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‘Financial Help’ Archives

A Bit of Good News About Your Medical Bills

By MARY ELLEN KALZUA No, President Biden is not forgiving them. Sorry. The good news is that beginning July 1st, paid medical bills will no longer appear on your credit reports. The three major credit bureaus also announced that starting July 1, medical bills now have to be a year old (previously 6 months) before they can be reported. Plus, starting January 2023, only medical bills $500 or more will be reported. The announcement came after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released findings that medical bills comprise the majority of reported collection accounts, to the tune of $88 billion, keeping credit scores down like a cement block in water. I’ve seen credit scores drop nearly 100 points from a medical collection of less than $25! A 100 point drop is devastating. It means a person may suddenly no longer qualify for a mortgage or be able to rent. They have to pay more for car insurance and their phone. They are charged higher interest rates, which can mean paying hundreds or thousands of dollars more than before that medical bill hit their credit reports. And, even if someone paid that collection immediately, it could still be on their report for 7 years. Talk about kicking us when we’re down. So, yes, this is good news. The cruel “But” is, reported or not, the bill still exists. Ignoring medical bills never makes them go away. Bills over $500 will eventually be reported. Collections can end up as judgments, which last 10 years and can be renewed! Judgments open a person up to bank account and wage garnishments. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where that leaves a person. Tax refunds can be captured. Patients can be denied care from a provider due to unpaid bills. Sadly, we still have a battle to fight before we have an affordable healthcare system. Until then, here are some steps you can take to (maybe) avoid the nightmare: If you don’t understand the bill or don’t agree with it - contact the provider. Take [...]

Save Money – Eat Your Weeds

Save Money – Eat Your Weeds

Purslane Violets By MARY ELLEN KALUZA Eating well is expensive even without high inflation. Save money by foraging around your backyard, neighbor’s yard, or other overgrown areas. A small pile of free greens can easily save you $5. Here are a few common weeds that are delicious and nutritious. (Always look up the plant to safely identify and prepare. Harvest in areas you know are not treated with chemicals. Get permission, if necessary. Rinse thoroughly.) Lamb’s Quarter: My neighbor turned me on to lamb’s quarters years ago with quesadillas stuffed with them. Yum! They are also quite tasty on their own, lightly steamed with a little salt and pepper. Lamb’s quarters contain oxalic acid and you don’t want to eat too much of them raw. (Cooking removes the acid.) Purslane (verdolagas in Spanish): Purslane can be a pesky weed in the garden. Or in your sidewalk cracks. I get particular pleasure eating this weed because its stubborn tap roots and bazillion seeds make it hard to control. The plant is delicious raw or cooked with a light lemony flavor, eaten around the world. I recently had a green chili stew with purslane and it was the BEST green chili stew ever! Nettle: Last month Nikki Fleck shared a fabulous nettle recipe, and included the myriad of nutritional benefits the plant provides. Find it May’s alley online: https://alleynews.org/. Nettles are at home in fancy dishes or simply sauteed in butter. (Note: Handle nettles with gloves until cooked.) Dandelion: Four decades ago I had newly arrived Hmong neighbors. The grandmother of the family often visited my sister and me in our garden. We didn’t speak the same language, but we learned a lot from her. In particular, she taught us to eat our dandelion greens - a powerhouse of nutrients. Dandelions are a little bitter raw but cooking cuts the bitterness. Pigweed: A member of the amaranth family (as is lamb’s quarter), it is not the showy type of amaranth that makes you pause [...]

