Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Gift of Communication - Christmas Gifts that Keep Giving

In my series on “Gifts that Keep on Giving” I’m reminded of my college daughter, Bunny, and the fun we had staying at the Drake hotel in Chicago on a business trip. I really miss seeing her and today’s gift is perfect for her and her friends, it’s the “gift of communication.” When she was little, she talked non stop and now that she’s grown, she still love to chat whenever possible!

In my work with families who are on a budget, I have found that many have had to rethink their cell phone plan. In an effort to pay the bills, they may have had to cancel a cell phone plan or in some cases, they don’t have the credit to establish that service. In my quest to find a great communication alternative, I came across a cool new partnership in prepaid plans. This year, if you want to give the gift of communication to a family who is on a budget or a struggling college student, you can do so through a prepaid phone from Boost and Virgin Mobile as well as prepaid mobile broadband with Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go plans.

This is a partnership that is easy for me to talk about because it really benefits people who are on a budget. Let’s face it, those who need to limit their expenses, still need the ability to have a cell phone or connect to the internet. Whether you are happily employed or unemployed, it’s important to be able to pursue work situations through the use of a cell phone and through broadband connectivity.

Prepaid cell phones:

I think that prepaid cell phones are perfect for those who might not otherwise be able to afford or have the credit to qualify for a contract plan. I’ve also found they are a good option for families who have members who routinely go over their traditional cell phone limits, sometimes costing their parents lots of dollars in extra charges each month. (Ahem, not that this has ever happened to the Kay family! All I will say is: the leaves were raked and the laundry was folded by penitent teens for the several weeks.)

Prepaid plans from companies like Boost and Virgin Mobile were created for consumers such as college students who want to be able to afford freedom and independence on a budget. However, economics aside, cell phone plans such as the Virgin Mobile $25 Beyond Talk plan or the Boost Mobile $50 Unlimited plan keep both students and their parents happy. Parents appreciate being able to keep in contact with their kids, especially if there's an emergency. On the other hand, students, many of whom spend little time in their dorm rooms or apartments, like the flexibility and convenience of not having check if they’ve gone over their monthly allotted minutes.

Prepaid Mobile Broadband:
Another great gift of communication involves giving the gift of connectivity! Whether you are searching for a job, or the best price on a new pair of jeans, you need to be connected. Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go plans offer unlimited 3G, nationwide internet access for $40 a month with no contract. The Virgin Mobile MiFi device allows up 5 wireless enabled devices to connect at one time, so college roommates can share their gift all year long & divide the costs among themselves.

When you are selecting your gifts this year, be purposeful and try to give a gift that will keep on giving the whole year through. And Bunny, keep on calling, I love to hear how those finals are coming along!

Merry Christmas!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert ®

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Give the Gift of Education

Christmas is one of my most favorite times of the year and this year, more people are getting into the idea of gifting than last year. In fact, according to a recent survey, 73% of consumers say that they will spend the same as last year during the fourth quarter, and 18% of consumers report that they will spend more. So spending is back up again, but I think that strategic spending is more important now than ever.
It’s important for consumers to be careful and thoughtful in the decisions they make when it comes to buying gifts this holiday. That’s why I’ve partnered with Upromise to tell my friends about the gift of education. So while parents and grandparents (even favorite aunties) are splurging on kids, why not work on saving for kids, too by providing for that cute kid’s college education?

You can open a 529 account for any beneficiary, or gift money using Ugift into an Upromise Investments 529 plan. If you don’t already have a 529 plan, then you are really missing out because the contributions can benefit from tax deferred growth. Also, gifting into one of these plans this time of year also means that you can possibly take advantage of year end tax deductions. Just check to see if you are eligible for states income tax deductions or credits for saving for college. For example, parents and grandparents can contribute as much as $13,000 ($26,000 if married filing jointly) into a 529 plan without incurring gift taxes. A special rule allows married couples to gift up to $130,000 ($65,000 if single) as long as no additional gifts are made to that beneficiary over a five year period. This also applies to recent college grads who might appreciate a meaningful gift to help pay a student loan payment. Plus, you don’t have to be a parent or grandparent to participate, other friends and family can make contributions to your child’s 529 plan by gifting money or by buying gifts, which brings me to my next point—how to save money by spending money.

Most people, know about Upromise from signing up for their buying program. I’ve been participating for years by going to and then purchasing through participating online retailers. These are stores where I would shop anyway and I get anywhere from 1% to 25% back for the purchases I make. And our family isn’t the only one doing this. Last year, during the holiday season Upromise members received $12 million in college savings rewards from eligible holiday spending. Because membership is free and members have collectively earned $575 million in college savings from purchasing items online or even by buying gas or groceries. I book a lot of travel for my business and often find myself eating out—all these are also included toward my children’s 529 plans.

So consider giving the gift of education to a child you love—either by saving or spending, and the world will be a much smarter place!

Happy Holidays!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert ®

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gift Cards and the New Card Act

Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future! I love looking back at holiday pix when my babies were babies, that's part of the fun of the season.

Recently, I was on ABC NEWS, talking about the fact that for the past three Christmas seasons, the present at the top of most people’s list is the gift card. While recent surveys indicate that people love to give and get gift cards, this year, gift cards are not just for those who are short on time or scrambling for ideas. In a post recession economy, gift cards can help some families make ends meet for months to come. This year, there’s good news for those in the market for gift cards, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act enacted last year has imposed new restrictions on gift cards so they are more consumer friendly.

Understanding the new CARD Act rules will help you make the best selection when purchasing gift cards. First of all, there are different kinds of gift cards, so it's important to know the options and how to you decide which card to buy. There are basically two kinds of gift cards and they each have had their advantages as well as drawbacks. The credit card or bank issued cards have the advantage that they can be used almost anywhere, but traditionally, they’ve been racked with fees, including a hefty purchase fee. The other kind of card is a retailer card, which may not have the fees attached, but the obvious disadvantage is that they can only be used at a specific retailer.

Billions Lost in Christmas Past

Over the past several years there have been billions of dollars lost each year. Consumer have lost out because of expiration dates on cards, fees that can deteriorate their worth, and lost or misplaced cards. Plus, some businesses went under and the customer who had not yet finished using their card was out of luck.

CARD Act is Helping With Christmas Present

The CARD Act changed the scene on behalf of the consumer when it comes to gift cards in several ways. For example, gift cards sold after Aug 22, 2010, can’t expire in less than five years. The law also bars issuers from charging an inactivity fee unless the card has been dormant for at least 12 months. In the past, some gift card issuers deducted inactivity fees after only 30 days. Issuers are also barred from charging a fee to replace a lost or stolen card.

Even though these restrictions can do away with a lot of unpleasant surprises, it’s not all smooth sailing, there are still some drawbacks that people should be aware of. The first area is purchase fees. If you decide to give someone a gift card from a credit card or bank, then you need to expect to pay more than the face value of the card. All eight of the general purpose cards included in’s annual gift card survey charge between $3.95 and $6.95.

Why do credit card and bank issuers charge these fees? What kinds of services do they pay for?

They do pay for a variety of services, including the infrastructure that allows gift card holders to check their balances online. To contrast that with retail cards, none of the 46 retailers and restaurants in the Bankrate survey charge a purchase fee for their gift cards. Some retailers go even further, offering customers a gift or discount with the gift card purchase.

Beware the Ghost of Christmas Future

There are still areas where you should consider the future in purchasing your gift card. While the CARD Act restricts inactivity fees it doesn’t eliminate them. Consumers who allow them to languish for a year or longer could still get hit with fees, which are typically subtracted from the value of the card. Most of the general purpose cards in the Bankrate survey charge a $2.50 per month inactivity fee if the card isn’t used after 12 consecutive months. But this is primarily true for the credit card and bank based cards, not for retailers and restaurants.

