Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Lesson in Budgeting

by Cari Schindler, Marketing Associate

The weirdest day of my life was the day I graduated from college. The long, arduous, thrilling journey all came to culminate in one short ceremony. Afterwards, when my family was on their way back home and my cap and gown were tossed onto my bed, I stood in my room with only one thought: now what?

Life after college can be an overwhelming time of transitions, but one of the most daunting aspects has to be personal finances - or lack thereof. How do I pay for rent, groceries, and coffee without the aid of student loans? Speaking of student loans, how do I pay off a large sum of money when I have little to no income? In short, I was financially illiterate. Meaning I needed to learn how to earn, budget, and save. This was ten months ago, and I've by no means figured it all out, but since this is Financial Literacy Month I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned along the way.

Earn it: You can’t learn to manage your money if you don’t have any. Finding a job in our current market can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. I walked around my neighborhood until I found someone who was hiring. I got a part-time, minimum wage job at a coffee and yogurt shop. Maybe it wasn't what I went to school for, but we all have to start somewhere. Other great options for finding work are job fairs and staffing agencies (which is how I got hired at United Way).

Budget it: Or, find a website that does the work for you. I personally bank with Harborstone Credit Union and their website has all kinds of features to help you set a budget and stick to it, including an option to receive a text whenever you're approaching your budget limit. See what resources your financial institution offers, or try It’s a free website that works with any bank or credit union, and has all the bells and whistles to help keep you on track.

Know your challenges: Everyone has unique financial challenges that can make saving and budgeting tricky. Identify your personal challenges and deal with them specifically. If you’re a recent graduate like me, your challenge is likely called “student loans”. I’ve picked up a couple of tips for that too:

Know your loans: Know them like the back of your hand or the front of your face or whatever part of your body makes this metaphor work for you. When are you scheduled to start repaying? What will your monthly payments be? Who is your servicer? If you're not sure about any of this, there's a handy little thing called the National Student Loan Data System where you can find out. You may be able to defer your loans. Figure out what you're able to pay every month and make arrangements.

Consolidate: If you have private loans, you can go through a bank such as Wells Fargo. If your loans are federal, you can do it right from the Federal Student Aid website. While you're there, you can also set up automatic bill pay. They'll send you an email every month before the money comes out, so you can make sure you're not going to overdraw your account.

Be realistic: This goes for any financial challenge. It’s good to have ambitious goals, like paying off your student loans in two years, but if you're unemployed, eating ramen and trying to sneak onto the bus in a horse costume, it might be time to set smaller steps. This is okay, we all encounter roadblocks. But with hard work, planning, and a little bit of financial know-how, we can all reach our goals.

What are your financial challenges? What about challenges that you’ve overcome? What tips do you have? No matter where we’re at in life, we all have something to learn from each other. Leave a comment and share your story!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Term that Makes You Squirm

by Tammy Brown, Community Impact Manager – Strengthening Families
Hearing the term financial literacy can make even the most competent person squirm, yet financial literacy is really quite simple – manage your money wisely.  Earn it, save it, grow it, budget it and share it. However, financial literacy is far more than managing your money from day-to-day or month-to-month, it requires a working knowledge and understanding of how money works (e.g. the benefit of having a checking account as opposed to using predatory lending services like check cashing services or quick loans).
Unfortunately, many people are not financially literate and only know how to manage their income from paycheck to paycheck because they are not taught financial principles in school or in the home. Perhaps this is why in 2004, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 316 to officially recognize April as National Financial Literacy Month.
It has now been 10 years since the resolution was passed, yet this is the first time I have heard of April being National Financial Literacy Month. We must go beyond designating a month to bring awareness to the need for financial literacy in our nation and begin implementing policies to ensure the principles of financial literacy are taught in grades K-12, as well as in post-secondary education.  We must value financial literacy just as much as literacy because being illiterate, in any way, hurts us all.

