Here’s how to enjoy financial health this holiday season

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

The holidays are officially here, as if the snow wasn’t a big enough hint.

We each have our own meaning for this season. It’s easy to understand what the season means to retailers. They have been telling us since before the election was over. It’s also easy to get caught up in the holiday hype of spend, spend, spend. Sometimes, it seems as if the shopping frenzy is a competition to see who can give the most or who can secure the best discounts.

Here are some tips for avoiding the enjoying the holidays as they were intended and entering the New Year in good financial health:

Set a budget: It’s familiar financial advice, but it’s timeless for a reason: It works. I’m not suggesting that you put a damper on your holiday spending. But set realistic limits for gift-buying, decoration purchases, meal planning and gifts for yourself—then stick to your plan. When you have a plan, you’re much more likely to control purchases, avoid impulse buys and respect reasonable limits. When the holidays are over, you’ll be thankful you set a budget and stuck to it.

Avoid the credit card: Use your debit card, checks or cash for purchases and do everything you can to avoid the credit card. That way, you’ll avoid paying what could be double-digit interest charges on your purchases, especially smaller purchases. Believe me, those stocking-stuffer socks will look a lot less jolly when you realize you’re paying 18 percent interest on them.

Pay off credit card balances: If you don’t stick to the cash method entirely, remember to pay off the borrowed money balances as soon as you can after purchase. You want to have those credit card purchases paid before the Fourth of July! Make this part of your budget plan. Don’t let the debt hangover get control of your New Year’s resolution

Consider tapping home equity: For larger holiday purchases, such as a snowmobile, ATV or even a new car, finance directly. Shop for the best interest rate as hard as you shop for the best deal on the item. Consider using a home-equity loan instead of putting the item on a credit card. Interest rates for home-equity loans are by far a much lower than rates offered by most credit cards, so financing costs less. You also may reap some tax benefits using your home equity.

Make an extra payment: One of the best gifts you can give yourself is to make an extra payment on your outstanding loans. Be sure to earmark any extra payment amount to reduce the principal balance on your loan. Making what sometimes is called a 13th monthly payment to reduce the principal can help you more quickly pay off your loan and reduce your overall expense.

Be careful: Be extra vigilant against credit card fraud and identity theft during the busy holiday season, when all of us tend to be distracted. Watch your bank account and credit card statements to make sure unwanted purchases don’t appear. Double-check store receipts to see that you received the items you purchased at the correct prices. And be careful to protect your PIN when withdrawing funds from ATMs or at the checkout terminal. Remember, signature-based transactions are always the safest.

Segregate online purchases: Online purchases present a higher level of risk to your data. At a time when more of us are buying online, it makes sense to set aside one credit card exclusively for online purchases. This way you can keep a better eye on what you’re buying and make sure that nothing on your statements was purchased by anyone else. Having one card for online buying also helps you easily organize your purchases, and you can cancel the card quickly if you suspect something is amiss.

As we enter the holiday season, our wish for you is health and peace—physical, emotional and financial. Following these simple tips are some of the best ways to enjoy the peace of this special time while staying in shape financially. Enjoy the season!

Dale Lewis is with Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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Prequalify for a loan as the first step to buying that house

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

It may not seem that way, but now is a great time to buy a house in the Northland.

Yes, temperatures are getting cold and winter is on the way. But that motivates home sellers. Why pay to heat and maintain an empty home all winter when they can get it sold?

VIDEO: The smartest step in buying a home

Add to that one of the best environments for home lending favoring the buyer, with historically low rates, and you have a wonderful combination of factors lining up in favor of home purchasers.

But there’s one task all serious home buyers should have on their to-do lists if they want to benefit from this: Get prequalified for a mortgage loan.

When you hear banks talk about prequalification, it sometimes sounds like a pitch for business. Yes, we’re in the business of providing home loans. But that’s not why it’s important.

When you are prequalified, you have a firm understanding and confidence about how much you can spend on your new home, factoring in all of the variables: the purchase price, the down payment, the monthly payments and the escrows for property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.

There’s a lot more to buying a home than the purchase price. Banks have many loan options to help you achieve your goal of home ownership while respecting your budget, now and in the future.

