Can Refinancing to a Higher Mortgage Rate Actually Lower Your Debts?

Are you handling your debt the smartest way possible?

Your ability to save money can become compromised by the financial obligations you are paying in your life. If you have a mortgage and other consumer debts, it’s easy to stay the course, pay your monthly bills and rely on credit cards for emergencies. But taking action — namely, refinancing your mortgage —  could actually help you get better control of your cash flow. Allow me to explain.

The nuts and bolts of a good financial plan includes having “preferred debt,” which includes debt that is tax-deductible (a mortgage) and has no consumer obligations that are non-preferred (i.e. credit cards, student loans, car payments, etc.). Non-preferred obligations will compromise your ability to save money.

Consider the following scenario:

John Borrower has a mortgage of $300,000 with an interest rate of 3.875%. His mortgage is a 30-year fixed rate loan and his monthly payments are $1,410.71. John also has a car loan of $10,000 with an interest rate of 6% and a monthly payment of $500. His credit cards total $8,000 with an average interest rate of 16% on which he has to pay $400 per month, for a total of $2,310.71.

John Borrower has a great credit score because he always carried a small balance on his credit cards, has never missed a payment, and his credit history is squeaky clean. However, John’s car just broke down and he needs a new transmission that will cost him $3,500. Unfortunately, John’s mortgage payment and other obligations take up a majority of his income and now he has very little money saved up.

What does John do? He turns to his credit cards and goes further into debt. He is reluctant to make any changes to his financial burden. He has a great interest rate on his mortgage, but is he really getting ahead financially?

A Better Approach to Debt

There is a more proactive approach John can take that will be more consistent with having a strong financial foundation that will not only make him more creditworthy, but will also give him the ability to save and plan for the future.

The first thing to look at is all of John’s interest rates. True, his mortgage rate is low but the weighted average of his interest rates on all obligations is quite high. His interest payments alone take up a lot of extra money. Let’s look at the math:

Debt Balance Interest Rate Monthly Interest Payment
Bank of Bank Mortgage $300,000.00 3.875% $968.75
Car Lots Mega Car Loans $10,000.00 6.000% $50.00
Credit Cards (BULK) $11,500.00 16.000% $153.33

The total amount John owes in debts is $321,500, which includes his new credit card debt of $3,500 from the new transmission. If you multiply John’s amount owed by each individual interest rate and add it together, John is paying a total of $14,065.00 in interest alone each year.

Broken down: ($300,000 x 3.875%) + ($10,000 x 6%) + ($11,500 x 16%) = $14,065.00

Dividing the yearly interest paid by the total amount owed ($14,065 / $321,500) results in John paying an annual average interest rate of 4.375%.

If John were to refinance his current mortgage at that average 4.375% interest rate, something really interesting would happen to his payments. John is currently paying $2,310.71 each month in debt payments while interest is being accrued on his debts. By combining his debts under one mortgage at the higher 4.375% interest rate over a 30-year fixed-rate term, his monthly payments, interest included, would drop his payments from $2,310.71 to $1,605.20 each month.

Say what?

If John refinances his mortgage for the purpose of debt consolidation, his average interest rate does not change AND his monthly payments are lowered. Of course, because John is already cash poor, he’ll want to roll his closing costs into his mortgage refinance to keep his out-of-pocket expenses down. Suddenly, John Borrower is saving $705.51 each month. John can take that money and invest it or start a vacation fund. He can also put it to the side in case something else on his car breaks down. Regardless of his plans for the savings, the fact is that he is saving money and gaining control of his cash flow.

Having low rates and high rates on multiple forms of debts probably means you are going to be paying a higher rate of blended debt on all of your preferred and non-preferred obligations over time. The reality is that you can save through consolidation and fixing on one lower rate. It might be higher than your current lowest rate, but as John discovered, he could save money by increasing his lowest rate and combining his debts.

What’s Your Ideal Scenario?

The ideal financial scenario for any borrower is to have a single mortgage payment with no debt obligations and to have at least 6 to 12 months of savings (“reserves”) to be used as “back up.” This financial platform increases your borrowing power and is optimal for having a choice and control over your funds. (You can find more tips on how to determine how much home you can afford here.)

If you are thinking about taking out a mortgage or making some financial adjustments in your life, it’s a good idea to first check your credit scores to see where you stand (you can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) Next, work with a mortgage lender who has the skill set and ability to really investigate your debts and can show you the real breakdown of your debts and what you are paying over time. You might end up realizing how much control you are missing out on by having payment obligations in an ongoing debt cycle. The numbers might astonish you.

Looking to a new abode? Be sure to avoid these mistakes first-time homebuyers make.

Images: andresr

 

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Will I Lose My Credit History If I Change My Name?

Here's how to ensure your name change goes as smoothly as possible.

