Personal finance

Practical Money Matters with Nathaniel Sillin

How many times have you gone to pour milk in your coffee, only to see that the date on the carton was yesterday? Some people will instinctively throw it away, but chances are that’s not what the label is intended to convey. It’s likely a marker for when the food might taste its best, not if it’s safe to eat.
By some estimates, as many as 91 percent of consumers may misinterpret food date labels. It’s no surprise as there are dozens of different lables in use, but the misunderstanding and lack of meal planning are contributing to a larger problem. Between 30 and 40 percent of the U.S.’s food supply winds up in the trash or a compost container.
The benefits of reducing food waste are numerous. You’ll save money, which may be reason enough. You could also be lowering your carbon footprint by keeping spoiled food out of landfills and cutting down on the growing and transportation of food that doesn’t get eaten.
Cutting back on this waste could start with understanding what food labels actually mean.
Don’t misinterpret food dates as expiration dates. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), aside from on infant formula, food label dates aren’t an indication of whether or not the food is safe to eat. For example, “best by” may mean the food will taste, look and feel its best if its eaten by that date. It could still be good for days, weeks or even months (for non-perishables) after that date.
Some states do require expiration dates on milk or meat and food labeling could become less confusing across the country. But for now, you may need to rely on your judgment. The USDA writes that if foods don’t show signs of spoilage, such as changing colors or giving off an unpleasant smell, they could still be safe and wholesome.
Quick tips for keeping fruit and vegetables fresh for longer. Regardless of the date, proper food storage can impact a food’s longevity.
•Wait to wash food until you’re about to cook or eat. Otherwise, the moisture could spur bacterial growth.
•Strategically store items in your refrigerator. Your food will typically last longer if you put the least perishable items on the door, meat near the bottom back (unless there’s a meat drawer), veggies in the crisper and dairy or drinks near the top.
•Generally, you want to keep fruits and vegetables away from each other because many fruits produce ethylene gas and exposure to the gas could cause vegetables to spoil more quickly. There are also vegetables that produce the gas and fruits that are sensitive to it.
•If you’re storing a fruit or vegetable that gives off and is susceptible to ethylene gas, wrap it in aluminum foil or store it in a paper bag rather than using less-breathable plastic wrap or bags.
You can look for more tips about particular foods online. There are also apps that can automatically connect to your supermarket loyalty programs to track what you buy (or you can upload a picture of your receipt), warn you when something may be going bad and recommend recipes that incorporate those foods.
Find creative uses for foods that are on their way out. Whether you use an app to sync shopping lists and schedule meals or use a paper list, meal planning can help cut down on waste as well. But even with great intentions sometimes things get forgotten, or meals get pushed off until it’s almost too late.
You can save vegetables from the trash by roasting them, making soup or turning them into a casserole. Carrots, potatoes and other root veggies (plus zucchinis) can be grated and fried to make fritters. You could bake fruits into breads, throw them into smoothies or freeze them for later. In the end, the goal is to use everything you buy.
Bottom line: Food waste could be draining your wallet, hurting the environment and in some cases, may be completely unnecessary. Learning to correctly interpret food labels and performing a sight and smell test before throwing something away could help. Taking the time to prepare before you shop, having a plan for how you’re going to use the food you buy and being okay with a last-minute backup plan can help even more. In the end, taking the extra time to evaluate the true condition of your food can save you money.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

COLLEGE GRADUATION season is upon us. How about a gift that will really mean something to a student in your life? The way I see it, the best graduation gift isn’t just a check in an envelope – it’s coming up with a few great, memorable ideas to help a new grad make a great financial start in life.

At a time when money skills for young adults have never been more important, consider the following:

Buy them a session – or more – with a money coach. If you already work with a qualified financial planner or professional tax preparer, why not pay for a session or two for your favored new grad to help them work out their first budget as a working adult?

Take the time to talk with the professional about specific financial issues the grad will need to address as well as their first, formal budget setup if they’ve never budgeted before.

Help them get a start on their retirement savings. Again, most of these gift ideas can come from one person or a group throwing in cash contributions. Consider taking the new grad out to open either a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. Early retirement investing is one of the most important lessons any new college grad can learn.

Check their 529 savings-plan status. If they’re continuing school, you could create a 529 plan or contribute to an existing one. Many new college graduates return to school to start a master’s degree or other advanced training. If such an idea makes sense for your finances, consider opening or contributing to a 529 college savings plan to support their continuing education.

A 529 plan is a college savings plan set up by a state or educational institution that offers tax advantages and potentially other incentives to make it easier to save for college and other post-secondary training for a designated beneficiary such as a child or grandchild.

A friend or a relative can set one up and name anyone as a beneficiary – the new grad, another relative, even yourself – and there are no income restrictions on doing so. You’ll also be free to change the beneficiary if necessary.

