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Ask Dr. Per Cap

As an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, you receive a semiannual per capita distribution. Dr. Per Cap has some helpful advice for making your money work harder and go further! Check out his articles here:

Dear Dr. Per Cap: I’m a member of a tribe that pays a sizeable monthly per cap. Within the last five years the checks have really gone up, and our community is blessed to have this windfall; however, there have been problems, too. Specifically, we are starting to see freeloaders looking to marry tribal members so they can live off their per caps. Even worse, one of these gold diggers has her hooks into my younger brother. It’s so obvious to the family that she is only using him for his money, but he just can’t see it. She quit her job two weeks after they started dating and during the past six months he’s bought her two cars, a diamond necklace, and more clothes than she can fit in her closet! The wedding is only two months away, but how can I make him understand that money can’t buy love? – Signed, a Concerned Sister

Dear Concerned Sis: Wow…..this is a tough one. Let me begin by saying that I feel your pain and unfortunately, you’re not the first person I’ve had express this concern. The sad reality is that money can bring out the vulture in people. Moreover, I’m not even going to try to assess the emotional and psychological aspects of your brother’s relationship because I’m not that kind of doctor. Money ailments are the only thing I’m licensed to treat, and the best remedy I can offer your brother is a legal document called a prenuptial agreement. A prenup is a binding agreement between two future spouses that states exactly how the couple’s assets such as a home, cars, cash, and the Pendleton blanket collection will be divided in the event things don’t work out. And considering the fact that the divorce rate in the United States is just over 50% it’s definitely something to consider. How do you think Donald Trump has managed to hang onto his millions through all of his divorces? What’s also important is that a prenup protects the interests of both parties in a marriage (which is something your brother might want to tell his fiancé if she objects). And to be fair let me also say that women aren’t the only ones digging for gold. I’ve seen plenty of guys on the hunt for a per cap princess too.

Some people have strong feelings about prenuptial agreements, and haven’t we all heard the old saying that true love doesn’t come with conditions? Well maybe so, but I’m thinking the person who came up with that line wasn’t sitting on a pile of cash like your brother. So sit down with him and take a laid back approach. It’s probably best not to tell him all of that stuff about his future wife being a gold digger, because he won’t want to hear it. But you can plant a bug in his ear about the financial risks he faces if the marriage goes south. An attorney can draft up a basic prenuptial agreement for about $1,000. And even though it’s no guarantee that he won’t lose any money in a divorce, it’s a whole lot better than nothing. My guess is this woman will hit the road faster than the Lone Ranger when she’s asked to sign the prenup, and hopefully your brother can cut his losses and move on. But look on the bright side. Maybe she’ll be ok with it too…….yeah, right!

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: Every time per cap rolls around, I’ve got a bunch of people hitting me up for loans, favors and handouts. I help a lot of them out because I care and was raised not to be stingy. However, lately it’s been really getting out of hand.  My cousin is dealing with the same thing, and has loaned over $15,000 to friends who I don’t think will ever pay him back. What should I do? – Signed, Everybody’s Best Friend

Dear Everybody’s Best Friend: First off, it’s really cool that you’ve got such a generous heart and want to share your wealth with others. Don’t ever lose that good-natured spirit.  That said there’s got to be a limit to your generosity or you’ll wind up like your cosin who’s burning through his a-de-la (that’s a Cherokee word for money) quicker than Kim Kardashian goes through husbands. What was that last guy’s name again?

But seriously, the issue here is that you just don’t know how to tell people “No.” So you know what? Don’t! Yep, don’t say no to people, and have someone else do it for you. I had a chance to listen to a pro football player a few months ago talk to a group of Native youth who were all bout to receive a large minor’s trust payment. He’s in a similar boat, being a young athlete with loads of cash and all, and he actually commented on this very same issue. His solution has been to direct all requests for loans and financial favors to his mother. That way when somebody comes asking for help with a down payment on a new car, he tells them: “Hey sorry, but my mother handles all my money. You’ll have to ask her.” This way he doesn’t feel guilty about telling people no, and guess what? Turns out folks are a lot less comfortable asking his mom for money than they were asking him, so the requests have really dropped off too.

My advice is to find a person who you can trust to handle all of those requests for money in the same way the baller’s mom handles his. A mature and responsible relative is probably your best bet, but for gosh sakes don’t ask your cousin!

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: Some of my friends have suggested that I open a savings account, but I don’t know how to do that. I looked into it online a little bit, but it just seems kinda confusing. Can you help? – Signed, Save Me

Dear Save Me: Congratulations! Opening your first savings account is a big step toward taking control of your personal financial matters. And don’t worry, because it’s not difficult to do.

