THINK ABOUT IT: Is Debt Getting The Best Of You?

hamster in wheel
No matter how much money I throw at my debt, it never seems to go down. What can I do?
  • Start with a map. Figure out how much you owe, to whom you owe it, and at what interest rate you’re paying it back, plus any other fees, penalties or costs that go with any of your debts. If you need help figuring all of this out, let us know. We’ve got professionals who can help you find what you need. Meanwhile, review your credit report so you know what the credit agencies think you owe. Don’t forget to challenge anything on your report that appears fraudulent or inaccurate.
  • Lower your interest rate, even if it raises your payments. You can lower your interest payments by moving chunks of your debt from high-interest plans to lower-interest plans. One way to do this is to move credit card debt from one card to another, so your largest balances are at the lowest rates. Another way to do this is to get a new loan. For example, our home equity loans have lower rates than most major credit cards because you have collateral to help secure the loan and we redistribute our revenues back to our members in the form of lower rates rather than giving our profits to shareholders and bonuses for top-level executives.
  • Get help from professionals. Even if you don’t want a home equity loan or a new credit card, we’ve got plenty of resources to help you get on top of your debt, from advice and literature to a variety of savings programs that can help you tackle that debt. You can also call each of your creditors to see if you can get your interest rates lowered. Sometimes a phone call is all it takes. If you’ve got a loan in hand or room on another card to move your balance, then you have the leverage to convince your creditors that they should lower their rates or risk you paying off your debt and making interest payments to someone else.

WEBSITE REVIEW: Oblivious Investor

Do you have a burning question on investing or retirement planning?

Don’t ask Mr. Google – ask Oblivious Investor (ObliviousInvestor.com)!

This incredible investing blog is full of expert-level advice that’s delivered in a language and style you can understand. Best of all, it offers visitors the opportunity to write in with their own questions, which are then featured in an informative article that answers their query in full detail.

The fresh articles are posted twice a week, and it also publishes a newsletter containing tips on investing, tax planning and retirement. Readers are offered the opportunity to have the newsletters delivered directly to their inbox.

Don’t let the blog’s name mislead you into thinking you’ll only get second-rate advice and tips at Oblivious Investor. What you’ll really find is well-written articles that give you an in-depth look at a wide range of financial topics. Blog founder Mike Piper and his team of writers are committed to helping both beginners and advanced investors play the market in the best way possible.

Here are some of the articles now trending on Oblivious Investor:

  • Building a Safe Floor of Retirement Income — in Advance
  • Target-Date Funds: The Triumph of Academia
  • Downsizing, 5 Years Later, Any Regrets?
  • You Can’t Eat Your House. Or Can You?
  • Is This a Terrible Time to Retire?
  • Demonstrating Conflicts of Interest With Investment Advice
  • How Are You Different From The Average Investor?
  • Fund Managers and the Illusion of Skill
  • Millennial’s Money Woes

Another favorite feature offered through the site is the Social Security calculator. To help the many readers who are struggling with decisions surrounding their Social Security benefits, the blog created a calculator that does the math – it determines possible claiming ages for each user and then offers an optimal strategy tailored to the user’s specific data. Check out the Social Security benefits calculator here.

Stop second-guessing your investment decision and start making informed decisions with the help of Oblivious Investor. 

Your Turn: Where do you get your investing advice? Tell us about your favorite source in the comments.

Award-Winning Battered Chicken With Dipping Sauce

chicken fingers with bbq saue

Feed your inner child with these awesome, fun-to-eat chicken fingers!

Yield: 5 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Ingredients: 

Batter:

  • 1.5 lbs. chicken breast, cleaned, and cut into “fingers”
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½  teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • Oil, for frying

Dipping Sauce 

  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¾ tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp. water

Directions: 

  1. In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, salt and paprika until combined. Add water and eggs. Mix until it forms a batter. Dredge chicken fingers in the batter.
  2. In a medium-large pot, heat two inches of oil to 350 F.
  3. Fry chicken fingers until golden-brown on both sides, for no more than 5 minutes total. Depending upon the size of your pot, you may need to do this in several batches.
  4. Drain chicken fingers on a paper towel-lined plate.
  5. In a small saucepan, bring all dipping sauce ingredients except for cornstarch mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly until smooth.
  6. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until sauce thickens slightly.
  7. Serve chicken fingers immediately, alongside dipping sauce.

How Can I Shop Safely On Black Friday?

