The 5/1 ARM Mortgage: What Is It and Is It for Me?

5/1 ARM mortgage

Finding the right mortgage can be a confusing process, especially for first-time homebuyers. There are so many options that it can be hard for a consumer to know how to get the optimal rate and terms.

One way to get a better initial interest rate is by taking out a 5/1 ARM mortgage. Small wonder that many potential borrowers want to know what makes a 5/1 ARM mortgage so unique and whether it might be the right loan for them.

Below is a guide to how 5/1 ARM mortgages work, how they are different from traditional 15- and 30-year mortgages, and what pros and cons consumers need to understand.

How a 5/1 ARM works

A 5/1 ARM mortgage, as explained by MagnifyMoney’s parent company, LendingTree, is a type of adjustable-rate mortgage (hence, the ARM part) that begins with a fixed interest rate for the first five years. Then, once that time has elapsed, the interest rate becomes variable. A variable rate means your interest rate can change. Consequently, so can your payment.

The number “5” in “5/1 ARM” means that your interest rate is fixed for five years. The number “1” in “5/1 ARM” means your interest rate could change each year after the first five years have passed.

Interest rates are based on an index, which is a benchmark rate used by lenders to set their rates. An index is based on broad market conditions and investment returns in the U.S.. Thus, your bank can adjust its interest rates at any point that the benchmark rate changes or if there are major fluctuations in the U.S. stock market.

What’s fixed? What’s adjustable?

Fixed-rate mortgages have the same interest rate for the duration of the mortgage loan. The most common loan periods for these are 15- and 30-year.

Because a 15-year fixed rate mortgage is, obviously, for a shorter term than a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, you will likely pay much less interest over time. However, as a result, you will have a higher monthly mortgage payment since the loan payoff period is condensed to 15 years.

Adjustable-rate mortgages like the 5/1 ARM loan mentioned above have a fixed interest rate for the beginning of the loan and then a variable rate after the initial fixed-rate period.

The chart below shows an example of the same house with three different types of mortgages.

As you can see below, the 15-year fixed rate mortgage has a lower interest rate, but a much higher payment. The 5/1 ARM has the lowest interest rate of all, but once that interest rate becomes variable, the lower rate is not guaranteed. This is one of the cons of a 5/1 ARM mortgage, which will be outlined in the next section.

Mortgage snapshot

Here is an example of three different types of mortgage payments for someone taking out a $200,000 mortgage. The chart below makes the assumption that the fictional person this is for has a high credit score and qualifies for good interest rates.


Interest Rate

Monthly payment

Principal Paid
After 5 Years

Total Interest Cost
After 5 Years

30-year fixed





15-year fixed





5/1 ARM





The pros and cons of 5/1 ARM mortgages

The pros

The biggest advantage of a 5/1 ARM mortgage is that interest rates are typically lower for the first five years of the loan than they would be with a typical 15- or 30-year fixed-rate deal. This allows the homeowner to put more of the monthly payment toward the principal balance on the home, which is a good way to gain equity in the property.

The 5/1 ARM mortgage commonly has a lifetime adjustment cap, which means that even though the rate is variable, it can never go higher than that cap. That way, your lender can tell you what your highest monthly payment will be in the future should your interest rate ever reach that point.

The cons

As mentioned above, the con of a 5/1 ARM mortgage is the whole “adjustable” component. Once you get past the five-year term, there will be uncertainty. Every year after the fifth year of your mortgage, the rate can adjust and keep adjusting.

There is a way around this. You can refinance your mortgage after the five years and secure a new mortgage with a fixed rate. But be warned: Refinancing comes with fees. You will have to calculate on your own whether or not the savings you derive from a lower payment for five years is worthwhile as you measure it against the cost of refinancing to a fixed-rate loan.

That’s why it’s important to know how long you want to live in your home and whether or not you’ll want to sell your home when you move (as opposed to, say, renting it out).

A 5/1 mortgage is right for …

“For certain people, like first-time homebuyers, 5/1 ARM mortgages are very useful,” Doug Crouse, a senior loan officer with nearly 20 years of experience in the mortgage industry, tells MagnifyMoney.

Here are the types of people who could benefit from a 5/1 ARM mortgage:

  • First-time homebuyers who are planning to move within five years.
  • Borrowers who will pay off their mortgages very quickly.
  • Borrowers who take out a jumbo mortgage.

Crouse explains that with some first-time homebuyers, the plan is to move after a few years. This group can benefit from lower interest rates and lower monthly payments during those early years, before the fixed rate changes to a variable rate.

Mindy Jensen, who is the community manager for BiggerPockets, an 800,000-person online community of real estate investors, agrees. “You can actually use a 5/1 ARM to your advantage in certain situations,” Jensen tells MagnifyMoney.

For example, Jensen mentions a 5/1 ARM could work well for someone who wants to pay down a mortgage very, very quickly. After all, if you know you’re going to pay off your loan early, why pay more interest to your lender than you have to?

“Homeowners who are looking to make very aggressive payments in order to be mortgage-free can use the 5/1 ARM” to their advantage, she explains. “The lower initial interest rate frees up more money to make higher principal payments.”

Another group that can benefit from 5/1 ARM mortgages, Crouse says, is those who take out or refinance jumbo mortgages.

For these loans, a 5/1 ARM makes the first few years of mortgage payments lower because of the lower interest rate. This, in turn, means that the initial payments will be much more affordable for these higher-end properties.

Plus, if buyers purchased these more expensive homes in desirable areas where home prices are projected to rise quickly, it’s possible the value of their home could soar in the first few years while they make lower payments. Then, they can sell after five years and hopefully make a profit. Keep in mind that real estate is a risky investment and nothing is guaranteed.

The 5/1 isn’t right for …

Long-term home buyers who plan to stay put for the long haul probably won’t benefit from a 5/1 ARM loan, experts say. “An adjustable-rate mortgage loan is a bad idea for anyone who sees their home as a long-term choice,” Jensen says.

Crouse echoes the sentiment: “If someone plans to stay in their home for longer than five years, this might not be the best option for them.”

Jensen adds that homeowners should consider whether or not they want to be landlords in the future. If you decide to move out of your home but keep the mortgage and rent a property, it won’t be so beneficial to sign up for a 5/1 ARM loan.

Questions to ask yourself

If, after reading this guide, you think a 5/1 ARM mortgage might be right to you, go through this list of questions to be sure. Remember, you can also consult with your lender.

  • How long do I want to live in this home?
  • Will this home suit my family if my family grows?
  • Is there a chance I could get transferred with my job?
  • How often does the rate adjust after five years?
  • When is the adjusted rate applied to the mortgage?
  • If I want to refinance after five years, what is the typical cost of a refinance?
  • How comfortable am I with the uncertainty of a variable rate?
  • Do I want to rent my house if I decide to move?

Hopefully these questions and this guide can aid you in reaching a sensible decision.

The post The 5/1 ARM Mortgage: What Is It and Is It for Me? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Review of Live Oak Bank’s Deposit Rates

Review of Live Oak Bank

Chances are you haven’t heard of Live Oak Bank. After all, this lender, based mostly on the web, has only been around since 2008, and it mostly focuses on giving out small business loans to businesses in specific industries, such as veterinary practices or craft breweries.

That’s no reason to pass it up for your personal banking needs, however. In fact, this little gem of a bank has one of the best-kept secrets in the personal banking world: it has one of the highest savings account interest rates you’ll find from an online bank. (More on that below.) And, most of its other personal deposit accounts offer relatively high rates as well.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at its deposit accounts to see if they’re right for you.

How Live Oak Bank rates compare

Live Oak Bank is right on par with the current highest CD rates.

This bank’s minimum deposit requirements also seem to be right on par with other bank’s minimum deposit requirements. The current best CDs out there have minimum deposit requirements both above and below Live Oak Bank’s $2,500 benchmark.




Minimum Deposit

6-month CD



1-year CD



18-month CD



2-year CD



3-year CD



4-year CD



5-year CD




Rates current as of Jan. 2, 2018.