Isn’t there suppose to be full disclosure at the point of sale for any kind of gift card and how do you decipher these disclosures, they can be really confusing?

All of these disclosures, as mandated by the CARD act are now suppose to be on the back of the gift card itself. The info is supposed to include fees, expiration dates, and a toll free number. In July, though, Congress agreed to extend the disclosure deadline until Jan 31, 2011 for gift cards produced before April 1st. So this holiday season consumers won’t get in on that part of the good deal. This is because Congress granted a reprieve. You would think it would be a good idea, especially during the holidays, to have full disclosure for the consumer. But the gift card industry would have had to destroy 100 million gift cards, which might have had a negative trickle down effect for the industry, and would have also made it virtually impossible for card manufacturer’s to meet retailers’ order in time for the holidays. So be aware of the fact that the cards you buy this holiday may have some outdated information on them. You can find the correct information through websites that the retailer will give you as well as signage and advertisements.

Ellie Kay
"America's Family Financial Expert" (R)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thanksgiving Family Tradition - Our Thankful Tree

There are some family traditions that are passed along from generation to generation. Then there are others that we establish for ourselves.

Well, it's time (again) for the 22nd annual "Kay Thankful Tree"!

Yes, for over two decades now, we have been collecting the following statement from our friends and family:

____________________(state your name) is thankful for __________________.

We print your message on a "leaf" and tape it on to our "Thankful Tree." At the beginning of November, the tree is bare, but as the season goes on, it gets full of your thanks. We then save each leaf and put it in an envelope marked 2010.

The photo here was our family featured in Woman's Day magazine from a decade ago. The photographer took 8 rolls of film just to get this one shot. There was an entire roll, where Joshua (the youngest) was missing and we didn't notice. We found him in the other room, playing with his army men because he was bored with the photo shoot.

We have leaves from way back when Daniel was thankful for his dinosaur, Philip was thankful for his red blankie, Bethany was thankful for flowers, Jonathan was thankful for his pacifier and Joshua was thankful for his sword!

So please don't forget to add what you (individually or as a family) are thankful for this year!

Ellie Kay

Sunday, October 31, 2010

ABC NEWS - Q&A From Military Members & Families

Here's a "Hero Shot" of hubby Bob and his F-4 Phantom, that he flew up until last year when a jet incident caused him to break his back. Thankfully, he is fully functional, but his injuries will not allow him to fly an ejection seat aircraft. The good news: he's gainfully employed flying "regular" airplanes and also the Global Hawk UAV (think the high tech airplane on Transformers).

We had a lot of questions when he had that accident and I speak with a lot of military members and their families who have questions about their lives and finances as well. Some of these fine people were on ABC News with me recently for a Q&A. Here's the recap for you to share with others you know who are in our armed forces. The questions that made it on ABC NEWS won a free copy of their choice of my books! But here are the answers to many more questions.

Q. Is SGLI enough insurance for families or do you need an additional supplemental insurance? From Melody O’Sullivan

ELLIE: SGLI is relatively cheap, term group life insurance that is offered to members of the military on active duty, in the ready reservists, members of the National Guard, members of the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Public Health Service, cadets and midshipmen of the four service academies, and members of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The insurance is also offered to spouses as well.
Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage is available in $50,000 increments up to the maximum of $400,000 for members of the military. The price for this insurance is very cheap, so it’s certainly a good value. But is it enough? If you are a young family with only one or two children, then it could be enough. But if you are a more senior servicemember with a lot of family members depending on you, then you might want to buy some term supplemental insurance. Remember that once you leave the military, SGLI is no longer available to you. So if you know you are going to separate in the next couple of years, then it would be a good idea to get a modest supplemental life insurance policy in place.

Q. As a “Key Spouse” how do we encourage other spouses to take advantage of all the benefits the military has to offer? From Starr Vuchetich

ELLIE: Thank you, Starr, for your volunteer work with other spouses, you are to be commended as should ALL our Key Spouses! There’s an old saying that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Your job, as a key spouse, is a difficult one. You know the benefit of taking advantage of the services and perks available to military families, but others have to decide for themselves. The best thing you can do is to lead those spouses by example and express the benefits you are personally receiving from taking advantage of, such as free childcare for volunteering, free financial counseling, free oil changes (or whatever program your base offers), as well as the many benefits listed at sites such as or

Q. How did you arrange childcare during deployments with very little money and how did you maintain sanity with so many small children on a tight budget?
From Jana Baez

ELLIE: I do remember what an incredible challenge it was when all my kids were so young and my husband was gone for weeks (or months) on end. But the first thing I did was plug into all the “free babysitting” I could get. Go to the Family Support Center and see if they offer free childcare for those who volunteer. I also got on site childcare provided when I attended Army Family Team Building classes, so sometimes you can get a break and learn something, too. Don’t forget the community outside of the base gates, either. There are a number of churches, community centers and MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups that try to support military families during deployments by offering free “Mother’s Day Out” programs or onsite classes where childcare is provided. Last, but not least, form a babysitting co-op, where you get tickets for every child you babysit for every hour. You can “redeem” your tickets with other co-op members and it serves as a way to escape for a while as well as a playgroup when you are watching other children.

Q. How does one begin a business without acquiring debt?
From Chana Montgomery

ELLIE: In the case of a military family, you need to start a business that is completely portable and can move with you. It’s important to select a homebased business that requires little initial investment and will still yield an income to keep you in the black. Do your research and talk to a mentor at where you can get free business counseling in your desired field. If you follow your passion, you’ll be far more likely to succeed. Just email and ask for the “Homemade Business” file, we’ll send it to you for free as it contains all the information you need to be successful in your endeavor.

Q. When you have extra income flowing in, is it better to work on paying off debts or continue paying normal payments and stash the money into savings?
From Emily Haffner

ELLIE: The answer is “both” if you pay even $5 to $10 more on your credit card minimums, you’ll improve your FICO score and begin to pay down that debt. But you also need a safety net in savings just in case your car breaks down and your husband is downrange and not home to fix it. The optimum savings goal is to have 12 months worth of living expenses. But even if you just save up to 3 months (and keep adding to it little by little) you’ll be better prepared for rainy days.

Q. I have three children and I wanted to know if I should apply the new 9-11 GI Bill to the first child (not knowing how long it will be around) or should I split it up among the children.
Stephanie Berg

ELLIE: Because the Post 911 GI bill is relatively new, and because we don't know how Congress will vote to continue this practice, it may be best to take the money while you can. It's still important to have your child go to the most affordable school possible, get scholarships and other means of payment. But go ahead and use as much of that GI Bill money as you can to pay what you can on your oldest child's college. In the meantime, the money you would have put toward his/her college (from your own 529 plan or other savings vehicle) put into another college fund for your other two children.

By funding more on the other two children's accounts, your money will continue to grow as the market continues to rebound. But in the meantime, you will also be able to take advantage of the current bill. Do not give your first child his/her saved "college money." Instead, put whatever you have saved toward the other two. You can tell your oldest that his/her college money is coming in the form of the POST 9ll GI bill. Because you don't want the youngest two to be stuck with student loan debt that the oldest child did not have to accrue.

Q. With limited funds, what should be the priorities for the best use of financial planning? Should I invest in the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan), IRA, life insurance or mutual funds? Major Anthony Smith

ELLIE: Once you’ve paid off your credit cards and funded a 12 month savings account, then you are ready to take your investments to the next level. It will depend on your family size, retirement needs and current income. I do not recommend life insurance as a good investment tool, even though agents may point you toward that route since the commissions are significant. Better to max out your TSP benefit since those funds will still be available to you if you do not make the military your career for a twenty year retirement requirement. It’s also a good idea to get a ROTH IRA or regular IRA. Go to your Airman and Family Readiness center and ask for an appointment with a financial counselor. It’s free advice and the expert there can look at your entire financial picture to help you come up with the best method of investing. Or try the military friendly company, USAA, they help to fund a lot of military events and can offer good advice on mutual funds.