You probably already have a checking account, which many would consider their basic “day to day” bank account. You can easily take money out of it to pay bills (by writing checks, using a debit card, or by taking cash out at an ATM), and easily put money into it by having paychecks deposited on a regular basis or by making your other deposits.

A savings account isn’t much different, except it usually pays a small amount of interest that is added to your account each month. And depending on the type of savings account you have, there might be some other restrictions to keep in mind. In any case, these accounts provide a safe and secure place for you to store your money and, hopefully, really start to “grow” your money by regularly adding additional dollars to your savings account while collecting the interest payments each month.

Many people find that it’s easy and convenient to open a savings account at the same bank or credit union where they already have their checking account. That way they see both accounts on the same monthly bank statement, they can deal with the same people if they need assistance, and they can easily transfer funds between accounts as needed. But you don’t have to use the same bank or credit union. You can usually open an account anywhere. In today’s web-wired world, you can even open an online savings account without ever having to go into a building.

When opening an account, you’ll need to fill out forms with some personal information, so be sure to bring along your driver’s license, Social Security number, and your checkbook. When you open the account, they’ll ask you to make your first deposit, which you can do by writing a check or handing them cash.

There are many types of savings accounts, so research the various options or discuss them with your banker when you meet. Some have requirements for minimum balances that must be maintained or you could face a penalty, some might charge fees, some might pay higher interest rates, and some might even allow you to write checks directly on the account.

But, since this is your first savings account, the “basic” account is probably the right choice for you. As you become a savvy saver over time, you can always upgrade or change your savings account to meet your changing wants and needs.

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: Just shoot me now! I’m always buying things on impulse. It happens while waiting in line at the grocery store, while surfing the web, or even walking through a store on my way to the food court for lunch. I usually feel bad afterwards, but my budget feels even worse. What can I do? – Signed, Grabby

Dear Grabby: Welcome to the club!  You are not alone in your impulsive habit of buying things you really don’t need or even want. Lots of people do it. And it is so much easier nowadays when you can just swipe your credit card.

But there are ways to trick yourself out of that nasty habit and save your budget some anguish. It still requires some disciplined self-control, but there’s hope.

One of the simplest tricks is to “take a pause.” If you see something you think you want or need, promise yourself you’ll think about it for two or three days – or weeks – before actually buying it. (It’s usually better if you take longer.) In many cases the impulse will be long gone after your pause, and you’ll decide you don’t want it.  If you still strongly feel the need to have it after your waiting period, then you can buy it with a clear conscience.

Another trick is to write out a list of the things you need and/or want.  Keep it with you. When you feel an urge to buy, check your list.  If the item isn’t on it, that’s your cue to forget it and walk away, especially if the purchase would delay buying of something already on your list. If the item is on your list and it’s a good deal, feel free to purchase it.  You’ve already given it the appropriate amount of thought.

Another gimmick is to stay out of stores (including Internet stores) unless and until you really need to buy something, and then stay focused on buying only what you went there for. Killing time by wandering around retail stores isn’t helpful; you’ll probably see something that you think you need but really don’t. Why subject yourself to needless temptation?

Another trick that you should try is this – freeze your credit cards in a block of ice. Really. It will give you time to think about whether you really want or need to buy something. If you do, then go ahead and thaw it out and fire it up.

As for sales and clearances, you really have to exercise some self-control.  Just because something is on sale does NOT mean you should buy it … unless you really need it. This is another good time to pull out your list.  If you see something on sale or clearance that is on your list, you are good to go.  If it’s not on the list, then again, that’s your cue to walk away.

Try some of these simple techniques to help you control the urge to splurge. Your bank account will thank you!

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: I have no idea where to start to create a budget. It seems that before the month is over, I’m outta cash. More month than money! Can you help me keep track of my expenses? – Signed, Unbalanced

Dear Unbalanced: Definitely! Creating a budget is the way to go to get a handle on making your money last as long as your month. Creating a budget, however, can seem overwhelming. Getting started is the hardest part, but it gets easier with practice.

The first thing to do is figure out what your absolutely necessary or “required” monthly expenses are. These include things such as rent or mortgage payments, utility bills (electricity, gas, water service, phone service, etc.), food, medical expenses, child care, transportation or car payments, and insurance fees. You should also think about paying down debt and savings, so think about your credit card bills and what you can put into a savings account if possible. Since some bills vary widely month to month, a good way to come up with an “average” monthly figure is to add up the most recent 12 months of bills (your electric power bill, for example), and then divide it by 12.

List all of these monthly expenses on a sheet of paper, with a line for each type of expense. At the bottom of the column, total it all up. This is your basic monthly “nut” that you have to cover with your income.

Then also make a list of all your income sources over the course of a month. Include your take-home pay and any other payments you may get each month (such as child support, per cap, alimony, disability payment, a second job, etc.). Put these on a sheet of paper, too, and total them up.