What else do I need to know about Live Oak Bank’s CDs?

Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible to open these accounts. It’s a relatively straightforward process to open a CD: Simply complete the forms online, provide any needed documentation (such as your current bank account details), and wait for an account approval. Once your account is open, you can transfer over your deposit, where it will be held for five days before officially launching your CD.

If you need to take out your deposit early, bad news: As with many CDs, you’ll face an early-withdrawal penalty at Live Oak Bank. If your original CD term was for six months, one year or 18 months, you’ll be charged 90 days’ worth of interest. If your original CD term was for longer than that, you’ll be charged a higher rate of 180 days’ worth of interest.

If you are able to resist the urge to withdraw your money early, congratulations! Your CD will automatically renew into a second CD with the same term length. However, don’t panic if that’s not what you want: You have up to 10 days after the CD has matured to withdraw your money penalty-free and park it in your own bank account (whether it’s with Live Oak Bank or not).


Minimum Deposit


Up to $5 million

(but only up to $250,000 is FDIC-insured)

Rates current as of Jan. 2, 2018.

How do Live Oak Bank’s savings accounts compare?

When it comes to the best savings accounts with high interest rates, Live Oak Bank is right up there. This means that Live Oak Bank is lowering the bar and allowing anyone to take advantage of these high interest rates, no matter how much is in his or her pocket right now.

What else do I need to know about Live Oak Bank’s savings account?

Live Oak Bank wants you to use your savings account, and use it often, which is one reason why it has no monthly maintenance fee. If there is no activity on your account for 24 months and your balance is less than $10.01, Live Oak Bank will take the remainder of your balance as a Dormant Account Fee and close your account.

Getting money into a Live Oak Bank savings account from an external bank account can take a little bit of time depending on how you do it. If you request the money through Live Oak Bank’s online portal, the funds won’t be available for up to five or six business days. But if you opt instead to send the money to Live Oak Bank from your current bank, the money will be available as soon as it’s received. Your Live Oak Bank savings account will start earning interest as soon as the money posts to your account.

You can easily withdraw your money at any time via ACH transfer. Simply log into your Live Oak Bank savings account and electronically transfer it to whichever bank account you wish. It’ll be available in two to three business days.

You are limited to making just six transactions (deposits or withdrawals) per month with this savings account. That’s not a Live Oak Bank thing; that’s a federal regulation imposed upon savings accounts in the U.S. If you absolutely can’t wait until next month to make another deposit or withdrawal past your allotted six per month, you’ll be charged a $10 transaction fee for each additional action.

Overall review of Live Oak Bank

It’s easy to overlook Live Oak Bank for other larger, more established consumer banks like Ally or Discover Bank. But Live Oak has some of the best CD rates around, and the best savings account available on the market today.

Lest you be scared away by its smaller name, consider this: This tiny-but-growing bank is getting rave reviews from customers and employees alike. It carries an “A” health rating, and has a top-notch online banking portal. About the only thing missing is a checking account to let you seamlessly do all of your daily banking with this great company.

The post Review of Live Oak Bank’s Deposit Rates appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

FHA Mortgage Insurance: Explained


Mortgages with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) can be especially attractive to credit-challenged first-time homebuyers. Not only can your down payment be as little as 3.5 percent, but FHA loans also have more lenient credit requirements. Indeed, you can qualify for maximum funding and that low percentage rate with a minimum credit score of 580.

On the negative side, the generous qualifying requirements increase the risk to a lender. That’s where mortgage insurance comes into play.

FHA mortgage insurance (MIP) backs up lenders if you default. It’s the price you pay for getting a mortgage with easier underwriting standards. If you put down 10 percent or more, you’ll pay MIP for 11 years. If you put down less than 10 percent, you’ll pay for MIP for the life of the loan. But there are ways you can get MIP removed or canceled, which we’ll also explain in a bit.

MIP can be bit confusing, so we’ll break down exactly how it works and how much it can add to the cost of a mortgage loan in this post.

Upfront and ongoing MIP: Explained

All FHA borrowers have to pay for mortgage insurance.

MIP is paid upfront, when you close your mortgage loan, as well as through an annual payment that is divided into monthly installments. Not all homebuyers have to pay MIP forever, and we’ll get into those specifics, so hang tight.

When you make your upfront MIP payment, the lender will put those funds into an escrow account and keep them there. If you default, those funds will be used to pay off the lender. As for your ongoing MIP payments, they get tacked onto your monthly mortgage loan payment.

How long you have to pay MIP as part of your mortgage payments can vary based on when the loan was closed, your loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, and the size of your down payment. Your LTV is simply how much your loan balance is, versus the value of your home, which our parent company LendingTree explains in this post.

Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP)

UFMIP is required to be paid upon closing. It can be paid entirely with cash or rolled into the total amount of the loan. The lender will send the fee to the FHA. The current upfront premium is 1.75 percent of the base loan amount. So, if you borrow a FHA loan valued at $200,000, your upfront mortgage insurance payment would be $3,500 due at closing.

UFMIP is required to be paid by the FHA lender within 10 days of closing. The payment is included in your closing costs or rolled into the loan. A one-time late charge of 4 percent will be levied on all premiums that aren’t paid by lenders within 10 days beyond closing. The lender (not the borrower) must pay the late fee before FHA will endorse the mortgage for insurance.

With ongoing premiums, your lender will collect your MIP and send it to HUD. The lender, not you, be penalized for any late MIP payments.

Annual MIP payments are calculated by loan amount, LTV, and term. To help estimate your cost, the FHA has a great What’s My Payment tool.

Here’s an example of monthly charges based on a $300,000, 30-year loan at 4 percent interest, with a 3.5 percent down payment and an FHA MIP of 0.85 percent. (This does not include any money escrowed for taxes and insurance):

  • Principal and interest: $1,406.30
  • Down payment: $10,500
  • Upfront MIP at 1.75 percent: $5,066
  • Monthly FHA MIP at 0.85 percent: $203.42
  • Total monthly payment = $1,609.72

Penalties and interest charges for late monthly payments are similar to those levied on the UFMIP.

Base Loan Amount


Annual MIP

Less than or equal to $625,500

≤ 90.00%


> 90.00% but
≤ 95.00%


> 95.00%


Greater than $625,500

≤ 90.00%


> 90.00% but
≤ 95.00%


> 95.00%


Source: HUD

Base Loan Amount


Annual MIP

Less than or equal to $625,500

≤ 90.00%


> 90.00% but
≤ 95.00%


Greater than $625,500

> 90.00% but
≤ 95.00%


> 95.00%


> 90.00%


Source: HUD

How long does MIP last?

The length on MIP requirements also depends on when you closed the loan and the size of your down payment. The rules changed dramatically in July 3, 2013. Until then, you could cancel your MIP after your LTV ratio dropped to 78 percent. Under the new rules, the MIP on loans closed after June 3, 2013, will last either the life of the loan or for 11 years, based on the amount of the down payment.

For loans that were closed before June 3, 2013, you can still request that MIP be dropped after your LTV ratio drops to 78 percent — after five years of payments without delinquencies.

Here’s the breakdown:

Loan Term

Original Down Payment

MIP Duration

20, 25, 30 years

Less than 10%

Life of loan

20, 25, 30 years

More than 10%

11 years

15 years or less

Less than 10%

Life of loan

15 years or less

More than 10%

11 years

Source: FHA


Loan Term

Original Down Payment

MIP Duration

20, 25, 30 years

Less than 10%

78% LTV based on original purchase price
(5 years minimum)

20, 25, 30 years


78% LTV based on original purchase price
(5 years minimum)

20, 25, 30 years

More than 22%

5 years

15 years

Less than 10%

78% LTV

15 years


78% LTV

15 years

More than 22%


Source: FHA

How to Eliminate MIP

NOTE: About endorsements

According to the MIP Refund Center, the HUD endorsement on FHA loan is the date your MIP is approved. When you pay your upfront MIP with the lender, the loan is closed.The clock starts ticking on your MIP on the endorsement date.

