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Social Security Calculators: Planning Retirement to Win

Effective retirement planning is a simple equation. You have to make sure your passive sources of income meet or exceed your monthly expenses. For most of your income, like your retirement accounts, Certificates and investments, that income is easy to calculate. You know the rate of return and you know the amount you have saved.

One potential source of retirement income that’s a lot harder to predict, though, is Social Security. While it shouldn’t be your only source of retirement income, Social Security benefits can provide an added layer of comfort to your retirement. Planning around them, though, requires knowing the amount of your benefit.

That can be a tricky process. The complex web of contributions and regulations can make figuring out your monthly benefit a nightmare. You may need something stronger than a COLA once you’re done working your way through the nightmare of acronyms and bureaucratic doublespeak that make up Social Security laws.

Fortunately, this part of your retirement planning just got a lot easier. A new wave of apps called Social Security benefit calculators can simplify the process dramatically. They couldn’t be much easier to use.

Just input your yearly income, your age, and the date of your retirement. The program takes that information and generates a monthly benefit for you. Some of these programs even include an inflation adjustment tool to let you see how your benefit may change in response to changing economic conditions.

Basic calculators, like those available from the Social Security Administration, will do that and nothing more. These more advanced utilities will let you adjust the information you get based upon a variety of factors. This helps you to visualize the kind of portfolio performance you’d need to supplement your Social Security income.

More than figuring out how much your benefit will be, though, these utilities let you fiddle with numbers to see how to best optimize your Social Security benefit. By changing your retirement date, modifying your income and/or shuffling other variables around, you can see how your retirement income will change in response to your decisions. These adjustments can help you make an informed decision about how and when to retire.

More to the point, these tools will help you make the difficult decision about when to claim Social Security. The monthly benefit you and your spouse will receive increases every year between the time you turn 62 and the time you turn 70. The caveat to this increase is that you’ll likely have less time to spend it. Balancing these demands can be made easier with a calculator tool.

But keep in mind, there are more than a few hazards to making firm plans using one of these utilities. Even the best Social Security benefit calculator can’t predict the future. Social Security regulations are a hot-button political issue. Things like cost of living and inflation adjustments can change in response to political as well as economic circumstances. If these regulations change, so will your benefit.

Social Security itself is always in jeopardy, too. It’s the single largest expenditure in the federal budget and it comes under fire every year. If you build your retirement around Social Security income, you might be in trouble as government budgets get tighter.

Also, remember that these tools are for informational purposes only. You shouldn’t interpret these results as a guarantee of benefit. Many personal circumstances are considered when figuring your benefit and no calculator can capture them all. Treat this information as a useful planning guideline, but not as a contract.

The most basic planning tool is offered by the Social Security Administration. It’s regularly updated and provides the most direct pipeline to the byzantine network of regulations that govern Social Security. While it doesn’t allow you to customize your results much, it’s a good introduction to planning.

Probably the best tool of the bunch is SSAnalyze! SSAnalyze offers the greatest range of flexibility in input options. It allows you to set a range of life expectancies, adjust for changes in income (if your spouse was to retire early or you were to go part time), and account for a large number of household arrangements (domestic partnerships, blended families, and so on). SSAnalyze! has a little bit of a learning curve, and anticipating the results can be daunting, but the flexibility of this powerful tool makes it a great resource for retirement planning.

No matter the result you get from your experience with a Social Security calculator, it’s only one part of the retirement planning package. You need to take this information and add it to the list of things you know about your retirement options and plans. If you want personalized financial advice that uses that information to get you on the path to your truly golden years, speak with a representative from your credit union today. The trained financial service experts there can set you up with a range of savings and investment instruments that will let you enjoy the retirement lifestyle of your dreams. Call 1-888-NASA-FCU (627-2328) or stop by NASA Federal Credit Union today, and get on the path to your financial future.