Thousands of people change their names each year, often as a result of marriage or divorce, and less frequently, just for fun. In fact, one man, armed with $50 and a written deed poll application, secured the moniker Bacon Double Cheeseburger in the United Kingdom last year.

Although Mr. Cheeseburger may be perfectly satisfied with his colorful designation, he and others can experience some bumps after a name change. And while you won’t “lose” your credit history if you change your name due to marriage, divorce or even just for fun, there can sometimes be confusion about your identity if your information isn’t being accurately reported.

In general, your new name is added to your credit reports after you notify your mortgage lender, credit card issuers and other businesses of the change. They report the change, be it a first or surname change, to the three main credit bureaus and your new name replaces the old, which then remains on your credit history similar to old addresses and employers.

How to Smooth Your Name Change Process

Keep in mind that changing your name isn’t an automatic process. It requires lots of paperwork and contacting the necessary businesses to ensure a successful shift. Personal participation is key.

The best way to ensure that your name change is reflected on your credit report is to contact government agencies and credit issuers who provide personal data and account information to the credit bureaus. These include:

  • The Social Security Administration: Applying for a new Social Security card is a good place to begin your name change because it can be used to help verify your identity as you move forward. While your Social Security number (SSN) won’t change, your name will be updated.
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV): If your name change is the result of marriage or divorce, you may need an original or certified decree before a change is allowed (rules vary by state). Visit the DMV to update your license.
  • Bank & Credit Accounts: Contact your lenders and credit card issuers to order new checks, debit and credit cards, and be sure any business accounts are updated as well.
  • Your Employer: In addition to updating their own records, your employer needs your new name in order to pay Social Security, unemployment and other taxes on your behalf.
  • Medical Providers: Medical bills rarely appear on your credit report unless you fail to pay it, but it’s a good idea to provide your doctors and dentists with your new name.
  • Insurance Companies: Insurance coverage is essential to protecting your home, car, business and other valuables. Make sure your providers have current information.

When you’re finished, it’s also a good idea to contact each of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to alert them of your name change and ensure it is accurately reflected.

Credit reporting isn’t a perfect system, and while changing your name shouldn’t erase or negatively impact your credit history, it’s a good idea to check your reports and scores in the months that follow. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to order free copies of your TransUnion, Experian and Equifax reports. You can also view two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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Renting Out Your Home? 9 Expenses You Can Write Off

Here are some tax deductions home renters should know about.

Home sharing through sites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway are becoming more and more popular. My family jumped on the Airbnb hosting train recently, and we made a tidy little side income in January renting out our spare room. I won’t have to pay taxes on that income until next tax season, but I’m already wondering what expenses I can write off.

It turns out that lots of Airbnb host expenses are deductible, and those deductions work for other home-sharing services as well.

The Basics of Taxes & Home Sharing

Renting out a part of your home is similar to becoming a landlord for an entire property, and it’s a lot like running a small business. The general IRS rule is that you can deduct expenses that are “both ordinary and necessary” for your business. But you’ll pay taxes on any income that you earn over and above those deductions.

There’s one caveat: the 14-day rule. If you rent part or all of your primary residence to others for less than 15 days out of the year, you don’t have to report that rental income, but you can’t deduct any expenses.

If you really like being a host, though, and rent all or part of your home for 15 days or more, you’ll have to report the income. So you’ll want to take all the deductions you possibly can. When it comes to deductions for rentals, you need to be careful, though. You can only deduct expenses that were spent on your business.

So if you buy new bath towels that your renters just happen to use in your shared bathroom, you can’t deduct the full cost of the bath towels. But if you buy linens just for your Airbnb renters, you can deduct the full cost.

With that in mind, below are some expenses you might deduct.

9 Expenses You Could Deduct

1. Service Fees: Most short-term rental services charge hosts a fee that comes off the top of the rent paid by the guest. Even if this fee comes out of the guest payment before it hits your bank account, you can deduct it as a business expense.

2. Advertising Fees: If you pay for any advertising outside of that offered by the rental company (and, therefore, covered with your service fees), deduct those expenses.

3. Cleaning & Maintenance Fees: If you buy cleaning supplies for your rental room, deduct those. If you pay a professional for cleaning, deduct that expense, too. Any maintenance costs related to the rental property are also deductible. If you pay for whole-house maintenance, such as a furnace tune-up or a roof replacement, a part of that cost will be deductible.

4. Utilities: If you’re only renting part of your home part of the time, you’ll split the utilities — part as a personal expense and part as a business expense that can be deducted.

5. Property Insurance: If you need to pay more insurance on your home because of having renters present, you can deduct the extra cost. Even if your property insurance fees haven’t increased, you can write off part of the expense as a business expense.

6. Property Taxes: The same goes for property taxes: You can write off the portion of your property taxes equal to the portion of your home being rented.

