Boost Your Daily Routine with These 3 Financial Habits

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The return of – dun, dun, dun – Consumer Debt

It might sound like a bad monster movie title, but the return of consumer debt is a growing concern.

A recent New York Times article details the rise of consumer debt, which has reached a new peak and now exceeds the record-breaking $12.68 trillion of consumer debt we had collectively back in 2008. In 2017, after a sharp decline followed by a rise as consumer sentiment improved, we reached a new peak of $12.73 trillion.[i]

A trillion is a big number. Numbers measured in trillions (that’s 1,000 billion, or 1,000,000 million – yes, that’s correct!) can seem abstract and difficult to relate to in our own individual situations.

While big numbers can be hard to grasp, dates are easy. 2008 is when the economy crashed, due in part to an unmanageable amount of debt.

Good debt and bad debt
Mortgage debt still makes up the majority of consumer debt, currently 68% of the total.[ii] But student loans are a category on the rise, currently more than doubling their percentage of total consumer debt when compared to 2008 figures.[iii] Coupled with a healthier economy, these new levels of consumer debt may not be a strong concern yet, but the impact of debt on individual households is often more palpable than the big-picture view of economists. Debt has a way of creeping up on families.

It’s common to hear references to “good debt”, usually when discussing real estate loans. In most cases, mortgage interest is tax deductible, helping to reduce the effective interest rate. However, if a household has too much debt, none of it feels like good debt. In fact, some people pass on home ownership altogether, investing their surplus income and living in more affordable rented apartments – instead of taking on the fluctuating cost of a house and its seemingly never-ending mortgage payments.

Credit card debt
Assuming that a mortgage and an auto loan are necessary evils for your household to work, and that student loans may pay dividends in the form of higher earning power, credit card debt deserves some closer scrutiny. The average American household owes over $15,000 in credit card debt,[iv] more than a quarter of the median household income. The average interest rate for credit cards varies depending on the type of card (rewards cards can be higher). But overall, American households are paying an average of 14.87% APR for the privilege of borrowing money to spend.[v]

That level of debt requires a sizeable payment each month. Guess what the monthly credit card interest for credit card debt of $15,000 at an interest rate of 15% would be? $187.50! (That number will go down as the balance decreases.) If your monthly payment is on the lower end, your debt won’t go down very quickly though. In fact, at $200 per month paid towards credit cards, the average household would be paying off that credit card debt for nearly 19 years, with a total interest cost of almost $30,000 – all from a $15,000 starting balance! (Hint: You can find financial calculators online to help you figure out how much it really costs to borrow money.)

You may not be trillions in debt (even though it might feel like it), but the first step to getting your debt under control is often to understand what its long-term effects might be on your family’s financial health. Formulating a strategy to tackle debt and sticking to it is the key to defeating your personal debt monsters.

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[i], [ii] & [iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/business/dealbook/household-debt-united-states.html
[iv] & [v] https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/average-credit-card-debt-household/

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The effects of closing a credit card

Americans owe over $900 billion in credit card debt[i], and credit card interest rates are on the rise – now over 15 percent.[ii]

So if you’re on a mission to reduce or eliminate your credit card debt (go you!), you may be thinking you should close out your credit cards. However, you need to know that doing that may have several effects, some of which may not be what you’d expect.

There are times when canceling a card may be the best answer:

  1. A card charges an annual fee
    If you’re being charged an annual fee for the privilege of having a certain credit card, it may be better to cancel the card, particularly if you don’t use it often or have other options available.

  2. You can’t control your spending
    If “retail therapy” is impacting your financial future by creating an ever-growing mountain of debt, it may be best to eliminate the temptation of buying on credit.

Then there are times when closing a credit card may not make much difference, or could even hurt your score:

  1. Lingering effects: The good and the bad
    Many of us have heard that credit card information stays on your report for 7 years. That’s true for negative information, including events as large as a foreclosure. Positive events, however, stay on your report for 10 years. In either case, canceling your credit card now will reduce the credit you have available, but the history – good or bad – will remain on your credit report for up to a decade.

  2. The benefits of old credit
    Did you know that one aspect factored in to your credit score is the age of your accounts? Canceling a much older account in favor of a newer account can actually leave a dent in your score, and we know that canceling the card won’t erase any negative history less than 7 years old. So it may be best to keep the older credit account open as long as there are no costs to the card. Another point to consider is that the effects of canceling an older account may be magnified when you’re younger and haven’t yet established a long enough credit history.

Credit utilization affects your credit score
Lenders and credit bureaus not only look at your repayment history, they also look at your credit utilization, which refers to how much of your available credit you’re using. Lower usage can help your credit score while high utilization can work against you.

For example, if you have $20,000 in credit available and $10,000 in credit card balances, your credit utilization is 50 percent. If you close a credit card that has a credit limit of $5,000, your available credit drops to $15,000 but your credit utilization jumps to 67 percent if the credit card balances remain unchanged. Going on a credit card canceling rampage may actually have negative effects because your credit utilization can skyrocket.

If unnecessary spending is out of control or if there is a cost to having a particular credit card, it may be best to cancel the card. In other cases, however, it’s often better to use credit cards occasionally, and make sure to pay them off as quickly as possible.

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[i] https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/average-credit-card-debt-household/
[ii] https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TERMCBCCINTNS

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How inflation can affect your savings

Even before we leave childhood behind, we become aware of a decrease in buying power. It seems like that candy bar in the check-out lane has doubled in price without doubling in size.

Unlike the value of stocks, real estate, or similar assets, candy doesn’t appreciate in value. What has happened is that your money has depreciated in value. Inflation has a sneaky way of eating away our money over time, forcing us to either find a way to earn more – or to get by with less. Even for the youngest of Generation Z, now in their early teens, consumer prices have increased about 30% since they were born.[i]

In 2018, the average new car costs $35,285 – up $703 since the previous year, or about 2%.[ii] While a $703 increase in a single year might seem high, the inflation rate (as a percentage) is lower than for many other items. And some other items may not have gone up as much as you would expect. For example, in 1913, a gallon of milk cost about 36 cents. One hundred years later in 2013, the average cost was about $3.53.[iii] But if milk had followed the average rate of inflation, the price for a gallon would be nearly $10.00 by now. Supply, demand, and more efficient production and distribution all contribute to a lower price than expected with the milk example. The U.S. government uses what is called a Consumer Price Index (CPI) to measure inflation, which unfortunately does not include food and fuel – both essentials and daily expenses for households – making the true rate of inflation more difficult to determine.

Inflation is due to several reasons, all with complex relationships to each other. At the heart of the matter is money supply. If there is more money in circulation, prices go up. Under the current monetary system, which utilizes a Central Bank to govern monetary policy, inflation rates have been as low as about 1.3% annually in 1964 to 13.5% in 1980.[iv] That means something that cost $10 in 1979 cost $11.35 just a year later. That may not seem like a big increase on $10, but if you’re like most people, your pay probably doesn’t go up 13.5% in a year for doing the same work!