Financial Planning For College: How To Get The Most Out Of The FAFSA

Q: My oldest child is about to begin her senior year of high school, and her younger brother is about to begin his sophomore year. We’ve already started getting letters from colleges, and I’m worried that her dreams will have a price tag we won’t be able to deal with. We’ve got some savings, but are worried it might not be enough, especially when both kids go to school. What can we do to maximize our chances of getting scholarship funds?

A: If you’re the parent of a college-bound high school student, you’ve probably already started receiving junk mail with pictures of big, impressive stone facades on the outside and big, appalling price tags on the inside. It’s college recruitment season, and college costs are at an all-time high. If your young scholar has his or her sights set on a private school, you can expect to shell out about $120,000 on tuition.

Whether or not you plan to help your children pay these costs, the federal government will use your financial status to assess your child’s financial need in terms of an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Whether you expect to qualify or not, you’ll have to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid – the FAFSA form. This form will be used in determining your child’s eligibility for a variety of scholarships, including subsidized student loans, Pell grants and other need-based financial aid.

The equation the government uses to calculate the EFC based on the FAFSA is publicly available. With this knowledge, you can move assets around to make your financial situation look as unimpressive to the government as possible. By doing so, you can help your child get qualified for more financial aid for college. You can help pay for school without spending any money by taking these steps:

  1. Reduce your cash assets. The FAFSA formula expects that you’ll use a portion of your liquid assets – that is, money in savings accounts, money market accounts, brokerage accounts, CDs and checking accounts – to pay for college. If you’ve got significant savings there, consider using it to pay down your mortgage or save it in a retirement fund. Neither of these accounts are considered “cash” as far as the FAFSA is concerned.
  2. Move investments into real property. The assets of your business are protected by the FAFSA equation. If you’ve been considering a capital upgrade, like new equipment or a bigger office, now might be the time to do so. If you don’t own a small business, consider shifting your savings into rental property or making improvements to your home. Both of these will reduce your cash assets.
  3. Make purchasing decisions with asset reduction in mind. If you are thinking about taking a big vacation before you send your little ones back to school, consider paying for it with a withdrawal from your savings rather than financing it through debt. The debt will accumulate interest, while the reduction in assets will make your EFC smaller.
  4. Review Retirement Account Contributions. If you haven’t already done so, maximize your tax-deductible contributions to retirement accounts. This will lower your income without counting as assets for the FAFSA. You can do the same thing if you’re planning a large, one-time charitable gift or other tax-deductible expense.
  5. Don’t lie on the FAFSA. It seems obvious, but bears stating. Lying on the FAFSA is a federal crime that could put you in serious trouble. Any money you gained with a fraudulent FAFSA would have to be paid back, usually with penalties.
  6. Reduce savings in your child’s name first. Because children have fewer expenses, they’re expected to pay a higher percentage of their assets. You can put the money back into savings on his or her behalf after graduation.
  7. Discuss college planning with gift-giving relatives. If grandparents are thinking of making a significant gift, ask them to hold off until after graduation. Once the FAFSA has been submitted, it’s good for a whole year.
  8. Be wary of firms that promise to reduce your EFC by huge margins. Often, these savings offers are pitched to desperate parents as a way to sell low-return annuities. These annuities can come with their own serious financial repercussions.
  9. Buy needed supplies before you fill out the FAFSA. Your student will need thousands of dollars worth of supplies, from computers to dorm furnishings. You can usually get a better price if you buy early. Also, you can deduct that money from college savings.
  10. Time your return to school. If you or your spouse is considering returning to school to pursue a higher degree, consider enrolling concurrently. Having two members of the family in college simultaneously allows you to divide your EFC by two.
  11. If your child is employed by the family business, it may be time to let them go. Student income is one of the biggest expected sources of contribution, and students who earn significant income will not qualify for financial aid.

These tricks can only affect your EFC so much. Don’t expect miracles. Unless you’re right at one of the significant FAFSA thresholds, you will likely only end up with some deferred interest loans. For help paying the rest of college expenses, get help from a trusted lender like NASA Federal Credit Union.

Our representatives can help you set up college savings plans for younger children, and may be able to offer competitive rates on student loans for children who are ready to leave for school. Call 1-888-NASA-FCU (627-2328), email support@nasafcu.com, or stop by NASA FCU today, to get help financing your educational future.