Q. Being that you moved many times during your military career and have many children, how did you present it to the children when you had to PCS (Permanent Change of Station)? From Kristie Fromer

ELLIE: This is the hard part of military life, Kristie, and thank you for your willingness to go through this. One of the advantages of having so many kids is that they were sure to have built in playmates wherever they went! When we told our kids they would have to leave their friends, we allowed them the freedom to grieve and be sad over leaving. But we were also positive about where we were going. We printed out materials about the new base and all the places we could visit and where we would go camping along the way. By focusing on the positive, while allowing them the freedom to express their feelings, we had healthy, adjusted kids and a well bonded family.

Q. If your auto is less than two years old, is it a good time to refinance? We retire in 2011 and will be buying a house wherever my husband starts his second career. Is this wise to do before buying a house? From Lisa McClain

ELLIE: Refinancing a car will cause a hit to your FICO score, but it can be a good idea in order to get you a lower interest rate. I offer two words of caution: 1) refi at least six months before you get a home loan in order to give your credit time to recover and 2) refi with payments that will end at the same time your original loan would have ended (otherwise, you're just paying interest over a longer period of time.) For example, if you have 3 years left on your car loan. Then refi the loan for 3 years (instead of 4 or 5).

Thank you for your service, military members and your families. Remember three things:
  • America loves you
  • We support you
  • And together we'll be all right!

Ellie Kay
America's Military Family Expert (TM)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On ABC NEWS - Heroes at Home Corner - Military Financial Issues

I'm going to fly in one of those jets one of these days! My work with military money matters makes me concerned with recent bad news for military members and their families.

I was on ABC News this week talking about this survey. And here's the short version of what we discussed:

The Investor Education Foundation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority developed a military survey in consultation with the Treasury Department and the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. Their findings were alarming in that there is a significant increase in consumer debt among military members with more than one in four reporting a credit card debt load of more than $10,000.

Q. Ellie, you work extensively with military members in addressing their financial concerns, how bad is the problem?

A. The information that came out of this new survey is pretty sobering. The study focused on the financial capability of military personnel and found that while some in the armed forces are handling their finances fine, an alarming percentage aren’t doing so well. Debt is only one of the concerns that came out of the report, but it made it to the top of the list because the average military member has more consumer debt than the average American civilian.

Q. Why is debt more of an issue for service members than for civilians?

A. There are a number of reasons that account for this higher debt burden. For one thing, the survey found that military personnel and spouses are generally heavier users of credit cards than are civilians. And we all know that the more you use them, the more likely you are to be more heavily indebted to credit card issuers. In online polling of 700 current members of the U.S. armed services and 100 spouses of current members, more than one in four respondents reported having more than $10,000 in credit card debt. Ten percent of respondents said they were carrying $20,000 or more in such debt. The percentage of those who made minimum credit card payments, took out cash advances and paid fees was highest among families of enlisted personnel and junior noncommissioned officers.

Q. I can certainly appreciate the concern over this increased debt load, but what are some of the reasons that military families have more debt besides the fact that they use their cards more? After all, they do get a regular paycheck, military housing and health care.

Even though active duty troops can count on a regular paycheck from Uncle Sam, many military families face the same pressures affecting other Americans during this downturn: Spouses are having difficulty finding work, and mounting debts and foreclosures are forcing them out of rental homes. For those who are stationed overseas those factors are multiplied even more because in some countries spouses are not allowed to work on the economy. Also, when your loved one is deployed in harm’s way, there’s a greater tendency to overspend on comfort items for yourself and your children, for childcare and for eating out because you’re too tired or too depressed to cook. So military families are feeling the effects of our economy…and doubly hard in some cases.

Q. Most Americans I’ve talked to are concerned about their own finances in a post recession economy, but there seems to be a greater concern when military members have money problems. What are the long term implications regarding a lack of financial stability among service members?

A. Yes, you’re right, all of us are concerned about our money and how the economy is going, but our individual money problems usually don’t impact national security. But when you have those serving in the armed forces bogged down with the same issues, it is elevated to that disturbing level of impacting national security. It’s important that military personnel not be weighed down with money issues. Their financial stability is directly linked to their military readiness, according to studies by the Defense Department and the Government Accountability Office. Service members with severe financial problems can lose their security clearances, and bad money management also can result in sanctions, impair career advancement or lead to a discharge.

Q. We’ve talked about consumer debt, but what are some of the other problems that tend to plague military families that may not necessarily impact civilian families?

A. More than one-third of the military respondents said they had trouble keeping up with monthly expenses and bills. Many service members have gotten payday or auto title loans and these kinds of loans deteriorate their assets. Members of the military use payday loans three times as often as civilians, a separate Defense Department study found. With a payday loan, you borrow against a future paycheck. On an annualized basis, I’ve seen the interest rate on such loans range from 400 percent to more than 1,000 percent. Although there are many similarities in how they handle their money compared with the civilian population, military families have unique issues such as frequent deployments. Being in the military may be a secure job, but for many the paycheck is small. It’s not hard to end up with ‘more month than money,’ especially if you are young and have little experience of managing finances. And the military does have special challenges with frequent moves that always end up costing money.

Q. What is the Department of Defense doing in light of the recent financial crisis among military members?

A. The DOD has had financial counselors as part of each branch’s family support centers, but one or two people servicing the population of an entire base isn’t enough. Consequently, they have also created a financial readiness campaign because of the number of military personnel in debt and because so many were losing their security clearances. The Investor Education Foundation is also helping, conducting financial education forums here and abroad and awarding fellowships to military spouses to help them become accredited financial counselors so that they can help their peers. A soldier who is worried about finances is not a soldier who can focus 100 percent on his or her job. I think that when we put our national security in the hands of our fighting forces, then it’s in all our interests that they be able to do their jobs without being sidetracked by financial problems.

Lest you be discouraged by this recent survey--there is hope! Next blog, I'll answer questions from our men and women in the military (and their families), so stay tuned.

And to all those who serve in our armed forces, we thank you!

Ellie Kay

America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise!

With our son well into football season, I'm thinking about his health a lot more and the cost of health insurance as well.

According to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, if you or your child broke a leg, you would incur costs in excess of $15,000. It’s no wonder that in my experience with mainstream American families, I’ve found that the greatest financial concern they have is how find affordable health insurance.

Be Healthy
The best protection against rising medical costs is still prevention. My friend, Danna Demetre, has a is a fabulous health program for men and women of all ages. Using a support system that incorporates accountability, balanced eating, and exercise plans, this approach to health provides the opportunity to change your life, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally.

A healthy lifestyle can also have other advantages. Many health insurance companies offer a refund on an annual premium if the insured can prove that they have attended a health and fitness center three times a week.

Be Wealthy
There’s no need to pay more than necessary for health insurance. Compare plans and prices by going to a non-intrusive site such as . It’s possible to get a relatively anonymous quote instantly without the intrusion of a salesperson calling your home or office. It’s also a good place to compare plans by remembering that you shouldn’t buy what you don’t need. For example, if you do not need maternity benefits, eliminate them from the plan you choose.