Q: I’m an incurable bargain hunter and I thrive on finding incredible deals. I’m really looking forward to Black Friday, but I worry about the risks. From the possibility of being trampled or getting into a fistfight with a fellow shopper, to the chance that my shopping bags will be stolen or that my credit card will be frauded, there’s so much that can go wrong! How can I protect myself without missing out on the biggest shopping day of the year?
Woman black friday bagsA: While it’s true that Black Friday does pose some serious risks to shoppers, it doesn’t mean you need to miss out on any deals. With the proper safety measures and precautionary steps, you can happily join the bargain-hungry crowds flocking to malls and shopping centers on November 22.
Here’s how:
1.) Plan ahead
Black Friday is not the time for aimless browsing. Planning ahead means you’ll spend less, be out of the store faster and decrease your risk of running into trouble. Sites like BlackFriday.com can help you plan your day, map out a route and find the best deals before you hit the mall.
2.) Credit card only

 

They may be trickier with your budget, but credit cards are the best way to shop when there are high risks to your safety. You can always dispute a charge; you can never reclaim stolen cash.  Be sure to keep your card as close to you as possible. If you use a debit card, always cover the payment terminal with your second hand when inputting your PIN.

3.) Shop with a friend
There’s safety in numbers. The mall may be crowded, but a determined criminal can always find a way to corner you and then empty your wallet or take your shopping bags. The presence of crowds can make it impossible to find shoplifters after they’ve committed the crime. Stick with your friends at all times and never enter deserted areas alone.
4.) Keep your cool
It might be a great bargain, but nothing you can purchase on Black Friday is worth your health or safety. Keep your priorities straight and avoid all scuffles or squabbles with fellow shoppers. If things get ugly, that’s your cue to leave the store.
5.) Move your car
If you’re spending the day at a shopping mall and routinely run out to your car to drop off your bags when they’re getting heavy, it’s best to move your car to a different spot, preferably on the other side or on another level of the parking lot. Believe it or not, thieves actually watch shoppers leaving the mall with lots of bags. They’ll follow you out, and if they see you leaving loads of goodies in your car before heading back to the mall, they’ll break into your car and make off with your things. If you drive off, though, they’ll think you’re leaving and won’t follow you.
It’s also a good idea to hide your bags when they’re stored in your car. Nothing says, “Break the window and take me!” like a bunch of bulging shopping bags in the passenger seat. Keep the loot safely stowed in your trunk. If you drive an SUV or another trunk-less car, keep your stuff in the back and cover it with a blanket.
6.) Online safety
It’s always important to follow basic online safety rules, but Black Friday and its follow-up, Cyber Monday, are notorious for online scams of every kind. Here’s what to remember when shopping online:
A.   Beware of phishing scams
Scammers know you’re loaded down with receipts, confirmation emails and the like. They also know you’re less likely to check the safety of every email and link you receive. Don’t play their game. Be alert for suspicious-looking emails or links, and delete anything that doesn’t look right. If a site asks for more information than it should need for a purchase, leave your purchases and exit the site fast!
B.   Make sure your connection is secure
Avoid lurking scammers by using a secure connection. Verify security by looking for the padlock icon on your address bar and by using sites with the “S” tacked on to the”‘http.”
C.   Pay securely
Only use trusted payment systems like PayPal or GoogleWallet. Shop from sites you know and trust. Make sure they’re legitimate by checking the URL of the site and looking out for sites that end in .org or .net. Never agree to wire money for a purchase.
D.   Strengthen your system
Before shopping online, check that your device’s security systems are updated with the most recent protection and security patches. If you’re using Wi-Fi, make sure the network is secure and requires a password to join.
Shop safely and shop wisely this Black Friday!
Your Turn: Do you have tips for safe shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday? Share them with us in the comments!

8 Reasons To Shop Local On Small Business Saturday

Mega e-tailers, like Amazon and Walmart, may monopolize online commerce, but it’s the small businesses across the country that keep the economy going. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), the 28 million small businesses in America account for 54 percent of all sales in the country. Small businesses create jobs, build a demand for locally made products and keep communities thriving. 

women with open sign small shopYour local small businesses are part of your community’s landscape. That’s where you rub shoulders with your neighbors, where you catch the latest town news and where you’re always greeted with a warm smile. At a local small business, you’ll be guaranteed superior service and the gratification that comes from knowing you’re supporting the economy in your own community. 

Here at True North, we strongly believe in supporting the community and helping local businesses flourish. Join us in our important goal by shopping local on Small Business Saturday and throughout the holiday season. 