Financial Self Defense: Internet Hygiene

The Best Computer Time Investment You Can Make

Wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Cover your mouth when you sneeze. Brush your teeth daily. These are all basic elements of personal hygiene. We practice them, in part, to minimize the amount of gross stuff that our bodies do, but we also practice them to help protect us from disease.

You might think “Internet hygiene” means wiping down keyboards after you use them and not spilling things on your computer. While these are good habits, there’s another range of behaviors that security experts call “Internet hygiene,” and it can be the difference between a safe and effective Internet and a world of hackers, bots, and identity thieves.

For most people, the beginning and end of cyber-security is a piece of anti-virus software. Imagining that there is nothing on their computer worth stealing, most users don’t take their online security very seriously. Increasingly, that’s the attitude hackers are counting on people exhibiting.

One such recent cyber attack, a malicious worm called Game Over Zeus, infected around 10,000 computers. The worm allowed hackers to remotely control infected computers, using them to launch attacks on major websites. In addition, users frequently found their personal files encrypted. A window created by the worm would inform them that, unless they paid a ransom that sometimes was as much as a few thousand dollars, they would lose access to the contents of their hard drive forever.

How did such a vicious worm spread so quickly? Hackers have gotten better about choosing their targets. It’s easy to find out-of-date software and exploit known structural weaknesses in it to gain control of a computer. From there, it’s a trivial task to create emails that look like they come from the owner of that computer, which makes it easier to infect that person’s friends and family members’ computers.

Security expert Tom Kellerman compares the state of a compromised computer to a neighbor who always leaves the front door to an apartment complex unlocked. Not only can thieves break into the neighbor’s apartment, but they can use their expanded building access to more easily break into other units. If you aren’t maintaining the security protocols on your computer and being vigilant about what links you click, you aren’t just putting your own security at risk. You’re creating a more dangerous Internet for your friends, co-workers, and family, too.

The lesson of Game Over Zeus is pretty simple. Computer viruses spread a lot like human viruses. They infect people who don’t practice good hygiene, then spread to their friends and family. If you wouldn’t sneeze on your hand before pushing buttons on an elevator, don’t practice unsafe internet behaviors.

How can you practice good Internet hygiene? You don’t need to be a tech guru to keep your PC safe. Security experts consistently recommend you take at least these five steps.

1.) Download an anti-virus software program, like AVG or McAfee, and keep it up-to-date. Schedule updates for it to run when your computer is on, and don’t interrupt the process. Do the same thing with an anti-malware program, like MalwareBytes. Tens of thousands of new malicious programs are being created every day. If you’re not regularly updating your security software, you might as well not have it.

2.) Run scans of both anti-virus and anti-malware software on a weekly basis. Just like people with strong immune systems can get sick, even if you have a Mac computer, you can still be infected with malicious programs. If you’re on the Internet, you’re at risk.

3.) Do it right away. If your computer gives you a message that it needs to download or install critical updates, do it the first time you see the warning. It’s annoying to stop what you’re doing and restart your computer, but it’s better than having your computer compromised. When IT professionals call something a “critical update,” it usually means it fixes a known software exploit. Make sure the message that pops up is from a trusted source, however. There are malware programs around that use fake “critical update” popups to infiltrate your computer.

4.) Don’t click links that take you to sites you don’t recognize, even if they’re emailed to you by a friend or family member. These emails are frequently generated by bots to keep malicious software spreading. You clicking that link might make you yet another disease vector.

5.) Don’t download, install or run any software you don’t recognize. For these bots to keep spreading, at some point human beings have to authorize them. If you’re installing software you think might be dangerous, you’re putting your computer and the computers of everyone you know in jeopardy.

This might seem like a lot of work, but it’s the price of doing business and living in a digital age. With the convenience of a world of information at your fingertips comes the responsibility to maintain the health of that system. Do your part – install and update security software, and be constantly on guard for threats!