More on MIP cancellation:

Most of today’s FHA borrowers will have but a few options to end their insurance payments. If you’re hoping to get out of paying FHA mortgage insurance, you’re going to either have to pay off the loan or do some refinancing. The FHA policy allowing borrowers to cancel annual MIP after paying for five years and reaching 78 percent LTV was rescinded with the new regulations in 2013 requiring payments for the life of the loan.

The good news about the FHA policy is that you can retire your loan earlier by making additional payments. If you closed your loan after June 2013, you can cancel MIP by refinancing into a conventional loan once you have an LTV of at least 80 percent.

Here are two strategies to get your MIP canceled:

Replace/refinance with a Streamline FHA Mortgage

If you have a current FHA mortgage and have no late payments, you may qualify for a Streamline FHA mortgage to refinance your existing loan with a better rate. You’ll still need to pay MIP but the savings generated by the lower interest rate can offset your insurance costs.

Replace/refinance, with conventional PMI

Want to switch to conventional refinancing? Credit requirements are tougher and interest rates may be higher on conventional PMI. The minimum qualifying credit score for conventional fixed-rate loans is 620.

PMI is similar to MIP in that both protect the lender’s investment. The MIP is determined by the LTV and term. The PMI is calculated on the size of your down payment.

A minimum of 5 percent down is required and the PMI can be paid in a lump sum or monthly installments — not both. If you put down 20 percent or more, the requirement for PMI on conventional financing can be waived. In conventional refinancing, you may be required to have an appraisal to determine property value. This is essential since the PMI insurance requirement on conventional loans ends once the borrower’s LTV drops to 78 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says that the lender is required to cancel PMI once your payments reach the “midpoint of your loan’s amortization schedule” — no matter the LTV. That’s if you’re current on your payments.

A good way to determine the value of refinancing is to complete an analysis through LendingTree’s Refinance Calculator.


FHA announcements and changes

HUD announces changes in MIP requirements from time to time in reaction to risks such as foreclosures, deficits in the Mortgage Insurance Fund or downturns in FHA lending.

For example, in January 2015, HUD reduced the annual MIP insurance rate by 50 basis points. Another announcement was released this year after President Trump took office when HUD canceled a plan to lower MIP premiums proposed by the Obama administration. According to the National Association of Realtors, the cancellation of lower rates means “roughly 750,000 to 850,000 homebuyers will face higher costs, and 30,000 to 40,000 new homebuyers will be left on the sidelines in 2017 without the cut.”

Consumers should check with lenders or with HUD to stay up to speed on changes that could affect their mortgage.

Am I eligible for a HUD refund?

If you acquired your loan prior to Sept. 1, 1983, you may be eligible for a refund on a portion of your UFMIP. Or, if you refinance your home with another FHA loan, the insurance refund is applied to your new loan.

HUD rules specify how long you have to refinance before you lose your refund:

  • For any FHA-insured loans with a closing date prior to Jan. 1, 2001, and endorsed before Dec. 8, 2004, no refund is due the homeowner after the end of the seventh year of insurance.
  • For any FHA-insured loans closed on or after Jan. 1, 2001 and endorsed before Dec. 8, 2004, no refund is due the homeowner after the fifth year of insurance.
  • For FHA-insured loans endorsed on or after Dec. 8, 2004, no refund is due the homeowner unless he or she refinanced to a new FHA-insured loan, and no refund is due these homeowners after the third year of insurance.

The refund process goes into motion when the mortgage company reports the termination of your insurance on the loan to HUD. You may receive additional paperwork from HUD or receive a refund directly in the mail. You can find out if you’re owed a refund by entering your information at the HUD refund site. If you’re on the list, call HUD to get the ball rolling at: 1-800-697-6967?.???

Final thoughts

If you’re trying to get into a home with less-than-optimal credit, an FHA-backed loan could be your best option. You’ll pay for the benefit of landing the mortgage through MIP over much of the loan’s lifetime, if not all of it. You may save money after you’ve built some equity (or improved your credit) by refinancing to a conventional mortgage that drops the mortgage insurance requirement after you reach the 78 percent LTV milestone.

The post FHA Mortgage Insurance: Explained appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Why You Should Still Talk to a Lender Even if You’re Not Ready to Buy a Home

A mature couple receives an application at a bank.

If you’re a first-time homebuyer, you might think you’re not ready to purchase a house. Perhaps you’re concerned about your job situation, your previous credit history, or your high monthly expenses. Whatever the circumstances, every borrower and financial situation is unique.

Unless you’re a financial expert, it’s best not to self-diagnose your financial problems. You wouldn’t skip out on the dentist to fill your own cavities, so don’t try to solve your financial troubles yourself either. A loan officer can walk you through your options—and they won’t try to drill your teeth!

When you apply for home loans, mortgage loan officers look at your credit score, credit history, monthly liabilities, income, and assets. These officers see the entire financial picture, not just the investable funds. A reputable loan officer with experience can get you on the right track for buying a home.

Here are three common reasons people don’t want to apply for a mortgage and what you should do if you’re really serious about buying a home.

A Less-Than-Ideal Credit Report

The reality is that mortgage companies are required to pull a copy of your credit report, which includes scores from all three credit reporting bureaus. Your credit report is the most accurate representation of your credit available. Don’t let your messy credit report keep you from talking to a lender. After looking at your credit report, the lender can actually tell you what debts are the biggest drain on your borrowing power so you can start making smart financial decisions to improve your score.

Not Enough Income

Let the mortgage company review your paystubs, W-2s, and tax returns for the last two years. If you were self-employed, let the loan officer look at your tax returns and evaluate your credit to determine what down payment you can afford and what you can buy. The lender can give you an idea of what you need to do to qualify, including how much more money you need to make to offset a proposed mortgage payment. With an action plan and a strategy in place, it may just take you a matter of months to button up your financial picture to qualify.

Too Much Debt

Debt and liabilities definitely impact spending power. Every dollar of debt you have requires two dollars of income to offset it. So for example, if you have a car loan that’s $500 a month, you will need $1,000 a month of income to offset that monthly liability. If more than 15% of your income currently goes toward consumer debt, you’ll have to either pay off debt or get more income—perhaps via a cosigner—to qualify for mortgage financing. Again, let the lender look at your financial picture so they can tell you what it takes to make it work.

If you’re planning to buy a house in the future but aren’t financially ready, talk to a professional. Meet with them face-to-face, provide them with all of your financial documentation, let them run a copy of your credit report, and go through a pre-homebuying consultation so they can either preapprove you or tell you what to do to become preapproved in the future.

Many times, potential buyers are not ready, but having a conversation with a professional—so you know where you stand and where you are going—can be tremendously beneficial. You can also take a look at your financial health with a free credit report from

Image: dcdebs

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How to Handle an Upside-Down Car Loan


Upside-down. Negative equity. Underwater. No matter what you call it, it means you owe more on your car than it’s currently worth. While it happens to most people who finance the purchase of a vehicle at some point, it’s not a good place to be — especially when you’re planning on selling the car or trading it in for a newer model.

It’s also a situation that’s becoming more common. According to the Edmunds Used Vehicle Market Report for the third quarter of 2016, a record 25 percent of all trade-ins toward a used car purchase have negative equity, and the average negative equity at the time of trade-in was $3,635 — also a record in the used-car market.

You can find out if you’re in this position by looking up the value of your vehicle using a research tool such as Kelley Blue Book. If the value is less than the balance on your current car loan, you are upside-down.

Part I: How do you get upside-down in the first place?

There are some reasons car loans may be upside-down.

Low down payment

Dealerships often offer incentives for new cars, including very low or no down payment loans. A new car loses about 20 percent of its value in the first year, so a small down payment can quickly cause the balance of your loan to soar above its actual value. A healthy down payment can help keep your loan balance in line with the worth of your car.

High interest rate

Remember to shop around for an auto loan, because the higher the interest rate, the less you’re paying toward principal each month. That makes it more likely you’ll become upside-down, even if you made a decent down payment.

Anthony Curren, a sales and marketing manager and salesperson with Rick Curren Auto Sales in Corning, N.Y., says he sees this happen pretty regularly when disreputable salespeople charge higher interest rates to make more money off a loan.