How does inflation affect my savings strategy? It’s a good idea to always keep the current rate of inflation in the back of your mind. As of August, 2018, it was about 2.7%.[v] Interest rates paid by banks and CDs are usually lower than the inflation rate, which might mean you’ll lose money if you leave most of it in these types of accounts. Saving, of course, is essential – but try to find accounts for your cash that work a bit harder to outrun inflation.

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1) https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
2) https://mediaroom.kbb.com/average-new-car-prices-jump-2-percent-march-2018-suv-sales-strength-according-to-kelley-blue-book
3) https://inflationdata.com/articles/2013/03/21/food-price-inflation-1913/
4 & 5) https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/historical-inflation-rates/

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Can you actually retire?

Anyone who experienced the past two decades as an adult or was old enough to see what happened to financial markets might view discussions about retirement with understandable suspicion.

Many people who planned to retire a decade ago saw their nest eggs shrink. Some of those people are now working part time or full time to hedge their bet or to make ends meet. Fortunately, the markets have recovered, but that doesn’t help if your investments were moved to less-volatile investments and you missed the big gains the market has seen in recent years.

You might feel that preparing for retirement will be an episode in futility, but it just requires some careful analysis and discipline. If you’re relatively young, time is in your favor with your retirement accounts, and the monthly amount you’ll need to contribute may be less than you think. If you’re closer to retirement age, the question revolves around how much you have saved already and how you may need to change your monthly expenses to afford retirement.

Digging into the numbers
As an example, let’s assume that you’re 30 years old and want to retire at age 65. Let’s also assume that you expect to live to age 85. The median household income in the U.S. is just over $59,000, so we’ll use that number for our calculations.[i]

One commonly used rule of thumb is to plan for needing 80% of your pre-retirement income during retirement. Some experts use a 70% goal. But an 80% goal is more conservative and allows more flexibility so that if you live past 85, you’re less likely to outlive your savings. So if your income is currently $59,000, you’ll need $47,200 annually during retirement to match 80% of your pre-retirement income.

Reaching your $47,200 goal might not be as hard as it might seem. Starting at age 30 with nothing saved, you would need to put aside just over $4,858 per year. (This assumes a 6% annual return on savings compounded over 35 years from age 30 to age 65.) This calculation also assumes that you keep your savings in the same or a similar account during your retirement years, yielding about 6%.[ii]

Putting aside $4,858 per year may still feel like a lot if you look at it as one lump sum, but let’s examine that number more closely. That’s about $405 per month, or $94 per week, or only about $13.50 per day. You might spend nearly that much on a fast food meal with extra fries these days, and many people do. If your employer offers a matching contribution on a 401(k) or similar plan, the employer match can help power your savings as well, with free money that continues working for you until retirement – and after.

The real key to having enough money to retire is to start early. That means now. When you’re younger, time does the heavy lifting through the phenomenon of compound interest. If you earn more than the median income and wish to retire with a higher after-retirement income than the $47,200 used in the example, you’ll need to contribute more – but the concept is the same. Start saving early and save consistently. You’ll thank yourself for it!

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This is a hypothetical scenario for illustration purposes only and does not present an actual investment for any specific product or service. There is no assurance that these results can or will be achieved.

[i] https://seekingalpha.com/article/4152222-january-2018-median-household-income
[ii] https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/tools/retirementplanner

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Is a balance transfer worth it?

If you have established credit, you’ve probably received some offers in the mail for a balance transfer with “rates as low as 0%”.

But don’t get too excited yet. That 0% rate won’t last. You’re also likely to find there’s a one-time balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the transferred amount.[i] We all know the fine print matters – a lot – but let’s look at some other considerations.

What is a balance transfer?
To attract new customers, credit card companies often send offers inviting credit card holders to transfer a balance to their company. These offers may have teaser or introductory rates, which can help reduce overall interest costs.

Teaser rate vs. the real interest rate
After the teaser rate expires, the real interest rate is going to apply. The first thing to check is if it’s higher or lower than your current interest rate. If it’s higher, you probably don’t need to read the rest of the offer and you can toss it in the shredder. But if you think you can pay the balance off before the introductory rate expires, taking the offer might make sense. However, if your balance is small, a focused approach to paying off your existing card without transferring the balance might serve you better than opening a new credit account. If – after the introductory rate expires – the interest rate is lower than what you’re paying now, it’s worth reading the offer further.

The balance transfer fee
Many balance transfers have a one-time balance transfer fee of up to 5% of the transferred amount. That can add up quickly. On a transfer of $10,000, the transfer fee could be $300 to $500, which may be enough to make you think twice. However, the offer still might have value if what you’re paying in interest currently works out to be more.

Monthly payments
The real savings with balance transfer offers becomes evident if you transfer to a lower rate card but maintain the same payment amount (or even better, a higher amount). If you were paying the minimum or just over the minimum on the old card and continue to pay just the minimum with the new card, the balance might still linger for a long time. However, if you were paying $200 per month on the old card and you continue with a $200 per month payment on the new card at a lower interest rate, the balance will go down faster, which could save you money in interest.

For example, if you transfer a $10,000 balance from a 15% card to a new card with a 0% APR for 12 months and a 12% APR thereafter, while keeping the same monthly payment of $200, you would save nearly $3,800 in interest charges. Even if the new card has a 3% balance transfer fee, the savings would still be $3,500.[ii] Not too bad. If you’re considering a balance transfer offer, use an online calculator to make the math easier. Also, be aware that you might be able to negotiate the offer, perhaps earning a lower balance transfer fee (or no fee at all) or a lower interest rate. It costs nothing to ask!

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[i] https://creditcards.usnews.com/articles/when-are-balance-transfer-fees-worth-it
[ii] https://www.creditcards.com/calculators/balance-transfer/

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So You Want to Buy Life Insurance for Your Parents...

Playing Monopoly as a young kid might have given you some strange ideas about money.

Take the life insurance card in the Community Chest for instance. That might give the impression that life insurance is free money to burn on whatever the next roll of the dice calls for.

In grown-up reality, life insurance proceeds are often committed long before a policy holder or beneficiary receives the check they’re waiting for. Final expenses, estate taxes, loan balances, and medical bills all compete for whatever money is paid out on the policy.

If your parents don’t have a policy or if you think their coverage won’t be enough, you can plan ahead and buy a life insurance policy for them. Your parents would be the insured, but you would be the policy owner and beneficiary.