Important Information Regarding Home Depot Stores Data Compromise

NASA FCU member account security is our highest priority. We are monitoring account activity and will continue to do so for those who made credit or debit card transactions at a US or Canadian Home Depot store in 2014, from April on.

If you discover any suspicious or unusual activity on your accounts, or suspect fraud, be sure to report it immediately by contacting us at 1-888-NASA-FCU.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions:

How do I know if the Home Depot data breach impacts me?
If you shopped at a United States or Canadian Home Depot store in 2014 from April on, you should check your account for any suspicious or unusual activity. If you see something that appears fraudulent on your NASA FCU credit or debit card then please contact NASA FCU immediately at 1-888-NASA-FCU (627-2328).

What is Home Depot doing about this?
Since Home Depot first became aware of a potential breach, their forensics and security teams have been working around the clock with leading IT security firms, banking partners, and the Secret Service. They felt it was important to let everyone know that they’re confident there has been a breach. They acknowledge that it’s frustrating not to have all the details, and assert that customers won’t be responsible for any fraudulent charges. Home Depot is also offering free identity protection services, including credit monitoring to any customer who used a payment card at a Home Depot store in 2014, from April on.

Tell me more about the identity protection services Home Depot is offering.
Home Depot is taking steps to protect customers’ payment card information. If you need identity repair assistance during the next 12 months, starting on September 8, 2014, Home Depot has a team of dedicated fraud resolution investigators available to assist you. They will do the work to recover financial losses, restore your credit, and make sure your identity is returned to its proper condition. For additional protection, Home Depot is also making available at no cost to customers, a service that includes credit monitoring, identity monitoring, and an identity theft insurance policy. Customers who used a payment card at a Home Depot store in 2014, from April on, are eligible to receive these services. For more information about these services and to enroll, please visit https://homedepot.allclearid.com/

What information was compromised/stolen?
Home Depot has confirmed that their payment data systems have been breached. Their investigation of the details of the breach is likely to take some time. At this time, there is no reason to believe debit card PINs were impacted; however it is always a good idea to review your bank statements carefully and call your financial institution if you see any suspicious transactions.

Should I block my card at this time and get a new one?
If you want to leave the card open and continue to monitor your statements you may do so. If you wish to block your credit or debit card and have a new card reissued we can help you do that as well.  Debit cards can be reissued instantly at one of the following branch locations: Annapolis, Bowie, Collington, Columbia, Falls Church, Greenbelt, Headquarters, Oak Hall and Rockville.

Were social security numbers included in the breach?
Your social security number is in no way related to your debit/credit card therefore, it was not included in the breached data.

7 Ways To Save Without Suffering

We all know we should save more money than we do. Whether we need to pay down debt, build an emergency fund or save for retirement, we need to cut spending and increase our savings. It’s the only way to build financial security.

Yet before considering what to cut back on, try these handy tips to save money without noticing the difference.

1.) Stop subscription music.
If you pay for a subscription Internet radio service like Pandora or Spotify, you’re probably overpaying for music. The same is true if you’re paying on a per-song basis through a service like iTunes. Consider, instead, buying CDs. You can find Imagine Dragons 2012 project Night Vision for under $5 on Amazon, or the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack for less than $8. Streaming music services have cut the bottom out of the physical media market, and you can pick up the savings. Just copy the songs to your computer and transfer them to your mp3 player, and you can jam out for less.

2.) Cut back on cable
Take an honest look at how many movies you watch in a month. If you’re paying $15 a month for HBO or a similar fee for another premium channel package, you’re paying for a lot of content you probably never watch, and the overall selection is limited. For half the price of HBO, you can subscribe to Netflix or another streaming service and get a lot more viewing options. You could even go with Amazon Prime and get free two-day shipping on all your purchases while getting access to a fairly hefty video library.

3.) Time your vacations to travel for less
Summer tends to be the most popular travel time for tourist-happy destinations like Miami and New Orleans. If you’re planning a trip to one of these stops, traveling between February and April can save you money on your hotel reservation. Hotwire, the hotel booking site, sees an average decline of 30% at tourist locations during the offseason.