Most important, you likely don’t know what kind of home you can buy, price-wise, until you sit down with a lender, work through the details and obtain a prequalification. It’s not a lot of work, and it gives you peace of mind knowing that when you hunt for a house, you’re searching in the right territory. There’s nothing worse than to find the perfect place and then realize that the house is out of your price range.

Prequalification also is important for the home seller. When buyers appear without a prequalification from a credible lender, the seller and his or her agent have no assurance that they are doing anything more than wasting their time showing the house.

Is the buyer serious? Does he or she really have the ability to buy? Will the next step in the conversation turn to a negotiation about price and closing date or an endless and frustrating series of responses about needing more time and not being sure?

What’s the best way to get the price you seek for the home you want to buy? Show the seller you’re serious about buying. And the best way to do that is to arrive with a prequalification letter that says, “We’re ready and able to close the deal.”

In my experience, a prequalification letter is the best way to get a seller to take notice and start working with you. Indeed, many real estate agents won’t show homes of sellers they represent unless the prospective buyer has a prequalification letter. It’s just not worth their time.

With a prequalification letter, you’re not committed to taking out a loan. But you get all of the benefits of having a strong financial partner in your corner. Your lender will be available to ask questions, to work with you on the numbers and to adjust if needed.

Prequalification letters don’t expire quickly. Once you have been prequalified, you’re usually good to go for the duration of your house hunt, unless market rates move dramatically or your employment situation changes.

Getting prequalified for a mortgage loan is one of the most effective and easiest steps you can take to achieving your dream of home ownership. And with winter coming and sellers motivated to strike a deal, now is a great time to make your dream a reality.

Dale Lewis is president and CEO of Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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Fall is time to tap your home equity for improvements

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

We’ve officially entered fall, and it’s a great time to talk about borrowing.

A discussion about borrowing may not be on your fall to-do list, along with putting away the patio furniture, but better today than tomorrow.

The truth is that fall is a great time to consider borrowing through a home-equity loan to make improvements to your house before winter hits. A home that is in better shape with new windows, more insulation and an up-to-date furnace will save you money all winter—and actually all year long. That’s obvious.

But here’s the not-so-obvious part: These improvements aren’t just the kind that will provide benefits for a short while. They are long-term fixes that will pay dividends by keeping money in your pocket year after year, including long after the debt is paid.

That’s why it makes sense to tap what probably is your most significant long-term asset, your ownership stake in your home, to make them happen. If you can’t afford to pay for a new furnace or windows out of your savings or checkbook, and most of us can’t, it’s more than OK to consider taking out a loan backed by the value you have accumulated in your home.

It’s a smart financial decision to spend money that will allow you to save money—and especially if you can save money year after year. Those long-term savings will help you repay the loan. The improvement to your long-term asset, your home, also will allow you to get a higher price when you sell it.

What isn’t a good investment is making a long-term financial commitment for a short-term gain. That’s why, in most cases, I am highly skeptical of tapping home equity or other long-term options to pay for a vacation or to buy something like a snowmobile or ATV. I have nothing against these purchases. But how you finance them matters.

A long-term debt for long-term benefit? Absolutely. A long-term debt for short-term pleasure? Probably not. Call it Dale’s First Rule of Borrowing.

The same thinking applies to credit card debt. If you make purchases that provide short-term benefits, it’s probably best to pay with cash or your debit card, or to pay off the credit card balance before you start incurring interest charges. Save the credit card debt for financing bigger-ticket purchases that will provide benefits for some time, such as a new washing machine or refrigerator.

Borrow money only for as long as the purchase will last. So don’t be afraid to use long-term financing such as a home equity loan for purchases that provide long-term benefits. In fact, missing these opportunities can be harmful to your finances. What good is all that equity in your home if the drafty windows drain your bank account every winter by running up the heating bill?

My First Rule of Borrowing isn’t rocket science. But it’s a good rule to keep in mind, particularly as you’re wrestling with how to pay for what you want and whether to make major changes to improve the value of your home.

Consumer borrowing is part of the American experience. It’s how most all of us achieve the dream of home ownership. But shortsighted thinking about borrowing also has its costs and has created much trouble for us as individuals and as a society.

With fall officially here, it’s a great time to think about smart borrowing that actually can help you get ahead financially. It’s something to consider as you take in the patio furniture.