A few extra considerations when buying a life insurance policy for your parents:

  • Age can limit coverage amounts. Assuming that your parents are older and no longer generating income, coverage amounts will be limited. If your parents are younger and still have 20 or more years ahead of them before they retire, they can qualify for a higher amount of coverage.
  • Age can limit policy types. Certain types of life insurance aren’t available when we get older, or will be limited in regard to length of coverage. Term life insurance is a good example. Your options for term life insurance will be fewer once your parents are into their sixties. The available term lengths will also be shorter. Policies with a 30-year term aren’t commonly available over the age of 50.
  • Insurable interest still applies. If your parents already have a significant amount of life insurance coverage, you may find that some insurers are reluctant to issue more coverage. Insurable interest requires that the amount of coverage doesn’t exceed the potential financial loss. (In other words, if your parents already have enough coverage, a company may not want to insure them for more.)

How Can I Use The Life Insurance For My Parents?
Depending on the amount of coverage you buy – or can buy (remember, it may be limited), you could use the policy to plan for any of the following:

  • Final expenses: You can expect funeral costs to run from $10,000 to $15,000, maybe more.
  • Estate taxes: Estate taxes and so-called death taxes can be an unpleasant surprise in many states. A life insurance policy can help you plan for this expense which could come at a time when you’re not flush with cash.

Can Life Insurance Pay The Mortgage Or Car Loans?
It isn’t uncommon for parents to pass away with some remaining debt. This might be in the form of a mortgage, car loans, or even credit card debt. These loan balances can be covered in whole or in part with a life insurance policy.

In fact, outstanding loan balances are a very big consideration. Often, people who inherit a house or a car may also inherit an additional mortgage payment or car payment. It might be wonderful to receive such a generous and sentimental gift, but if you’re like many families, you might not have the extra money for the payments in your budget.

Even if the policy doesn’t provide sufficient coverage to retire the debt completely, a life insurance policy can give you some breathing room until you can make other arrangements – like selling your parents’ house, for example.

You Control The Premium Payments.
If you buy a life insurance policy for your parents, you’ll know if the premiums are being paid because you’re the one paying them. You probably wouldn’t want your parents to be burdened with a life insurance premium obligation if they’re living on a fixed income.

Buying insurance for your parents is a great idea, but many people don’t consider it until it’s too late. That’s when you might wish you’d had the idea years ago. It’s one of the wisest things you can do, particularly if your parents are underinsured or have no life insurance at all.

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How to Build Credit When You’re Young

Your credit score can affect a lot more than just your interest rates or credit limits.

Your credit history can have an impact on your eligibility for rental leases, raise (or lower) your auto insurance rates, or even affect your eligibility for certain jobs (although in many cases the authorized credit reports available to third parties don’t contain your credit score if you aren’t requesting credit). Because credit history affects so many aspects of financial life, it’s important to begin building a solid credit history as early as possible.

So, where do you start?

  1. Apply for a store credit card.
    Store credit cards are a common starting point for teens and young adults, as it often can be easier to get approved for a store card than for a major credit card. As a caveat though, store card interest rates are often higher than for a standard credit card. Credit limits are also typically low – but that might not be a bad thing when you’re just getting started building your credit. A lower limit helps ensure you’ll be able to keep up with payments. Because you’re trying to build a positive history and because interest rates are often higher with a store card, it’s important to pay on time – or ideally, to pay the entire balance when you receive the statement.

  2. Become an authorized user on a parent’s credit card.
    Another common way to begin building credit is to become an authorized user on a parent’s credit card. Ultimately, the credit card account isn’t yours, so your parents would be responsible for paying the balance. (Because of this, your credit score won’t benefit as much as if you are approved for a credit card in your own name.) Another thing to keep in mind is that some credit card providers don’t report authorized users’ activity to credit bureaus.* Additionally, even if you’re only an authorized user, any missed or late payments on the card can affect your credit history negatively.

Are secured cards useful to build credit?
A secured credit card is another way to begin building credit. To secure the card, you make an initial deposit. The amount of that deposit is your credit line. If you miss a payment, the bank uses your collateral – the deposit – to pay the balance. Don’t let that make you too comfortable though. Your goal is to build a positive credit history, so if you miss payments – even though you have a prepaid deposit to fall back on – you’re still going to get a ding on your credit history. Instead, it’s best to use a small amount of your available credit each month and to pay in full when you get the statement. This will help you look like a credit superstar due to your consistently timely payments and low credit utilization.

As you build your credit history, you’ll be able to apply for credit in larger amounts, and you may even start receiving pre-approved offers. But beware. Having credit available is useful for certain emergencies and for demonstrating responsible use of credit – but you don’t need to apply for every offer you receive.

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Source: “Does Being an Authorized User Help You Build Credit?” Discover*, 2018, https://discvr.co/2lAzSgt.

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Handling Debt Efficiently – Until It’s Gone

It’s no secret that making purchases on credit cards will result in paying more for those items over time if you’re paying interest charges from month-to-month.

Despite this well-known fact, the average American now owes over $6,000 in credit card debt.* For households, the number is much higher, at nearly $16,000 per household. Add in an average mortgage of over $200,000, plus nearly $25,000 of non-mortgage debt (car loans, college loans, or other loans) and the molehill really is starting to look like a mountain.

The good news? You have the potential to handle your debt efficiently and deal with a molehill-sized molehill instead of a mountain-sized one.

Focus on the easiest target first.
Some types of debt don’t have an easy solution. While it’s possible to sell your home and find more affordable housing, actually following through with this might not be a great option. Selling your home is a huge decision and one that comes with expenses associated with the sale – it’s possible to lose money. Unless you find yourself with a job loss or similar long-term setback, often the best solution to paying down debt is to go after higher interest debt first. Then examine ways to cut your housing costs last.

Freeze your spending (literally, if it helps).
Due to its higher interest rate, credit card debt is usually the first thing to tackle when you decide to start eliminating debt. Let’s be honest, most of us might not even know where that money goes, but our credit card statement is a monthly reminder that it went somewhere. If credit card balances are a problem in your household, the first step is to cut back on your purchases made with credit, or stop paying with credit altogether. Some people cut up their cards to enforce discipline. Ever heard the recommendation to freeze your cards in a block of ice as a visual reminder of your commitment to quit credit? Another thing to do is to remove your card information from online shopping sites to help ensure you don’t make mindless purchases.

Set payment goals.
Paying the minimum amount on your credit card keeps the credit card company happy for 2 reasons. First, they’re happy that you made a payment on time. Second, they’re happy if you’re only paying the minimum because you might never pay off the balance, so they can keep collecting interest indefinitely. Reducing or stopping your spending with credit was the first step. The second step is to pay more than the minimum so that those balances start going down. Examine your budget to see where there’s room to reduce spending further, which will allow you to make higher payments on your credit cards and other types of debt. In most households, an honest look at the bank statement will reveal at least a few ways you might free up some money each month.

Have a sale. To get a jump-start if money is still tight, you might want to turn some unused household items into cash. Having a community yard sale or selling your items online can turn your dust collectors into cash that you can then use toward reducing your balances.