If you can consider a higher deductible, then the money saved on premiums could go into a Health Savings Account (HSA), which is basically a health insurance policy you can bank on. When an HSA-eligible policy is purchased in conjunction with an HSA account, then the Health Savings Account is funded with pre-tax dollars, and taxable income is reduced at the same time. The money in this account is used, tax-free, to fund healthcare related costs including prescriptions, insurance deductibles and over the counter medications. The money that is not used in this account is rolled over from year to year and can serve as a retirement plan.
You do not have to insure all family members on the same policy. If there’s an employee benefit in a group plan, it doesn’t mean all family members have to be covered on the same plan. An average family can save as much as $2500 a year by pulling family members out of pricey group plans and purchasing individual health insurance. The exception to this would be if the family member has a pre-existing condition (such as asthma, a heart condition, high cholesterol, etc) that might be temporarily or permanently excluded in an individual plan. In that case, it would be better to pay the higher premium in order to keep the comprehensive coverage consistent.

Be Wise
Know the difference between health insurance and discount health or medical “cards.” According to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, many companies are selling so-called discount health cards to consumers seeking affordable healthcare. Usually for a monthly fee, the cards claim to save subscribers money by offering discounts on physician visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, dental work, eye care and other treatment. The CAIF says that, “Discount health cards are spreading rapidly. Many may offer valuable, money-saving benefits for people without health insurance. But these cards can also be confusing, because they are not insurance. You still must pay the medical bills yourself. These cards simply offer lower prices on services that accept these discounts.” If you have a question about a policy or a card before you buy, go to to make sure you’re being wise in your choices.

Finally, for the 45.8 million uninsured Americans, who may feel they cannot afford health insurance, go to the non-profit arm of a previous site found at to see what services and benefits are available for your particular situation and in your state and community.

Of course, I think it's friends and family that truly make you wealthy and those who are happier generally have better health. So kiss your kids and take your girlfriend to lunch and enjoy!

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Considering Debt Consolidation? BEWARE!

You could be in debt 3 to 5 years LONGER if you go to the wrong debt consolidation company. On ABC NEWS, I answered the following questions from viewers, so it's wise to review these before you choose a firm!

Q. I’m at the point where I have $20,000 in consumer debt and I know I need to do something about it. I’ve been looking around for a company that will help me, but I want to know what red flags I should look for so that I can find one that is legitimate.

Drowning in Debt in Durango
ELLIE: Well there are quite a few red flags to look for. Stay away from them if they:
• Guarantee they can remove unsecured debt,
• Promise debts can be paid off at pennies on the dollar,
• Require substantial monthly service fees,
• Demand a percentage of your savings as payment,
• Advise you to stop making payments to your creditors,
• Say that creditors never sue consumers for non payment
• Promise that their system won’t hurt your credit record.

Q. We went to a debt relief company for an initial meeting and we’re not sure if we should go with them. They don’t charge an upfront fee, instead they charge a percentage of the amount they will save us. But we’re still going to have to pay. Is this good?

Samantha and Tommy from Riverside, CA via facebook

Ellie: In the past, it wasn’t necessarily good, because there wasn’t a regulation about what they claim they’ll save you and many companies inflated their estimates to get even more money from consumers than if they charged an up front fee. It was still a fee, but it was wrapped up in prettier paper so that the consumer thought they were better off. But there’s good news, under the new FTC rule, if the company bases its fees on a percentage of the amount it estimates you’ll save, it must also provide both the percentage and the estimated dollar amount that represents in writing.

Q. We are talking to a debt consolidation company and it’s all so confusing. We want to save money on our overall credit card bills, which cost us about $800 a month. But the company is telling us to make payments and save up—how much are we suppose to save?

Alton and Sharon from Oxford, NY via online contact form

ELLIE: Before the FTC rule, you didn’t really have a way of knowing but now you do. These companies usually ask you to make payments to a dedicated account. When a certain amount has been saved, they’ll go to your creditors and offer to pay off a percentage of the debt. You should ask the company: “How much will I need to save?” The new rule requires debt settlement firms to provide a reasonable estimate of the amount you’ll need to save before they’ll make an offer.

Q: When my brother and his wife set up a debt consolidation, they had him set up a fund that he made payments to. It turns out that the place that held the money was also in partnership with the debt company and he wasn’t allowed access to the money. Is this the way it is suppose to be done?
Audrey submitted via Online Contact Form

Ellie: No, it’s not suppose to be that way and under the new FTC rules this kind of holding or savings account will have closer regulation. The FTC now requires that the customer have full access to the funds, they must be held at a financial institution not associated with the debt consolidation firm and the customer would have the right to withdraw the money at any time.

Q. I was thinking of calling my creditors myself but my friends say I should let the debt consolidation company call them. Who is right?

Moriah Stephens from Allentown, PA

Ellie: In this case, I think you are the one on the right track. You should try to call your creditors yourself before hiring a debt settlement firm. You can sometimes develop your own workout plan because it is in the creditor’s best interest to help consumers pay off their bill.

Q. Where can I find a legitimate non-profit debt consolidation company?

Mike from Mechanicsville, VA via Ellie Kay’s blog

Ellie: The National Consumer Credit Counseling service is a non-profit organization that has thousands of partners across the county. Go to to find an office near you.
Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good News for Those Who Need Debt Consolidation!

This week on ABC NEWS, I was able to share GOOD NEWS for those who are in need of help!

Consumers in a post recession economy are easy prey for advertisements that claim their company can reduce your debt by 50% or more in just a few months. Thousands of those who have been battered by the recession have succumbed to the ads and dialed the toll free numbers featured in these ads. They’ve also signed up for debt-relief services, often at considerable expense. Sadly, many of these consumers have ended up even deeper in debt than before they made the phone call. Today, let's look at the facts.

Q. First of all, how bad is the situation among debt relief agencies—are most of those firms out to take advantage of consumers?

ELLIE: The situation is pretty bleak, the Better Business Bureau reports more than 3500 complaints about debt-relief companies since the beginning of the recession. Granted, it’s probably out of line to make gross generalizations and say that all debt relief agencies are out to take advantage of a debt ridden consumer. There are some out there that are doing a good job with minimal fees attached. But unfortunately, there are many more that are adding to the debt woes of those they say they are trying to “help.”

Q. Would you say that the debt consolidation industry has thrived during a down economy?

ELLIE: Absolutely, it’s one of those industries that tends to do very well during financially challenging times. All of the sudden, people can’t pay their bills and they hear about others who have gone to a credit union or a debt consolidation company that has combined their debt in order to reduce monthly payments. But I believe, personally, that this industry, which tends to be opportunistic at best---is about to see a major change.

Q. A rule approved by the Federal Trade Commission last week will make it much harder for debt settlement companies to make a living. How does this FTC ruling help consumers?

It’s primarily wrapped up in the way that debt consolidation companies can advertise. No longer can they promise to “wipe away your debt” or “reduce it by 50%.” These dubious claims about their success rates are coming under close scrutiny. But even more importantly, the rule will prevent them from charging upfront fees for their services, which is expected to put a lot of debt-settlement companies out of business.

Q. Do you think it’s a good thing that many of these debt settlement companies could go under?

ELLIE: Yes! As a financial expert for the last 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of businesses that are out to stick it to the consumer. I’m all about helping families get out of debt and in my opinion, the majority of these companies are adding so many fees, that a lot of the people I’ve talked to are actually in debt 3 to 5 years LONGER after going to these kinds of companies. It’s been a wild, wild west for debt settlement and it’s about time the sheriff showed up and put some of those guys out of business.

Q. But the problem is greater than just dealing with the debt settlement firms, right? Aren’t there other companies that contribute to this problem and what is the FTC doing about them?

ELLIE: Excellent point, and I’m glad you brought it up. There are others that contribute to the issue and the FTC is cracking down on those companies as well. For example, there have been marketing agencies that earn big commissions for signing up as many customers for debt settlements as they can. These businesses have no interest in determining whether consumers are good candidates for debt settlement—they are just going after the bucks. In fact, many of those who signed up for debt settlement end up in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Q. It almost sounds as if there are no good options when it comes to debt settlement—are there any “good guys” out there in the wild, wild west? Is debt settlement ever a good idea?