Here are our top 8 reasons to shop local: 

1. Help create jobs in your community

The money you spend at local retailers goes back into your community. When you support these small businesses, you enable them to grow and hire more workers, thus creating more jobs and helping the local economy thrive. 

2. Keep your tax dollars in the community

Why pay to support public services in a town across the country? Let your tax dollars serve your own community by shopping local small businesses. 

When you spend your money at local retailers, approximately $68 of every $100 spent will be reinvested in your community. That money will go toward better schools, libraries and parks—in your own neighborhood. 

3. Support the American Dream

Keep the spirit of America alive by supporting the American Dream: Anyone can start a business and work to keep it thriving. When you shop local, you’re showing support for the entrepreneurs in your community, those folks who were brave enough to strike out on their own.   

4. Small businesses give back to the community

According to Community Business Finance, 92% of small business owners personally donate to charities and nonprofit organizations. Whether it’s a contracting company that sponsors a Little League team or a café that hosts an open mike night to raise money for the local soup kitchen, small businesses play a large part in supporting community causes and charities. 

When you shop local, you’re enabling small businesses to continue supporting community charities. 

5. Celebrate your community

This Small Business Saturday, celebrate your community! Spend a delightful afternoon browsing the local shops and talking with customers and small business owners. Ask about their family members, chat about the weather and revisit all your favorite local hotspots. You’ll reconnect with your community, support its businesses and rediscover what makes it thrive. 

6. Find unique gifts

Skip the overrated, mass-produced items at huge chain stores this holiday season, and find gifts for everyone on your list at local stores. You’ll be rewarded with an array of truly unique and durable items that will make the perfect gifts for your family and friends. 

7. Help keep your community interesting

Imagine your community with no small businesses, only franchise stores from major retailers and restaurants. How boring would that be? Sure, we need those mainstream retailers and everyone likes a fast food chain they know well, but it’s the small businesses that keep the community vibrant and colorful. They’re the ones running quirky marketing campaigns and hosting online contests that have the entire town buzzing.

You wouldn’t want any of the charming little stores that dot your town’s landscape to be forced to close due to a lack of business.  These stores rely on your patronage! Shop local to help keep those mom-and-pop shops thriving. 

8. Explore new retailers and restaurants

What better way to try out the latest haunts in town than by spending the day shopping local small businesses? Give that new pizza place a try, sample the lattes at the small coffee joint that just opened its doors and browse through the merchandise at the quaint costume jewelry store you’ve been wanting to check out since its grand opening. It’s a fantastically fun way to kick off your holiday shopping! 

On Small Business Saturday, and throughout the holiday season, give back to the community you love by shopping local. You’ll be glad you did! 

Are you a small business owner? We want to help keep your company thriving! Give us a call or stop by the credit union today to ask about our business services and other products that can help your business grow.

Your Turn: What’s your favorite reason to shop local? Share it with us in the comments!

APP REVIEW: Weather Apps

The seasons are a’changin’! And that means the weather has gotten more unpredictable in many areas of the country. One day you’re shrugging into your warmest jacket and the next you’re cranking up the AC.

With the weather so unreliable, it’s the perfect time of year to download a reliable weather app. But don’t spend hours researching your options; we’ve already done it for you!

Read on for the inside scoop on the best weather apps on the market.

AccuWeather (iOS, Android)

AccuWeather is high up on our list for its sheer simplicity. The free app has a clean interface and will give you hourly, daily and 15-day weather forecasts, which you can easily integrate into your calendar.

Despite its simplicity, AccuWeather is super-comprehensive. You’ll get more than just the temperature and rain forecast on this app; if it’s weather-related, you’ll find it here! Download AccuWeather and you’ll have access to the exact times of sunrise and sunset, allergy and asthma forecasts, plus newscasts and videos about the trending weather cycle. Want to add to the app’s database? Send in your own weather reports and videos and you may be featured in AccuWeather’s news reports!

If you hate surprises, you’ll love MinuteCast. This feature brings you minute-by-minute weather forecast for the next 2 hours so you’ll know exactly when the rain is going to start falling in your neighborhood. The app also provides hourly forecasts for up to 3 days and an extended weather forecast for an incredible 90 days.

AccuWeather has a tremendous reach, with weather forecasts for more than 3 million locations across the globe.

Like most apps, you have the option of upgrading to a paid plan for a clutter-free view, but the free version is everything you’d expect from a weather app and more.