Transfer balances prudently.
Consider balance transfers for small balances with high interest rates that you think you’ll be able to pay off quickly. Transferring that balance to a lower interest or no interest card can save on interest costs, freeing up more money to pay down the balances. The interest rates on balance transfers don’t stay low forever, however – typically for a year or less – so it’s important to make sure you can pay transferred balances off quickly. Also, check if there’s a balance transfer fee. Depending on the fee, moving those funds might not make sense.

Don’t punish yourself.
Getting serious about paying down debt may seem to require draconian measures. But there likely isn’t a need to just stay home eating tuna fish sandwiches with all the lights turned off. Often, all that’s required is an adjustment of old spending habits. If your drive home takes you past a mall where it would be too tempting to “just pick a little something up”, take a different route home. But it’s important to have a small treat occasionally as well. If you’re making progress on your debt, you deserve to reward yourself sometimes. All within your budget, of course!

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Sources: El Issa, Erin. “2017 American Household Credit Card Debt Study.” NerdWallet*, 2017, https://nerd.me/2ht7SZg.

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Top Reasons Why People Buy Term Life Insurance

These days, most families are two-income households.

That describes 61.9% of U.S. families as of 2017¹ and 69% of Canadian families as of 2015.² If that describes your family (and the odds are good), do you have a strategy in place to cover your financial obligations with just one income if you or your spouse were to unexpectedly pass away?

Wow. That’s a real conversation-opener, isn’t it? It’s not easy to think about what might happen if one income suddenly disappeared. (It might seem like more fun to have a root canal than to think about that.) But having the right coverage “just in case” is worth considering. It’ll give you some reassurance and let you get back to the fun stuff… like not thinking about having a root canal.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Term insurance and how it may help with your family’s financial obligations, read on…

Some Basics about Term Insurance
Many of life’s financial commitments have a set end date. Mortgages are 15 to 30 years. Kids grow up and (eventually) start providing for themselves. Term life insurance may be a great option since you can choose a coverage length that lines up with the length of your ongoing financial commitments. Ideally, the term of the policy will end around the same time those large financial obligations are paid off. Term policies also may be a good choice because in many cases, they may be the most economical solution for getting the protection a family needs.

As great as term policies can be, here are a couple of things to keep in mind: a term policy won’t help cover financial commitments if you or your spouse simply lose your job. And term policies have a set (level) premium during the length of the initial period. Generally, term policies can be continued after the term expires, but at a much higher rate.

The following are some situations where a Term policy may help.

Pay Final Expenses
Funeral and burial costs can be upwards of $10,000.³ However, many families might not have that amount handy in available cash. Covering basic final expenses can be a real burden, especially if the death of a spouse comes out of the blue. If one income is suddenly gone, it could mean the surviving spouse would need to use credit or liquidate assets to cover final expenses. As you would probably agree, neither of these are attractive options. A term life insurance policy can cover final expenses, leaving one less worry for your family.

Pay Off Debt
The average households in the U.S. and Canada are carrying nearly $140,000⁴ and an average of $22,081⁵ in debt, respectively. For households with a large mortgage balance, the debt figures could be much higher. Couple that with a median household income of under $60,000 in the U.S.⁶ and just over $70,000 in Canada,⁷ and it’s clear that many families would be in trouble if one income is lost.

Term life insurance can be closely matched to the length of your mortgage, which helps to ensure that your family won’t lose their home at an already difficult time.

But what about car payments, credit card balances, and other debt? These other debt obligations that your family is currently meeting with either one or two incomes can be put to bed with a well-planned term life policy.

Income Protection
Even if you’ve planned for final expenses and purchased enough life insurance coverage to pay off your household debt, life can present many other costs of just… living. If you pass unexpectedly, the bills will keep rolling in for anyone you leave behind – especially if you have young children. Those day-to-day living costs and unexpected expenses can seem to multiply in ways that defy mathematical concepts. (You know – like that school field trip to the aquarium that no one mentioned until the night before.) The death benefit of a term life insurance policy may help, for a time, fill in the income gap created by the unfortunate passing of a breadwinner.

But Wait, There’s More… There are term life insurance policies available that can provide other benefits as well, including living benefits that may help keep medical expenses from wreaking havoc on your family’s financial plan if you become critically ill. One note about the living benefits policies, though: If the critical and chronic illness features are used, the face value of the policy is reduced. It’s important to consider whether a reduction in the death benefit would be a good alternative to using savings planned for other purposes.

In some cases, policies with built-in living benefits may cost more than a standard term policy but may still cost less than permanent insurance policies! And because a term policy is in force only during the years when your family needs the most protection, premiums can be lower than for other types of life insurance.

Term life insurance can provide income protection to help keep your family’s financial situation solid, and help things stay as “normal” as they can be after a loss.

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Sources: ¹ United States Department of Labor. “Employment Characteristics of Families Summary.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.19.2018, https://bit.ly/2kSHDvm. ² “Dual-income families with kids have doubled in Canada over past 40 years, StatsCan says.” CBC News, 5.30.2016, https://bit.ly/1OYwORd. ³ “Funeral Costs: How Much Does an Average Funeral Cost?” Parting, 9.14.2017, https://bit.ly/2isoHUC. ⁴ Sun, Leo. “A Foolish Take: Here’s how much debt the average U.S. household owes.” USA Today, 11.18.2017, https://usat.ly/2hJ7lah. ⁵ Evans, Pete. “Canadians’ average debt load now up to $22,081, 3.6% rise since last year.” CBC News, 12.7.2016, https://bit.ly/2gaxIUn. ⁶ Loudenback, Tanza. “Middle-class Americans made more money last year than ever before.” Business Insider, 9.12.2017, https://read.bi/2f3ey3F. ⁷ “Household income in Canada: Key results from the 2016 Census.” Statistics Canada, 9.13.2017, https://bit.ly/2rBX3JE.

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Why You Should Care About Insurable Interest

First of all, what is insurable interest?

It’s simply the stake you have in something that is being insured – and that the amount of insurance coverage for whatever is being insured is not more than your potential loss.

To say things could become a bit awkward might be an understatement if your insurable interest isn’t considered before you’re deep into the planning phase of a project or before you’ve signed some papers, like a title or a loan.

It’s better for your sanity to understand insurable interest beforehand. Where the issue of insurable interest often arises is in auto insurance. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say you have a car that’s worth $5,000. $5,000 is the maximum amount of money you would lose if the car is stolen or damaged – and $5,000 would be the most you could insure the car for. $5,000 is your insurable interest.

In the above example, you own the car, so you have an insurable interest in it. By the same token, you can’t insure your neighbor’s car. If your neighbor’s car was stolen or damaged, you wouldn’t suffer any financial loss because it wasn’t your car.

Here’s where it might get a little tricky and why it’s important to understand insurable interest. Let’s say you have a young driver in the house, a teenager, and it’s time for him to get mobile. He’s been saving up his lawn-mowing money for two years and finally bought the (used) car of his dreams.

