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Administering Your Finances

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(Compiled by BE member 'HarryTheSpider' - all errors & omissions are his!)

Finance as you may have realised, works a little bit differently in the US. Staying on top of things is going to be more important if you are to protect your hard-earned credit score and history.

Here you will find some brief suggestions on what to keep an eye on and how to organise things so you stay out of trouble!

Contents

[edit] Keep A Record Everything!

Keep a record or copy of everything that you receive AND that you send!

The 1 thing I can't stress enough – keep a close eye on EVERYTHING you do in financial terms – check everything, and contest and question anything and everything you're not comfortable with. That goes for your USA end of things AND your financial situation and ID in the UK.

Why? Let me give you an example: you eat out, pay the bill with your credit or debit card. It's quite usual here for the waiter or waitress to then take your card back to the till to be swiped and to generate the receipt and the slip that you need to sign... so your card is now out of your sight - a real No No back in the UK. You could walk back to the till with your card if you wish, but will you really do that every time, especially when so few others do this too? I'm not saying that your card will get swiped & scammed, but it could...

Colleagues who have been scammed tell me that it is a long, drawn-out, stressful nightmare to sort your financial situation out - you are treated as guilty until proven innocent, and understandably so - how many times do you think financial institutions are told by people that "I didn't spend this money, it wasn't me..."?

Also, it's not unheard of for the restaurant (i.e. a waiter.waitress) to add a little extra to the bill in the tip department... it's rare, but not unheard of...

Additionally, and you'll see this with, for example, utilities, that there are all kinds of set-up charges that you will be billed for, that you may not always be told about, and that hit you after you've set things up...

This may be the "Land of the Free", but you do have to pay for it!

So, keep every receipt, every time you buy anything, even with cash, get a receipt.... and then spend a couple of hours each week matching up your spend with your bank and credit card statements, and making sure you're financial security is intact...

It does take time, but it is worth it...

... I've spotted a few 'funnies' since arriving here - nothing major, and mostly down to my ignorance.

Also, having done my first tax return, there are plenty of things you might be able to claim for against tax, relating to your move and medical expenses for starters.

Lastly, I've noticed that this higher focus and awareness on our finances has led to us unwittingly spending less, or, shall I say, making more informed decisions about what to buy and when.... and that's great too!

[edit] Have A Filing System!

Do yourself and your family a favour - get a filing system, if you don't already use something. It doesn't have to be complex - the simpler the better, in fact.

[edit] Things to keep a track of

The following is a list of the majority of things you should keep track of in your filing system. Not all will apply to every situation, eg those relating to gardens/yards, a pool, children or pets.

  1. Water company
  2. Electricity company
  3. Gas company
  4. Oil company
  5. Cable/Satellite TV company
  6. Internet service provider
  7. Telephone (land line) company
  8. Mobile phone companies
  9. DMV (this is like the DVLA in the UK) – 1 folder for each driver
  10. Renters/house insurance
  11. Contents/belongings insurance
  12. Travel insurance
  13. Car insurance – have 1 folder for each car – insurance, service history etc
  14. Banks – 1 folder for each account you have – checking and savings as well as loans
  15. Credit Cards – 1 folder for each card you have
  16. Local taxes – property, police, fire, etc
  17. Payroll – 1 folder for each job each of you has
  18. Car breakdown insurance & membership – like the RAC/AA
  19. Schools – 1 for each kid at school and 1 for each course out of school others may be doing
  20. Medical insurance – 1 folder for each person? Perhaps separate ones for dental and opticians too...
  21. Store cards – 1 folder for each store card you have – keep all statements and records of payments you've made
  22. Pets – potentially 1 folder for each pet... keep all receipts, medical records etc
  23. Passports & visas – keep all these in 1 place, along with your EAD documents and SSN documents etc
  24. Tax returns – keep all of these – ideally 1 folder for each person who has to make a tax return
  25. Gardening/landscaping company
  26. Pool cleaning company

[edit] Phoning Companies - Keep Notes

If you make a telephone call relating to any of the above, make a note of

  • when (date & time) you made the call,
  • who you spoke to,
  • what subjects were discussed,
  • what decisions were made and agreed etc.

File this note in the relevant folder.

[edit] Security - Protect Yourself

Security is everything. Here are a few tips to really help you stay secure and free of identity theft.

[edit] Shred, Shred, Shred!!

