5 Good Money Habits to Boost Your Retirement Savings

29_F_Social_02_CDNThink back to your most recent savings goal. How long did you have to save in order to reach it? Was it a concert ticket or some new shoes that took a few weeks of budgeting? Was it a big-ticket item like a new computer or a summer vacation that took a year or two of planning in advance? Perhaps you’re currently saving for an even more ambitious goal: a car, a wedding, a down payment on a home? Although savings goals vary from person to person and range in size and scope, it’s likely that your longest-term savings goal will be your retirement.

Saving for retirement poses some unique challenges: How are you supposed to prioritize retirement savings against the long list of more immediate goals? How are you supposed to find the motivation to prepare for something that’s decades away? How can you quantify the amount you will need to save when you have no idea what your future will look like?

The good news is that you can boost your retirement savings by practising the same good money habits that apply to smaller savings goals. Read on to find out which money skills will also level up your retirement savings plan.

1. Eliminate roadblocks. No matter what combination of financial goals you have in the works, this is the top priority. Think of it as creating the right environment for your savings to grow. Savings thrive when they have long stretches of uninterrupted time in which to accumulate and compound, so it’s in your best interest to eliminate any obstacles that threaten those ideal saving conditions. Focus on paying off any high-interest debt—you know, the kind that sucks up money that could otherwise be going toward your goals (credit card debt is an example). Revisit the terms of any loans you’re paying off and do a little research on potential consolidation or refinancing options—you might find a way to pay down your debt more efficiently and free up some extra funds for your savings goals at the same time. Eliminating roadblocks also means having a healthy emergency fund in place, so that your savings progress doesn’t get wiped out by an unexpected job loss (a good starting point is three months’ worth of expenses).

2. Automate savings. So your emergency fund is set up and your debt-management plan is in place—now is a great time to see if there are ways to automate your savings at work and at home. Can your employer automatically deduct your retirement contributions from your paycheque? Can you set up your online banking system to regularly transfer a certain amount to your savings account? Look for ways to make the act of saving easier, more consistent and less time-consuming.

3. Picture your goals. One of the reasons it’s hard to get motivated about saving for retirement is that it’s an abstract concept—especially when pitted against more self-explanatory savings goals like “new car” or “tropical getaway”. Take 10 minutes to ask yourself a few basic questions and to design your ideal retirement: do you see yourself relaxing at the beach, or enjoying a beautiful home and watching your family grow, or pursuing a passion or hobby you couldn’t make time for in your working years? Does your ideal retirement mean indulging yourself, or would you prefer to downsize and keep things simple? Would you want to continue working (part time or in some capacity) throughout your retirement? Do you picture moving into a new space? A new city? A new country? Fleshing out the details of an otherwise ambiguous savings goal allows you to ground the goal in reality and to get excited about it—and it’s easier to contribute to a savings goal you’re actually excited about.

4. Practice living with less. Increasing contributions to your savings goals (usually) means decreasing your monthly spending. This doesn’t necessarily mean adopting a super-frugal lifestyle; however, if that’s what you want to do to get to your goal sooner, go for it! Create some monthly challenges (like a month of packed lunches, or a month of free things to do) to see the impact of spending a little less. Put the money you would have otherwise spent towards your savings goals. If you live with a partner, challenge yourselves to live off of one income, and put the other toward savings. You will soon discover that spending a little less here and there does not require a complete lifestyle overhaul. Understanding the give-and-take of budgeting is a powerful skill, and it’s easier to cut spending when you can put it in the context of achieving a goal. Cancelling a cable package “just because” is not an enticing idea—but what if you knew that cancelling that cable package and investing the money saved would allow you to retire four years sooner? Having the right motivation can make it easier to save.

5. Increase savings along with income. This tip is an extension of living with less. Try to maintain your current lifestyle and expenses even as your salary rises over time. As your income increases, increase the amount you contribute to your savings goals. It’s very easy to slip into a slightly larger lifestyle after a raise. It’s equally easy to treat unexpected income as “extra money”, whether it’s a bonus at work or $20 in a birthday card from Grandma. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself from time to time, but limiting your living expenses—even in times where you don’t have to—will free up more resources for your long-term savings goals. More importantly, you’ll be better prepared should your income levels take a hit. Allow your savings to scale up with your income, but don’t let your expenses scale up along with them!

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The good money habits outlined above will create a routine that motivates you to find a few more dollars to put toward retirement. Even little changes can make a huge impact on a long-term savings goal that has decades to compound and grow. Because time is on your side, there is a lot of value in prioritizing contributions (even small ones) to your savings goals now. Choose a couple of tips to put into practice this month, and notice the impact it has on your budget—and on your financial peace of mind.

Breaking Up with Name Brands

19_F_Social_01_CDNPicture this scenario: you’re steering your shopping cart through the sliding doors of the supermarket, shopping list in hand. As you walk the aisles, there’s a strategy you can use to save an average of 33% on your entire purchase. It doesn’t require any coupon cutting or signing up for rewards cards. And the best part? You still get every single item on your list. The secret? Buying private-label products instead of brand-name products.