Best features

AccuWeather’s detailed maps are easily its best feature. You’ll get a visual feel for the current and upcoming weather patterns and you can move along the map with a handy slider.

Another great feature on the app is its weather alerts. AccuWeather will notify its users about any imminent weather events like snowstorms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and high winds. 

Glaring glitches

Some users find the app’s 3-day hourly forecast to be lacking when compared to the more extended hourly forecasts other apps provide. Critics also claim the advanced weather forecasts aren’t accurate enough to truly be relied upon.

Dark Sky (iOS, Android)

Dark Sky is for people who are serious about getting accurate weather forecasts. You’ll have access to detailed daily, hourly and by-the-minute forecasts, all within an elegant design.

Dark Sky shines in its accuracy. The app gives you a precipitation map and graph along with a lock screen option that can sync with your AppleWatch so you’ll know the weather even when your phone is stowed away. Dark Sky will also alert you before it starts raining or snowing so you’re never caught unprepared.

Dark Sky gives you minute-by-minute forecasts an hour in advance and hourly forecasts for the next 7 days.

Best Features

Subscribers are crazy over Dark Sky’s graphics. They’re smooth and sophisticated and the elegant weather maps put Dark Sky a cut above other weather apps. The app also outperforms other weather apps with its 7-day hourly forecasts.

Glaring Glitches

Dark Sky is an amazing weather app – but it’s not free unless you have an Android device. Apple users will need to cough up $3.99 for an app that’s not enough of an improvement over free apps to be worth the price. Also, Android users complain that the free version lacks many of the app’s best features, like notifications and minute-by-minute forecasts.

The Weather Channel (iOS, Android)

We can’t list the best weather apps without including the weather forecast source that’s been around for more than three decades!

The Weather Channel app brings you 15-day forecasts that are updated each hour for optimal accuracy. The app changes based on your location and can give you an hourly forecast for 2 days.

You can check out a storm’s path on the app, and get safety alerts and allergy stats, as well as information on other health risks. Use the app to access exclusive web content and videos featured on the Weather Channel’s TV broadcasts.

The app is free with all its features, and an ad-free version is available for $3.99/year.

Best Features

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you’ll love the Weather Channel. The app is helpful by letting you know if the weather is right for seasonal outdoor activities and includes information on weather factors like wind-chill, lightning strikes and more.

Glaring Glitches

Subscribers who are into aesthetics aren’t crazy about the Weather Channel’s overly simplistic design.

How they stack up

App

7-day hourly forecast

Adequate free version

Sophisticated design  

Weather videos

AccuWeather

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Dark Sky

Yes

No

Yes

No

The Weather Channel

No

Yes

No

Yes

Your Turn: What’s your favorite weather app? Tell us all about it in the comments!

French Meatballs And Spaghetti

meatballs pineapple with spaghetti

Shake up the old-hat spaghetti and meatballs with this French-inspired twist!

Yield: 5 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1 pound ground beef or turkey
  • 1 egg
  • 1 slice white bread, soaked in water and squeezed well
  • 2½ tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons white vinegar
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • 1½ tablespoons soy sauce
  • ½ 20-ounce can of pineapple tidbits, with juice
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
  • Oil, for frying

 

Directions:

  1. In a large stock pot, heat water for pasta.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, combine ground meat or poultry, egg, bread, ketchup and garlic. Season to taste with black pepper.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  4. Form mixture into balls and fry for several minutes, until browned on all sides.
  5. In a medium-sized saucepan, bring vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce and pineapple to boil. Stir in dissolved cornstarch and cook over medium heat until sauce thickens.
  6. Add meatballs and cook for 30 minutes.
  7. While meatballs are cooking, cook and drain the spaghetti.

10 Restaurant Hacks

hamburger and fries restaurant styleDining out with family and friends is a wonderful experience, but it can take a huge bite out of your budget. No worries—we’re not going to try convincing you to give up your favorite fast food restaurant. Instead, use our hacks to trim your bill when dining out. 

1. Look left 

When looking at a menu, most people’s eyes drift to the right. Restaurants know this and purposely put their most expensive items on the right side of the menu. Check out the left side of the menu for cheaper options, or appetizers that can make a full meal, before looking right. 

2. Eat out on Mondays and Tuesdays 

The beginning of the week is slow for the restaurant industry. Take advantage of specials and discounts that eateries offer only on Mondays and Tuesdays. 

3. Skip the Chef “Special” 

The Chef Special you’re looking at on the menu is actually not that special at all. It’s more like a code for “We just inflated the price on this dish for no reason.” 