There are legitimate companies that don’t charge an upfront fee and they offer full disclosure about what they can and cannot do for the consumer. You can go to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a non-profit organziation that can direct you. There are consumers out there who have large credit card balances, need debt consolidation and are not good candidates for bankruptcy. In fact, a 2005 bankruptcy reform law created a “means test” that has made it more difficult for some individuals to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. And a bankruptcy filing will stay on your credit report for 10 years, which could make it difficult for you to get a job, particularly one that requires a security clearance.

Q. So, how to you find a company that can truly help consolidate your debt without taking advantage of your difficult situation?

ELLIE: The key is to ask them the right questions such as:
“What’s your success rate and what percentage of people drop out of your program?”
Before the FTC rule came into play, companies could cherry pick examples of successful customers to inflate their results. But now if the company claims it can reduce your debt by a certain percentage—for example 40% to 60%--then the consumer has the right to ask for objective evidence to support those claims. If they can’t provide the information, then they probably belong to the unscrupulous crowd.

Q. What are some other questions consumers should ask?

ELLIE: Besides asking about their success rate, the next most important question is: “How much will it cost, and how long will it take to settle my debts?” The biggest misconception that people have about debt settlement is they’ll get a service in exchange for an advance payment. Most of them do not do that. In fact, the new FTC rule now bars debt settlement firms from collecting any money until they’ve settled or reduced your debt. But you should still make sure you understand how much the service is going to cost and how long you’ll have to wait before you see results.

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Your Questions about 401(k) Loans & Withdrawals

On ABC News Now and KLOVE this past week, I answered YOUR questions!

Q. It seems like every other friend of mine is taking the loan option on their 401(k). How many people are doing this?

Samantha Jones from Pennsylvania
Submitted via twitter

ELLIE: The second quarter report we talked about earlier also noted an increase in 401(k) loans. If you want to go the loan route, you need to know that workers are required to exhaust all other sources of fund—including a 401(k) loan—before they can take a hardship withdrawal. During the past 12 months 11% of plan participants initiated a loan, which is up from 9% during the previous 12 month period. 22% of plan participants had outstanding loans during the second quarter vs 20% a year earlier.

Q. If you want to take a loan on your 401(k) what kind of a reason do you have to give?
James from Fort Worth, TX
Submitted via facebook
ELLIE: A loan option is not a hardship option. For a hardship, you have to have specific reasons that fall within a certain criteria established by the IRS and/or the company. But for a loan, you don’t have to give a reason. You can take up to $50,000 or 50% of the amount in your plan, as long as it is vested by company rules, whichever of these is less. Since you are required to take a loan before you can apply for a hardship, this means that you will have little to nothing left in that account by the time you are done raiding your 401(k).

Q. If you take a loan against your 401(k), then what kind of a percentage point do you have to pay when you pay it back?

ELLIE: Most plans charge 1 to 2 percent above prime, which means currently 401(k) loan rates are as low as 4.25%. Loan payments are deducted from your paycheck. You can still contribute to your 401(k) plan while you’re repaying the loan, so you don’t have the issue of lost opportunity, but you do have to pay that interest.

Q. Since taking out a loan on your 401(k) doesn’t impact your ability to contribute to the fund and since interest rates are so low right now, why shouldn’t we take out a loan for our son’s college education?

Stephanie from El Paso, TX
Submitted via online contact form

ELLIE: There are a number of reasons you should avoid a loan including the fact that it could leave a considerable and even permanent dent in your retirement plan. Most borrowers reduce their contributions or discontinue them so they’ll have enough money to make repayments—it’s just what happens. Also, if you’re laid off or quit your job, the entire balance become due, which could be a double whammy if you suddenly become unemployed. Most employers require repayment within 60 days of leaving a job.

Q. I may be losing my job and I have a loan on my 401(k). I’ve been told I have to pay it back and I don’t see how I can possibly do that. What will happen and what recourse do I have?

Ted Thompson from Denver, CO
Submitted via blog

ELLIE: So sorry to hear about your job situation. If you cannot repay the loan, it becomes a distribution, which means you’ll have to pay taxes on the money, plus a 10% penalty if your under 59 ½. You should go see a free credit counselor at in order to see about paying all your creditors while unemployed.

Q. I’m not real knowledgeable about investing and the stock market. Right now, I’ve been offered two different jobs and part of my consideration includes their respective 401(k) plans. How do I know if a 401(k) plan is any good?

Robert Kavanowsky
New Jersey

ELLIE: Your plan should offer a well diversified mix of low cost investment choices. An employer match is a plus because employees tend to save more when their company kicks in money. So check the amount they are offering on the match. Investment guidance and regular, personalized report cards to show you whether you’re on track are important parts of a great 401(k) plan. Look for a company that is holding the total fees in their plans to well below 1% of assets each year. It’s important for you to choose the managed portfolio in your plan that not only offers low cost index funds, but also suits your retirement plan. If you are a younger worker, under 30, then you might want to go with an aggressive growth fund that is heavily tilted toward stocks, but remember that it also has more risk associated with it. If you are over 55, then you will want to select a fund that is income heavy in order to assume less risk.

Q. How much of my salary should I be putting away each month?

David Johnson, Biloxi, MS

ELLIE: Probably more than you are socking away now! Most employees are saving 7% a year or less and employers that offer matching contributions typically kick in 3$ of pay. That isn’t enough. The old rule of saving 10% of your gross pay was designed in the days when ore people had access to traditional pensions and employer provided retirement savings. In today’s world, you’re pretty much on your own for retirement and should be putting away 15% of your gross salary, including any employer contributions. Workers are permitted to put up to $16,500 in retirement accounts in 2010 and those 50 and older can squirrel away an extra $5500 in catch up contributions. You should have about 11 times your annual salary, on top of Social Security benefits if you want to maintain your current standard of living. So if you make 50K, then you need to save 550K by the time you retire.

Ellie Kay

America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Raiders of the Lost 401(k) - Loans? Withdrawals? Good or Bad?

Ellie was on ABC News and KLOVE discussing the attack facing 401(k) accounts.

The 401(k), which has long been known as the ticket to retirement for millions of Americans is under attack from within and has taken a hit in recent years. In the second quarter of this year, a record 2.2% of participants in 401(k) plans took hardship withdrawals from their savings, which is up 2% from the same figures available a year ago. What is the long term impact of raiding your 401(k)?

Q. The news about early withdrawals on 401(k) plans is worrisome and yet thousands of participants are making these decisions in increasing numbers. Why do you think people are taking the early withdrawal?

ELLIE: I think that it is worrisome when you are borrowing on tomorrow’s retirement to handle today’s financial issues. But I think that the vast majority of those who are taking this money out are doing it to pay their bills. Some have had their hours cut or maybe a spouse has lost their jobs. Others have seen their kids college fund shrink to where they cannot afford to pay tuition for this year and they’re raiding their 401(k)s to pay that hefty bill. It’s just a sign of the hard economic times in which we are living. Our parents’ generation tended to work for someone who gave them a pension check for the rest of their lives. This means that current workers may not have been raised with the mindset that they control their own pensions and need to make funding their own retirements a priority. There’s an alarming trend that involves looking at 401(k) accounts as “now” money when it’s really “later” money, that really must be saved for later.

Q. Aren’t there certain stipulations associated with a 401(k) hardship withdrawal? How easy is it to get?

ELLIE: I think that the increased percentage of those who qualify for an early withdrawal indicate the financial strain that many families are facing because this kind of withdrawal is not easy to get. Under IRS guidelines, 401(k) administrators can grant hardship withdrawals only for specific reasons, including tuition payments, the purchase of a primary residence, unreimbursed medical bills and prevention of foreclosure.