7. Trash Removal Services: Services that you pay the municipality for can be deducted, because they’re both reasonable and necessary.

8. Property Improvements: You can deduct the cost — or the interest paid on a loan, if you don’t pay cash — of improvements made to the property if those apply to the rented area.

9. Furniture, Linens & Food: You presumably provide guests with at least a couch, if not a bed. If you buy new furniture for your guest room, you can deduct that. You can also deduct the cost of linens, curtains, shower supplies, or food that you provide to your guests.

Splitting the Expenses

Unless you’re renting your whole home for the full year, you’ll need to prorate these deductions. In short, you can only deduct these expenses when they actually apply to the rental space while it’s being rented.

As you can see, things can get hairy! If you decide to host through Airbnb or another similar service this year, here’s what you need to do:

  • Keep detailed records. Know exactly when you had renters and for how much. Keep all your receipts related to expenses for the rental, or for improvements or utilities for your whole house.
  • Know your local laws. In some cases, you may have to pay additional local taxes when you do a short-term rental. Get familiar with those laws, which vary by state and locality.
  • Get a professional to help. Because these issues are so complex, it’s best to consult with a tax professional about your rental income, especially if you made a decent amount of money through the year. You want to take all the deductions you can to lower your tax bill. But you also want to make sure you’re doing it legally.

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4 Great Financing Resources for Veteran Entrepreneurs

Starting a business certainly isn't easy, but veteran entrepreneurs have some resources they can look into tapping.

No one said starting a business would be easy. But if you served our country, chances are you may qualify for certain financial assistance that can lessen the burden.

According to the 2007 Survey of Business Owners data released in 2011, there were 2.45 million businesses with majority ownership by veterans. What’s more, they represented 9% of all U.S. firms. With veterans playing such a key role in our economy, it’s worth it to see what’s out there before bootstrapping (i.e., using your own money).

Of course, if you’re going to apply for financing, be sure check your credit. Many business loans, most notably business credit cards, require a personal guarantee, meaning a lender is going to look at your credit file before giving their approval. You can see where two of your credit scores stand by viewing your free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. If you find your credit needs improving, try paying down high credit card balances, disputing credit reports errors and addressing delinquent accounts. (We’ve got a few more ways you can quickly boost your credit scores here.)

With that in mind, here are four financing resources veteran entrepreneurs can look into tapping.

1. Small Business Association

Perhaps the most established of the resources listed here, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers several loan options for veteran-owned businesses.

“Depending on a borrower’s needs, these loans can be used for a variety of purposes,” and are guaranteed by the SBA, said Craig Heilman, deputy associate administrator, Office of Veterans Business Development, U.S. Small Business Administration. “Any small business can apply, and we encourage them to work with their district office or partners to get lender-ready.”

The SBA Veteran’s Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 “reduces the upfront borrower fee to zero dollars for eligible veterans and military spouses for SBA Express loans up to $350,000,” the administration’s site says. Leveraging Information and Networks to Access Capital (LINC) helps small business owners, including veterans, get in touch with advisers who specialize in microlending, smaller loans and real estate financing. To connect with an SBA-approved lender, you can visit the SBA’s website.

2. The Veterans Opportunity Fund

Launched in Maryland in October 2013 by TEDCO Capital Partners, which manages a family of venture capital funds, the Veterans Opportunity Fund (VOF) was designed to focus on service members specifically.

“It is our belief that veteran-owned business represent an attractive investment opportunity that, when proper due diligence is applied, can produce superior return on invested capital,” the site says. Not only are these veterans highly skilled — and highly disciplined — they’re committed to giving back to their country. Up to $3 million is up for grabs, so make sure your startup meets their criteria: Ideally you’re based on the East Coast, affiliated with technology and in the early revenue or testing stage.

3. The Veterans Business Resource Center

Though the St. Louis Veterans Business Center (VBRC) does not offer grants or financial aid per se, it does provide training on several aspects of entrepreneurship, from marketing to sales to business planning, and much more.

“There are adjusted fees for some classes, and clients who need on-site consulting are charged at a sliding scale,” the site says, but for the most part, there is little to no charge. “The VBRC emphasizes a distinctive veteran-to-veteran approach through extensive utilization of the many established and successful veterans in the St. Louis metropolitan area,” the site says. The organization focuses its efforts in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. “This veteran-to-veteran approach permeates all aspects of VBRC’s services from training and consulting to advocacy, networking and mentoring,” the site says. 

4. Veteran Entrepreneur Portal

Though the Veterans Administration doesn’t offer financing programs for entrepreneurs, said Randy Noller, who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “our office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) does provide some help to veterans to get contracts with government agencies, etc.”