For tips that will improve your financial literacy, and help you save a pretty penny, visit the Strengthening Families page on our website:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Gift to Families: Peace of Mind

by Kelvin Ceasar, Project Manager - United for Military Families
Give. Advocate. Volunteer. Here in the United Way office, those words are etched in our brains. Today, I want to focus in on the third word in that trifecta – volunteer.  I want to share some recollections from a special volunteer experience I had.  A couple of years ago I spent time during the winter and early spring training as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteer based out of South Sound Outreach Services.  Across the country each year, thousands of people are trained by the IRS in tax preparation.  The training covers tax filing for simple 1040 EZs and goes up to some fairly complex tax situations involving the dredged  “long form”— pretty scary stuff.  But the training is great and you are allowed to progress as far up the mountain as you desire.  I made it about half way.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable and mentally challenging experience.  In particular what made the experience so special for me and what motivates me to encourage you to take on this opportunity as well is the earned income tax credit (EITC among us tax gurus).  No I didn't earn a tax credit for volunteering (I wish!) but I was able to ensure that several single moms and hardworking couples did.

The “working poor” is routinely talked about in the circles I operate in, yet in a lot of instances it can seem like an abstract.  We know the statistics and we know, in the grander scheme, what United Way dollars are invested in but we don’t often get a chance to hear from specific individuals who have been lifted through our support. During my cycle as a VITA volunteer I met many people who were hard workers, yet struggling. They would tell me their stories as I worked through their taxes; stories about working multiple jobs or working extra-long hours at a job but still not being able to quite make ends meet.  It felt really good to spend an hour with a young couple and at the end to be able to tell them that in a few weeks they would have the money they needed to finally get the car fixed. That meant they wouldn't have to take the bus anymore, saving them an extra two hours every day commuting to and from work— two hours that they could now spend with their kids. Another precious memory is of an elderly woman who had recently lost her husband, and for the first time had to prepare a tax return on her own.  To be able to reassure her that I would take care of it and that she would be getting money back to help her get caught up on bills was something I will never forget.

All in all it wasn't a bad way to spend some of those cold, wet winter days we have here. I sincerely encourage you to take a few moments to research the VITA program. It’s a great opportunity, with a fascinating origin, for those looking to give back. Then I want you to seriously consider signing on as VITA volunteer next winter; you won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's All About the Kids

by Nalani Linder, Community Impact Manager - Early Childhood Development

You know you work with children when…
…you’re telling children in the grocery store to use their ‘inside voices’.
…you come home with marker, paint and dried glue on your hands or clothes or hair—every day!
…the soundtrack of songs that get stuck in your head are about the alphabet, clean up time or baby beluga whales.
Laughter and knowing nods filled the community center meeting hall last month, as kindergarten teachers, preschool teachers and child care providers came together to talk about what they have in common as teachers and caregivers of young children. Such a scene was repeated a total of five times over the last two months, hosted by United Way of Pierce County, First 5 FUNdamentals, Graduate Tacoma, the Tacoma School District and Child Care Aware of Tacoma-Pierce County. These evening events were called “Building Connections: It’s All About the Kids” and conversations were indeed on the kids—specifically, how the adults could work better together to ensure successful transitions to kindergarten for every child in Tacoma.

Nearly 200 people participated, sharing lighthearted comments about working with children while also having thoughtful conversations about how people were using the state-wide practice guidelines for Early Learning classrooms or the benchmarks for kindergarten readiness.

The events are widely considered a success. One kindergarten teacher commented, “I feel closer to the child care teachers who pick up and drop off. I'll take more time to talk with them.” At the conclusion of the events, several participants asked for further opportunities to connect, and said that they would bring even more colleagues next time.

In a county where more than half of the children entering kindergarten are not yet completely ready for school, opportunities for this kind of professional connection are filling a critical gap. One participant summed it up well, “I have been teaching early childhood for 18 years and I've never seen this many people from different entities come together to bridge this gap.”

While it's just a beginning, it's a bridge we want to continue to build, knowing that ultimately it really is all about the kids.