Hopefully, when you compare the two totals, you’ll find that you have more income than you have in basic expenses. Any extra income is generally “discretionary,” which means it’s your choice how you spend the extra each month. It could go toward your savings account (which I highly recommend), or toward entertainment or other stuff you want for you or your family, such as clothes, furniture, a night on the town, etc.

If you find that you have more expenses than income, then you need to take some drastic steps. The best approach is to see where you can cut some expenses, like eating out or going to the movies. After all, the idea behind a budget is to make sure your expenses are less than your income. This allows you to start building up some savings and have more discretionary income to spend or save as you see fit.

If this is your case, take a hard look at where you spend your money – primarily your discretionary spending. Do you really need a double mocha latte at Starbucks every morning, or would a regular cup of coffee at home be just fine? Are you spending too much money on “impulse items” that you really don’t want or need? Do you truly need a famous brand item if a less-expensive generic item would be OK? Are there ways to cut back on your basic expenses too? A better rate on your insurance policies or even your rent, perhaps, or can you substitute generic medicines for brand names?

Little expenses, over the course of a month, can really add up. Try to pay close attention to where you are spending your money, and always have the idea in your head that you want to cut or reduce unnecessary spending. Get a handle on what your real “needs” are and take care of them first, before your simple “wants.” That will help you begin to get your expenses in line with your income.

One online resource that you can use to start budgeting can be found here.

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: I’m worried about my finances. I can’t keep track of monthly bills, and I never know how much I have in my bank account. I owe a lot on my credit cards and just can’t keep up. I make a good salary and have a per-capita payment that helps, but I’m still in debt. I keep trying to get organized but it is too much. What should I do? – Signed, Too Much

Dear Too Much: When I was a kid I kept all of my toys in the basement. I had shelves and a couple of toy boxes for storage, but sooner or later they’d all wind up on the floor. Let’s face it; taking toys out is a lot more fun than putting them away. Eventually I’d have to wade through a sea of action figures, Hot Wheels cars, plastic army men and Legos, which was no easy task for an eight-year-old. I still remember the advice my older sister gave me one afternoon when a pile of toys stretched across the entire basement floor: “Just pick a corner and get started. If you break the mess down into smaller pieces, it’ll be a whole lot easier.” It was.

The same logic applies to taking control of your finances. It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed with paying rent, balancing the checkbook, planning a budget, paying off the credit card, and checking credit reports. Where’s a person supposed to start? If you feel like you’re in so deep with your finances that it’s not even worth trying, it’s time to pick a corner.

Drawing up a monthly budget can be a real chore, and sticking to one can be even harder. So why not try a simpler approach? Using a pocket-sized notebook, write down all of your expenses for one week. Fill up the gas tank, write it down. Pay the cell phone bill, write it down. Frybread sale at lunch, you got it! Write down every dime you spend from Sunday through Saturday and then add it all up. Adjusting to a budget can be a challenge, especially if you’ve never used one before. So this is a way to ease into it without biting off more than you can chew, just like you would if you were to go on a diet or start a new workout program. You wouldn’t dream of running 10 miles on your first day, would you?

I promise that by taking this first simple step, you’ll learn something new about yourself and your spending habits – like how fast those Big Gulps add up! But seriously, try this for a week or even a month before tackling a full-on budget or spending plan. You’ll be used to keeping track of expenses by that time, and won’t feel so overwhelmed by the extra responsibility. In fact you might even wonder how you ever managed to get along before.

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: I am turning 18 next week and will be getting my Minor’s Trust payment. I am psyched! I am thinking of getting a Cadillac Escalade or maybe just a Land Rover. I was wondering, what color do you think I should get it in - black or gunmetal grey? – Signed, Built for Speed

Dear Built for Speed: Whoa there! Let’s take a step back here and take a deep breath. You have a lot more to think about than the color of your car. You’re about to receive a large amount of cash, and you want to make sure that money lasts longer than the new car smell. Otherwise it is just “easy come, easy go.”

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you should make a plan for what you are going to do with your money before spending one dime. The plan doesn’t have to be complicated either. Maybe write a paragraph describing how you intend to spend your money over the next few years; or draw a pie chart with wedges that represent expenses and savings. A good rule of thumb for a young person is to save at least 50%, but don’t be afraid to sock away more. Then put your plan somewhere where you’ll see it every day; like your refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, or even the inside of your locker at school.

Now let’s talk about car buying. But I’m gonna have to apply the brakes here, too. Getting a new car can be fun, and a car is also a necessity for many people. But keep a few things in mind. First: a car is not an investment because it actually loses value, or depreciates, over time. In fact some brand new cars can depreciate by as much as $2,000 the moment you drive them off the dealer’s lot! So don’t assume your car will hold its value if you ever need to sell it.