“This happened to my girlfriend before we met,” Curren says. “She had an 800-plus credit score and got stuck in a loan charging 5 percent interest. She should have been paying 2 percent or less at that time.”

Longer loan term

According to Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report for the second quarter of 2017, the average length of a new auto loan is currently nearing 69 months. While longer loan terms may keep your monthly payment low, you’ll end up paying more interest, and you’re more likely to be upside-down.

Past upside-down loan

You could be upside-down because you carried negative equity over from your last car loan. Many dealers offer what’s known as a rollover loan: When people trade in an upside-down vehicle, the dealership rolls the negative equity into the purchase of their next car. With a rollover loan, you are upside-down before you even drive off the lot.

People who trade up for a new vehicle every couple of years are most likely to have car loans with rolled-over negative equity. In the first few years of a new car loan, your car depreciates faster while your loan balance declines the slowest due to interest. This means many people are upside down in the early years of their loans. The longer you keep the vehicle, the more likely it is that the loan balance will be less than the current value of the vehicle.

Being upside-down on your car loan may not pose a problem, as long as you are planning on holding onto the car until you have some equity in it. But if an unforeseen financial setback means you need to sell the car, you may need to come up with extra cash to pay off the loan difference. And if your car is wrecked or stolen, your insurance may not pay out enough to retire the loan.

Part II: How to get out of an upside-down car loan

The first step to dealing with an upside-down car loan is knowing your numbers.

Step 1: Figure out how much you owe.

The fastest and most accurate way to find out how much you owe on your loan is to contact your finance company. If you are planning on selling or trading in your car right away, you’ll need to know the payoff amount, not just the amount remaining on your principal. The payoff amount is how much you actually have to pay to satisfy the terms of your loan. It includes the payment of any interest you owe through the day you intend to pay off the loan, as well as any prepayment penalties.

You may be able to find this figure by logging into your lender’s online account portal. Otherwise, you’ll have to call the finance company.

Step 2: Figure out how much your car is worth

You can get a value estimate using Kelley Blue Book’s What’s My Car Worth tool. You’ll need to provide the car’s year, make, model, mileage, style or trim level (the alphanumeric code that helps identify at what level the vehicle is equipped), and the car’s condition. If you’re not sure how to rate your car’s condition, you can take a quick quiz to help you assess it.

Once you input those details, you’ll receive a range suggesting how much (or how little) you can expect to receive from a dealer for a trade-in. Keep in mind that every dealer is different, but you may be able to negotiate.

Step 3: Calculate your negative equity

If the payoff amount on your loan is greater than the value of your car, you are, as we’ve said, upside-down. Subtract the value of your car from the payoff amount to find out how underwater you are. If the difference is small, you may be able to make extra payments toward the loan’s principal to catch up. If the difference is significant, you may have to take more drastic steps.

Step 4: Strategize remedies

If you find yourself upside-down on your car loan, the most prudent course of action is continue to pay down the debt until you have some equity in the car. You can hasten the process by making extra payments toward the loan’s principal.

If that isn’t an option, here are a few other ideas.

Pay off the car with a home equity loan or line of credit

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to paying off a car loan with a home equity loan or line of credit (HELOC). One advantage is that you can typically lengthen your repayment period, thereby reducing your monthly payment. HELOCs also have more flexible repayment options, compared with the fixed monthly payment that comes with an auto loan. This may be a good option if you’re having trouble making your monthly payment due to a temporary financial setback.

The second advantage of paying off your car loan in this fashion: The interest paid on your HELOC is typically tax-deductible, while interest on your car loan is not. Keep in mind that you’ll have to itemize deductions on your tax return to take advantage of this benefit. If you take the standard deduction, there’s no tax advantage.

But before you pay off a car loan with a HELOC, consider the downsides. First off, HELOCs are often variable-rate loans. If interest rates rise, your monthly payment could go up. Second, even if the interest rate on your HELOC is lower than the interest rate on your car loan, you could end up paying more in interest by stretching out the loan term. Finally, if you can’t make your HELOC payments, you could lose your home.

If you decide to take this route, make a plan to pay down the HELOC as soon as possible. Otherwise, it could well outlive your car, and you’ll be paying off the HELOC and a new loan for your next vehicle at the same time.

Pay off the car with a personal loan

Paying off a car loan with a personal loan could be a good option if you plan on selling your car without buying a new one. In that case, you would sell the car, use the proceeds to pay down the balance of the car loan, then refinance the remaining balance with a personal loan.

However, keep in mind that auto loans are secured by collateral (the car). If you’re unable to pay, the lender can repossess the car. Personal loans are unsecured. If you stop paying, the lender has fewer options for recovering the money. For this reason, personal loans usually come with higher interest rates than auto loans.

The Federal Reserve Bank’s survey of commercial bank interest rates for the second quarter of 2017 shows just how much higher those rates can be. The average 60-month new car loan comes with an APR of 4.24 percent. The average 24-month personal loan has an APR of 10.13 percent. So with the typical personal loan, you’ll pay more than twice as much interest in half the time. Hard to see that as a good deal.

Refinance the car loan

Refinancing your car loan can help in a few ways. You may be able to lower your interest rate and lower the term of your loan, both of which will help you get equity in your car sooner. Curren says deciding whether refinancing is the right option depends on the remaining loan term and interest rate.

He uses the hypothetical example of a person who, because of credit issues, used a subprime loan with an interest rate of 22.9 percent to purchase a car. “My advice to that person is to build their credit up as much as possible and as quickly as possible,” Curren says. “In one year, they should be looking at refinancing the loan with an interest rate as low as 6 or 7 percent, which is still relatively high, but much more palatable. It will save them thousands of dollars in repayment.”

However, Curren says he doesn’t offer the same advice to someone with only a year or two left on a loan. “At that point, the savings is minimal,” he says. “The better advice is to pay off the car quicker.”

Part III: What to watch out for when you have an upside-down car loan

Car dealers push the latest vehicle designs and advertise very attractive incentives for trading in your old vehicle, no matter how upside-down you are at the moment. But take heed: You’ll want to be very careful about trading in an upside-down vehicle for a new loan. Here’s a look at the problems that can arise:

Rolled-over negative equity

As we mentioned above, many car dealers are willing to roll the negative equity from your old car loan into a new loan. This is a popular option because it doesn’t require coming up with any money immediately. But it also means your new car will be underwater before you even drive it home. That new car may be fun to drive, but your monthly will be higher because it includes the cost of your new vehicle and the remaining balance on the old one.

Dealer cash incentives

Some car dealers offer cash incentives that can help pay off your negative equity. For example, if you have $1,000 in negative equity on your current car loan, you could buy a new car with a $2,500 rebate, use $1,000 of the rebate to pay off the negative equity, and still have $1,500 left over to use as a down payment on the new car.

But be wary of dealers advertising they’ll “pay off your loan no matter how much you owe.” The FTC warns consumers that these promises may be misleading because dealers may roll the negative equity into your new loan, deduct it from your down payment, or both. If the dealer promises to pay off your negative equity, read your sales contract very carefully to make sure it’s not somehow folded into your new loan.

Part IV: How to avoid an upside-down car loan

Being upside-down on your car loan, at least for a little while, is very common. But there are things you can do to prevent it from happening.

  • Make a larger down payment. Because a car depreciates by around 20 percent in its first year, putting down 20 percent of the total purchase price (including taxes and fees) can help you avoid going underwater.
  • Choose a car that holds its value. Some makes and models hold their value better than others. Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds and other car research sites regularly release lists of car brands and individual models with the best resale value. Do your research and pick out a car that will depreciate more slowly.
  • Opt for a shorter loan term. Longer terms are more likely to leave you underwater in the early years of the loan because you’re paying less toward the principal each month. Try not to finance a car for longer than you plan on keeping it.
  • Shop around for the lowest rate. The lower your interest rate, the more money you’ll pay toward principal each month. Don’t settle for the first offer you receive at a dealership. Shop around for a car loan before you go to the dealer, so you can feel confident you’re getting the best deal.
  • Avoid unnecessary options. Sunroofs, leather upholstery, rust proofing, extended warranties, fabric protection, chrome wheels — all these attractive add-ons are often overpriced. They’ll increase the purchase price of your vehicle, but rarely add long-term value.