Shred everything you no longer need – don't throw things away before shredding – and use a cross-cutting shredder – it shreds things in to very short strips, much more secure than the cheaper ones that simply shred in to long strips... Find out more about shredders here.

[edit] Cheques - or is it Checks?!

Avoid paying anything by post using a cheque if possible – do it by the equivalent of direct debit and/or by electronic transfer.

BE member 'Jscl' adds some specific details here which can help you select a bank and/or service:

Be vary wary of direct debits in the US. Particularly companies like cable, satellite and phone companies are pretty quick to grab whatever they want out of your account, and then you have to work very hard to get the money back, if it's not what you owe.

These days most banks have online banking and that is usually a very good option. One thing to beware of is some of the smaller banks simply send a check on your behalf through the US Mail system, much like you'd send it, so you have to make sure you initiate the payment early enough for them to prepare the check, it to be mailed, and received and processed. You might want to ask your bank whether they do this or not. For larger banks, and larger payees, the online banking service is quick and excellent, and I'd thoroughly recommend it.

[edit] Keep Receipts

Keep your receipts when you buy anything! This includes receipts for ATM cash withdrawals.

Doing this means that (at least) every week you can go through your statements and check that every item on your statements is due to something you've done, and not the actions of a thief or fraudster.

[edit] Protect Your SSN

NEVER give your SSN to anybody without thinking carefully what they need it for and IF they really do need it. Some companies providing finance (esp. car dealers, it seems) are desperate to get your SSN and use it to try and secure some form of backup loans if the primary financing they're trying to get you to use fails... it can really screw up your hard-earned credit score.

[edit] ID Theft

For extra peace of mind, consider signing up with one of the main UK credit reference agencies and buying in to their ID theft warning system. It costs around £5-6 a month. The last thing you need is to be out of the UK for years and come back to find someone has pinched your ID, used it to buy something big and 'done a runner' leaving you liable for the mess...

BE member 'Jscl' adds the following perspective:

I'd also like to just say that paying someone to protect you from ID theft may be a waste of money. A lot of consumer places say they don't actually offer much of a service. If you are careful with your credit card, SSN, leaving checks in mailboxes, shredding credit card offers etc., I am not sure an ID theft service is worthwhile.

I would add that taking Jscl's advice is a great place to start - I have a watch service on my UK credit history & ID - it costs me about £6 per month - peace of mind to know that coming back to the UK in the future won't be an ID theft nightmare..!

[edit] Review Your Finances Weekly

Review your finances at least once per week and act immediately on the following:

  1. Bills due in the next week – make sure they are paid, or set up to be paid automatically, and that there will be funds to cover these – if not your credit score and history will suffer!
  2. Credit cards – make sure you don't use more than 30-50% of your allowed limit unless you really have to. Go over these 'soft' limits could hurt your credit score. If you are likely to go over, do something about it – such as pay money if you can in to your credit card account quickly.
  3. Utilities – make sure they are paid in full and on time each month.
  4. Ditto with any taxes, DMV renewals etc, and any fines!
  5. Go through all the receipts, check them off against your statements – make sure your accounts/cards are not being used by ID thieves etc – this seems to be more of a possibility in the US compared to UK.
  6. Any sign of theft/fraud, and contact the bank/credit card/loan company immediately, and if necessary, the police too.
  7. Once per quarter (i.e. every 3 months) get a copy of your credit file and make sure the details contained in it are correct. Contest in writing anything that you think is wrong.

[edit] Tax!

Get a competent professional to do your tax returns each year. Pay any outstanding tax ASAP, and before April.

When you first arrive, get competent advice regarding how much tax to withhold from each paycheck. This will help you avoid having to pay ALL your tax at the end of the year. Messing up with taxes might (not definite, but...) cause you problems when you come to renew your visa or apply for a Green Card or Citizenship.

BE member 'Jscl' adds some specific experiences here which can help you select the best way forward for tackling your tax returns:

If you have a complicated tax situation, such as property in the UK, then I agree, go ahead and pay someone to do your taxes. But if you come here with no complications, rent a house/apartment and get almost all your income from salary, don't be afraid to at least attempt the tax return by yourself. Most of it is very straightforward if your situation is simple.

H&R Block and some other tax preparation services offer some cheap basic tax preparation courses, so if you have enough time, this can give you some confidence.

Also, again if your situation is straightforward, software such as turbotax can be used as well - but beware if it is your first year, as you have to know what your tax residency status is.


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