Q. The IRS has guidelines for hardship withdrawals, can companies also impose additional limits on their employees?

ELLIE: Yes, and in most cases the company rules are even tougher than the IRS. So if that number of Americans managed to actually secure a 401(k) hardship withdrawal, then it is a huge indicator of how the financial difficulty that many Americans are currently experiencing in our present economy.

Q. Of all the reasons you mentioned for taking a withdrawal, what is the number one reason that participants are raiding their 401(k)?

ELLIE: The number one reason is to pay the mortgage in the face of a foreclosure. In the second quarter, nearly 10% of households with a mortgage were at least one payment behind on their loans, this is according to the Mortgage Bankers Association report that came out last week. Families who feel they may lose their homes often believe they have no choice but to tap their retirement savings. But many of those families have not yet exhausted all their resources. If it’s a short term problem, then talk with your mortgage lenders and see if they will suspend or lower your payments over the next three to six months until you are back on your feet again. They can also go to, which is a federal government website with the goal of helping families by providing free HUD-approved counselors who can help you modify your mortgage. These are far better options than raiding your retirement fund.

Q. What about those families who are tapping into their 401(k) to pay tuition, you say this is a very bad money move, why?

ELLIE: As a mom with three kids who have graduated from college, two kids in college and two more headed toward college, I believe I can speak to the importance of getting that college degree. That having been said, I still think that those families who pay for tuition with their retirement dollars have their priorities wrong. There are other ways to pay for college, including taking a year off and working, going to a junior college for a couple of years, getting funds through an internship or work/study program or even getting a loan. You can get a loan to fund college but you can’t get a loan to fund your retirement. I never think it’s wise to borrow on your own future to pay for your child’s short term goal.

Q. What are some of the taxes and other penalties that arise when you take a hardship withdrawal?

ELLIE: These taxes and penalties are the main reason I say that it’s not a good idea to raid your 401(k) and one of the primary reasons is that, depending on your tax bracket, you could end up giving a third or more of your money to the IRS. You’ll have to pay income taxes on the entire amount of your withdrawal, at your ordinary income rate. And if you’re under 591/2, you’ll also have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Since the average age of those who took the hardship withdrawal in the second quarter was between the ages of 35 and 55, this tells us that most workers who took the cash are paying the penalty!

Q. You also say that there is an intrinsic “opportunity cost” that arises at the time of withdrawal, what is this cost?

ELLIE: When you take a hardship withdrawal, you’re prohibited from contributing to your 401(K) PLAN FOR SIX MONTHS! That means you’ll miss out on any investment gains you could hae earned by contributing during that period. You’ll also miss out on the company match, which is a guaranteed return on your investment and depending on the match, it’s usually much more than what you can earn in the market if you made your own investment. For example, if your company matches 50% of what you put into the account, you just won’t find another investment out there where you would get a 50% return on the money you put into that investment. So there’s a double jeopardy penalty associated with early withdrawal. You’ll pay for it now and you’ll pay for it later---then at retirement, you’ll pay for it all over again because you won’t have that money in the account.

Q. What about the fact that you can deplete an asset that is off limit to creditors, how does this impact a participant?

ELLIE: While raiding an account to avoid bankruptcy or foreclosure is a well intentioned money move, it’s also foolish because if you end up in bankruptcy anyway, then you’ve passed up the benefit you have in the fact that most retirement accounts are protected under bankruptcy laws in most states. And when it comes to 401(k) accounts specifically, it’s important to know that when filing for bankruptcy protection, creditors will go after your assets to repay your debts but federal law protects your 401(k) from creditors.

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bail Your Kids Out of Debt? Marry a Slacker? Co-Sign A Loan? - Ellie Kay's Q&A

Ellie was on ABC NEWS, and others stations across the country again this past week. All the following people who asked questions will get a free copy of The Little Book of Big Savings!

Here's her answers to your questions:

Q. Our son is only 20 and has $4,000 in credit card debt. He’s not able to pay and wants us to bail him out. I warned him about his credit cards because I made the same mistake when I was in my 20s and he didn’t listen to me. But I feel like a bad parent if I don’t help him out. What do you recommend?

Tim from New Mexico
Submitted via Facebook

ELLIE: Sorry to hear about your son's decisions, Tim. NO, you should NOT bail him out. It sets a precedence and you'll have to do it again (or do it for other kids, friends or family members). You can come alongside him and help develop a recovery plan. Or, offer to go with him to a free financial counsling center. Go to my free tools and click onto the section about consumer debt for more help. Your love for your son is unconditional, but your money is conditional. He made his own choices, now he has to deal with the consequences. You'll support him emotionally, but you won't fund his mistakes.

Q. Our daughter has a used car that we bought her when she was 18. She’s now 22 and newly graduated with a $30,000 a year job. She has to pay rent, insurance and all her living expenses and wants to buy another car. The one she has now runs just fine, but since she got a new job she wants a new car. However, we would have to cosign on it, what do you think?

Christine Thomason, Minneapolis
Submitted via Facebook
ELLIE: Congrats, Christine! You raised a baby girl who not only graduated from college, but also found a good job right away--well done! Now, the next step is to help her learn delayed gratification. She WANTS a new car, she doesn't need one. The fact that she needs a co-signer indicates the bank does not consider her a credit worthy risk--neither should you. Instead, encourage her to set aside $350 to $500 per month (whatever her car payment would be) for a year. Then, she can sell her existing car, buy another nice USED car and pay cash. If she saves this way for another year, she can sell the 2nd car for a nicer used car (using her saved cash) and still pay cash. This way, she's driving her "dream car" for free with NO car payments!
Q. We have two kids that are 14 and 16 and are on competitive basketball teams. They take a bus two to three times a week to tournaments and other competitions. We have to pay for their meals on the road and they are burning through our cash constantly. They’ll spend $15 or more (each) for a fast food meal and we’re going broke. Is there a way to motivate them to cut back on how much they spend?

Thomas Evers, New York
Submitted via email

ELLIE: Thomas you've found yourself in the place where you are getting played by your kids. I know what it's like, I've found myself asking: "How did I get here?" when it comes to my teens running over me with their personal agendas. It's time to regain your lost ground and be the dad. Tell your kids that you are putting them on a food budget and they will now have $10 (each) to spend on fast food. If they were eating in a nice, sit down restaurant, it would be different. But they're not. Tell them if $10 is not enough, they can bring a sack lunch on road trips or pay the extra expense with their own money. Either way, they're not going to starve and you won't go broke.

Q. Our oldest daughter is suppose to get married in December. She is 24 with a good job and her fiancĂ©e is 30, has a degree in electrical engineering but doesn’t really have a job. He drives a truck off and on. It’s spooky, because when I got married, it was a similar situation and we ended up divorcing because I was the main breadwinner and he couldn’t hold a job. I don’t want her to make the same mistake. Do you think a couple has a “right” to know about each other’s finances and attitude toward money and work before they get married?

Donna Michaels from Oklahoma City,
Submitted via blog

ELLIE: History has a way of repeating itself. There are so many red flags in this situation, that you are right to be concerned as a mom. First of all, your daughter needs to go to premarital counseling with her fiancee and stress with the counselor that they want an emphasis on financial issues. If her fiancee will not go, then I think she should postpone the wedding. A couple of facts are clear: he is well educated and underemployed. The reason might be something legitimate like "the economy" and counseling will make that clear. But the other reason could be that he's unmotivated when it comes to providing a living--in other words, he could be a slacker. So if your daughter wants to be the main breadwinner and face a life of living with a man who is underemployed, then keep the December wedding date. Otherwise, get the wisdom of a third party involved to determine the real reasons for his unemployment.
Please submit your questions and if I answer them in a blog, I'll send you a free copy of The Little Book of Big Savings!
Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Monday, August 30, 2010

What Should You Teach Your Three Year Old About Money?