Final thoughts

Being upside-down on your car loan is not an ideal situation, but you do have options. Understand the circumstances that led you to be upside-down in the first place can help keep the problem from recurring, or from carrying over to your next loan.

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3 Credit Cards That Reward Your Streaming Subscriptions

real estate tv shows

[Disclosure: Cards from our partners are reviewed below.]

Streaming entertainment services offer subscribers a virtually bottomless well of entertainment—whether you love movies, TV shows, or music. And while they’re cheap compared to the movie theater and record store, subscription services do add on to your entertainment budget. Some credit cards can negate these costs by specifically rewarding streaming subscriptions.

Here are three credit cards that reward streaming entertainment services.

1. Citi ThankYou Preferred Card

Rewards: Two points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment; one point per dollar spent on other purchases.
Sign-Up Bonus: None
Annual Fee: $0
Annual Percentage Rate (APR): 0% APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, then variable 14.49% to 24.49% APR.
Why We Picked It: All streaming services earn points toward valuable rewards.
For Your Streaming Content: All entertainment purchases, including streaming services like Netflix or Spotify, earn two points on the dollar. Dining purchases earn double points as well, so you’re covered for a night of pizza and a movie. Points can be redeemed for travel, merchandise, gift cards, and more.
Drawbacks: If you don’t dine out a lot, you won’t earn points as quickly.

2. Sony Card from Capital One

Rewards: Five points per dollar spent on Sony purchases at participating retailers; three points per dollar spent on music and video downloads, theater purchases, movie rentals, and digital streaming and subscription services; one point per dollar spent on other purchases.
Sign-Up Bonus: 5,000 bonus points if you make your first purchase within 90 days.
Annual Fee: $0
APR: 0% intro APR until March 2018 on purchases, then variable 14.99% to 24.99% APR; variable 14.99% to 24.99% APR on balance transfers.
Why We Picked It: This card is tailored for entertainment, including streaming services.
For Your Streaming Content: You’ll earn three points per dollar spent on streaming and subscription services. Points can be redeemed for Sony merch, music, games, and more.
Drawbacks: This card’s redemption options are limited to Sony’s rewards platform.

3. Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card

Rewards: 5% back in points at; 2% back in points at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores; and 1% back in points on other purchases.
Sign-Up Bonus:
$70 gift card upon approval.
Annual Fee:
$0 with a paid Amazon Prime membership.
Variable 15.24% to 23.24% APR.
Why We Picked It: 
Amazon Prime members can earn points on their membership and stream select music and movies.
For Your Streaming Content: This card earns special rewards rates on purchases, including the Amazon Prime membership. That means you get rewarded for the annual Prime membership fee while accessing Prime’s free TV shows, movies, and music. And the rewards you earn can be redeemed for future purchases.
To access Amazon’s entire music catalog, you’ll still have to pay extra for Amazon Music Unlimited, as the free version for Prime members isn’t comprehensive.

How to Choose a Credit Card for Streaming Services

If you have quite a few streaming subscriptions, try to find a card that offers rewards for your favorite streaming platforms. Carefully review reward redemption options to ensure you’ll actually use the provided rewards.

If streaming services make up only a small part of your monthly budget, you may want to choose a card that rewards you for bigger expenses or a card that offers equal rewards for all purchases.

What Credit Is Required for a Streaming Subscription Credit Card?

Solid rewards cards generally require good to excellent credit. You should check your credit before you submit an application, and move forward only if you’re likely to get approved. You can check your credit for free at

Image: istock

At publishing time, the Citi Thank You Preferred Card and the Sony Card from Capital One are offered through product pages, and is compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of 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 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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10 Things You Need to Know before Buying a Car


Buying a new or used car can be an intimidating experience. Many car salespeople may pressure you to leave the lot with a purchased vehicle, so it’s crucial you’re armed with information about the cars you are interested in, the budget you can afford, and the value of your trade-in—if you have one. With these details, you have all the tools you need to negotiate properly.

Here are 10 tips and strategies for making sure you get the best-quality vehicle at the lowest price.

1. Think about Financing

Prior to visiting any dealership, have a sense of what kind of deposit you can put down and what monthly payment you can afford. It also helps to do some research on available auto loans to get a sense of what you qualify for. Or try a service like AutoGravity, which allows you to select rates and terms that fit your budget and then obtain offers from lenders.

2. Check Your Credit Score

Knowing your credit score can be helpful as well. Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for BeenVerified, says, “Having a good idea of your credit report and credit score and the interest rates available can help you negotiate a good deal and save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.”

3. Shop Around

Research the cars you might be interested in before you head to a dealership, rather than going in unprepared. To determine what kind of car you want, use resources like US News Best Cars, where you can search anything from “best cars for families” to “best used cars under 10k.” Another resource is Autotrader, which can be used to search new and used cars in your area by make, model, price, body style, and more.

4. Compare Prices

Lavelle also stresses getting detailed pricing info in advance: “Price the car at different dealerships and use online services to get invoice and deal pricing.” A reliable tool is Kelley Blue Book. Use the site’s car value tool to find out the MSRP and the dealer invoice of a car as well as a range of prices you can expect to see at dealerships. TrueCar is also helpful to use. You can search for and request pricing on any make, model, or year of car. You may get a slew of phone calls, emails, and texts from dealers immediately after, but having information from different dealerships can help you negotiate prices. You should also visit dealer sites to look for rebate offers.

5. Research Your Trade-In’s Value

If you have a trade-in, don’t wait for the salesperson to tell you what it’s worth. On Kelley Blue Book, you can get a sense of the value ahead of time so you know if you’re receiving a good offer. Or try the Kelley Blue Book Instant Cash Offer feature, where dealers will give you a guaranteed price for a trade, eliminating complicated haggling at the dealership. 

6. Test Drive Potential Purchases

You may want to pass on the test drive if you’re familiar with a particular make and model, but Lavelle recommends taking the time to do it anyway. “It is a good idea to inspect the car and give it a good test drive just to make sure all is working and there are no noticeable squeaks, rattles, or shimmies that could cause you headaches after your purchase,” he says.

7. Look at Car Histories

Before selecting dealerships to visit, search for consumer reviews so you can avoid having a bad experience. However, Lavelle warns that just because a car sits on a reputable, well-reviewed lot does not necessarily mean that the car is issue-free. So he recommends digging deeper, especially for used cars. “Services like CARFAX represent that they can tell you about the car’s life from first purchase forward, so that might be a good place to start,” he says. He also recommends checking the title, which you can do online via the DMV.

8. Find Repair Records

In addition to checking the repair history on the specific car you are interested in, Autotrader suggests looking up the repair record of the make and model. “Check J.D. Power and Consumer Reports reliability ratings to see if the vehicle you’re considering is known to be a reliable one,” the site states. It also recommend Internet forums and word of mouth.

9. Spring for an Inspection

Autotrader also suggests telling the seller you require an inspection from a mechanic before purchase to ensure there aren’t any problems. “While a mechanic may charge $100 or more for such an inspection, it can be worth it if it saves you from thousands of dollars in potential repairs,” it recommends. Some sellers may try to dismiss a mechanic’s inspection. Don’t give in—the seller could be covering up a serious issue with the car. Insist an inspection is done, or rethink your purchase.

10. Know Your Rights

For any new or used car, take the time to get familiar with the warranty package and return policies. Do you need to supplement the warranty? Is there a lemon law in your state? Currently, there are only six states that have one, so be sure to check.

Shopping for a car can be frightening, but with the right research and preparation, you won’t have any regrets. Use the tips and resources above, and snag a free credit report from so you know what kind of financing you can expect.