What are private-label products?
Commonly referred to as “store brand” or “generics,” private-label products are manufactured by a supplier and offered under another retailer’s brand. Some suppliers exclusively offer store-brand products, while others are brand-name manufacturers who use their facility to also create value-brand products in a non-competitive category (a brand-name ketchup producer may also manufacture a store-brand tomato paste, for example). In some cases, a single supplier may provide products (with different recipes and formulas) for a number of different store brands.

Why are they so much cheaper?
Private labels are able to sell their product for less because their marketing and advertising costs are significantly lower than their brand-name counterparts (when’s the last time you saw a Super Bowl commercial for no-name tortilla chips?) and they’re able to pass those savings along to the customer. Interestingly, even though they’re priced more cheaply, store brands usually provide the supermarket with a higher profit margin than brand names do. So, not only are generics a good deal for you—they’re also a pretty good deal for the store’s bottom line!

What about the difference in quality?
One of the biggest obstacles in switching over to a store brand is a psychological one: getting over the idea that a brand name automatically means top quality. We’ve all had the experience of being disappointed after straying from a brand-name product—but by convincing yourself that all off-brand products are low quality, you’re missing out on some great deals, as well as some great products. In a Consumer Reports taste test, more than 60% of store-brand items were judged as good as or better tasting than the national brand-name items.

In recent years, retailers have been doing their part to make store brands more appealing to shoppers by updating their branding and packaging designs, and by including exciting specialty products in their store-brand lineup. Some grocery stores have managed to build extreme brand loyalty to their store-brand products.

Here are a few strategies to start incorporating more private-label products into your shopping list.

Single ingredient? No-brainer.
When something on your list has a single ingredient, it’s hard to justify paying more for a brand name (salt is salt; bleach is bleach). The same applies to simple pantry items such as flour, sugar and spices. For produce, learn to read the signs for freshness before defaulting to the label. Other kitchen cupboard staples such as nuts, dried fruits and canned foods are also interchangeable for the most part (although it’s always a good idea to check the ingredients list to see if there are any differences in preservatives or additives that might affect your decision).

Play with preference
Take a peek inside your fridge and pantry and take note of the products you consistently buy brand name. Is there a reason why you’ve never strayed from them? Do you have a real preference for the taste, or are you buying them simply because that’s what you grew up with? Substituting the occasional brand-name stock, seasoning or sauce with a store brand can be a great way to save money while exploring new flavour profiles.

Be selective about your brand loyalty
Sure, sometimes a brand-name product will outperform its generic version—but before you automatically reach for the national brand, think about whether that performance is really worth the extra expense. You will find that some items in your shopping cart are completely non-negotiable, whereas others have more relaxed requirements. For example, shelling out for brand-name super-soft tissues with lotion might mean the world to someone who suffers through allergy season, but for the occasional nose-blower, a store-brand box of tissues will do the trick. Be critical and selective about which specific products deserve your brand loyalty.

Trial and error
We tend to be creatures of habit; as a result, it can be difficult to introduce change into our routines. Not every generic product you try will be a winner, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any generic winners out there! Instead of overhauling your entire shopping list all at once, try swapping out one or two products every time you go to the store and see what works for you. Over time, you’ll be able to keep your household running while saving some cash at the same time.

Beware of Fast Cash

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Like local car dealerships and personal injury law firms, short-term and payday lenders tend to have the most annoying commercials on TV. They’re often tacky and annoying, and tend to air during daytime talk shows or very late at night. Their promises of “fast cash!”, “guaranteed approval!” and no “credit check required!” are enough to make you change the channel—and yet, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to get your hands on some extra money fast, those commercials might start making sense to you. If your car breaks down or you are short for this month’s rent payment and you have no emergency funds set aside, going to a payday lender or a pawnbroker may seem like your only options. However, the loans that they offer can be outrageously expensive and targeted at people who are clearly in a tight spot to begin with, which makes those businesses prime examples of predatory lending.

Before jumping at that fast-cash offer, take a moment to educate yourself about predatory lending. Then breathe, understand that you have alternatives, and make an action plan.

What is predatory lending?

According to Debt.org, predatory lending is any lending practice that imposes unfair or abusive loan terms on a borrower. It is also any practice that convinces a borrower to accept unfair terms through deceptive, coercive, exploitative or unscrupulous actions for a loan that a borrower doesn’t need, doesn’t want or can’t afford. By definition, predatory lending benefits the lender, and ignores or hinders the borrower’s ability to repay the debt. These lending tactics often try to take advantage of a borrower’s lack of understanding about loans, terms or finances.