Understanding Your Health Insurance and Medical Bills

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA Understanding your health insurance policy can be an exercise in crazy-making. Very few of us have insurance policies that cover everything. What isn’t covered shows up in medical bills. A little knowledge can help make sense of it all. INSURANCE PLAN TERMS Premium: This is what you pay to have insurance. Insurance through your employer is deducted from your paycheck. Otherwise, it's a regular bill like auto insurance. Copay: A fixed amount you pay for a medical procedure or an office visit. The copay amount may be different for different services. Not all insurance plans have a copay. Deductible: This is the amount of medical bills you must pay 100% before your insurance kicks in to pay expenses. This amount can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Knowing how much your deductible is will help you plan for medical expenses. Coinsurance: After you have satisfied your deductible, your coinsurance kicks in. Typically, plans will cover 80% and you are responsible for 20% of the bill - your coinsurance. These percentages can differ depending on the medical procedure or provider. In-network or out-of-network: In-network providers have an agreement with your insurance company to provide services at a certain cost to their policyholders. You usually pay more to see an out-of-network provider. Out-of-pocket limit: This is the amount you must pay each year before your insurance will cover you 100%. The amount is often in the thousands of dollars. The out-of-pocket limit does not include your premium payments. MEDICAL BILLS Medical billing isn’t uniform, so if you go to different clinics or practitioners, your bills may look totally different. And you may receive extra bill-like notices to help increase your blood pressure. Statement: You could get multiple statements for the same service. Your provider sends a bill (aka claim) to your insurance company and may send you a statement, too, with a [...]

Got Heat and Electricity?

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA Can you imagine life without electricity and heat? During a Minnesota winter we’d be going to bed at 4 pm in December and sleeping under a pile of smelly bear skins. We take our access to electricity and heating for granted, but there is a lot happening on the other side of our utility meters that impacts the what, where, and how we get that access. Regulation  Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is charged with regulating policies, rates, and services for utilities like electricity, natural gas, and landline phone service. This includes approving rate increases for our energy. The PUC members are appointed by the governor and their responsibilities are determined by state law. Most of the regulated utilities are for-profit entities whose purpose is to maximize return to stockholders - like CenterPoint Energy and Xcel Energy. You can imagine, then, the pressure they exert on the PUC to allow rate increases. Learn more about the PUC at: https://mn.gov/puc/.  The Citizen Utility Board (CUB) of Minnesota, a non-profit organization funded by grants and donations, advocates on behalf of consumers for reasonable rates and regulation of the utility industries. Besides being at the table for us, CUB also promotes energy efficiency and clean energy, and provides direct consumer assistance, such as reviewing utility bills. CUB Minnesota travels the state speaking to citizen groups about how to understand their bills, informing us of programs and rebates to offset the cost of energy in our homes, promoting ways to reduce energy use, and offering guides on renewable energy sources. Find upcoming events and subscribe to their blog on the website: https://cubminnesota.org.  Your Bill Everyone has felt the significant increase in energy prices. Much of this spike is thanks to price gouging during the record low temperatures across The South last year. The natural gas supply infrastructure in Texas had not been [...]

Tax Time!

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA Tax season creates a lot of anxiety, even if you expect a refund. Filing seems to get harder every year. You’d think Congress would like to make it as easy as possible for us, but the poor IRS has been woefully underfunded for years, leaving the agency with seriously outdated technology and far fewer employees to process the hundreds of millions of tax returns they receive each year. Add a pandemic into the mess and… Hopefully this information can ease some of your anxiety. A Few Tips To Help Manage Tax Filing Whether you are doing your own taxes or having someone else prepare them, gathering all your information in advance will speed up the process. Find a list of most common info needed at https://prepareandprosper.org/free-tax-preparation/what-to-bring/.File electronically for faster processing.Choose to receive your refund by direct deposit to get it a month or more sooner.File early to beat the rush, and more importantly, to help prevent tax identity theft.This year’s filing deadline: April 18, 2022. Special For This Year Advance child tax credit payments: Families eligible for child tax credits need to be aware that advance payments already received in 2021 are subtracted from the total child tax credit you can claim on the 2021 tax return. Look for and save Letter 6419 mailed from the IRS.Economic impact payments (aka stimulus checks): If you didn’t receive any or all of the payments, you may need to file a tax return for 2020 for the first two payments and one for 2021 for the third payment. Look for and save Letter 6475 mailed from the IRS for the third payment information.Charitable deductions: We can deduct $300 (individuals) or $600 (married joint filers) of qualifying donations without itemizing deductions.  Thanks to Prepare + Prosper for gleaning much of this information from the IRS website and sharing it with us. (Saved me some mind-numbing reading!) Find the full list of IRS tax tips at: [...]