One suggestion – before you act, talk it over with the new grad or his or her family members to make sure this is the best approach for helping with their future education.

Start an investment portfolio. If your new grad loves a particular company’s goods, consider buying them a few shares. Again, evaluate this decision against your own finances and parental opinion, but consider going with them to a brokerage to buy a few shares in the company. Make it a lesson not only in the purchase process but in the valuation, tax and ownership issues anyone has to deal with as a long-term shareholder.

Even though your favored grad will probably own more investments in mutual funds over his or her lifetime, understanding the ownership of individual stocks will inform all the investing they do.

Bottom line: Money issues can be daunting for today’s new graduate. Why not disarm their concerns with some solid advice from experts you trust? By offering up basics in budgeting, saving and investing, you just might become one of their favorite gift givers.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

Most parents put countless miles on the car driving their children to and from various practices and games throughout elementary and secondary school.
As for the actual dollars behind all that driving and purchasing of uniforms, equipment, lessons and various activity fees, the numbers are pretty eye-opening. A 2014 study by Utah State University’s Families In Sport lab shows that the average annual family financial investment in youth sports came out to $2,292.42, or 1.84 per cent of the family’s gross annual income.
Other research done within the program indicates that many parents spend much more – some in excess of 10 per cent of gross annual income.
Whether that figure sounds low or high depends on your child’s chosen sport and the number of years your child participates in it.
Whether your child’s interest in sports is temporary or a long-term commitment, it’s not only important to plan and budget what you’re spending but to find ways to save. Here are some steps to begin:
Link up with other parents. Whether it’s after-school or weekend soccer, hockey or baseball, your first source of intelligence is parents who already have kids playing the sport. Discuss everything from the best program for your child overall to individual costs and fees associated with play – and don’t forget to ask them how they’ve kept their budget in line.
Schedule for the best discounts. Don’t miss any opportunities for sales on merchandise or discounts on training and activity fees. Paying early on merchandise, sports camp or pre-season activity fees can save significant money over time. Above all, avoid late registration fees on all sports and activities.
Check your child’s health insurance. Depending on what sport your child plays, you might end up buying additional coverage beyond what your family health insurance allows. It takes virtually no time for a night or two in the hospital to run into tens of thousands of dollars, so take every step to make sure your child has the right coverage.
Some health insurers sell special sports coverage for minors but, if your child is playing an organized sport within a school system or league, the organizer might have its own insurance requirements before allowing your child to play. There could be other coverage options as well –run those options by your qualified financial experts or fellow parents who are insuring their children against sports injuries.
Buy used. Whether it’s equipment or uniforms, see if there are safe options to buy secondhand gear. Auction sites could provide some solutions while many communities known for particular sports might have used-equipment stores that can cut your bills extensively. If your child isn’t destined for the pros, buying used makes a lot of sense – why buy full price if at some point their interest will wane?
Buy several sizes and neutral colors and styles. If you have a growing child who is likely to maintain interest in a particular sport for several seasons, stock up on clothing in different sizes and go for neutral colors and styles that allow for gender-neutral hand-me-downs.
Negotiate shared travel and group fees. Again, in partnership with other parents or your school system, see if there are cheaper ways to travel, buy gear and find play and practice space. Always be on the lookout for cheaper options and set up a network either by e-mail or social media where there’s a free flow of spending tips and discounts that might come in handy.
As for lessons, try the classroom approach. If your child wants to improve in a sport, work with other parents to hire an instructor who will do group lessons that will ensure a lower cost per family.
Bottom line: Even if your child doesn’t grow up with the natural skill of a Manning brother or a Williams sister, it’s possible to introduce them to youth athletics without ruining your family finances.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

