CLEVELAND, Ohio — As you’re musing over your plans and goals for 2019, I believe your financial life will be easier and safer in 2019 if you make and keep some of these New Year’s resolutions:
* Stop answering every stinking phone call to your landline or cellphone if you don’t recognize the number. (Perhaps there are exceptions if you’re a small-business person or have a loved one rushed to the hospital.) We all get inundated with so, so, so many robocalls, scam calls, phishing calls and more.
Just temper your curiosity! If you don’t recognize the caller, even if it looks like a local number or your neighbor, let it go to voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message! Really! They will! You and I don’t always answer every call. What do you do when you’re in the shower or in church or sleeping? Train yourself to not pick up.
* Sign up for email or text alerts with your bank and credit card issuers so you know if you have any large or unexpected transactions hitting your credit card or checking or savings account. This is so easy, and so important.
* Make sure your computer’s anti-virus/ firewall software is up-to-date. And don’t click on messages that say you’ve been infected. They’re scams! Turn off your computer and get some help.
* Train yourself not to click on attachments or links in email messages or text messages that you weren’t expecting, even if it appears to be from a person or company you know.
* Stop giving companies information about yourself just because they ask. If you’re buying something at a store and the cashier asks for your phone number, just say no. Do you actually want them to call you? Or worse, do you want them to sell your phone number to companies that will robocall you? If your kids’ dentist asks for your Social Security number, just say no. Do you want your SSN to be in another database that could be hacked?
* Don’t buy something on credit unless you know how and when you’re going to pay it off. It’s not necessarily bad to take out a loan or charge something on a credit card. It is bad if you don’t have a realistic repayment plan before deciding to spend the money.
* If you haven’t frozen your credit files, strongly consider doing it, especially now that freezing and thawing are FREE by federal law. You can do it by phone: Equifax 800-685-1111, TransUnion 888-909-8872, Experian 888-397-3742 and the lesser known Innovis: 1-800-540-2505. You don’t want a fraud alert. You don’t want a lock. You want a freeze.
* Be careful about choosing “secret questions” for your financial accounts or health insurance log-ins or other accounts that can be answered from your Facebook profile or other social media accounts or public records. Your high school mascot? That’s easy. Your pet’s name? If you have a pet, you’ve probably mentioned it on Facebook. Your mother’s maiden name? Yup, it’s probably available if your mom is on Facebook. (That’s why I give out an incorrect answer when asked by a bank or insurer for my mother’s maiden name as a security question. My mother’s maiden name is on her Facebook profile. Duh.)
* If you have children, start talking to them about money even earlier than you start talking to them about drugs or sex. Even a 4-year-old can start to learn the difference between wants and needs.
* While you’re at it, remind yourself about wants vs. needs.
* Get rid of your debit card. How many retail breaches need to be in the news to convince you that you shouldn’t put your checking account at risk like that? If you really want a debit card, open a secondary checking account and link your debit card to that. Please don’t expose your primary checking to thieves who could suck all of the money out of your account. It happens. You don’t have a problem until you do. And then you’ll contact me.
* If you’re among the half of all consumers who don’t save a nickel, resolve to start. You can begin by saving just $1 a week, if that’s all you can afford. Put it in a drawer or a jar and don’t touch it — no matter what!
You scoff and say that saving $1 a week won’t add up to anything meaningful. No, it won’t, really. But if you can manage to save $1 a week for several months without touching it, you will have accomplished more than you did before — teaching yourself the discipline of saving. The discipline is more important than the amount. Once you learn the discipline, you can increase the amount to better achieve your goals.
* Buy a shredder, and use it.
* Figure out whether your credit card or debit card is a “chip card.” If your card has a chip, don’t use it at a payment terminal that won’t accept chips. If you swipe your card, you’ll leave behind information that can be used to create a counterfeit card. That can’t happen if you use the chip reader.
* Examine your utility bills, especially your cellphone and cable/Internet bills. Do you understand all of the charges? Are you paying for things you no longer want?
* Check with older relatives or friends to see whether they need help understanding their gas or cellphone bill, or signing up for bank transaction alerts, or or sorting out whether letters or emails or calls are attempted fraud.
* Always carry at least two forms of payment with you — preferably one of them cash.
* Balance your checking account register or whatever you call it at least once a month. About 60 percent of consumers don’t. I’ve turned my kids on to the Balance Your Checkbook app. Or you can use a simple excel file. It doesn’t have to be an old-fashioned checkbook register.
* If you carry any credit card debt, take a minute to look at your next bill. It will show that, if you make only minimum payments, it will take you something like 15 or 20 years or more to pay off the debt. Look at what it will take to repay it in three years, and make a plan for how to do that.
* Any time you call a company to complain about a bank fee or to reschedule an appointment or to find out whether a store has an item in stock, get the name of whomever you talk to. That way, if (when) you have a problem later, you know whom to go back to.
* Calculate how much you think you will need to retire. Two good calculators: https://www.bankrate.com/calculators/retirement/retirement-plan-calculator.aspx and money.cnn.com/calculator/retirement/retirement-need.
* Check your credit report. It’s free, by law. And it’s easy. Mistakes can affect the interest rates we pay, the insurance rates on our home and car, whether a landlord will rent to us or whether an employer offers us a job. Go to annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
* Unless you have no debt and have all the money you need for retirement, think about whether there’s anything on which you can cut back. Maybe you can start keeping your thermostat a degree lower at night, or you can switch to the store brand for your peanut butter or yogurt, or maybe you can drop your expensive cable service and shift to something like Hulu Live, which offers live TV programming like sports and news. (It’s saving us $85 a month.) Small changes don’t hurt, but can add up over the long haul.
* If your credit card issuer offers you your credit score online, check it every month. It may not be your actual FICO score, and that’s OK. You can still use it to flag changes in your credit report, which could signal fraud or mistakes.
* Get things in writing. If your home contractor promises to have your job done in four weeks, get it in writing. If a store clerk promises to take back an item that’s not normally returnable, get it in writing. Verbal promises mean little. What if the person wins the lottery and moves to Aruba, or gets hit by a bus?
* Get your name off mailing lists. Start with the opt-out line shared by the credit bureaus. Call 1-888-567-8688 or go to optoutprescreen.com.
* Put all your warranties, directions and receipts for appliances and other big purchases in one folder or box, if you don’t have a better system yet. Don’t beat yourself up for not having a filing cabinet.
* Do your homework before any major purchase or financial transaction. With the Internet, we can all achieve near-expert status on any topic in a short time. Learn what questions you should ask — and the answers you should get.
* Look at your insurance policies, particularly auto and homeowner’s/renter’s. Know your deductibles. And consider whether you should shop around for lower premiums.
* If you have an ATM card but never use it as a debit card, ask your bank to give you an ATM-only card instead — one that doesn’t have a MasterCard or a Visa logo. Debit card fraud cases typically amount to $2,500 and consumers end up with $800 that isn’t refunded by the bank.
* Don’t try to check off all of these in one week or even in one month. For tips that involve action by you, pick out a few that are most relevant to you to do first, then try to accomplish one per week after that.
Murray is The Plain Dealer’s personal-finance writer. Because of the volume of requests, she cannot help everyone who contacts her.
To reach her: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Facebook: MurrayMoneyMatters
On Twitter: @teresamurray
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