4. Don’t eat out on major holidays 

To make major holidays super-profitable, many eateries only offer fixed-price menus on these days. These menus might sound cheap until you consider that the four-course meal going for $55 is a lot more expensive than the $18 entrée you’d have otherwise ordered. If you’d really like to celebrate these special days with a restaurant meal, consider eating out the day before or the day after the holiday. 

5. Take it to go 

Pick up food from your favorite eatery and enjoy it at home. You’ll save on server tips, beverage costs and extras, too. To make it super-cheap, only purchase the entrée. Then, roast some veggies and potatoes at home for a quick side and crack open a tub of rocky road ice cream for dessert. 

6. Drink water 

Restaurants are notorious for marking up beverage prices. Soft drinks can be marked up by 400% and alcoholic beverages by 600%. Ask for water and you’ll save a pretty penny on your final check.

7. Don’t pay full price 

Never walk into a restaurant without first checking for online deals and coupons. Visit the eatery’s website and also check out restaurant deal sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, Restaurant.com and OpenTable.

8. Split it

Instead of ordering individual portions that look like they were created for giants, split an entrée with your dining partner.

9. Eat like a kid

If the restaurant allows, order from the kids’ menu. The items there are always priced better and you might find that one or two kids’ menu choices is enough to keep you satisfied.

10. Skip dessert

It takes our stomachs a while to get the memo that we’ve had enough. Don’t order dessert right after scraping your plate clean. Wait and you might find that you’re so full, you can’t eat another morsel.

Your Turn: What’s your best restaurant hack? Share it with us in the comments!

BOOK REVIEW: Manufacturing Wealth

Whether we’re chasing millions or we just want to earn enough to survive, finances are an inevitable part of our lives. There’s no getting away from those bills!

And yet, many of us don’t understand the bare-bones basics of how our finances work. We tend to think it’s just a messy tangle of paychecks, expenses and debt that we’re expected to navigate successfully.

Manufacturing Wealth is out to change all that. This book was written to clear up the mystery surrounding the world of personal finance. The message woven throughout is that finance is not an incomprehensible heap of assets and liabilities like we may think. Instead, it’s a systematic machine composed of interconnected parts that work in sync. This machine can be harnessed to bring us closer to our goals, or it can take us further away from the lives we want to lead; it all depends on how we work it.

Consider this: The average American earns more than $15 million in their lifetime. But, after 4 decades of work, most of us are left with a skimpy 2% of those earnings. Where does all that money go?

Book Review branded graphicAccording to Manufacturing Wealth, we are to blame for letting our earnings slip away. Our inability to understand the great machine of personal finance blocks us from employing its true power to help us achieve our goals. Instead of controlling the machine, we let it control us.

Co-authors  Joe Galatowitsch and Chris Engstromto, have a combined 60+ years of experience in business management, marketing and analytics that includes work in mega corporations like Medtronic and Microsoft. In this riveting read, they draw on their extensive experience and their in-depth research of personal finance to bring the reader a refreshing and practical approach toward managing their own money life.

Some critics find the title misleading and say the book will not teach anyone how to create wealth. They claim it’s a simplistic guide toward understanding money without any real tips on how to make it work for you.

Many others love the book and call it a terrific, illuminating read.

Pick up your copy today and you might finally understand how the many facets of your finances work together in perfect harmony.

Your Turn: Do you understand the way your finances work? Or, do you blindly do what you’re told and hope it’ll all work out? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Tater Tot Lasagna

This awesome twist on an old favorite will have everybody reaching for seconds! 

Yield: 12 servings | Prep time: 15 minutes | Cook time: 45 minutes 

tater tot lasagna

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. ground beef, ground chicken, or ground turkey
  • 1½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 24-ounce jar marinara sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan, divided
  • 1 15-ounce container low-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 bag frozen Tater Tots

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F
  2. In a large skillet, brown and crumble ground beef or poultry over medium-high heat. Sprinkle on the garlic powder, mixing it into the meat.
  3. When the meat is browned, drain excess grease and return meat to skillet.
  4. Add marinara sauce and then add the water to the skillet. Stir until combined, then turn off burner.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup mozzarella, ¼ cup grated parmesan, all of the ricotta and the beaten egg.
  6. Pour enough of the meat sauce to lightly coat the bottom of a 13-x-9 pan. Top with a layer of tater tots, then the ricotta mixture, and a layer of meat sauce. Cover with another layer of tots, add more meat sauce, then sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the tots are lightly browned.