Here we have the world's cutest four year old, three year old and 7 month old! But what should they be learning about money right now?

So how do you raise a kid that owns his car, debt free, owes no credit card debt and has a 760 FICO score upon graduating from college (no student loan debt) at the tender age of 22? We've been able to raise a kid (or two or five) that are financially fit. We still have some at home that we're working on! But you can raise financially literate kids, too!

It starts with a "Fiscal Report Card" and checking off what they need to know at various ages. Here's a partial report card you can review and if you want the full version (for free) just email and put "Fiscal Report Card" in the subject line.


Age 2 to 4
• Picks up toys cheerfully
• Is on a schedule for sleep, play, and work (or school)

Age 4 to 6
• Makes bed in a basic way (not necessarily neat)
• Picks up room regularly
• Brings clothes to hamper
• Knows how to set and clear the table
• Knows how to take out the trash


Ages 7 to 10
• Knows how to sort laundry into whites, coloreds and darks
• Can fold laundry and put it in everyone's room
• Is given an allowance
• Has a savings account at home and at a bank
• Manages a fun kid budget (restaurant, zoo, amusement park, etc)

Ages 11 to 12
• Begins to do additional "jobs" for hire within the home and occasionally for friends or family.
• Has a savings account with at least $200 to $250 in it.
• Is learning the meaning of delayed gratification
• Can save up for half of a larger ticket item they want (bike, skates, video game, etc)
• Is regularly contributing to a community organization either through volunteer hours or donating goods (clothing, toys, money)


Ages 13 to 15
• Can manage and balance their own checkbook with supervision
• Has enough in savings to take out $200 to $300 to start a mutual fund
• Is able to do outside jobs for hire among approved "employers" in the neighborhood
• Regularly pays for outings (movies, theme parks, etc)
• Is saving for a vehicle
• Is aware of the fact their grades in high school will impact their ability to get into college and earn scholarships for college

Age 16 to 20• Can balance a checkbook without supervision
• Has an additional credit card (on parents account) and can use it responsibly
• Can manage and balance a clothing budget and personal financial budget
• Regularly works inside and outside of the home during breaks from school
• Has paid for 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost of their car
• Maintains a good GPA (or what they are capable of)
• Has a regular volunteer position (hospital, coaching, church involvement, etc)
• Can use social media to learn ways to save money

What are you doing with your kids that is working? Let me hear from you!

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Atonement - How to Keep Your Kids from Making the Same Mistakes You Made

Can you atone for the financial mistakes you made and keep your kids from making the same errors? This week in national media, I'm talking about how to help your kids make right financial choices. Here's my main talking points.

Statistics indicate that the majority of high school graduates cannot pass a basic financial literacy test and end up accruing $3800 in consumer debt in college. In fact, a 2010 American Express survey of parents with children between the ages 6-16 revealed that:

• 71% of parents say their children understand we are in a recession.
• 91% of parents say they are committed to instilling lessons of financial responsibility upon their children, with 62% giving their children a weekly allowance.
• One in five children (20%) has indicated to a parent that "maybe we shouldn't buy that due to the recession."

Q. Ellie, in a day where foreclosures abound and consumer debt is at an all time high, there are many parents who are watching who want to help their kids avoid the mistakes they made. Have you ever made any financial mistakes?

ELLIE: Yes, I’ve “been there/done that” and have the t-shirt to prove it. Our family had 40K in credit card debt when we were first married even though my husband had a good job. There were a couple of weeks when we didn’t have money for groceries, things were so bad. We were able to change our ways and became financially healthy and we don’t want our kids to make the same errors we did.

Q. Why do parents need to take responsibility for teaching our kids good money management, aren’t there new financial literacy programs, such as Jumpstart, that are making a difference?

ELLIE: I’ve spoken at Jumpstart conventions and they are a fantastic organization, but these programs aren’t available in every school and it’s up to parents to take that responsibility. In fact, I think that one of the greatest things we can do for our kids is to teach them about money management, something they don’t learn in the classroom. Since the number one reason cited in divorce is “arguments over money” teaching our kids to be financially literate can even help them in their future relationships.

If they don’t have to worry about debt, they know how to manage a budget and they learn smart ways to save money, then we’ve given them the best gift possible. We all know that kids learn most about how to manage money from their parents. And parents have a huge opportunity to teach kids healthy money management habits at an early age so they don’t make the same mistakes we made.

Q. What are your favorite ways to give your kids financial responsibilities without losing control?

ELLIE: There are several options out there for parents looking to stay in control of family spending while still extending financial empowerment to their teens and young adults. One of the things we’ve done is to teach our kids from a young age that if they “borrow” money from us, they pay it back at their next allowance, thus developing the habit of not carrying a balance from month to month. This concept is most closely identified with the Charge Cards that we have with American Express. In my work with their consumer education area, I decided to add additional cards with custom limits to our own account that is in the children’s name so we can teach them about the smart use of plastic and they can never spend more than the limits we’ve placed on the card. One of the reasons I believe in a charge card is that you have to pay it off at the end of each month. These cards are on the parents' account, not the teens, but we can go online and see how they spend the money and we can also set limits for each additional card. Once they turn 18, these cards, while still under our account, can be also used to develop our child’s FICO score.

Q. What are some of your favorite money management tactics?

ELLIE: One of my favorite money management tactics is to teach kids the art of managing an allowance. By getting an allowance, kids learn to manage their own money while they are still in our house and have the freedom to fail under our safety net. We teach them to give, save and spend smart. We’ve also used the tactic of a “Fun Kid Budget” where we set aside a certain amount for trips to the movies, zoo or an amusement park. They manage the money we’ve given them for the fun outing and the key is: they get to keep what they don’t spend. As they get older and become teens, their budgets expand to include a school supply budget, clothing allowance and a gasoline budget. A great option is to put their designated amount on a American Express PASS , which is a prepaid, reloadable card that once again, we control. That way, we don’t have to worry about them taking cash to the mall or using our debit card and the funds can be replaced if the card is lost or stolen. It’s like driver’s ed for the teen’s wallet but parents are in the driver’s seat.

Q. You have a “Family 401(k)” how does that work and what age do you start this kind of savings program with your children?

ELLIE: A “Family 401(k)” is a program where our kids have to earn half of the money for a large ticket item that they want such as a bike, videogame, roller blades, skateboards, etc. It may take months for them to earn their half, but once they’ve earned it and purchased the item, they take far better care of it than if we just bought it for them outright. They worked hard to earn their half so they’re going to make sure that videogame doesn’t get scratched and that they don’t leave their bike out in the rain. They can start this program as young as 6 or 7, depending upon the maturity of the child and their math skills. I remember our daughter, Bethany, saving for 8 months to get an American Girl doll, she was only seven years old but she was so proud of it and took such good care of it that it’s still in good shape and she’s now 20 years old!

Q. How can activities like back to school shopping help parents teach kids about money management?

ELLIE: A recent survey that examines consumer back to school spending intentions, notes that 39 percent of Americans plan to spend more on back to school shopping this year than in 2009, yet the majority (63%) say they will have a set budget and virtually all parents (94%) say they will look for ways to be resourceful and stretch their dollars.

I come alongside my kids and teach them how to compare prices, recognize quality and shop the sales, even using a coupon on some of these items. For our teens, we let them use our smartphone while in the mall to local coupons and the best deals that are accessed on the phone and used at the register. For example, will list coupon codes and special deals. The fact that we’re using their “language” which is technology drives the financial lesson home in an upbeat and lasting way.

One of the other things we do is to teach them that “we pay for the item but you pay for the brand.” So if my son wants the latest Air Jordans, then we tell him we’ll pay $50 for the tennis shoes and he pays the additional $70 (for a total of $120) for the brand. It makes them realize what’s a need and what’s a splurge, then they can decide if it’s worth it to spend their own hard earned money on a brand.

