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

Are Cheques Obsolete?

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Cheques hold an odd place in our personal finances. In many ways, cheques seem like relics from a previous era. We maybe write one or two cheques a month (usually for rent or similar bill-paying situations where electronic payment simply isn’t an option). This is vastly different from only a few decades ago, when cheques represented more than
85% of all non-cash retail payments. (Can you imagine whipping out a chequebook in line at the grocery store? Times have certainly changed!)

However, despite their gradual decline in use, cheques haven’t become completely extinct. We still keep our money in chequing accounts, we still balance our chequebooks, and new banking technologies (mobile cheque imaging is one example) are being introduced to improve the process of paying by cheque. Writing cheques continues to walk the line between permanence and obsolescence.

Whether or not cheques are on their way out, there are still a couple of cheque-related best practices that you need to be aware of in order to stay on top of your finances.

Holding periods exist, and you need to keep track of them

Cheques often get a bad rap for the amount of time they take to clear. This is referred to as a holding period, and it can vary anywhere from a day to over a week, depending on your financial institution.

The clearing process itself is made up of several steps. First, the financial institution that receives the cheque for deposit encodes its dollar amount into the machine-readable numbers along the bottom of the cheque. Then the physical cheque is fed through a machine that scans its data. That data is then sent to a clearinghouse, which forwards the information to the financial institution that issued the cheque. The financial institution makes sure the cheque-writer’s account has sufficient funds to make the payment—if it does, the transaction goes through, but if the account has insufficient funds to complete the transaction, the cheque bounces.

Cheque clearing might sound like a long and overly complicated process, but it has come a long way. In 18th century England, the cheque clearing process was considerably less efficient. It involved clerks from each London bank meeting up at a tavern on Lombard Street to exchange cheques and settle account differences—not the most scalable process!

The introduction of mobile cheque imaging (also known as remote deposit capture) and other technologies is helping to shorten the holding period; however, to avoid fees, bad cheques and other sticky situations, it’s still important for you to understand what the holding period is at your credit union or bank.

If you’re the cheque writer: the holding period, combined with some absentmindedness, can create a situation where you’re spending money in your account that you don’t actually have. For this reason, when you write a cheque, it’s best to pretend that the related amount of money is already gone from your account.

If you’re the cheque receiver: keep in mind that when you deposit a cheque and the money shows up in your account, the cheque may not have cleared yet. Your financial institution may allow you to spend a portion or all of that deposited cheque, but if it bounces, you would be the one responsible for repaying any funds you used before the cheque bounced. It’s a good practice to confirm that a cheque has cleared before spending it. When in doubt, you can always give your financial institution a call to verify the status of a cheque.

Balancing a chequebook is still an important skill

The best way to avoid tricky scenarios created by holding periods is to keep track of your transactions with a chequebook register. Traditionally, chequebook registers are those lined notebooks that come with your cheques, but you can use any system that works for you, whether that’s a printable form, a digital spreadsheet or even an app on your phone.

Recording your transactions as you go will give you a more accurate idea of your account balance and help you avoid unnecessary fees or overdraft charges. It also takes the guesswork out of writing a cheque or making an ATM withdrawal—you will know whether or not you have the money in your account to cover it. Comparing your chequebook register to your monthly statements also makes it easier for you to spot any errors or fraudulent charges.

Start by recording all your chequing account transactions in your chequebook register— debit card payments, cheques written and received, and ATM withdrawals. Include online bill payments and direct deposits too—since those are sometimes automated, it can be easy to forget them. When you get your monthly statement, compare each transaction to your chequebook register and put a checkmark next to each transaction that matches your statement. If items in your statement do not match your chequebook register, figure out what’s at cause. Sometimes it’s an entry error or a slip-up in your math, but it could be an error by your financial institution.

Since we are not yet a totally digital society, understanding how to use paper cheques as well as keeping track of all of your transactions will keep your chequing account in the black and your financial matters running smoothly.