The Veteran Entrepreneur Portal (VEP), on the VA’s main site, makes it easier to locate Federal services online. Complete a questionnaire to see which government resources are best, or gather information directly on loans like the Fixed Assets CDC/504, which offer small businesses long-term, fixed-rate financing for major assets like land and buildings. You can also learn about CAPLines loans, which are ideal for meeting short-term working-capital needs.

Remember, whatever financing route you pursue, it’s important to read loan contracts carefully so you know exactly what you’re signing up for. You’ll also want to vet prospective lenders or offers thoroughly since, unfortunately, there are a lot of scammers out there that target vets. We’ve got more tips for veterans looking for a loan here.

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How a Balance Transfer Affects Your Credit Score

Paying no interest can save you a ton of money, but can applying for and getting a balance transfer credit card hurt your credit?

If you’re struggling with credit card debt that you just can’t seem to get out from under, one of the best ways to break free from that debt is to use a 0% balance transfer card. Doing so saves you money in the long run since you won’t be paying interest charges while you work on paying down that balance.

What You Need to Know

First, applying for a new credit card of any kind can end up dinging your credit just a little. That’s because credit card issuers do what’s known as a “hard inquiry” to determine if you qualify for their product. That check of your credit can have a small and temporary effect on your credit scores, but it’s typically more than offset when you’re approved for the new card because your credit utilization improves with the new line of credit. And as soon as you start whittling away at your outstanding debt with your new balance transfer card, your credit is likely to improve even more. (If you don’t know where your credit currently stands, you can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

The five big factors in determining your credit score include your credit utilization, payment history, types of credit, credit inquiries and the age of your accounts. Here’s an explanation of each and how they are potentially affected when you apply for and use a balance transfer credit card:

The 5 Components of Your Credit Score

1. Credit Utilization
What it Is: This is basically the amount your currently owe on your revolving credit accounts, and makes up 30% of your total score. If you keep your balances to less than a 30% of your limit, and preferably 10%, you’ll be doing your credit scores a huge favor.
How it’s Affected: Suppose you owe $10,000 on Card A, which has a limit of $12,000. You’re using 83% of your available credit. But now you open Card B and move all $10,000 onto it (it has a limit of $10,000). You are now using a total combined available credit of 45% (a combined $22,000 on both cards). The new lower credit utilization could help boost your credit score.

2. Payment History
What it Is: This is the most important part of your credit scores and counts for 35% of your total. That’s why it’s so important to make your payments on time and avoid having your accounts go into collections at all costs.
How it’s Affected: If you made regular, on-time payments on the old card, and continue to make regular, on-time payments on the new card, you shouldn’t see any change here.

3. Types of Credit
What it Is: This is worth 10% of your score and in this area, diversity is key, so having a good mix of credit cards, auto loans, mortgage loans and even personal loans will help give you a good score.
How it’s Affected: Since you probably already have a credit card if you’re looking to transfer a balance to a new card, you likely won’t see much, if any, difference here.

4. Credit Inquiries.
What it Is: This area makes up 10% of your credit scores. Too many credit inquires at the same time can drop your score.
How it’s Affected: Applying for a new card will put an inquiry on your credit. As long as you’re not applying for multiple cards, a single inquiry will have a very small effect.  Probably only dropping your score by less than 5 points.

5. Age of Credit
What it Is: The longer you have been responsibly using credit, the better your score in this area. It accounts for 15% of your total score.
How it’s Affected: Once you get your new card, hang on to your old one. Don’t cancel it. Here’s why: You want to keep your oldest cards open so that your active credit has as long a history as possible. Plus, if you close the old card, you won’t get the benefit of a score boost in your credit utilization, as explained above.

Your Credit & Balance Transfer Cards: The Bottom Line

Opening a new account and transferring the balance over should save you money in the long run, and have a positive impact on your credit score — so long as you don’t transfer your old balance and then turn right away and charge up a new one. Don’t expect a huge jump at the very beginning, but as you continue to pay down your balance by making timely payments, you should see some incremental improvement.

But is a balance transfer right for you? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. It depends on the size of your debt, the interest rate, your income, your current credit score, and how soon you think you can wipe out your debt.

Some of the credit cards with the longest 0% introductory APR offers on balance transfers include:

  • The Citi Diamond Preferred leads the pack with 21 months interest-free financing for balance transfers and purchases. (Full Disclosure: Citibank advertises on Credit.com, but that results in no preferential editorial treatment.)
  • The Discover it card, also offers 21 months interest-free financing on balance transfers and six months for purchases
  • The Citi Double Cash card offers 18 months interest-free financing on balance transfers
  • The Chase Slate card offers 15 months interest-free financing, plus no transfer fee if you transfer your balance within 60 days of approval

One consideration is whether you can pay off your debt during the 0% introductory APR period. If you feel your debt is too big to pay off in 15, 18 or even 21 months or you’re worried about running up a balance on both cards, you could consider taking out a personal loan to pay it off. You won’t get the 0% interest offer, but you will likely get a significantly lower overall interest rate than the credit card will offer after the introductory period ends and you’ll have a set date that your debt will be paid off by. (You can learn more about getting an unsecured personal loan here.)