Dale Lewis is president and CEO of Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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Bank at a place that really knows your name

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

It’s a refrain commonly heard in business: We know our customers.

But how well do the places where you do business really know you? Even in the Twin Ports where “everybody knows your name,” it is still difficult to maintain the level of service that customers expect every day. Amid the focus on the bottom line, individual attention to customers often is compromised in efforts to be thorough and efficient. There is a temptation to lean on technology.

In the banking business, where technology has given all banks pretty much the same tools, we’re seeing the future as a return to a few of the values of the past. Knowing your customers, and knowing how to serve and protect them, has become a differentiator. It’s a quality you should insist on wherever and however you handle your money.

A recent study on the banking industry found that millennials—those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000—value convenience more than any other banking feature. That’s not surprising. People of all generations have gravitated to banks and other vendors that serve them on their terms.

But in an era of Internet fraud, identity theft and other high-tech dangers, banks more than ever must know their customers.

The same survey found that, after convenience, millennials valued security and fully-insured deposits as banking attributes. With a very few exceptions, these are qualities that most banks offer, though it’s not surprising that they consistently rank high on lists of what’s important.

But take a look at the qualities that came up next: Knowledgeable staff, friendly staff and longevity in business. All of these have a lot to do with customer service. Indeed, business longevity usually doesn’t happen if you don’t know your customers and treat them right.

Even the No. 2 attribute, security, has much more to it than government regulation and deposit insurance. Let me give you an example. At our bank, we watch customers’ accounts for safety reasons. We also regularly see our customers in the bank lobby and in our drive-up window. We know their businesses. We know their banking patterns and, to some degree, what’s happening in their lives. That’s our job as their bankers.

When we see something that doesn’t look right, we’re not afraid to say something. I’ve done that many times over the years. When I have, our customers have said they appreciate that we’re watching to make sure they’re safe.

Recently, we had a new customer tell us about her frustrations with another bank trying to resolve a credit card problem during an overseas trip. Getting a live person on the phone to set it straight was nearly impossible. That was one reason she changed banks.

With few exceptions, technology has been consumers’ friend. We’re able to do more, work faster and work on our own terms because of advances, driven largely by the Internet. But the people behind the technology still are important. They’re the ones who determine whether all of those technological advances really serve our needs.

A bank or online vendor that isn’t watching its transactions can be an open invitation to Internet fraud or identity theft. A bank or vendor that knows its customers and keeps an eye on their electronic transactions can catch a problem quickly or even before it happens, saving a customer weeks and months of hassle.

My advice when it comes to your banking and financial services is to think about the qualities you value most and then look a step or two beyond the obvious. Make sure there are people where you do business who stand behind the technology, keep an eye out for your safety and really mean it when they say they know you as a customer.

Dale Lewis is president and CEO of Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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Here’s how to guard against identity theft

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

Most of us, fortunately, have only heard of identity theft and never have experienced it. As a banker, I can tell you that it’s one of the scariest parts of life in the financial world, with nearly everything we own and how we do business at risk if we fall victim to identify thieves.

So the answer is to stay vigilant and take a few simple steps to try to ensure it won’t happen to you. Nothing, of course, is foolproof. But by making a few changes and incorporating safeguards into your daily financial activity, you can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a victim. Here are my suggestions:

  • Protect your secrets. Be extremely careful with your secret numbers and other confidential information, such as passwords, personal identification numbers and, of course, your Social Security number. These are the easy “front doors” to your identity that you must lock and guard as carefully as the front door to your home or business. Don’t share this information over the phone or online unless you know for sure that you are talking to a safe and secure vendor or financial institution. And if you’re in doubt, don’t share.
  • Monitor your accounts. While the Internet has ushered in many of the concerns associated with identity theft and electronic fraud, it also offers protections. With online access to bank and credit card statements, you can keep track of account activity in real time and quickly catch anything suspicious. Log in to your accounts frequently and regularly inspect what’s happening there.
  • Take charge of online payments. When you use online tools to pay bills or transfer money, stay in the driver’s seat. Most systems allow you to make transfers instead of having an outside party draw money from your account. It’s always safer when you’re making decisions about how much and when to move money out of your accounts. So stay in charge.
  • Protect your devices. Increasingly, our computers, tablets and phones are becoming our tools of commerce—even sometimes our wallets. So protect them with anti-virus software, regular operating software updates and password-protected security screens. When you finish a secure online transaction, make sure you log out before you put your device down.
  • Use one card for online transactions. With one credit card specifically designated for all your online purchases, you can keep a better eye on what you’re buying and make sure that nothing appearing on your statements was purchased by anyone else. It’s often hard to remember at the end of the statement period what exactly we bought. That is especially true for purchases online, where vendor names and locations often aren’t as familiar. Having one card for online purchases helps you organize your purchases. It also makes it easier to cancel the card if you suspect something is amiss.
  • Monitor your credit report. This isn’t a weekly or monthly activity. But at least once a year, order a free copy of your credit report to make sure that the story being told about you is accurate.
  • When in doubt, act. Don’t be shy about making a phone call or asking for help if you think your financial information or identify have been compromised. It’s better to act quickly, especially considering the speed at which identity theft and online fraud can escalate. Cancel a credit card and ask for another if you have concerns, or if a place where you shop reports a security breach. The minor hassle of taking fast action looks small, indeed, compared with the ordeal of dealing with a full-scale crisis.