You might have considered adding your son’s car to your auto policy to save money – you’ve heard how much it can cost for a teen driver to buy their own policy. Sounds like a good plan, right? However, the problem with this strategy is that you don’t have an insurable interest in your son’s car. He bought it, and it’s registered to him.

You might find an insurance sales rep who will write the policy. But there’s a risk the policy won’t make it through underwriting and – more importantly – if there’s a claim with that car, the claim might not be covered because you didn’t have an insurable interest in it. If you want to put that car on your auto insurance policy, the car needs to be registered to the named insured on the policy – you.

Insurable Interest And Lenders
If you have a mortgage or an auto loan, your lender is probably listed on your policy. Both you and the lender have an insurable interest in the house or the car. Over time, as the loan is paid down, you’ll have a greater insurable interest and the lender’s insurable interest will become smaller. (Hint: When your loan is paid off, ask your agent to remove the lender from the policy to avoid any confusion or delays if you have a claim someday.)

Does Ownership Create Insurable Interest?
Good question. It might seem like ownership and insurable interest are equivalent – they often occur simultaneously. But there are times when you can have an insurable interest in something without being an owner.

Life insurance is a great example of having an insurable interest without ownership. You can’t own a person – but if a person dies, you may experience a financial loss. However, just as you can’t insure your neighbor’s car, you can’t purchase a life insurance policy on your neighbor, either. You’d have to be able to demonstrate your potential loss if your neighbor passed away. And no it doesn’t count if they never returned those hedge clippers they borrowed from you last spring.

So now you know all about insurable interest. While insurable interest requirements may seem inconvenient at times, the rules are there to protect you and to help keep rates lower for everyone. Without insurable interest requirements, the door is open to fraud, speculation, or even malicious behavior. A little inconvenience seems like a much better option.

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WFG2119239-0518

What Does “Pay Yourself First” Mean?

Do you dread grabbing the mail every day?

Bills, bills, mortgage payment, another bill, maybe some coupons for things you never buy, and of course, more bills. There seems to be an endless stream of envelopes from companies all demanding payment for their products and services. It feels like you have a choice of what you want to do with your money ONLY after all the bills have been paid – if there’s anything left over, that is.

More times than not it might seem like there’s more ‘month’ than ‘dollar.’ Not to rub salt in the wound, but may I ask how much you’re saving each month? $100? $50? Nothing? You may have made a plan and come up with a rock-solid budget in the past, but let’s get real. One month’s expenditures can be very different than another’s. Birthdays, holidays, last-minute things the kids need for school, a spontaneous weekend getaway, replacing that 12-year-old dishwasher that doesn’t sound exactly right, etc., can make saving a fixed amount each month a challenge. Some months you may actually be able to save something, and some months you can’t. The result is that setting funds aside each month becomes an uncertainty.

Although this situation might appear at first benign (i.e., it’s just the way things are), the impact of this uncertainty can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Here’s why: If you don’t know how much you can save each month, then you don’t know how much you can save each year. If you don’t know how much you can save each year, then you don’t know how much you’ll have put away 2, 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Will you have enough saved for retirement?

If you have a goal in mind like buying a home in 10 years or retiring at 65, then you also need a realistic plan that will help you get there. Truth is, most of us don’t have a wealthy relative who might unexpectedly leave us an inheritance we never knew existed!

The good news is that the average American could potentially save over $500 per month! That’s great, and you might want to do that… but how* do you do that?

The secret is to “pay yourself first.” The first “bill” you pay each month is to yourself. Shifting your focus each month to a “pay yourself first” mentality is subtle, but it can potentially be life changing. Let’s say for example you make $3,000 per month after taxes. You would put aside $300 (10%) right off the bat, leaving you $2,700 for the rest of your bills. This tactic makes saving $300 per month a certainty. The answer to how much you would be saving each month would always be: “At least $300.” If you stash this in an interest-bearing account, imagine how high this can grow over time if you continue to contribute that $300.

That’s exciting! But at this point you might be thinking, “I can’t afford to save 10% of my income every month because the leftovers aren’t enough for me to live my lifestyle”. If that’s the case, rather than reducing the amount you save, it might be worthwhile to consider if it’s the lifestyle you can’t afford.

Ultimately, paying yourself first means you’re making your future financial goals a priority, and that’s a bill worth paying.

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Source: Martin, Emmie. “Here’s how much money the average middle-aged American could save each month.” CNBC*, 11.8.2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/08/how-much-money-the-average-middle-aged-american-could-save-each-month.html.

WFG2195122-0718

Avoid these unhealthy financial habits

As well-intentioned as we might be, we sometimes get in our own way when it comes to improving our financial health.

Much like physical health, financial health can be affected by binging, carelessness, or simply not knowing what can cause harm. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – as with physical health, it’s possible to reverse the downward trend if you can break your harmful habits.

Not budgeting
A household without a budget is like a ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly and – sooner or later – it might sink or run aground in shallow waters. Small expenses and indulgences can add up to big money over the course of a month or a year. In nearly every household, it might be possible to find some extra money just by cutting back on non-essential spending. A budget is your way of telling yourself that you may be able to have nice things if you’re disciplined about your finances.

Frequent use of credit cards
Credit cards always seem to get picked on when discussing personal finances, and often, they deserve the flack they get. Not having a budget can be a common reason for using credit, contributing to an average credit card debt of over $9,000 for balance-carrying households.[i] At an average interest rate of over 15%, credit card debt is usually the highest interest expense in a household, several times higher than auto loans, home loans, and student loans.[ii] The good news is that with a little discipline, you can start to pay down your credit card debt and help reduce your interest expense.

Mum’s the word
No matter how much income you have, money can be a stressful topic in families. This can lead to one of two potentially harmful habits.

First, talking about the family finances is often simply avoided. Conversations about kids and work and what movie you want to watch happen, but conversations about money can get swept under the rug. Are you a “saver” and your partner a “spender”? Is it the opposite? Maybe you’re both spenders or both savers. Talking (and listening) about yourself and your significant other’s tendencies can be insightful and help avoid conflicts about your finances. If you’re like most households, having an occasional chat about the budget may help keep your family on track with your goals – or help you identify new goals – or maybe set some goals if you don’t have any. Second, financial matters can be confusing – which may cause stress – especially once you get past the basics. This may tempt you to ignore the subject or to think “I’ll get around to it one day”. But getting a budget and a financial strategy in place sooner rather than later may actually help you reduce stress. Think of it as “That’s one thing off my mind now!”

Taking the time to understand your money situation and getting a budget in place is the first step to put your financial house in order. As you learn more and apply changes – even small ones – you might see your efforts start to make a difference!

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[i] https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-credit-card-debt
[ii] https://www.fool.com/taxes/2018/04/22/how-much-does-the-average-american-pay-in-taxes.aspx

WSB108543-1018

Understanding credit card interest

We all know credit cards charge interest if you carry a balance, but how are interest charges actually calculated?