Whatever decision you make, you can rest assured that applying for an using a balance transfer credit card won’t severely damage your credit so long as it used it as intended. And, if used properly, there’s a very good chance your credit score will improve.

At publishing time, the Citi Diamond Preferred, Discover it, Citi Double Cash and Chase Slate credit cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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5 Ways to Spot a Student Loan Scam

Here's how to spot student loan scams.

“I LOVE my student loan debt,” said no one, ever. Not only can student loan repayment be difficult to understand, it can crush your budget, and whenever there’s confusion and desperation, there’s someone trying to make money off it.

There are a handful of legitimate ways you can make your student loan payments more affordable, but it’s very likely you’ll come across student loan scams if you’re researching repayment options. These scams vary widely — some are looking to steal your personal or financial information, while others are trying to profit from high fees or misleading claims. Here are some red flags you need to watch out for.

1. It’s Too Good to Be True

The age-old scam identifier holds true for student loans: If it’s too good to be true, it is. Some common scams include terms like “instant forgiveness” or that you’re “pre-qualified” for lower loan payments, said Matt Ribe, senior director of legislative affairs and corporate secretary for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A company can’t know if you’re qualified for federal student loan programs like income-based repayment (IBR) or public service student loan forgiveness unless they’ve assessed your student loans and your personal financial situation. Ribe said to watch out for any broad, blanket guarantees that a company can get you a particular outcome — it’s really not that simple.

2. They Charge High, Upfront Fees

It doesn’t cost anything to apply for federal repayment or forgiveness programs (IBR, public service student loan forgiveness, revised Pay As You Earn aka RePAYE, etc.). You can do that through your student loan servicer (talking to your servicer is always free, too).

There are a lot of companies out there that charge fees for helping you apply for such programs.

“We pay people to fix our cars and prepare our taxes all the time; there’s nothing inherently wrong about that,” Ribe said. “It’s the misleading advertising that really irks consumer protection folks and the Department of Education, for sure.”

Joshua R.I. Cohen, a student loan lawyer in Vermont and Connecticut, said he’s seen student loan scams offer consumers “relief” and charge upfront fees between about $300 to $2,000. The company may not clearly explain what the fees are for — people often confuse monthly maintenance fees with their actual student loan payments — or they might just take your money and run. Your loans may not even qualify for a federal repayment program (private student loans don’t), but they’ll charge you a consulting fee anyway.

3. They Say ‘You Have To’

Any company that demands a specific form of payment (often paired with high-pressure sales tactics like, “This offer will expire at the end of the year!”), should make you suspicious, Cohen said.

You’ll also want to be wary of an offer that tells you how you should handle your loans, because it’s up to you to decide what makes most sense for your finances. For example, you generally do not need to consolidate your loans to qualify for IBR (except for Federal Perkins Loans, which must be consolidated to qualify for IBR).

“The scam company doesn’t say why you need to consolidate they just say, ‘Oh you need to do this,'” Cohen said.

4. ‘The New Obama Student Loan Relief Program’

Both Cohen and Ribe cited this one. You may have even seen ads for it online.

They say something like, “‘By consolidating you can qualify for the Obama Loan Forgiveness Program’ — there is no Obama Loan Forgiveness Program,” Cohen said.

Falling for this one may mean you pay a fee or you end up “consolidating” into a loan with murky terms and a high interest rate — all for a program that doesn’t exist.

Also watch out for companies claiming to be affiliated with the government or the Education Department — only student loan servicers and debt collectors work directly with the government.

5. They Want to Take Control of Your Loan

Cohen and Ribe said there’s no reason to pay your loan through a third party. Scam companies have been known to ask for your Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) or your National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) PIN. This is personally identifying information that can allow a third party to take control of your loan.

“You don’t know what the company is actually doing, (or) if they’re actually forwarding the money onto the servicer,” Ribe said. The company may also change your contact information on your student loans, so you won’t know if you miss payments or default.

Why You Need to Be Careful With Student Loan Repayment

Paying your student loans on time can help you build credit, but if you fall behind or don’t understand how repayment works, you could end up with some serious credit and general financial problems. You can learn what happens exactly after you default on your student loans here

If you ever have questions about your student loan payments, you can ask your student loan servicer for guidance. The Education Department, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and local consumer advocates (like a student loan lawyer or a non-profit credit counselor) are also good sources.

Got more questions about paying for college post-graduation? Visit our student loan learning center.

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4 Tips to Help You Audit Your Personal Spending

When I audit my expenses, I am taking a cold, hard look at spending patterns. Here's how you can too.