Ebenezer Land

Ebenezer Land

By DWIGHT HOBBES “Affordable housing...is a misnomer of sorts: affordability implies the ability to pay for something given your budget”, think tank Cato Institute noted in a 2016 blog. Anyone of modest means looking for someplace to live who has run into what”™s being marketed as “affordable” can tell you just what a misnomer that is. It begs the cynical retort, affordable to whom? On top of which, rents and income have gone in opposite directions for some time and the contagion certainly didn”™t help, putting people out of work left and right. Ebenezer Park Apartments (photo courtesy of Ebenezer) Enter Ebenezer Park Apts., which doesn”™t solve that problem for everyone, but does give the elderly and disabled, including deaf tenants, a sorely needed break. Starting with the wallet, but, importantly, not ending there. Paramount, it goes without saying, is the difference between dispiritedly perusing ads for places priced out of your range and being asked one-third of your income ”“ whatever that happens to be. Plus, there”™s no application fee. It defies reason as how companies and organizations, whose selling card is affordability, charge at least $35, non-refundable, with a straight face just to fill out an application. Claiming it”™s to cover the background check is just so much bilge water. Ebenezer can find out whether you got booked for loitering and doesn”™t pocket a dime in the process. We”™re not talking public housing, which generally, how little you pay, is no bargain. Shelterforce.org documents, "Public housing , to a cycle of government neglect and under-funding which, in turn, led to poor construction design, inadequate maintenance, racial segregation, stigmatization, and further concentration of the very poor." In parts of Minneapolis, it also fosters veritable drug and prostitution franchises. Conversely, Ebenezer is a [...]

Are You Letting Expenses Rise to Meet Income?

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA I once heard the phrase: Expenses rise to meet income. "Not me!" I thought. But, to be honest, even a pathologically frugal person like me lets expenses rise with income. Case in point: For most of my life (we”™re talking quite a few decades) I watched broadcast television and library videos on hand-me-down TVs. Cable was not in the budget as a single parent. After my nest emptied and I had only myself to support, I envied friends and the great stuff they were watching on internet streaming sites. So, I started to pay for streaming. But, because my TV was so old and dated, I had to move off the couch in the living room to a hard chair in front of the computer screen to watch streaming video. I was okay with that, but my cat was not. We had a lot of disagreements about what was comfortable and what wasn”™t. So I finally paid money for a new TV for the first time in my life. (Don”™t worry - I didn”™t completely go off the rails; it is a modest TV). We were back on the couch for TV time, and harmony was restored to the household. But, of course, that meant I needed to buy other devices, like a digital antenna and some box to get the internet to my TV. More expenses. I could argue all this spending was justified to keep the cat happy, which makes my life easier. But the truth is, I didn”™t need to pay for entertainment in the first place. There is still plenty to watch on broadcast TV, and my library is only two blocks away. Why wouldn”™t you want to let expenses rise to meet income? Retirement. I have a cousin who always put her pay raises into her retirement account instead of spending it. Because of her diligence, she retired early with her husband and they are enjoying life very much.Unforeseen events. Nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings. Almost a quarter don”™t even have a savings account. It doesn”™t take much of an [...]

Are You Letting Expenses Rise to Meet Income?

