BY DION WILLIAMS, PRESIDENT/CEO, PIEDMONT ADVANTAGE CREDIT UNION
With all the uncertainty and financial ups-and-downs of 2020, advancing financial awareness initiatives in 2021 is undoubtedly top of the mind for me and my colleagues in the credit union industry. Credit unions worldwide view the advancement of financial awareness as a core value. While each of our credit unions is unique within the communities we are privileged to serve, we work collaboratively with each other and community-based organizations to reinforce an area’s capability to raise consumer financial awareness and increase access to financial literacy and education.
On a personal level, financial awareness means different things to different people. For some, it comes with how best to save and plan for retirement. For others, it’s learning to budget and manage day-to-day expenses. For many, it’s improving credit scores and managing debt.
At Piedmont Advantage Credit Union, we view financial awareness as a key to understanding how to save, earn, borrow, invest, and protect your money wisely. Financial awareness is essential to develop short- and long-term financial behaviors and skills that lead to obtaining and maintaining financial stability.
I challenge you to make financial awareness top of the mind in 2021 for yourself and your family. Even if you’re a planner by nature, some life events happen unexpectedly, as we learned all too well in 2020. Yet, the more prepared we are with our finances, the better we stay in control of any situation that is thrown at us.
Here are a few words of wisdom that I referred to in 2020 and will continue to do so in 2021, so that I can keep financial awareness at the top of my mind personally and for our members.
Have a plan to save.
Prepare for the unexpected by coming up with a plan to save money each month. According to Bankrate, nearly three in 10 adults have no savings. One in four have a rainy-day fund, but not enough money to cover three months of living expenses. Having six months of your living expenses in savings is recommended to hold you over in case of financial emergencies. A financial emergency can be a life-changing event, such as the loss of a job or medical emergency, or it can be on a smaller scale, such as a car repair or replacing an appliance. Unfortunately, this past year showed us all that a financial emergency is not always just a single event.
Remember that building an emergency fund is a marathon, not a sprint. Any amount saved can help offset larger expenses, even if it doesn’t cover them completely. Don’t be consumed by trying to build the emergency fund over one pay period. Set realistic goals and build your savings over time. If you experience a setback and have to use some or all of your savings for a financial emergency while working towards your goal, just stick to your saving plan and keep going.
While there may never be an ideal time to start, why not now? In continuing the “running” analogy, getting to the point of completing the 26.2 miles of a marathon takes time. Running 5 miles, then 10, then 18 and so forth builds toward the goal of 26.2 miles. With your savings, the same is true as you establish savings to cover one week, then one month, and eventually the full six months! Strategies for starting an emergency savings fund may be found at PACU.com/EmergencySavings.
To have a plan to save, get back to the basics with a household budget.
There is a saying in the financial-planning world that failing to plan is planning to fail. The process of planning begins with knowledge of your finances. Without knowing where you stand today, it is difficult to chart a plan for where you want to be tomorrow. Prior to the world-changing due to COVID, my family was on the go constantly for games, practices, and other activities for the kids. That time on the road equated to a lot of eating out. While we certainly will continue to support local restaurants, this realization helped us plan better around the time on the road and establish a budget for eating out, so more money can be set aside for savings.
Gather your checking, savings and/or credit card statements, utility bills and other expenses to get a true picture of where your money is going each month. Spread these items out on your kitchen table. This visual will start the process of determining needs versus wants. Then set out to budget accordingly. Developing, along with managing, a budget of monthly household expenses is an essential step to put you back in control of your finances. Our home budget calculator, PACU.com/HomeBudgetCalculator, is an easy-to-use tool to help you track expenses and save more.
Manage debt, but don’t be embarrassed to admit you need help.
While your debt payments are part of a household budget, have a separate list of debts, including the name of creditors, total amounts, monthly payments, interest rates, and due dates. Use your credit report to confirm the debts on the list. Having this list front and center allows you to form a bigger picture and will help you to recognize sooner, rather than later, that you may need help.
If you find it hard to pay on your debt, along with other essential bills each month, don’t be embarrassed to seek help. Debit management options, such as debt consolidation, especially with multiple credit cards, are available. While your financial institution is your first line of defense in developing a plan to get your finances back in your control, you can start with our debt consolidation calculator, PACU.com/DebtConsolidationCalculator, to help decide if debt consolidation is a reasonable solution.
Protect yourself and your funds.
Stay up-to-date with fraud prevention. Scammers and cyber-criminals are always looking for new ways to get hold of your information. Make sure you check your credit report annually to spot any unusual activity early. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are offering free weekly reports through April 2021 to cut down on COVID-19 fraud.
The Federal Trade Commission reported that individuals across the nation had lost more than $211 million to COVID-19 scams and stimulus payment fraud. The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker reports 1,477 COVID-related scams have been filed nationwide. With the recent distribution of $900 billion in relief money, the region’s BBB warns of a surge of scams. Therefore, beware of unsolicited calls or e-mails that ask you to verify or provide financial information.
Take a deep breath.
Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t be overwhelmed by your goals. Budgets require flexibility, and that’s where building and replenishing your rainy-day fund can help. Please know that you are not alone. Your credit union is here to help you on your journey. Know your starting point. Establish your final destination. Adjustments will be required along the way. Take the time to appreciate the successes and milestones along the way as your financial dreams become a reality. You can do it!
Dion Williams has been President/CEO of Piedmont Advantage Credit Union since April 2019. A native of North Carolina, having been raised in the Granite Falls area, Williams has worked in the credit union industry for more than 20 years. He earned a master’s of business administration from Wake Forest University and bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Susan, have three daughters.
Headquartered in Winston-Salem and founded in 1949 within the airline industry, Piedmont Advantage Credit Union (PACU) now serves member-owners who reside, work or worship in one of the eight communities it serves in North Carolina, or who are employed by one of its many employer companies. These eight communities are in Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Duplin, Iredell, New Hanover, and Rockingham counties. A not-for-profit cooperative financial institution, PACU has ten branches throughout its service regions and employs a workforce of more than 100.