It can be enlightening to see how rates are applied, which might motivate you to pay off those cards as quickly as possible!

What is APR?
At the core of understanding how finance charges are calculated is the APR, short for Annual Percentage Rate. Most credit cards now use a variable rate, which means the interest rate can adjust with the prime rate, which is the lowest interest rate available (for any entity that is not a bank) to borrow money. Banks use the prime rate for their best customers to provide funds for mortgages, loans, and credit cards.[i] Credit card companies charge a higher rate than prime, but their rate often moves in tandem with the prime rate. As of the second quarter of 2018, the average credit card interest rate on existing accounts was 13.08%.[ii]

While the Annual Percentage Rate is a yearly rate, as its name suggests, the interest on credit card balances is calculated monthly based on an average daily balance. You may also have multiple APRs on the same account, with a separate APR for balance transfers, cash advances, and late balances.

Periodic Interest Rate
The APR is used to calculate the Periodic Interest Rate, which is a daily rate. 15% divided by 365 days in a year = 0.00041095 (the periodic rate), for example.

Average Daily Balance
If you use your credit card regularly, the balance will change with each purchase. If credit card companies charged interest based on the balance on a given date, it would be easy to minimize the interest charges by timing your payment. This isn’t the case, however – unless you pay in full – because the interest will be based on the average daily balance for the entire billing cycle.

Let’s look at some round numbers and a 30-day billing cycle as an example.
Day 1: Balance $1,000
Day 10: Purchase $500, Balance $1,500
Day 20: Purchase $200, Balance $1,700
Day 28: Payment $700, Balance $1,000

To calculate the average daily balance, you would need to determine how many days you had at each balance.
$1,000 x 9 days
$1,500 x 10 days
$1,700 x 8 days
$1,000 x 3 days

Some of the multiplied numbers below might look alarming, but after we divide by the number of days in the billing cycle (30), we’ll have the average daily balance.
($9,000 + $15,000 + $13,600 + $3,000)/30 = $1,353.33 (the average daily balance)

Here’s an eye-opener: If the $1,000 ending balance isn’t paid in full, interest is charged on the $1353.33, not $1,000.

We’ll also assume an interest rate of 15%, which gives a periodic (daily) rate of 0.00041095.
$1,353.33 x (0.00041095 x 30) = $16.68 finance charge

$16.68 may not sound like a lot of money, but this example is only about 1/12th of the average household credit card debt, which is $15,482 for households that carry balances.[iii] At 15% interest, average households with balances are paying $2,322 per year in interest.

That was a lot of math, but it’s important to know why you’re paying what you might be paying in interest charges. Hopefully this knowledge will help you minimize future interest buildup!

Did you know?
When you make a payment, the payment is applied to interest first, with any remainder applied to the balance. This is why it can take so long to pay down a credit card, particularly a high-interest credit card. In effect, you can end up paying for the same purchase several times over due to how little is applied to the balance if you are just making minimum payments.

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[i] https://www.thestreet.com/markets/rates-bonds/what-is-the-prime-rate-14742514
[ii] https://wallethub.com/edu/average-credit-card-interest-rate/50841/
[iii] https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/average-credit-card-debt-household/

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How to save for a big purchase

It’s no secret that life is full of surprises. Surprises that can cost money.

Sometimes, a lot of money. They have the potential to throw a monkey wrench into your savings strategy, especially if you have to resort to using credit to get through an emergency. In many households, a budget covers everyday spending, including clothes, eating out, groceries, utilities, electronics, online games, and a myriad of odds and ends we need.

Sometimes, though, there may be something on the horizon that you want to purchase (like that all-inclusive trip to Cancun for your second honeymoon), or something you may need to purchase (like that 10-years-overdue bathroom remodel).

How do you get there if you have a budget for the everyday things you need, you’re setting aside money in your emergency fund, and you’re saving for retirement?

Make a goal
The way to get there is to make a plan. Let’s say you’ve got a teenager who’s going to be driving soon. Maybe you’d like to purchase a new (to him) car for his 16th birthday. You’ve done the math and decided you can put $3,000 towards the best vehicle you can find for the price (at least it will get him to his job and around town, right?). You have 1 year to save but the planning starts now.

There are 52 weeks in a year, which makes the math simple. As an estimate, you’ll need to put aside about $60 per week. (The actual number is $57.69 – $3,000 divided by 52). If you get paid weekly, put this amount aside before you buy that $6 latte or spend the $10 for extra lives in that new phone game. The last thing you want to do is create debt with small things piling up, while you’re trying to save for something bigger.

Make your savings goal realistic
You might surprise yourself by how much you can save when you have a goal in mind. Saving isn’t a magic trick, however, it’s based on discipline and math. There may be goals that seem out of reach – at least in the short-term – so you may have to adjust your goal. Let’s say you decide you want to spend a little more on the car, maybe $4,000, since your son has been working hard and making good grades. You’ve crunched the numbers but all you can really spare is the original $60 per week. You’d need to find only another $17 per week to make the more expensive car happen. If you don’t want to add to your debt, you might need to put that purchase off unless you can find a way to raise more money, like having a garage sale or picking up some overtime hours.

Hide the money from yourself
It might sound silly but it works. Money “saved” in your regular savings or checking account may be in harm’s way. Unless you’re extremely careful, it’s almost guaranteed to disappear – but not like what happens in a magic show, where the magician can always bring the volunteer back. Instead, find a safe place for your savings – a place where it can’t be spent “accidentally”, whether it’s a cookie jar or a special savings account you open specifically to fund your goal.

Pay yourself first
When you get paid, fund your savings account set up for your goal purchase first. After you’ve put this money aside, go ahead and pay some bills and buy yourself that latte if you really want to, although you may have to get by with a small rather than an extra large.

Saving up instead of piling on more credit card debt may be a much less costly way (by avoiding credit card interest) to enjoy the things you want, even if it means you’ll have to wait a bit.

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WSB108428-1018

What to do first if you receive an inheritance

In many households, nearly every penny is already accounted for even before it’s earned.

The typical household budget that covers the cost of raising a family, making loan payments, and saving for retirement usually doesn’t leave much room for spending on daydream items. However, if you’re fortunate, you might be the recipient of some unexpected cash – your family might come into an inheritance, you could receive a bonus at work, or you might benefit from some other sort of windfall.

If you ever inherit a chunk of money or receive a large payout, it may be tempting to splurge on that red convertible you’ve been drooling over or book that dream trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately for many though, newly-found money has the potential to disappear with nothing to show for it, if there is no strategy in place ahead of time to handle it wisely.

If you do receive some sort of unexpected bonus – before you call your travel agent – take a deep breath and consider these situations first.