It’s tax season, and many of us dread the thought of what we may end up owing Uncle Sam. I, on the other hand, take it as an opportunity to do my annual financial audit—and save hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars a year.

What is a financial audit? A financial audit, as I define it, is the practice of going through your personal financial records and checking your ongoing monthly expenses, unexpected one-time expenses, splurges, and anything else that is money-related.

When I audit myself, I am taking a cold, hard look at spending patterns, higher-than-expected payments, services that I’m paying for but don’t use, late payments (and why they are late), and any other financial habits that are keeping me from financial success.

One of the most interesting parts of my audits is realizing how easy it is to lose track of monthly subscriptions. In a previous audit, I discovered that I paid $400 for a service that I didn’t use for an entire year! I now try to avoid monthly subscriptions whenever possible. I save my money and pay upfront for whatever service I would like to use.

Here’s how I do my self-audit.

1. Stay Focused

First, this is not to be done on an empty stomach or after more than one drink. You need to be alert. Do it midday, when you’re awake and ready to tackle your finances. Do this at home during the quietest part of your day, and if you have kiddos or pets, I would recommend doing this when they are out of the house.

The fewer distractions, the better.

2. Analyze Your Spending

You will want to look at your bank statements or financial management systems such as Mint, Personal Capital or even monthly Excel spreadsheets using a secured online system.

Then you should spend time looking at the different areas of spending that your money is going toward: groceries, car expenses, kids, travel, debt repayments, and even pets.

In my case, I discovered that I spent a lot on food, travel and debt repayment. Once I discovered where my money was going, I started to think creatively about how to lower expenses in those different categories.

3. Strategize

For example, when I began this process I was spending twice the amount that I currently do on groceries and eating out. So I started shopping for groceries once a week and I downloaded a grocery app that allowed me to save money each time I purchased food.

I don’t feel like I’m missing out on going out to eat or having my favorite foods — I’ve just embraced some new strategies so that I don’t eat my money up!

4. Uncover Savings

I decided to embrace traveling less, and when I did travel, I looked at ways to make travel less expensive. I very rarely stay at hotels and prefer to use Airbnb and hostels (with my own private room) because those accommodation options are much less expensive — they cost around $30 a night versus $80 to $150 a night in a hotel.

I still travel to cool places — this year I spent two weeks in San Diego, and the year before that I spent two months in Australia. But now I work hard on figuring out my expenses before I do anything, and I pay with cash.

You don’t do a financial audit to give yourself a hard time — in fact, just the opposite. Financial audits are great because they give you clarity and a direction for what your next steps should be.

During one of those audits, I discovered that I was spending $1,200 a year (around $105 a month) on my cell phone service. But I don’t like to talk on the phone all that much. Not to mention, $1,200 a year is the equivalent of a trip to South America for three weeks with airfare! I side-hustled like a rock star and paid up to get out of my contract, and then I switched to a pay-as-you-go service that averaged me around $30 a month. This created a savings of $900 a year. Cha-ching!

If this is the first time that you’ve done a financial audit, don’t be scared! Just have fun putting money back into your pocket.

[Editor’s Note: Remember, it’s important to keep an eye on your credit, too, since your standing can affect your ability to score an affordable loan. You can view two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]

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6 Solid Tips for Veterans in Need of a Loan

Veterans are faced with some unique money challenges. Fortunately, there are ways for them to get an affordable loan.

U.S. military members transitioning out of service can find themselves facing many unique money challenges. After all, duty to one’s country can understandably push personal money management to the back burner. Fortunately, there are steps veterans can take to secure the funding they need to achieve their financial goals.

Here are some tips for veterans looking to secure a mortgage, small business loan or other types of financing.

1. Know What Federal Benefits Are Available …

There are programs out there designed to help veterans and their families overcome the various money challenges that can arise when a family member is on active duty. For instance, veterans are eligible for VA home loans, which often feature no down payment, no mortgage insurance and flexible underwriting requirements. And there are various grants, loans and business development programs backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration that can help former military members and budding entrepreneurs.

Veterans can get acquainted with the general benefits available to them on the Veterans Benefits Administration website. Prospective entrepreneurs can begin looking into business financing by checking out the Small Business Administration’s Office of Veterans Business Development online.

2. Research All of Your Options

That’s not to say veterans should limit themselves to federal loan programs. For instance, when it comes to mortgages, “to be sure, VA loans aren’t the right fit for every veteran,” Chris Birk, a Credit.com contributor and director of education for Veterans United, a VA loan lender, said. “Understanding all of your mortgage options is also key to getting the best deal possible. Even veterans with sterling credit and a 20% down payment would benefit from comparison shopping between conventional and VA loans.”

3. Consider Financial Institutions That Cater to Vets …

If you do decide to go for a VA loan to buy a home, consider finding a mortgage lender who knows the ins and outs of that type of financing.