Image: istock

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The Ultimate Guide to Obamacare (Updated for 2018)


Since Obamacare (or, as it’s officially known, ACA, the Affordable Care Act) created the first federal health insurance marketplace in 2013, some 20 million Americans have become newly insured.

Consumers who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare or who don’t have private insurance through their employer can shop for health coverage either through the federal marketplace — — or by way of their state’s exchange.

This year, ACA applicants will have to wade through an average of 30 plans from two or three different insurers to make their insurance choice. The open enrollment period for Obamacare coverage begins Nov. 1 and ends Dec. 15, with coverage due to begin Jan. 1, 2018.

That’s where this guide will come in handy. We will explain exactly what it’s like to enroll, what documents you should have on hand, and, of course, how to sort through all the health insurance options you may find.

Have any burning Obamacare questions? Send us a note at

Part I: What is Obamacare?

Most people use the blanket term “Obamacare” when they talk about President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, 2010’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA touched almost every aspect of the health insurance industry. It had implications for employer-run health insurance plans. For government health plans, too.

One of the most visible features of the ACA was the creation of federal and state health care exchanges that sell health insurance to people who don’t have affordable coverage through other means. Many people who buy health insurance through the exchanges say they purchased Obamacare plans.

Some of the important features of these plans include:

  • Accessibility: All Americans may purchase health insurance through a federal or state-run health exchange even if they have a pre-existing condition.
  • Standardization: All health insurance plans must cover preventive care at 100 percent, and they must cover the costs associated with most medical procedures.
  • Affordability: The ACA offers tax credits and cost-reduction subsidies to limit the monthly premium costs for people earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line. Insurers may use age and smoking status to set monthly premium costs, but no other factors may be considered.

It’s also important to note that the ACA has a requirement called the individual mandate. You must get health insurance coverage, or you will most likely pay a penalty at tax time. You can get qualified health insurance through your employer or a government program. However, if you don’t get it there or through some other source, you will need to purchase an Obamacare plan or pay that penalty.

Who can buy insurance through a health care exchange?

Most Americans can purchase health insurance through a health care exchange. If you do not receive insurance through your employer and you don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, then you are likely eligible.

Most long-term, legal immigrants to the United States may purchase insurance. maintains a comprehensive list of qualified immigration statuses for purchasing insurance through the marketplace.

Most large employers and some midsize or small companies offer health insurance benefits to their employees. If your employer offers affordable health insurance to you (costing less than 9.56 percent of your total income), you will not qualify for health insurance subsidies through the exchanges.

Incarcerated people and those living outside the United States cannot purchase insurance through the marketplace.

Part II: Obamacare costs and tax subsidies

One major factor to consider when weighing the options is your expected tax subsidy. Most people buying insurance through the health care exchanges will qualify for a health insurance subsidy. This subsidy is applied in the form a credit that immediately reduces the cost of your Obamacare plan coverage.

According to a study from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, 84 percent of people who purchased insurance through a health care exchange qualified for a health insurance subsidy in 2017. The average subsidy was about $371 in 2017.

With the subsidy applied, nearly eight out of 10 (77 percent) health insurance purchasers paid less than $100 a month for their health insurance premiums in 2016.

To qualify for a subsidy, you must meet three standards:

  1. You must not have access to affordable insurance through an employer (including a spouse’s boss).
    1. Affordable insurance for 2018 is defined as individual coverage through an employer that costs less than 9.56 percent of your household’s income.
    2. You can check that your insurance offers minimum-value coverage by having your human resources representative fill out this form.
  2. You must have a household modified adjusted gross income between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line.
    1. You can calculate modified adjusted gross income using this formula:
      1. Adjusted gross income (Form 1040 Line 37) +
        Nontaxable Social Security benefits (Form 1040 Line 20a minus 20b) +
        Tax-exempt interest (Form 1040 Line 8b) +
        Foreign earned income and housing expenses for Americans living abroad (Form 2555)
  3. You’re not eligible for coverage through Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or other types of public assistance. Some states have expanded Medicaid to anyone who earns up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

How can I calculate my subsidy?

The easiest way to calculate the subsidy you will receive is to use a subsidy estimator from or the Kaiser Family Foundation. Both calculators estimate your subsidy based on the information you provide. They also help you understand what factors affect your subsidy estimations.

Your income, household size and the cost of premiums in your state factor into your subsidy. Premium tax credits can help reduce the amount that you will spend on monthly premiums to a set percentage of your income. You will receive the same subsidy, no matter which plan you ultimately choose.

Below you can see the maximum amount you will spend on insurance premiums (for a silver plan) based on your income.

Income (based on 2017 federal poverty line)

Max monthly Silver Plan premium cost after subsidies

Special notes

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



Check if you qualify for expanded Medicaid.

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



You will qualify for cost-reduction subsidies if you purchase a silver plan.

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



If you earn more than 400% of the poverty line, you will not qualify for subsidies.

Income (Based on 2017 federal poverty line)

Max monthly Silver Plan premium cost after subsidies

Special notes

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



Children will qualify for CHIP. Check if you qualify for expanded Medicaid.

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



Children in 46 states will qualify for CHIP. You may qualify for extra savings if you purchase a silver plan.

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



In some states, children will qualify for CHIP. You may qualify for extra savings if you purchase a silver plan.

Lower 48 states:



Lower 48 states:



In a limited number of states, children qualify for CHIP up to 375% of the poverty line. If you earn more than 400% of the poverty line, you will not qualify for subsidies.

What circumstances might affect my eligibility for a subsidy?

Your subsidy can change if your circumstances change. It’s important to plan for such circumstances.

(Read ahead: “What happens if I don’t qualify for a subsidy?”)

Families with children:

Instead, they will receive free or low-cost insurance through CHIP. You can enroll your children in CHIP through the health insurance marketplace, or by calling 1-800-318-2596. You may need to speak with a Medicaid agent in your state to see if you qualify. You can also learn more about CHIP through

Your children may qualify for CHIP even if you and your spouse qualify for an employer-sponsored health insurance plan, though this rule varies by state. In some states, families that have children and employer-based coverage may receive financial assistance to purchase the coverage.

CHIP does not have enrollment deadlines, so you can apply at any time.

Families where one spouse has work coverage:

Some employers only offer health insurance to their employees. Spouses and children cannot get covered. In that case, you can buy insurance with a subsidy through the marketplace.

Families with expensive employer coverage:

If you can purchase family coverage through your or your spouse’s employer, then you will not qualify for subsidies. If an employee can gain individual coverage for himself or herself for less than 9.56 percent of total household income, the insurance is considered affordable. Coverage for the family isn’t factored into the affordability calculation.

This so-called “family glitch” affects two million to four million people and requires them to pay high prices for premiums. If you are caught in this situation, your children may qualify for CHIP. However, uncovered spouses and children must purchase insurance or pay the individual mandate penalty unless coverage for the family costs more than 8.05 percent of your household income. Even in those cases, you will still not qualify for premium assistance.

Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., has proposed a Family Coverage Act that may rectify the tax code, but it has not been passed.

Individuals getting married in 2018:

If you’re getting married next year, your subsidy depends on your combined income. In the months preceding your marriage, your income is one-half of your and your spouse’s combined income. Once you get married, your subsidy is based on your joint income and your qualifying family.

You need to report a marriage to be eligible for a special enrollment period on or through your state’s insurance exchange.

Individuals getting divorced in 2018:

If you get divorced or legally separated in 2018, you must sign up for a new health insurance plan after you separate. Your subsidy will be based on your income and household size at the end of the year. However, you will need to count subsidies received during your marriage differently than subsidies received when you’re legally separated.

For the months you are married, each spouse divides advanced subsidies received to each new household. If spouses cannot agree on a percentage, the default is 50 percent. If the plan only covered one taxpayer and his or her dependents, then the advanced tax credits apply 100 percent to that spouse.

Divorce reduces your income, but it also reduces your household size. These factors change your estimated subsidy. How much will depend on the magnitude of each change.

Reporting a divorce makes you eligible for a special enrollment period. When you enroll in a new plan, the exchange website will help you estimate your new subsidy for the remainder of the year.