Identify theft and online fraud are scary. But the Internet is simply the latest venue for the financial crimes we’ve always had to guard against. The good news is it doesn’t take much effort to significantly increase your protection—and significantly decrease your chances of becoming a victim.

Dale Lewis is president and CEO of Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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Our entrepreneurs deserve our thanks–and support

Park State Bank logoBy Dale Lewis

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and living in the Northland.

If you had any doubt, take a look at the companies honored at the 22nd Annual Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards. The list of 42 nominees in five categories is impressive. It includes a butcher, an accounting firm, an art glass studio and a women’s health and birth center.

All are in northeastern Minnesota. All are businesses operated by our friends and neighbors. All are companies that involve significant risk-taking, difficult decision-making and lots of patience and persistence.

The entrepreneurial spirit is thriving in our region. It will keep us strong, but only if we support it. That’s why Park State Bank is a long-time sponsor of the Labovitz Awards. Entrepreneurs in our region put everything on the line every day with their businesses. We need to honor their efforts by buying their products and services.

I’m pleased to say that I see more entrepreneurial spirit now than I have in a long time in the Northland. Young people especially are stepping out and starting up companies in a place they want to call home—our community. But it’s never easy. The hurdles can seem never-ending. The nights can be sleepless. And the capital can become elusive.

Remember that we are just a few years removed from the last economic downturn. Many of the businesses that will be honored today at the Labovitz Awards started in the teeth of the Great Recession. Everyone believed his or her company would make it. Many firms did not. Every day is a new adventure and a new risk for an entrepreneurial business owner. Just ask one. The rewards are not just financial.

In my business, I have the pleasure of working with many local entrepreneurs. It’s an honor to be part of their dreams and to help make those dreams realities.

Entrepreneurs put everything they have on the line. They believe so much in their products or services that they often pledge all their assets to come up with the money to launch their businesses, to keep them going and to make the next payroll.

That devotion doesn’t cease after a few months or years. The life of an entrepreneur brings a sense of accomplishment constantly blended with uncertainty and anxiety. Yet they somehow put away the fears to focus on the business. For most, that means all of the business, including the bookkeeping, the technology and sweeping the floors. It’s true that entrepreneurs get to set their own hours—up before dawn and well into the night.

So what can we do to support entrepreneurs? It’s wonderful that for 22 years, the University of Minnesota Duluth and its Center for Economic Development have honored entrepreneurs with the Labovitz Awards. They are named after Joel Labovitz, who helped grow maurices from a single-location store in downtown Duluth founded by his father to the company that now operates more than 800 women’s clothing stores nationwide.

The recognition that comes from a Labovitz Award or nomination is nice. But more important is the support all of us can show local entrepreneurs every day. Seek them out. Buy their products and use their services. The best award any entrepreneur can receive is the honor of your business.

Know, too, that doing business with local entrepreneurs is good for everyone’s business. Entrepreneurs give back from their profits to local charities and other good causes. It’s their town, too. They also spend their money on other local businesses, strengthening our local economy.

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and living in the Northland. Let’s all remember to do what we to keep their businesses strong all year long.

Dale Lewis is president and CEO of Park State Bank, 2630 W. Superior St., Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or 218-722-3500.

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