“VA loan market share has soared over the last decade, but it’s still a niche product for many lenders and real estate professionals,” Birk said. “Working with companies and professionals who know the ins and outs of VA loans can help ensure veterans get the most from this benefit.”

Similarly, you can look into finding a credit card issuer or bank that caters to former and current military members. (We’ve got a list of some of the better military credit cards here to help you get you started on your search.)

And there are several startups, venture capitalist funds and, even, angel investors out there that offer small business financing exclusively to veterans and military members that may prove worthwhile, depending on your financial situation.

4. … But Be Sure to Assess Your Finances Holistically

We say “depending on your financial situation” because it’s important to consider factors beyond your status as a veteran when making money decisions. Take credit cards as an example. Ultimately, the right one for you will be influenced by your current financial situation or goals. For instance, if you’re trying to pay a lot of debt, you might want to look into a balance-transfer credit card. 

The same thing applies when exploring other financing opportunities — just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean products designed for veterans are going to be the ones that best need your financing needs.

5. Watch Out for Scams

Due to the money challenges some veterans face (often related to spending extended periods of time out of the country or relocating frequently), they often find themselves on a scammer’s radar. That’s why it’s a good idea to vet any business you’re thinking of getting a loan from before filling out applications. You can start by conducting a thorough search online or checking a company’s status with the Better Business Bureau.

6. Brush Up Your Credit

A good credit score can make all types of financing more affordable, so it’s a good idea to see where you stand before applying for a loan. You can get a free credit report snapshot, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You can also pull your free credit reports from each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.  

If you need to build credit, you can look into credit-builder loans or secured credit cards, which help people with thin files establish a history of using credit wisely. If you need to improve your credit, you can focus on paying down high credit card balances, disputing credit report errors and limiting applications for new credit, all of which can hurt your credit score.

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7 Ways to Save at Home Depot

Want to do more around your house without spending a ton of money? Here's seven ways to lower your costs when shopping at Home Depot.

If you work in the home improvement field or love do-it-yourself projects, there’s a good chance you’ve spent some significant time and money at Home Depot, one of the country’s largest suppliers of home improvement merchandise. But enthusiastic Home Depot shoppers know that, even after hunting down great deals, the bill can quickly spiral out of control at the register.

Luckily, there are many tricks that can save you a lot at Home Depot. Here are seven ways you can cut costs on your next expedition. 

1. Discounted Gift Cards 

Websites like Cardpool.com and Raise.com provide discounted Home Depot gift cards that save you a percentage of the total gift card value. For instance, as of writing this, Raise.com had gift cards discounted with up to 5.1% off their total value. 

2. Hunt for Coupons & Deal Alerts

You can look out for Home Depot flyers and coupons in your mailbox or in the store, but you can also get alerted to special promotions, deals and offers by signing up for Home Depot’s email or text alerts. Signing up right now will also get you $5 off your next purchase of $50 or more. 

3. Work the Low-Price Guarantee 

Home Depot offers a low-price guarantee for both online and in-store purchases. For online purchases, Home Depot will match any competitor price, including the item price and shipping costs. For in-store purchases, Home Depot will beat competitor prices on identical items by 10%. You’ll have to bring the ad, printout or photo to the cash register when you check out. Several exclusions apply to this policy, including custom products, open-box merchandise and auction pricing. 

4. Rent Equipment 

For equipment you’ll only use once or twice, you might want to evaluate the cost of renting versus buying. Many items can be rented on an hourly, daily or weekly basis at a fraction of the cost. For instance, we found a $188 leaf blower that can be rented for $23 a day. If you only need to blow leaves once a year, this can be a much more cost-effective option. 

5. Visit the Clearance Section

Many Home Depot locations have clearance sections located throughout the store (although they can sometimes be hard to find). Check out the far reaches of the store for deeply discounted items. 

6. Consider a Home Depot Credit Card

Home Depot offers a credit card (we’ve got a full review here) to help their customers finance home improvement projects. Home Depot is currently offering an introductory 0% annual percentage rate (APR) for all purchases of $299 or more if you pay off your balance in six months. They also offer cardholders up to 24 months of interest-free financing for special categories such as roofing supplies or custom kitchen cabinets.

If you were already planning on charging your Home Depot purchases to a credit card, you could avoid interest by taking advantage of these offers (although you can also avoid interest by paying off your balance in full each month).

Remember, before applying for any credit card, it’s a good idea to check your credit scores to see where you stand. You can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, right here on Credit.com.

7. Join the Garden Club 

Avid gardeners should take a look at the Home Depot Garden Club, an email and text alert club that delivers special garden promotions and offers right to your inbox or mobile device. Plus, Home Depot is currently offering $5 off your next purchase of $50 or more when you sign up.

