistance programs and deferred-bill options.

Car Payments

Your car payments should remain your highest priority after your home expenses. You’ll want to avoid a repossession at all costs — you need that car for essential errands and getting to work when life returns to normal. Luckily, most major auto brands are offering payment deferrals and waiving late fees. Contact your lender to discuss how you can keep your account in good standing. While it may be tempting to cancel auto insurance, doing so can raise your rates later and leaves you open to serious expenses if your car suffers storm damage or is stolen while parked. If you don’t own your car outright, cancelling insurance isn’t an option. Many auto insurance companies are offering refunds on premiums paid during COVID-19. You should be able to work with your insurance company to reduce your rates during this time.

Federally held student loans will stop accruing interest until at least Sept. 30, 2020.

Credit Cards & Other Debts

Your other debts shouldn’t have such a direct impact on your health and safety, and therefore can be renegotiated right now — medical bill and back taxes for example.

Thankfully, the government has mandated that all federally held student loans will stop accruing interest until at least September 30, 2020. You do not need to do anything to take advantage of the 0% interest. Do not pay anyone who offers to reduce your federal student loan interest rates for a fee. The 0% interest does not, however, apply to private student loans – negotiate with your loan officer for support.

As for credit cards, most major banks are letting their borrowers defer for now. Many are also refunding certain fees and altering minimum payments. For reference, there is a list of relief-options offered by different card carriers. You’ll have to call your specific lender to take advantage of these provisions, however. Ask them directly what they can offer in terms of deferment and other measures of assistance.

Stay on Track

Remember that ignoring your debt is never a good idea. If you can’t cover a bill, confront it — contact the lender or creditor and let them know the crisis has made it so you can’t make a payment. They’ll likely be willing and ready to make an arrangement with you due to the unprecedented nature of this crisis. You have options. Take a deep breath — with planning, you can prioritize your debts and keep your credit under control. For more information on paying off debt, check out our latest Focus on YOUR Money webinar here*.

Read our other articles in the Focus on Your Money series to get tips on saving, budgeting, and how to improve your credit score.

* Webinars are available to current FFS Agents.

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The Five Most Common Questions About Identity Theft

In this week’s Focus on YOUR Money, we covered the dangers of identity theft. Here’s everything you need to know in five common questions:

Why would somebody steal my identity?

People live a good portion of their lives online now, and thieves have adapted accordingly. These criminals can now find identifying information online like your credit card or your Social Security Number and use them to make fraudulent purchases, apply for credit cards and loans, or even file taxes without any consequences to their credit record or financial history. This information is found and sold on the dark web, a criminal sector of the internet where thieves are almost impossible to catch. There is a new victim every two seconds—without a clear path to justice, the most important thing for you to focus on is prevention.

What are the consequences of identity theft?

There are many types of identity theft, each with slightly different consequences. The most common type of identity theft is strictly financial, where thieves use your credit line to buy things on your credit card. This can badly damage your credit score and make financial recovery a big headache. Other types of identity theft include medical (using your information to get false medical coverage and prescriptions), criminal (impersonating you when speaking with police), and concealment (using your information to hide from creditors).

Who is at risk for identity theft?

Everyone with a Social Security number can have their identity stolen, but the two demographics that are particularly vulnerable are children and seniors. Identity thieves will try to steal children’s identities to establish a “clean slate” identity, because kids don’t have a financial history yet. It’s important to pay attention to your children’s credit reports so you can catch suspicious activity early.

Criminals also target seniors because people are more trusting as they get older. These scams are usually over the telephone or through internet phishing. Remind your elders to be careful answering calls and emails from people they don’t know.

How do I avoid getting my identity stolen?

When it comes to identity theft, prevention is the most important thing. There are many measures you can take to keep your information safe, such as enabling two-factor identification on your online accounts, using strong passwords and secure web pages, shredding documents, and ignoring strange emails from people you don’t know. For detailed information on how to prevent identity theft, read more here or watch our latest webinar*.

What channels are safe?

Both FFS and our carrier partners take every possible measure to protect your information when you upload documents and images to our sites, so you can be sure that these channels are secure. This professional protection is why we provide agents with an FFS email address. There are also ways to protect your home network as more people start working from home during the spread of COVID-19; Consumer Affairs has recommendations for how to prevent identity theft in your home office.

Read our other articles in the Focus on Your Money series to get tips on saving, budgeting, and how to improve your credit score.

* Webinars are available to current FFS Agents.