Taxes or Other Expenses
If a large sum of money comes your way unexpectedly, your knee-jerk reaction might be to pull out your bucket list and see what you’d like to check off first. But before you start making plans, the reality is you’ll need to put aside some money for taxes. You may want to check with an expert – an accountant or tax advisor may have some ideas on how to reduce your liability.

If you suddenly become the owner of a new house or car as part of an inheritance, one thing to consider is how much it might cost to hang on to it. If you want to keep that house or car (or any other asset that’s worth a lot of money), make sure you can cover maintenance, insurance, and any loan payments if that item isn’t paid off yet.

Pay Down Debt
If you have any debt, you’d have a hard time finding a better place to put your money once you’ve set aside some for taxes or other expenses that might be involved with an inheritance. It may be helpful to target debt in this order:

  1. Credit card debt: This is often the highest interest rate debt and usually doesn’t have any tax benefit. Pay your credit cards off first.
  2. Personal loans: Pay these next. You and your friend/family member will be glad you knocked these out!
  3. Auto loans: Interest rates on auto loans are lower than credit cards, but cars depreciate rapidly (very rapidly). Rule of thumb: If you can avoid it, you don’t want to pay interest on a rapidly depreciating asset. Pay off the car as quickly as possible.
  4. College loans: College loans often have tax-deductible interest, but there is no physical asset with intrinsic value attached to them. Pay these off as fast as possible.
  5. Home loans: Most home loan interest is also tax-deductible. But since your home value is likely appreciating over time, you may be better off putting your money elsewhere if necessary, rather than paying off your home loan early.

Fund Your Emergency Account
Before you buy that red convertible, make sure you’ve set aside some money for a rainy day. Saving at least 3-6 months of expenses is a good goal. This could be liquid funds – like a separate savings account.

Save for Retirement
Once the taxes are covered, you’ve paid down your debt, and funded your emergency account, now is the time to put some money away towards retirement. Work with your financial professional to help create the best strategy for you and your family.

Fund That College Fund
If you have kids and haven’t had a chance to put away all you’d like towards their education, setting aside some money for this comes next. Again, your financial professional can recommend the best strategy for this scenario.

Treat Yourself!
NOW you’re ready to go bury your toes in the sand and enjoy some new experiences! Maybe you and the family have always wanted to visit a themed resort park or vacation on a tropical island. If you’ve taken care of business responsibly with the items above and still have some cash left over – go ahead! Treat yourself!

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WSB107589-1018

Debit or Credit? What's the difference?

For many people, when purchasing items with a debit card or credit card, the only difference for them may boil down to simply entering a PIN code or scribbling a signature.

But what really is the difference? The answer may be a little complicated, largely due to misnomers and a blending of terms used by the public. Read on to see what the difference actually is.

A clarification of terms
The words credit, debit, and cash seem to be used so loosely by the general public that many people seem confused by what the difference is between them. But in accounting and finance, they have very specific meanings. For our purposes, cash is money that you can spend immediately. It can be cold hard currency of course – bills and coins which you might have in your hand or in your wallet – or cash can refer to the balance in your checking account. This is money that you own, and you can withdraw all of it right now, electronically or physically.

Credit is basically someone’s willingness to accept an IOU from you. Here we will use it as a noun. Buying on credit means the seller trusts the buyer to hand over cash – money which is spendable right now – in the future. Debit, on the other hand, is a verb, and it means to deduct an amount from a cash balance immediately (often a bank account balance). Of course, credit can also be a verb (meaning to add to a cash balance immediately). This mixing of verbs and nouns can make the distinction of the terms in everyday use difficult.

  • Cash is money you can spend right now, electronically or physically.
  • Credit is an agreement to pay cash later.
  • Debit is a verb that means to subtract cash from a balance right away.

When money is due
The major difference between credit and debit cards is the time when cash must be paid. Credit cards, standing in for a promise to pay cash later, allow one to purchase things even if said person has no cash immediately available. For example, if you need to buy some clothes for a new job, you might only have enough cash on hand to purchase one outfit. You may not receive any more cash until you get your first paycheck in two weeks. But you probably wouldn’t want to wear the same outfit every day for two weeks. What can you do?

This is when credit comes in handy: you buy all the outfits you need now, while making a promise to pay the credit card company back in the future. You receive your outfits immediately even though you don’t technically have enough cash yet. You need to complete some work before you receive the money, but the credit card company accepts your IOU in place of cash for the time being.

On the other hand, if you use a debit card to pay for the clothes, the cash will be deducted immediately from your bank account. Remember, the balance of your bank account is cash in financial terms because it is spendable right now. When you enter your PIN code, the bank checks that you have enough money to make the purchase immediately and, if you do, the bank authorizes the transaction. If you need new shoes for your job but don’t have enough money in your bank account, you won’t be able to use a debit card.

Interest rates for using credit cards
Why would anyone ever want to use debit if they could use credit? One reason is budgeting and discipline. However, a stronger reason can be interest: promising to pay later may come at a price, and that price is called interest. Credit card companies do not make these short term loans out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for profit. If you borrow money for a little while – i.e., you take money and promise to pay it back later – you will have to compensate the bank, seller, or credit card company for that ability. Thus we potentially pay interest with credit cards but not with debit cards.

Why don’t we pay interest on debit cards? Well, because the money is already yours, of course.

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WSB116777-0319

When is it ok to use a credit card?

Some could say “never!” but there might be situations in which using a credit card may be the option you want to go with.

Many families use credit with good intentions – and then life happens – surprise expenses or a change in income leave them struggling to get ahead of growing debt. To be fair, there may be times to use credit and times to avoid using credit.

Purchasing big-ticket items
A big-screen TV or a laptop purchased with a credit card may have additional warranty protection through your credit card company. Features and promotions vary by card, however, so be sure to know the details before you buy. If your credit card offers reward points or airline miles, big-ticket items may be a faster way to earn points than making small purchases over time. Just be sure to have a plan to pay off the balance.

Travel and car rental
For many families, these two items go hand in hand. Credit cards sometimes offer additional insurance protection for your luggage or for the trip itself. Your credit card company may offer some additional protection for car rentals. You might score some extra airline miles or reward points in this category as well because the numbers can add up quickly.

Online shopping
Credit card and debit card numbers are being stolen all the time. Online merchants can have a breach and not even be aware that your credit card info is out in the wild. The advantage of using a credit card as opposed to a debit card is time. You’ll have more time to dispute charges that aren’t yours. If your debit card gets into the wrong hands, someone might be quickly spending your mortgage money, food and gas money, or college tuition for your kids. Credit cards may be a better choice to use online because the effects of fraud don’t have an immediate impact on your bank balance.

Legitimate emergencies
Life happens and sometimes we don’t have enough readily available cash to pay for emergencies. Life’s emergencies can range from broken appliances to broken cars to broken bones and in these cases, you may not have any other viable options for payment.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you plan carefully, you may reap several types of benefits from using credit cards and still avoid paying interest. You’ll have to pay off the balance right away to avoid finance charges, though. So, always think twice before you charge once.