Next, remember the words a wise man once told me: “You start paying for a car after you buy it.” (Would you believe the wise man was actually my high school wrestling coach? Yep!) And my coach was right because as soon as the ink dries on your sales contract, and you’ll be spending more money on stuff like insurance, gas and maintenance.

The third thing to think about is that those car dealers are smart, and know how to separate people from their money – they are good at their job. So be a savvy shopper and maybe take an experienced friend or family member with you when you are looking around for the perfect car, to make sure the car salesman doesn’t take you for a ride.

Ok, so now that you have the road map in front of you, and you have your plan, think about what car best suits your needs – do you need good gas mileage, a big truck bed, or is reliability the most important thing? Next, if your budget can afford it, you can think about your wants too – a kickin’ stereo, rims, sunroof, tint, etc. Then shop around, and take your time. And before you know it, you’ll be zooming around town in your dream car – and still have money in the bank for later. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!

PS: Oh, yeah, and I vote for the color red.

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: I have been shopping a lot lately and have run up all of my credit cards. I love to shop but I can’t afford all these bills. What should I do? – Signed, Shopaholic

Dear Shopaholic: Ask yourself this question: Do you control your money or does it control you? There are a lot of reasons why people shop. Feeling down? How about some retail therapy, as they call it – shop ‘till ya drop. You might feel better for a while, but the party’s over when you get that credit card bill. And then all of a sudden your money is controlling you – you are working overtime just to pay your bills.

But there is a solution – think about other ways to get that shopping fix without dropping a lot of money at a store. Me, I never met a yard sale or flea market I didn’t like. But there are other things you can do too.

Ever go shopping without money? I do it all the time and it’s one of the best ways I know to avoid those impulse purchases that cause people to dip into savings and add to those pesky credit card balances.

Here’s how: next time you go to the mall, leave the billfold at home. That’s right – no cash, no debit cards, and definitely no credit cards. Now shop till you drop! Try on clothes, test out the latest electronics, take a stroll through the food court, do anything you like, just don’t spend any money. You’ll probably come across a few items you think you really want and be disappointed that you don’t have the money to buy them, but that’s the whole point. Just promise yourself that you’ll wait at least two days before you come back and buy anything. This will give you time to think about just how important those purchases really are to you. If after two days you find that you still want them, go ahead and make the purchases. But on the other hand, if you discover after two days that you don’t feel that strongly, hold off for another two days before asking yourself again how important they are. Who knows? You might wind up forgetting about the stuff all together and be really glad you saved your money. Either way, even if you do go back to the mall, you’ll still avoid a few impulse purchases for those items that you realize you never truly wanted in the first place.

And that means a larger balance in your bank account, fewer charges on your credit card, and more dollars in your pocket. What’s not to love about shopping without money?

So next time you are heading out to the mall, stop and think – is there another way to pursue your love of shopping without letting your money control you?

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

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Dear Dr. Per Cap: What about those credit card offers you get when you are at a department store? The ones that promise a discount on your purchase? Is there a trick to them? Someone told me they affect your credit score. – Signed, Wondering

Dear Wondering:“Apply today and get 10 percent off your purchase.” Sound familiar? Seems like every store you go into these days wants to sign you up for a credit card.

You might want to think twice though before taking advantage of what might appear as a convenient discount. An in-store application for credit can actually hurt your credit worse than if you apply for a credit card through the mail or online (see below), and here’s why: It looks like you’re desperate for money.

To the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Transunion and Experian – banks that offer in-store credit are considered lenders of last resort. Unlike a credit card you can apply for at your local bank or credit union, an in-store application sends the message that you don’t have enough money or pre-existing credit to make your purchase, so you’re relying on the store for help even if you already have plenty of available credit or cash in hand. This doesn’t seem completely fair, but that’s how the credit-reporting system works.

The solution: next time plan ahead before signing up for a new credit card just to save a few dollars at the checkout counter. You can keep an eye out for sales, check newspapers and magazines for coupons, or shop for discounts online. Bottom line: you probably don’t really need a new credit card anyway.

So just what goes into figuring your credit score?

35 % Payment History: Paying your bills on time as agreed is the most important factor making up your credit score.

30% Current Debt: Your existing debt is almost as important as your payment history. So try to keep a low balance-to-limit ratio on loans and credit cards.

15% Credit History: The longer your track record is for borrowing money, the better.

10% Types of Credit: Three separate lines of credit look best, both from loans and credit cards.

10% Credit Applications: Every time you apply for credit, it dings your score a few points, and stay clear of the in-store applications mentioned above that can really do a number on your score.

So remember, next time you are in line at the department store and they ask you to apply for a credit card, think long and hard about whether it is really worth it. A little savings today might have a big impact on your credit score tomorrow!

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.

Print this Q&A (pdf).