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA I once heard the phrase: Expenses rise to meet income. Not me!, I thought. But, to be honest, even a pathologically frugal person like me lets expenses rise with income. Case in point: For most of my life (we”™re talking quite a few decades) I watched broadcast television and library videos on hand-me-down TVs. Cable was not in the budget as a single parent. After my nest emptied and I had only myself to support, I envied friends and the great stuff they were watching on internet streaming sites. So, I started to pay for streaming. But, because my TV was so old and dated, I had to move off the couch in the living room to a hard chair in front of the computer screen to watch streaming video. I was okay with that, but my cat was not. We had a lot of disagreements about what was comfortable and what wasn”™t. So I finally paid money for a new TV for the first time in my life. (Don”™t worry - I didn”™t completely go off the rails; it is a modest TV). We were back on the couch for TV time, and harmony was restored to the household. But, of course, that meant I needed to buy other devices, like a digital antenna and some box to get the internet to my TV. More expenses. I could argue all this spending was justified to keep the cat happy, which makes my life easier. But the truth is, I didn”™t need to pay for entertainment in the first place. There is still plenty to watch on broadcast TV, and my library is only two blocks away. Why wouldn”™t you want to let expenses rise to meet income? Retirement. I have a cousin who always put her pay raises into her retirement account instead of spending it. Because of her diligence, she retired early with her husband and they are enjoying life very much.Unforeseen events. Nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings. Almost a quarter don”™t even have a savings account. It doesn”™t take much of an [...]

YOUR FIRST APARTMENT!

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA It's that time of year ”“ moving vans are everywhere. Eighty percent of moves happen between April and September. A significant number of those moves are young people leaving the nest for the first time. Many life lessons await them! Some lessons will be painful. Avoid the pain with a little bit of knowledge. CHOOSE YOUR ROOMMATES WELL Everyone will be equally liable for the whole rent, not just their portion. Are the roommates dependable?Do you share a similar lifestyle?What about smoking or drinking?    Frequent guests?How will you resolve conflicts?     IS IT AFFORDABLE? The rule of thumb is to keep housing expenses at 30 percent of your income. But, this is just a guideline and not necessarily the best measure of affordability. If you have a decent income, the remaining 70 percent of your income can be substantial. If you are earning minimum wage, the remaining 70 percent isn”™t much. Spend some time on your budget. Know your monthly net income and recurring expenses (phone, transportation, insurance, etc.). Track spending on food and entertainment. Can you cut some expenses to afford rent? Consider a different neighborhood? More roommates? CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT Most landlords use a screening service for prospective tenants, which includes your credit, your rental history, and your criminal background. They may have credit score thresholds to be considered for a rental. Be proactive by getting your free credit reports from www.annualcreditreport.com, to check for errors and other issues that drag your score down, before you pay the application fee to the landlord. If your rental application is denied based on what is in your screening report, you have a right to a free copy of the report. FIND THE RIGHT PLACE Is the apartment convenient for work, school, public transportation?What is the parking situation?What are the utility costs?Is the building secure? Can you [...]

But I Don’t Wanna Budget!

But I Don’t Wanna Budget!

By MARY ELLEN KALUZA I understand. Having a “budget” sounds restrictive, like a punishment. What if we call it something else, like a “spending plan”? Does that seem more palatable?  Planning the money you have coming in and going out is really all about being in control. YOU are choosing where your hard-earned dollars are going, not the estimated 6000 to 10,000 advertisements we see each day! (That's double what it was in 2007, by the way.) With that much pressure on us, it takes some effort to keep that control.  Where to start? Know how much money is coming in. This is the net income ”“ after taxes and other deductions. You'd be surprised how many people don't know that number. (Frequently, they also carry expensive credit card debt.) Subtract your Must Pay expenses ”“ housing, utilities, loan payments, insurance ”“ think of those things that will result in something bad happening if you didn't pay them. Subtract your Must Save For periodic expenses ”“ car repair/maintenance, home repair/maintenance, taxes not subtracted from income, medical bills, emergencies, etc. What is left? This is where the hard decisions come in - what do you need and what do you want. We need food and clothing. But how much food and clothing? And what kind of food and clothing? You may need a car, but what kind of car? Do you need a bigger screen TV? You get the idea. How to manage it? Divide it up into piles. Set up automatic deposits or transfers to the piles (aka accounts).Your Must Pays go into a separate checking or savings account, or on a special debit card. This card stays at home, by the way. Your Must Saves go into a separate savings account. (Calculate annual amounts and divide by 12 ”“ this is your monthly deposit to that savings account.) Some of the remaining amount can be made into sub-piles, if desired. Want a vacation, for example? Save for it in its own [...]

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