Giving birth or adopting a child:

You have 60 days from the birth or adoption of your child to enroll him/her in a health care plan. If you miss this window, your child will not have health coverage, and you will pay a penalty. However, if you enroll your child in a timely manner, you can expect your subsidy to increase.

Report the birth or adoption of a child to be eligible for a special enrollment period on or via your state’s insurance exchange.

A newborn or adopted child may be eligible for CHIP rather than subsidized health insurance.

Turning 26:

If you’re on your parents’ insurance, generally you can stay until you have turned 26, but you should check your plan to be sure. You will have a 60-day special enrollment period to get your own plan from the health care exchange when you turn 26.

You may also be eligible for a special enrollment period from an employer-sponsored health plan. If you fail to have health insurance for more than three months, you will pay a penalty.

Losing employer coverage:

If you lose employer-based health coverage, you can either enroll in COBRA or purchase a plan through the health care exchange. Once you enroll in COBRA, you become ineligible to purchase subsidized coverage through the exchange.

You need to report job status changes to be eligible for a special enrollment period on or your state’s insurance exchange.

Changes in income:

Premium tax credits are based on your annual income. If you increase your income, you will be expected to pay back some or all of the advance premium you received. If you earn more than 401 percent of the federal poverty line, all premiums need to be repaid. If you earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line, you may have to pay back $2,500 of advanced premiums per family or $1,250 for individuals.

You need to report income changes to avoid under- or overpaying on your premiums throughout the year.

Moving states or counties:

Most insurance plans that you purchase through the marketplace are state- and county-specific. If you move, you need to report the relocation through the insurance exchange. You may have to change insurance plans after moving. Moving to Alaska or Hawaii will allow you to claim a greater subsidy amount than you can claim in the lower 48 states. If you move from Alaska or Hawaii, you can continue to claim the higher subsidy amount for the whole year.

Part III: Bronze, silver, gold, platinum: Choosing the right Obamacare plan for your needs

The health care exchanges — both federal- and state-run — classify health insurance plans into four categories: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Metal categories are based on how you and your plan split the costs of your health care.

According to a 2016 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, 76 percent of consumers who bought a silver plan in 2016 stood to save an average of $58 a month by switching to the lowest-premium plan in 2017.

But that doesn’t meant the cheapest plans are necessarily best for you. They often come with higher out-of-pocket expenses, like deductibles, which can make them very expensive if you end up needing lots of medical care through the year.

Think of this way — the higher the premium, the more comprehensive the coverage will be and the lower your out-of-pocket costs. If you expect that you’ll need fairly frequent medical care or treatment, you might be better off choosing a more comprehensive plan despite the higher monthly premium.

Obamacare ‘Metal’ Plans: Explained

Bronze Plan

Cheapest premium, 60% coverage

Bronze health plans offer the least amount of estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 60 percent of the health care costs of the typical population. These plans feature the lowest monthly premiums, the highest deductibles and high out-of-pocket maximum expenses. Just under one-quarter (23 percent) of health insurance enrollees opted for a Bronze plan in 2017.

Silver Plan

Moderate premium, 70% coverage

Silver health plans offer moderate estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 70 percent of health care costs, and plan members cover the remaining 30 percent. If you qualify for cost-reduction subsidies (also called “extra savings”), you must purchase a silver plan. In 2017, 71 percent of all participants in the health care exchanges opted for a silver plan.

Gold Plan

High premium, 80% coverage

Gold health plans offer high levels of estimated coverage. Insurers expect to cover 80 percent of health care costs, while plan members cover the remaining 20 percent. These plans feature high monthly premiums, but lower deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Only 4 percent of all health insurance consumers on the health care exchanged opted for a gold plan in 2017.

Platinum Plan

Highest premium, 90% coverage

Platinum health plans offer the highest level of protection against unexpected medical costs. Insurers expect to cover 90 percent of medical costs, and plan members cover the remaining 10 percent. These plans have the highest monthly premiums and the lowest deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Just 1 percent of all health insurance exchange participants purchased a platinum plan in 2017.

Catastrophic Plans

Cheapest premium, lowest coverage

Catastrophic health plans: People under age 30 or with hardship exemptions may purchase individual catastrophic health insurance plans. These plans are not available for families. Catastrophic plans do not have a cost-sharing component. Your out-of-pocket maximum will be $7,350. Once you reach $7,350 in medical expenses, your insurance company will pay the remaining costs.

Catastrophic plans cover most preventive services. Catastrophic plans generally offer the lowest monthly premiums, but you can’t use a premium tax credit to reduce your monthly cost.

Now that you know all the types of plans offered, it’s time to choose the one that fits your needs.

What to consider before choosing a plan

Choosing a health plan can seem like a daunting task, but you can get all the help and information you need to make an informed decision. Your health and your pocketbook matter, and we want to help you protect both.

Your tax subsidy: Before you choose a plan, you’ll decide whether to receive advanced or deferred subsidies.

If you take your subsidy upfront, it will reduce your premiums right away. If you defer it, then it will be given to you as a tax credit when you file your taxes. If you over- or underpay your premiums throughout the year, the will have to reconcile the amount owed at tax time.

Most people with predictable income and household size should take most or all of the subsidy upfront. However, if you expect to undergo a major life change (such as an increase in income, a marriage or a divorce), consider taking less of your subsidy in advance.

Time to shop. For people shopping for 2018 coverage, the average number of plans available is 30. Rather than comparing every plan, we recommend creating criteria around the following variables:

  1. Monthly cost: Consider how the monthly premium will affect your budget. This does not mean you should choose the plan with the lowest premiums, but you should consider the price. People without chronic conditions who have adequate emergency savings may want to at least consider opting for an option with low monthly premiums.
  2. Deductible and co-insurance: Do you have the emergency fund or income you need to cover a small medical emergency? A broken arm, stitches or an unexpected infection can result in hundreds of dollars in medical costs. If you have a high-deductible plan, you’ll need to cover these costs without help from the insurance company. If possible, choose a plan with a deductible that you could comfortably cover out of your savings or income.
  3. Maximum yearly cost: Add the annual cost of your premiums and your out-of-pocket maximum to determine your maximum yearly cost. In a worst-case scenario, this is the amount you will pay out of pocket. People with chronic conditions that require heavy out-of-pocket fees should try to limit their maximum yearly cost. A plan with a higher maximum yearly cost may represent a higher risk.
  4. Services and amenities: All insurance plans from the marketplace cover the same essential health benefits, but some offer more unique services such as medical management programs, vision and dental coverage.
  5. Health savings accounts: If you choose a high-deductible plan, you may want to opt for one lets you contribute to a tax-advantaged health savings account. Any money you contribute to this account (up to annual established limits) reduces your taxable income, and will not be taxed upon withdrawal when it used for medical expenses.
  6. Network of providers. It’s important to be sure that your preferred medical providers contract with the plan you choose. Not every doctor is “in network” with every insurance plan. You can check each plan’s provider directory before making a selection.

Once you have a firm grasp of your particular criteria, look for plans that fit your needs and ignore the rest.

Using the exchange website, you can filter and sort plans based on these factors. Most people need to balance cost and coverage to find a plan that works for them.

If you are part of the minority that need to buy their own health insurance plans, you should know that not every state uses to host their state’s health insurance exchange. Residents in the following states should use their specific state exchange to look for health insurance:

California; Colorado; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Idaho; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; New York; Rhode Island; Vermont; Washington.

Part IV: How to enroll in Obamacare

Applying for insurance takes 30-60 minutes if you have all the necessary information in hand.

Your Obamacare enrollment checklist:

  • Names, birthdates and Social Security numbers for all members of the household
  • Document numbers for anyone with legal immigration status
  • Income information for all coverage-holders
  • Information about employer-sponsored health plans
  • Tax return from previous year (to help predict income)
  • Student loan documents
  • Alimony documents
  • Retirement plan documents
  • Health Savings Account documents

State or federal marketplace?

If your state does not offer its own health care exchange, you should use As mentioned in the previous section, each state has the right to choose whether to run its own or use the federally run exchange and some do use their own.