Whether you’re talking about diet, exercise or money, keeping new year’s resolutions is challenging. A University Of Scranton researcher has noted that weight loss is the current most popular resolution, followed by finances improvement at No 2.
And, while the study showed that roughly 40 to 46 per cent of people making resolutions are successful in their specific goal at the six-month mark, more than half give up.
Your personal finances need more dedication than that. Fortunately, you can add some fairly easy money resolutions that can help your finances overall.
Make your first budget or do a better job of reviewing the one you already have. A 2013 Gallup survey reported that only one third of Americans actually prepare a detailed household budget. Make your first resolution creating or reviewing your household budget so you know where your finances stand at all times.
Budgeting involves day-to-day tracking of finances but having a quick way to determine your net worth – your assets minus your liabilities – offers the biggest picture of how you’re doing and what next steps you might take to improve your circumstances. Make this calculation your kickoff to each new year.
Having an emergency fund means you’re always ready for the unexpected. The average emergency fund generally covers three to six months of daily expenses – yours could be more or less. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of an emergency fund is to keep you away from savings when unexpected expenses come along.
Depending on your comfort level with all things digital, virtually every aspect of your financial life can be managed online or with computer-based software. From setting up a basic paper or online calendar to tracking pay dates, bills’ due dates and deposit dates for savings and investments, a daily series of reminders and action items will keep your money issues on time and on track.
Recommit to your retirement. If you’re employed or self-employed, here’s a way to make a retirement savings resolution stick. First, make sure you’re signed up for a 401k, 403b or 457 plan at work or a corresponding SEP-IRA, self-directed 401k or other self-employment retirement plan that fits your tax and financial situation.
Then check at the IRS website what your 2016 maximum contribution is for your respective plan.
Finally, either through budgeting or a plan to bring in more income, determine how you can come as close to your maximum contribution as possible for the coming year. And, of course, don’t forget about traditional or Roth IRAs that you can contribute to independently of work-based plans. All of these options can improve your retirement prospects while saving you considerable money on taxes.
Review your non-retirement benefits and insurance. For most employed and self-employed people, open enrollment for health and other company benefits wrapped up before the year end. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make notes at any point in the year for possible changes and improvements to your health insurance and related tax-advantaged accounts.
The same goes for reviewing your personal home, auto, life and disability insurance for potential savings or better coverage, or both. Qualified advisers can help you review these choices.
Find more money to save. Whether it’s adjusting what you spend, paying off expenses or finding ways to bring in more income, saving more is one of the best financial objectives there is.
The first step is to track and set spending limits that will help you reset or eliminate any expenses standing in the way of your goals.
Bottom line: Making new year’s resolutions always sounds like a good idea at the time but keeping them requires determination, study and focus. This year, build the kind of money habits that position you for success.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

PREPARING your kids for college isn’t just about the money you’ve put aside for tuition, room and board. It’s about making deadlines, making the right choices and making sure your teen has the proper life and money skills to make college a success.
Consider a college-planning calendar you and your university-bound student can follow. Here are some seasonal activities to consider adding to your personal needs:
No matter how you’ve prepared financially for your teen’s college education, kick off the year with a visit to a qualified financial and tax professional.
You might also consider paying for a separate advisory session for your teen so he or she knows how to handle money before leaving for college.
January is also a good month to learn about the free application for federal student aid, better known as FAFSA, as it’s best to fill out the form right after January1 to avoid missing the deadlines for available federal and state aid going into your teen’s freshman year.
That first FAFSA filing will give you an idea of what your effective family contribution, or EFC, will be.
Consult trusted friends and family members for their advice on affording college and strategies for securing grants and scholarships. Resources like and are good resources for ways to afford college, but it also helps to have face-to-face expertise.
Start evaluating potential schools with your teen. The US department of education’s college affordability and transparency center features a range of calculators and resources to help you narrow your school choices with the chance for your teen to secure the most scholarships and grants – money that doesn’t have to be paid back.
Springtime is a good season to start talking about summer jobs and internships that will make for a more attractive college application. Internship application periods can be year-round with many deadlines in the fall.
If you are expecting your teen to contribute some part of his or her earnings or savings for future college costs, it’s worthwhile to review earning, spending, budgeting, tax and savings fundamentals he or she will need to manage money in school.
Also, if your teens haven’t been exposed to banking on a regular basis, it’s time. Work with them to compare fees and services on various checking and savings accounts and consider whether it might be wise for you to bank with the same institution to allow for easier transfer of necessary funds from your account to theirs.
Also encourage them to find an organized way of keeping track of their finances on paper, on computer or online.
The summer months are a time not just for fun but also to research potential schools and scholarship programs and even take a quick campus tour. The US department of education’s scholarship site offers basic guidance in finding such money, while local companies and organizations – including places where your teen can work or intern – may offer local awards.
If your teen is heading into his or her senior year, the fall is going to be busy. Put admissions test dates and college admissions deadlines on your calendar as soon as possible. Also budget for college application fees as well as fees for admissions prep tests and the main SAT or ACT tests – more on that below – which could cost well in excess of $50 based on which test – or tests – your teen needs to take.
This is the season for college admissions tests but, for students with extra time before graduation, it’s also the season for test prep. Higher-scoring students on such achievement tests generally are in a better position for admissions or certain types of financial aid.
High-school sophomores take the PSAT as a primary qualification for national merit scholarships, but the exam also gives an early indication of how students might fare during their junior year on their ACT or SAT test, whichever they are encouraged to take. Advise your student to check directly with the colleges of their choice to see which tests they require.
Finally, the closer your teen gets to college-freshman year, the more specific the dates on the calendar become. For college-bound high-school seniors, fall is the time for narrowing down college choices after visits, interviews or auditions so applications can be sent. Once acceptance letters arrive, it’s time for parents and teens to evaluate financial-aid packages.
Bottom line: Creating a college-planning calendar can help you and your teen target desired schools, learn about money management and break down funding obstacles. Set it up as early as possible.
Editor’s note: You can find helpful advice online through the links included in our electronic version of this article here at
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.