Banks are about numbers…right? Not according to the super-friendly team at Bellingham’s First Federal branches. “You want to be a name at your bank, never a number,” says Market Area Manager & Vice President Troy Wills.

You’ll find Troy Wills—and his warm, disarming personality—at First Federal’s Bellingham Barkley office. Photo courtesy: Troy Wills

When we sat down to discuss tips for saving—joined by Customer Sales & Service Manager Tina Ruff—it was not only fun, but we were periodically interrupted by Troy shouting greetings to each customer who walked in the front door…by name. For stressful topics like post-holiday debt or how to build credit, consider the folks at First Federal your personal pep squad.

The Doctor Is In!

“We want you to walk out and say ‘I did it!’ when it comes to getting that house, that car, or being debt-free,” says Wills. “You would go to a doctor if you were worried about your health. In this area, we are the experts—we are ‘financial doctors’—and we want to help you.”

Debt Check-Up

“If you’ve used credit, you need to hit it head-on,” says Wills. “Make a plan, and then make sure you don’t have late payments. Ignoring the problem or missing due dates can really hurt you.”

Ruff adds, “It’s really important to check in. Financial goals are the hardest thing to talk about; you might have grown up in a house where they were never discussed. Just having the conversation and making a simple plan can take away the stress.”

Quick Rx:

  • Look at all your debt.
  • Check for the highest interest rate balance. Can you move it to a low or zero-rate offer and schedule a plan to pay it off?
  • If you have multiple credit cards with balances, move that debt to one loan or card so it isn’t overwhelming.
  • Check with your bank; they might have a debt consolidation loan or program.
  • Set realistic goals: I will pay XX every month, while not adding new debt, so that by 2021 I am debt free. Find support, like your First Federal bank partner, to hold you accountable.

Financial Health Chart

First Federal’s Barkley location opened in 2015. Photo courtesy: First Federal.

A credit rating below a certain threshold can damage your ability to enjoy low interest rates for future big purchases like houses or cars. That’s why avoiding late payments is so important. Using too much credit can also affect your credit rating. “You’ll increase your credit score faster by lowering your credit utilization ratio to less than 10%,” says Wills, “But what I take away from that is: ‘just don’t make big purchases on your credit card that you can’t pay off right away.’ It works against you.”

Quick Rx:

  • Go to AnnualCreditReport.com and get your credit report score.
  • Know this from Wills: “It is never too late to save your credit.” You can aim to be at 720 or higher within a timeframe and achieve it with a plan and some expert advice from people such as his team.
  • Close credit cards you don’t need. “Potential debt,” also known as your combined credit limits from each card, impacts your credit score.
  • “Ask yourself what benefits you are getting by having four cards, and do you need those benefits anymore,” says Ruff, adding to take a hard look at if any of the “rewards” from your card programs are getting used at all.
  • Call your credit card companies and ask three potential questions:
  • “Can you lower my credit limit?” Remember, money you “might” borrow works against your credit report, and you don’t want to resort to credit cards for major purchases anyway.
  • “Can I make extra payments in a month that will go toward the balance?” If they are just going to “hold” your money until the next due date, it isn’t worth making extra payments.
  • “What day do you report my balance to credit agencies?” There is usually a certain day in a month your balance gets reported. Make sure you pay it off before that day, or your credit report will be a ghost image of a past balance.

Prescription for Savings

Now for the fun part: you have an unexpected expense or it’s once again time for holiday shopping. “It’s a liberating feeling to pay cash and be done with it!” says Ruff. Sound good?

Quick Rx:

  • Look at your paycheck and ask what slice can automatically go to pay yourself first. Have it put in another account, so you don’t see it in your available balance.
  • “Make a realistic goal,” says Wills, “like, ‘I want to have $3,000 in my savings account by December,’ and then ask yourself, ‘Will my plan work?’”
  • Use special programs. “First Federal has a holiday savings account: we divert whatever amount you choose into this program, and then come November, we automatically cut you a check and you have money for holiday gifts, travel, or entertaining.”
  • Having some savings accessible means you don’t need to use credit when the water heater explodes. But short term CDs pay interest if you can commit to having your money set aside for a while.
  • Don’t give up before you start. “There’s this impression that the numbers need to be so high,” says Ruff. “You are living your best life, not someone else’s, and you need a plan that supports the future you want.”

Budget-Friendly Winter Fun—Doctor’s Orders!

Living your best life may not actually cost much at all—or at least living a great life while working on your financial plan. Here are some frugal favorite activities from the First Federal finance team:

Outdoor family snow outings are the best, whether they include technical gear or just a sled and a smile! Photo courtesy: Troy Wills


  • Sledding on Mount Baker. You’re not paying for lift tickets or gear—and there are many great hills all over the place. I love going up with my family, we have a blast.
  • Snowshoeing—you can trek all over, maybe pack in your sleds, and find some really beautiful scenery or hills.
  • Check for discount reward programs or apps. My pick at the moment is Regal Cinema Membership, with the app we can check our benefits and I can take my whole family to the movies for 50% off with free popcorn refills.
  • When high winds bring down so much natural material, I like to take a trail walk with the kids and make a collection book of all the different kinds of leaves and things they pick up; you just need a notebook and some plastic sheets to hold things.


Family meals with kids in charge can be a fun, engrossing activity that includes learning—and eating! Photo courtesy: Troy Wills
  • Winter picnic: we like to pack up a meal and go storm-watching or see the winter landscape.
  • Ice skating is great for both exercise and people-watching!
  • Winter is good for certain off-season travel or shopping—get stuff you need or that escape now instead of later, when it costs more.
  • Free entertainment resources: look for online library access or podcasts.
  • Kids’ meal assignment: they do the whole supply list, preparation, and serving. Then enjoy time together while you eat!


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