Predatory lenders typically target minorities, the poor, the elderly and the less educated. They also prey on people who need immediate cash for emergencies such as paying medical bills, covering a home repair or making a car payment. These lenders also target borrowers with credit problems or people who have recently lost their jobs. While the practices of predatory lenders may not always be illegal, they can leave victims with ruined credit, burdened with unmanageable debt, or homeless.

Predatory lenders go by a number of names

  • Pawnbrokers are individuals or businesses that offer secured loans to people, with items of personal property used as collateral. The word pawn is likely derived from the 15th century French word pan, meaning pledge or security, and the items pawned to the broker are themselves called pledges or pawns, or simply the collateral.
  • Payday lenders offer payday loans (also called payday advances, salary loans, payroll loans, small dollar loans, short-term loans or cash advance loans). These are small short-term unsecured loans, regardless of whether repayment is linked to a borrower’s payday.
  • Prepaid debit cards are typically not considered predatory; however, some of these cards have been criticized for their higher-than-average fees (such as a flat fee added onto every purchase made with the card).
  • Loan sharks are individuals or groups who offer loans at extremely high interest rates. The term usually refers to illegal activity, but may also refer to predatory lending activities like payday or title loans. Loan sharks sometimes enforce repayment by blackmail or threats of violence.

Predatory lending can also take the form of car loans, sub-prime loans, home equity loans, tax refund anticipation loans or any type of consumer debt. Common predatory lending practices include a failure to disclose information, disclosing false information, risk-based pricing, and inflated charges and fees. These practices, either individually or when combined, create a cycle of debt that causes severe financial hardship for families and individuals.

You have alternatives

If you are facing debt problems, you may feel that these types of lenders are your only option. Not true—you have a number of alternatives to taking out a high-cost loan:

  • Payment plan with creditors—The best alternative to payday loans is to deal directly with your debt. Working out an extended payment plan with your creditors may allow you to pay off your unpaid bills over a longer period of time.
  • Advance from your employer—Your employer may be able to grant you a paycheque advance in an emergency situation. Because this is a true advance and not a loan, there will be no interest.
  • Credit union loan—Credit unions typically offer affordable small short-term loans to members. Unlike payday loans, these loans give you a real chance to repay with longer payback periods, lower interest rates, and instalment payments.
  • Consumer credit counselling—There are numerous consumer credit counselling agencies throughout Canada that can help you work out a debt repayment plan with creditors and develop a budget. These services are available at little or no cost. Credit Counselling Canada (creditcounsellingcanada.ca) is a nonprofit organization that can help you find a reputable certified consumer credit counsellor in your area.
  • Emergency Assistance Programs—Many community organizations and faith-based groups provide emergency assistance, either directly or through social services programs for weather-related emergencies.
  • Cash advance on your credit card—Credit card cash advances, which are usually offered at an annual percentage rate (APR) of 30% or less, are much cheaper than getting a payday loan. Some credit card companies specialize in consumers with financial problems or poor credit histories. You should shop around, and don’t assume that you do not qualify for a credit card.

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Ultimately, you should know that you are in control, even if you find yourself in financial difficulties. There are plenty of alternatives to avoid high-cost borrowing from predatory lenders. Take time to explore your options. If you’re in a tough spot or facing debt, call your local branch to make an appointment with a First Credit Union lender for financial advice on your individual situation!

http://www.firstcu.ca

10 Years of Giving Back to Bowen Island

My how time flies! Friday June 9th will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Bowen Branch of First Credit Union. I have been working for this branch since the beginning, and what still impresses me to this day is the credit union mandate of channeling profits back into the community. Though it took some time for our little branch to become profitable, First Credit Union still gave so much over the years—sponsoring local events, awarding local youth and donating to local non-profits. I believed in this credit union difference, knowing it would gain the support of our island community. Although we opened nearly 600 accounts in that first year we only had a few million in loans, but that began to change steadily. The people of Bowen got behind us and through their incredible support our ability to give back grew.

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I am so proud of all we have achieved and our continued presence as a top corporate citizen, community supporter and champion of our island culture and economic progress. Because of the wonderful support we receive from the community, we are able to give back each year in more and more meaningful and impactful ways. Today we have nearly 1800 accounts, 45 million in loans and 35 million in deposits. Our financial planner also has a significant book of investments on the markets. We have been able to improve the financial well-being of countless individuals and businesses on Bowen. As our support from the island grows, so does our contribution to the community – a wonderful formula!

To celebrate 10 years of giving back we are going to have a party at the branch on June 9th. On top of free food, beverages, balloons and entertainment, we will also be holding a fun contest to win one of ten $100 gift certificates to the Bowen Island business of the winner’s choice (open only to members)!

Come by on Friday, June 9th from noon until 2:30 pm for free lunch, listen to our very own Estella Woo perform, try and win $100  towards one of our many fabulous businesses, and celebrate 10 great years of giving back to the community of Bowen Island with us.

See you there!

Kevin Manning, Branch Manager
First Credit Union  |  Bowen Branch