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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Review: PenFed Launches 1.5% – 2% Power Cash Rewards Credit Card

PenFed, a credit union that anyone can join (more on that later) has just introduced a new cash back rewards credit card. The card pays a high, flat cash back rate and brings a credit union approach to fees (low and not many of them) and simplicity. Here are the details on the cash back that you can earn:

  • Anyone with military service earns 2% cash back on all spending, with no limits or restrictions. That is the highest flat cash back rate in the market.
  • Anyone with a PenFed checking account (restrictions apply) earns 2% cash back on all spending, with no limits or restrictions. (If you keep $500 in the checking account, there is no fee and you earn 0.20% APY on the money).
  • If you do not have military service or a checking account, you can earn 1.5% unlimited cash back. At 1.5%, the card matches Chase Freedom Unlimited or Capital One Quicksilver, but it is still beat by Citibank’s Double Cash.
  • There is a minimum redemption amount of $5 for the cash back that you have earned.
  • There is a bonus offer: get $100 of cash if you spend $1,500 during the first 90 days.

In addition to the cash back, here are some additional features:

  • Chip with pin functionality: if you travel overseas, you might find chip + signature limiting. For example, trying to use a card with only signature functionality at kiosks across Europe (like the London Underground) can be challenging.
  • No annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.
  • Variable APR range of 9.24% – 17.99%. If you have excellent credit, the lowest APR at Citi (on the Double Cash product) is 13.49%. For people who revolve occasionally, this could be a better option. (Although our advice remains to pay your balance in full and on time. If you need to borrow money, personal loans and balance transfers remain cheaper options).

Our Verdict

Best Cash Back Credit Card for Military: 2% is the gold standard for a flat rate cash back credit card, and PenFed delivers for men and women who have served. This is better than any competing flat-rate cash back credit cards because of the lower APR and lack of foreign transaction fees.

Best Cash Back Credit Card for Spending Abroad: If you use Citi Double Cash, you would be hit with a foreign transaction fee of 3%. So, you would earn 2% but be forced to pay 3% in fees. Before this card, Capital One Quicksilver was our top choice because of a 1.5% earn rate and no foreign transaction fees. PenFed’s card now wins because (a) if you put $500 into a PenFed checking account you can earn 2% on this card, and (b) the card offers chip and pin functionality. If you spend $1,000 overseas this year, you would pay $10 to Citi, (2% cash back – 3% fees = -1%), would earn $15 with Capital One and would earn $20 with PenFed.

Tie: Best Flat-Rate Cash Back Credit Card: With both Citi Double Cash and PenFed you can earn up to 2%. Each card has its own unique differences, which is why they are tied for best flat-rate card in the market.

  • PenFed: You need to join the credit union, open a checking account and fund the account with $500 (or sign up for direct deposit) to ensure you get the full 2% and avoid fees. Financially it will make sense, but there are a number of obstacles to get the full rewards (unless you are military).
  • Citi Double Cash: It is easy to apply and get the card (no credit union membership or Citi checking account required). However, the card is actually 1% as you earn and 1% as you pay, so it takes longer to get the full 2%. The interest rates are higher and there is a foreign transaction fee.

There are still options to earn higher cash back rates in certain categories. You can find the best cash back credit cards by every category here. For example, you can earn 5% unlimited on gas with Fort Knox Credit Union or 6% (with limitations) on groceries at American Express.

If you want to learn more or apply, you can visit PenFed’s website.

LearnMore

Requirements To Earn 2%

Here are the details on how to ensure you get the full 2% earn rate:

Military: You are eligible to earn 2% if the primary or joint applicant is in military service, the National Guard, the Reserves, an honorary discharged veteran or retired from the United States military. Military members receive the 2% upon completion of the application – no further action is required.

Checking Account: If you do not meet the military requirements, you would need to open a checking account with PenFed. The account is called the “AccessAmerica Checking Account.” There are some decent benefits to the account (you can earn 0.20% APY interest on balances up to $20,000 and 0.50% APY on balances between $20,000 and $50,000). If you shift your monthly direct deposit of at least $500 to this account, you will not have a monthly fee. However, if you do not want to shift your direct deposit, you can deposit $500 and keep it there to meet the required minimum balance. This is actually the easiest way to earn the 2%, cash back rate and, given the 0.20% interest on the checking account, it can be financially worthwhile.

Join the Credit Union: There are multiple ways to join the credit union. If you are active or retired military, you are eligible to join for free. If you work for the US government or are a relative of a member, you can also join for free. But don’t worry if you are unable to meet those requirements. You might belong to an eligible organization (check here). You can also join an organization to become eligible for credit union membership. You can pay $17.00 (one time and non-refundable) to join Voices for America’s Troops or the National Military Family Association. By supporting a good cause, you become eligible for credit union membership. In addition to the credit card, PenFed is known for low rates on auto loans and mortgages.

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