The Effect of Time on Investing

Investing can seem like a very risky, complex and fast-moving process. With endless combinations of investment vehicles to choose from, it can be difficult to take your first step as an investor—especially with the knowledge that all investments carry the risk of losing some or all of your money. So why bother?

Well, there are many compelling reasons to make investing a part of your overall financial plan. Investing can help preserve your wealth by overcoming the effects of inflation, help you save for long-term goals (such as retirement or your children’s education) and it can even generate income. So how can you get past all the negatives associated with investing and make it work for you? A helpful first step is to realize that, as a young investor, you have time on your side.

TIME AND LUCK

The Myth

We’ve all heard the stories (or seen the infomercials, or bought the e-book) about those people who took a chance on a risky investment and by some stroke of luck woke up the next day as millionaires. It’s easy to be drawn to “get rich quick” stories because we all secretly wish we could be the stars of those tales. Those success stories help establish the myth that being a successful investor is a lot like being a hotshot gambler—that you need to risk it all to get a worthwhile reward, and that some people are born with the innate ability to predict the market, make the right moves, buy and sell at the exact right time, and strike it rich.

The Reality

The truth is that serious investing requires a lot of time. There’s an entire education behind active trading. If you were to invest into the stock market without any prior research, you might as well be playing the lottery. Educating yourself about the stock market is no simple task and it requires ongoing research. It’s not only about understanding the way economies and global marketplaces work—it’s also about staying up to date on what’s happening in our world. Environment, technology, politics and culture all have the ability to influence economic forces. Beyond understanding those interactions, a smart investor also keeps very close tabs on the industries and companies they invest in by monitoring things like performance, governance, public opinion and industry trends. Now, imagine all that data changing and updating daily; suddenly, it’s clear why it can—and should—take so much time to make educated investment decisions.

When we acknowledge that preparation takes an incredible amount of time, it minimizes the role that luck plays in investing. Suddenly it’s less about taking a gamble and more about making calculated and educated decisions, which is a good thing—it means that investing is something you can practise, explore and ultimately improve on, over time.

TIME AND RISK

The Myth

For every investing success story, there’s an accompanying horror story. This myth comes in different flavours—acting on bad advice, losing every last dime, and getting taken advantage of by an evil or incompetent financial advisor are just some of the common scripts. This myth perpetuates the idea that investing is so scary and so unpredictable that it’s simply not worth the risk.

The Reality

It can be tricky trying to separate this myth from the truth, because risk and loss are both very real outcomes of investing. No investment is ever guaranteed, meaning your invested money is never absolutely safe. Some investment types may be safer than others, but the risk of losing your money is ever-present.

After making smart, thoroughly researched investment choices, your next best protection against risk and volatility is the amount of time you have for your investment to mature. The narrower your investment time frame, the more vulnerable you are to sudden and often unpredictable changes in the market. By contrast, if your investment is long term (think decades), day-to-day changes suddenly hold less influence. Plus, there is time to recover from market declines; the same cannot always be said for short-term investments.

TIME AND RETURNS

The Myth

Yet another investment myth is that it’s impossible to find a combination of investment products within your risk tolerance level that will result in a high yield. In other words, playing it safe with your investments means measly returns.

The Reality

Do you remember learning about compound interest? Time happens to be compound interest’s best buddy. Together, they can really put your money to work for you. This is especially important to note for long-term savings goals (retirement is a good example). Even products with a relatively low expected yield can accumulate a lot of wealth over long periods of time, so do not get discouraged by low interest rates on investment products. Look for opportunities to maximize the effect of compound interest, such as reinvesting your dividends or refraining from cashing out your investment early.

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As you can see, time plays a significant role when it comes to investing. It can give you more control over your investments, it can increase your tolerance for risk and your ability to recover from any losses, and it can maximize your returns. By starting early, investing wisely and giving yourself the time you need to reach your goals, you will discover the positive impact that a little bit of planning today will have on your lifestyle