If we can help our kids do better, then you can, too!

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Red, White and Scammed - Part II- Answering Your Questions

Here's a blast from the past--when our children were little & white tights were in!

This is part two of a series that is an effort to help military families. I've been on ABC News and KLOVE these past two weeks, answering your questions.

Here's a transcript for those of you who asked--Be sure to pass this link along to your military friends!

Q. Ellie, you came to our Army base to speak last November and I think that your message really helped me get through my husband’s deployment. Thank you for the work you are doing with military families. I did have a question about ordering items online. You showed us how to pay 40% less by using some websites, but how do I know if the website is legitimate?
Steph from Rothenburg, Germany
Submitted via online contact form

ELLIE: Steph, thanks for writing and thank you for what you do as a military family member, I admire you so much and know it’s a hard job! To avoid getting scammed online, make sure that you never respond to an email inquiry, but you find the site yourself on your own search. Then, go to to make sure they aren’t listed and also check out the, plus the Internet Crime Complaint Center at, to investigate complaints against the company.

Q. I’m 19 and have been a soldier for 18 months. There are quite a few of my friends who regularly go to the payday loan business that is right outside our base. I keep telling them that they are losing a lot of money by getting a pay advance, but they say the interest rates are low and it’s no big deal. What do you think?

"Private Benjamin" from Ft Bragg
Submitted via Facebook

ELLIE: Private Benjamin, thx for your service and you’re the smart one. Tell your friends that some of these payday loan companies are charging as much as 500% interest. Even though the Defense Authorization Act of 2007 put a cap of 36% on interest loans to military members, many of these companies skirt the law by added exorbitant fees and calling the loans “revolving lines of credit” instead of payday loans in order to bypass the law.

Q. My husband’s hazardous duty pay was backlogged by red tape and didn’t arrive early enough for us to pay our bills. How am I supposed to pay things like our car loans while he is in the Middle East if I shouldn’t go a payday loan center?

Justine Long, Fort Drum, NY
Submitted via Facebook

ELLIE: In situations like yours, there are resources as near as your Army Community Services center where they can offer free financial advice. In extenuating circumstances, such as yours, you might even qualify for special programs offered by the Army’s charity, Army Emergency Relief or the AER. By going to these legitimate resources, you can avoid getting ripped off.

Q. Our community here in Alamogordo, NM is very supportive of the military and so is Las Cruces, which is a little further down the road. Many businesses carry banners that say, “we support our military.” Even so, a friend of ours bought a car from one of these places and it turns out that the dealership didn’t own the title and then went out of business. Now our friend has an $12,000 loan to pay and no car to show for it! How can we avoid being “taken” and who can we trust?

Heidi Rothenburg, Holloman Air Force Base
Submitted via blog

ELLIE: Heidi, I’m so sorry to hear of that situation, especially from a business that advertises its support of the military. Unfortunately, auto vendors are a huge source of complaints. In most cases, the salesperson will offer you “easy credit” but you pay jacked up prices, hidden fees and interest rates of 15% to 20%. Military financial counselors have files full of horror stories. Bad dealers have taken cars in trade, promising to pay them off and then they go out of business, leaving service members with two payments. Go to BBB certified dealers and if the deal sounds too good to be true, just walk away, because it usually is. Or go to your base's ACS, Airman & Family Readiness Center or Fleet and Family Support Center for local financial counseling.

Q. My daughter just got commissioned with the Marine Corps and I’m concerned about the possibility of someone taking advantage of her financially. Are military members bigger targets for fraud than civilians?

Sue Simpson, Stillwater, OK

ELLIE: Military members have guaranteed paychecks and won’t ever get laid off. This makes them good credit risks. But it also makes them targets. Some people see the military as cash cows and they want to get their cut. One of the greatest evidence of this fact is that outside of any large military installation, you’ll see businesses that offer payday loans, pawn shops, and check cashers. These are the kinds of businesses that prey on unsuspecting military.
Stephanie, Phoenix, AZ
Submitted via email
Thank you to those who serve!
Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Red, White and Scammed - Tell Your Military Friends to Beware!

This week on ABC NEWS and KLOVE, I've been discussing how
thousands of service members engaged in fighting America’s battles overseas are now encountering a foe here at home. Enlisted men and women are easy marks for sleazy car dealers, insurance scammers predatory lenders, and identity thieves. So pervasive are the rip-offs and so troubling is the debt incurred by military personnel that US Department of Defense officials recently labeled the situation a threat to national security.

We have a long tradition of military service in our family. My grandfather was a bombardier who died in WWII, my father is a retired chief master sergeant in the Air Force, my husband, Bob, flew Air Force fighters for 25 years, our son, Philip, is a senior at the Naval Academy and will to cross commission into Marine Corp Aviation, our next son is headed toward the Air Force Academy next year and the youngest son wants to go to Westpoint and be in the Army. In fact, the photo you see is Bob, pinning on the Philip's Airborne wings--the very wings Bob earned 30 years ago when he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy!

Q. The DOD has labeled the fraud situation among the military as a threat to national security. How does getting scammed impact lives overseas?

ELLIE: It’s all about distraction. When military members are distracted, whether it’s worry over identity theft or trying to wondering if their spouse is able to deal with messy finances at home—then that’s when accidents happen. Distraction leads to worry which leads to accidents. And when accidents happen, then there is loss of life. So if we want to help save lives overseas, then we can all do our part to protect our military members by exposing rip offs and scams whenever possible.

Q. What kind of paycheck does a typical recruit make & what are some of the questionable ways that local businesses try to get a piece of that paycheck?

ELLIE: They earn about $1800 per month & these paychecks can be carved to bits by bad deals. For example, a computer store outside of Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois employs attractive women to troll for new sailors. Once they get them inside the store, they are pressured into buying a very basic laptop for more than $4000, which is three times as much as the computer is worth. Then they finance the deal and the computer ends up costing even more with the store also making money on financing.

Q. What are some other common ways that the military is ripped off and people should be aware of?

ELLIE: There was recently a multistate investigation launched into life insurance scams that were being perpetrated against military members just before they took off to the Middle East. These scamsters sold soldiers extremely overpriced or misrepresented policies, taking advantage of the emotional situation of leaving families to go into harm’s way. This investigation ended with the companies offering more than $70 million dollars in refunds to thousands of service members. When it comes to life insurance, military members are offered SGLI or Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, which is a legitimate source for low premiums, so there’s really no need to secure other private insurance!

Q. Tell us about the “Red Cross” scam that is getting a lot of attention among military families?

ELLIE: This is fairly despicable, as it prays on the emotions of family members. A con artist claiming to be with the Red Cross will call a parent of a servicemember or their spouse, telling them their loved one has been injured and they need their social security number to authorize help for them. In some cases, they ask for an initial cash payment. Military members need to clear any report of injury through the chain of command or by contacting the base family community services.

Q. It seems that our military is very young, what is the average age of a service member and do they receive any kind of personal finance education as part of their training?

ELLIE: Yes, they are young, in fact, the average age range of military members is between 22 and 28 years old. Of the groups I routinely speak to around the world, I’d say that the average 22 year old has an even younger wife and a baby as well—so it’s a lot of responsibility for someone so young. The good news is that since 2004, service members learn about personal finance as part of their early training. When I go to give my “Heroes at Home” message I teach about finances and also encourage them to use the resources they have available to them on base. Army Community Services, Airman and Family Readiness Centers, Fleet and Family Support Centers—all of these have personal finance counselors there who are ready and willing to give free financial counseling to service members and their families. It’s what I call my $300 tip, because a couple hours with the caliber of financial professional at any of these centers is equivalent to paying $300 to a CFP or CPA.

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)