Some credit cards offer consumer benefits, like extended warranties, extra insurance, or even rewards. There are some situations in which using a credit card may come in handy.

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WSB116470-0219

The starter kit for building good credit

Having a good credit score is one of the most important tools you can have in your financial toolbox.

Your credit report may affect anything from how much you pay for a cell phone plan, to whether you would qualify for the mortgage you might want.

Getting and maintaining a good credit score can be advantageous. But how do you achieve a good credit report? What if you’re starting from scratch? The dilemma is like the chicken and the egg question. How can you build a positive credit report if no one will extend you credit?

Read on for some useful tips to help you get started.

Use a cosigner to take out a loan
One way to help build good credit is by taking out a loan with a cosigner. A cosigner would be responsible for the repayment of the loan if the borrower defaults. Many banks may be willing to give loans to people with no credit if someone with good credit acts as a cosigner on the loan to help ensure the money will be paid back.

Build credit as an authorized user
If you don’t want or need to take out a loan with a cosigner, you may want to consider building credit as an authorized user of someone else’s credit card – like a parent, close friend, or relative you trust. The credit card holder would add you as an authorized user of the card. Over time if the credit account remains in good standing, you would begin building credit.

Apply for a store credit card to build your credit
Another way to start building your credit record is to secure a store credit card. Store credit cards may be easier to qualify for than major credit cards because they usually have lower credit limits and higher interest rates. A store credit card may help you build good credit if you make the payments on time every month. Also be sure to pay the card balance off each month to avoid paying interest.

Keep student loans in good standing
If there is an upside to student loan debt, it’s that having a student loan can help build credit and may be easy to qualify for. Just keep in mind, as with any loan, to make payments on time.

Good credit takes time
Building a good credit report takes time, but we all must start somewhere. Your credit score can affect many aspects of your financial health, so it’s worth it to build and maintain a good credit report. Start small and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Most importantly, as you begin building credit, protect it by avoiding credit card debt and making your payments on time.

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WSB116376-0219

How to live without credit cards

Our parents, uncles, aunts, and maybe even our grandparents tried to warn us about credit cards.

In some cases, the warnings might have been heeded but in other cases, we may have learned the cost of credit the hard way.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it may be a costly thing – and sometimes even a risky thing. The interest from credit card balances can be like a ball and chain that might never seem to go away. And your financial strategy for the future may seem like a distant horizon that’s always out of reach.

It is possible to live without credit cards if you choose to do so, but it can take discipline if you’ve developed the credit habit.

It’s budgeting time
Here’s some tough love. If you don’t have one already, you should hunker down and create a budget. In the beginning it doesn’t have to be complicated. First just try to determine how much you’re spending on food, utilities, transportation, and other essentials. Next, consider what you’re spending on the non-essentials – be honest with yourself!

In making a budget, you should become acutely aware of your spending habits and you’ll give yourself a chance to think about what your priorities really are. Is it really more important to spend $5-6 per day on coffee at the corner shop, or would you rather put that money towards some new clothes?

Try to set up a budget that has as strict allowances as you can handle for non-essential purchases until you can get your existing balances under control. Always keep in mind that an item you bought with credit “because it was on sale” might not end up being such a great deal if you have to pay interest on it for months (or even years).

Hide the plastic
Part of the reason we use credit cards is because they are right there in our wallets or automatically stored on our favorite shopping websites, making them easy to use. (That’s the point, right?) Fortunately, this is also easy to help fix. Put your credit cards away in a safe place at home and save them for a real emergency. Don’t save them on websites you use.

Don’t worry about actually canceling them or cutting them up. Unless there’s an annual fee for owning the card, canceling the card might not help you financially or help boost your credit score.[i]

Pay down your credit card debt
When you’re working on your budget, decide how much extra money you can afford to pay toward your credit card balances. If you just pay the minimum payment, even small balances may not get paid off for years. Try to prioritize extra payments to help the balances go down and eventually get paid off.

Save for things you want to purchase
Make some room in your budget for some of the purchases you used to make with a credit card. If an item you’re eyeing costs $100, ask yourself if you can save $50 per month and purchase it in two months rather than immediately. Also, consider using the 30-day rule. If you see something you want – or even something you think you’ll need – wait 30 days. If the 30 days go by and you still need or want it, make sure it makes sense within your budget.

Save one card for occasional use
Having a solid credit history is important, so once your credit balances are under control, you may want to use one card in a disciplined way within your budget. In this case, you would just use the card for routine expenses that you are able to pay off in full at the end of the month.

Living without credit cards completely, or at least for the most part, is possible. Sticking to a budget, paying down debt, and having a solid savings strategy for the future will help make your discipline worth it!

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[i] https://www.myfico.com/credit-education/improve-your-credit-score

WSB115440-0219

Save the money or pay off the debt?

If you come into some extra money – a year-end bonus at work, an inheritance from your aunt, or you finally sold your rare coin collection for a tidy sum – you might not be quite sure what to do with the extra cash.

On one hand you may have some debt you’d like to knock out, or you might feel like you should divert the money into your emergency savings or retirement fund.

They’re both solid choices, but which is better? That depends largely on your interest rates.

High Interest Rate
Take a look at your debt and see what your highest interest rate(s) are. If you’re leaning towards saving the bonus you’ve received, keep in mind that high borrowing costs may rapidly erode any savings benefits, and it might even negate those benefits entirely if you’re forced to dip into your savings in the future to pay off high interest. The higher the interest rate, the more important it is to pay off that debt earlier – otherwise you’re simply throwing money at the creditor.

Low Interest Rate
On the other hand, sometimes interest rates are low enough to warrant building up an emergency savings fund instead of paying down existing debt. An example is if you have a long-term, fixed-rate loan, such as a mortgage. The idea is that money borrowed for emergencies, rather than non-emergencies, will be expensive, because emergency borrowing may have no collateral and probably very high interest rates (like payday loans or credit cards). So it might be better to divert your new-found funds to a savings account, even if you aren’t reducing your interest burden, because the alternative during an emergency might mean paying 20%+ rather than 0% on your own money (or 3-5% if you consider the interest you pay on the current loan).

Raw Dollar Amounts
Relatively large loans might have low interest rates, but the actual total interest amount you’ll pay over time might be quite a sum. In that case, it might be better to gradually divert some of your bonus money to an emergency account while simultaneously starting to pay down debt to reduce your interest. A good rule of thumb is that if debt repayments comprise a big percentage of your income, pay down the debt, even if the interest rate is low.

The Best for You
While it’s always important to reduce debt as fast as possible to help achieve financial independence, it’s also important to have some money set aside for use in emergencies.

If you do receive an unexpected windfall, it will be worth it to take a little time to think about a strategy for how it can best be used for the maximum long term benefit for you and your family.

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