4.) Swap to an off-brand cell provider
You can cut down your cellphone bill considerably by switching away from a big-name carrier. If you’re on Sprint, AT&T or Verizon, you can save a considerable chunk by switching to a brand like Cricket, FreedomPop or Straight Talk. These carriers buy time in bulk from the major companies and resell it at a discount. They don’t subsidize phones or maintain well-staffed stores, so their costs are lower. You can get unlimited talk and text for one line for less than $15, and data, if you need it, for less than $20 for a 2 GB per month plan. These services don’t always travel particularly well, so if you need your phone while far from home, they may not be right for you. Still, at that price, it can be hard to say no to savings on a phone bill.

5.) Start reading paper books
Just like the streaming service has cut the core out of the price for physical media, the popularity of e-readers has done the same thing to the dead tree pulp market. This is particularly true in used books, where time-tested classic paperbacks can be had for as little as a penny. More current and popular titles, like John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, can be had on eBay for under $5, compared to the $10 for an ebook. Cheaper still, head over to your local library to get your fill of new releases, old classics and great books you’ve never heard of.

6) Check out Amazon Subscribe and Save
For commonly used goods, like tea and coffee, Amazon’s Subscribe and Save function can cut back on the time and money you spend shopping. If you go through a 72-count box of K-Cups every month, you can save $2 per month off your coffee bill by scheduling automatic deliveries of your java through Amazon. A dedicated tea drinker can save $1 per month on a 160-count box of Yorkshire Gold. With free shipping for orders over $35 (or if you have Amazon Prime, as mentioned above) and automatic ordering, this system can be your set it and forget it path to savings.

7.) Get rebate shopping!
For costs you can’t avoid, like groceries, it’s best to avoid as much pain as you can. That’s where online rebate apps come into play. Newly released iBotta, available for iOS and Android devices, offers a list of participating retailers and a list of rebates, usually between $.25 and $1.00. One of the most popular is a $.25 rebate on a gallon of milk – something you’ll likely buy anyway. After you finish shopping, you take a picture of your receipt with a smartphone or tablet and upload it to iBotta. They confirm your purchase and credit your rebates, along with bonuses for regular redemption, referring friends, and completing other challenges. iBotta can be an easy way to knock $5-10 off your grocery bill.

Payday Loans: A Serious Problem

We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of the month and you’re two or three weeks from your next paycheck. You’re driving to work like usual when a dashboard light starts flashing. The engine starts making noise. You don’t know what it means exactly, but you know it won’t be cheap. It’s weeks until payday, and you don’t have the money you need right now.

Ideally, you’ll have an emergency fund, a credit line or a HELOC you can use for those sudden, unexpected crises. Sometimes, though, you don’t have the best tools available.

If you’ve seen ads on TV for quick cash services, you probably thought they were too good to be true. They are. Most often, these are “payday loans.” This is a short-term loan against your next paycheck. It’s a really bad deal.

You write a personal check to the lender for the amount you want to borrow plus the lending fee. The lender holds the check until your next payday. At that point, they either cash the check or extend the loan for a longer period of time. Those extensions usually cost the same as the fee. They charge a new financing fee on the loan, and then you’re responsible for the whole amount. This fee adds up quickly, which can turn your one-time emergency into a crippling debt crisis.

The fees are usually the highest that are allowed by law. $15 charged per $50 loaned is not uncommon. In a hypothetical scenario, if you borrowed $100, you’d have to write a check for $130. If you need an extension, you’d have to pay a new fee – $45 for the new loan. You’d now owe $175. If this pattern continues, you can be in serious financial trouble very quickly.

If you miss a payment on one of these loans, you can be in for terrible consequences. For starters, your credit score will suffer. The terms of repayment can also allow the lender to garnish your wages, seize your car, harass you at home or work or even take you to court. The contract you sign with a payday loan provider has all kinds of terrible traps that are hidden in the fine print. These costs are why most people who use payday loans use them only as a last resort.