The state-run exchanges perform the same functions as the federally run exchange. They allow you to estimate your tax credit and purchase insurance. As a consumer, you must provide the same information to your state as you would on the federal exchange.

While the online user experience will vary when states adopt their own online marketplace, the Affordable Care Act is a federal law and program. This means that the requirements and benefits do not change from state to state, even if the exchange platform changes.

The website interface for the federal exchange is simple, but answering the questions may be confusing. It’s important to fill out the application as accurately as possible so you can enroll in the best health insurance plan for you.

We’ve done our best to clarify the confusing portions in our step-by-step process below.

Filling out your Obamacare application

Family and household info

Start the application by filling out contact information and basic information about members of your household. Even if a member of your family will not need coverage, include that relative in your application.

The website will help you determine if a member of your household has insurance options outside the health care exchange. It will also help you determine if a person is a dependent. For the purpose of the health care exchange, your family includes all the people included on your income tax filing.

You need to know Social Security numbers, birthdates, immigration and disability status, and whether each household member can purchase health insurance through an employer plan.

Income and deductions

Next you’ll estimate your income for the coming year. Include all the following forms of income:

  • Jobs
  • Self-employment income (net)
  • Social Security benefits
  • Unemployment income
  • Retirement income
  • Pensions
  • Capital gains
  • Investment income
  • Rental/royalty income
  • Farming and fishing income
  • Alimony received

Afterward you’ll enter deductions. The application calls out student loan interest and alimony paid, but you should estimate all “above-the-line deductions” that should be included. These include:

  • Retirement plan contributions: 401(k), 403(b), 457, TSP, SEP-IRA, simple IRA, traditional IRA
  • Contributions to a Health Savings Account
  • Self-employed health insurance premiums
  • Tuition and fees paid
  • Educator expenses (up to $250 per teacher)
  • Half self-employment tax
  • Moving expenses
  • Early-withdrawal penalties from a 1099-INT

Do not double-count income or deductions since you’ll fill out these forms for each person. If you make a mistake, you can edit it when you review your household summary.

Additional information

Finally, you’ll fill out a few other miscellaneous details that will allow the application to confirm that you are eligible for subsidies or marketplace insurance.

It’s especially important that you have accurate information about job-related coverage for you and your family. This information will determine your eligibility for subsidies and other government programs.

Completing Obamacare enrollment

After you complete the application, you can review and submit it. At this point, the system will suggest which members of your household should complete CHIP or Medicaid applications. The remaining family members can enroll in a health insurance plan.

Part V: Where to get help enrolling In Obamacare coverage

Because of the complex nature of the marketplace exchange, there are marketplace navigators. These professionals provide free, unbiased help to consumers who want a hand filling out eligibility forms and choosing plans.

Marketplace navigators. You can find local marketplace navigators through the health care exchange website.

Be advised: The Trump administration has slashed budgets for health care navigators, leading some states to close down the programs altogether. As a result, it may make it difficult to find help locally from a navigator in some states.

Nonprofit organizations. Outside the exchange, nonprofit organizations are working to help people gain coverage by teaching them about their insurance options. Enroll America offers free expert assistance to anyone who makes an appointment. You can use the connector below to make an appointment with one of their experts.

Insurance brokers. Brokers can offer another form of help. Brokers aim to make it easier for consumers to compare insurance plans and apply for coverage. Insurance brokers have relationships with some or all of the insurance companies on the marketplace. Using a broker will not increase the price you pay for a plan, and it will not affect your subsidies. However, here’s another important note: Online brokers may not have 100 percent accuracy regarding a plan’s details. It’s important to visit a plan’s website before you enroll in a plan.

If you want to work with a broker, consider some of these top online brokers. PolicyGenius compares all the plans that meet criteria that you establish, and they serve up the top two plans that meet those criteria. makes applications quick and easy, and the site specializes in special enrollment help.

Medicare plan finder. If you’re over age 65, use Medicare Plan Finder to find a Medicare plan that works for you.

CHIP: Likewise, if you think your children qualify for CHIP, use Insure Kids Now to enroll them in your state’s plan.

PART VI: Frequently asked questions

What happens if I don’t apply for insurance?

In most cases, you must enroll in health insurance or you’ll have to pay a penalty.

The penalty for 2018 hasn’t yet been released, but the 2017 penalty was calculated as the greater of 2.5 percent of your income (up to the national average cost of a bronze plan) or $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085).

This steep penalty means that most people are better off purchasing some health insurance.

However, under certain circumstances you can avoid buying insurance and avoid paying the penalty. These are a few of the most common exemptions:

  • Health care cost-sharing ministry members: Must show evidence of membership
  • Low income, no filing requirement: If you do not earn enough income to file taxes, then you are automatically exempt from paying a noncoverage penalty.
  • Coverage is unaffordable: For 2017, if you, your spouse, or your dependents cannot obtain employer coverage or a bronze plan for less than 8.05 percent of your income (after applicable subsidies), you may opt out of coverage. (However, if your individual coverage from an employer costs less than 9.56 percent of your income, and your employer offers family coverage, nobody in the family will qualify for subsidies).
  • Short coverage gap: You went without insurance for less than three months.
  • Living abroad: No coverage is required if you live abroad for at least 330 days.
  • General hardships:These include homelessness, eviction, foreclosure, unpaid medical bills, domestic violence and more.  (You must get a marketplace exemption.)
  • Unable to obtain Medicaid: If you earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line, and your state didn’t expand Medicaid, you don’t have to purchase health insurance.
  • AmeriCorps coverage
  • Members of qualified religious sects: Must be granted exemption through

Although you will not pay a penalty, you may still want to seek out catastrophe insurance or some other coverage to help with high potential health costs.

What happens if my plan was canceled?

For 2018, some insurers dropped their insurance plans from the health care exchange. In some states, major insurers Aetna and Humana are exiting the exchange. As a consumer, you cannot assume that the plan you chose in the past will be around next year.

If you used in the past, and your insurance plan remains in place, you’ll automatically be enrolled in the same plan again this year. This is true even if important variables like the deductible and premiums changed from last year.

If your plan was canceled, will automatically enroll you into a new health insurance plan with a price and coverage quality comparable to your previous plan’s.

Although the federal exchange will help you opt into a new plan (ensuring that you have some health insurance coverage), it’s far better to select a new plan on your own. You can enroll in a new plan Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. If you do not enroll in a new plan during this time, you will be stuck with the automatic enrollment option.

Whether you’re shopping for a new plan or reviewing an old plan, take these steps before open enrollment ends.

  • Update personal information on your application. Your income, household size, where you live and more will affect plan and subsidy eligibility. It’s important to keep your application up to date. The plan that fit you last year may no longer be appropriate, but you won’t know unless you keep the information current.
  • Review your plan before you re-enroll. You should receive a notification in the mail if your plan has been changed or canceled. Take the time to understand if the changes affect you.
  • Compare plans that fit your needs. Consider enlisting free help from a health care navigator, a nonprofit or a broker to help you decide.
  • Choose the plan that best fits your needs and your budget.

What options do students (and their dependents) have for health insurance?

University students who are enrolled full time have multiple options for health insurance.

Under age 26: All student under age 26 may continue to receive coverage from their parents’ insurance plan even if living in another state. Of course, it may make more sense to gain coverage in the state where you’re living, so review the coverage network with your parents. Many coverage networks only include doctors in a few ZIP codes.

If you visit an out-of-network doctor, you will face higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. As an alternative to staying on your parents’ plan, you can purchase your own health insurance plan through the health care exchanges even if you are a dependent.

Students who are dependents and over age 26 may be required to purchase their own health insurance plans.

University coverage: Many students will opt for a student health plan from their university. In general, student health plans meet minimum qualifying coverage criteria, and are affordable options. However, student health plans are not treated as employer coverage. Because of that, students may still qualify for Medicaid or insurance premiums. Students (especially independent students) should look into these alternatives when reviewing their insurance options.

The spouses and dependents of students must take time to understand their options. These are a few common scenarios:

If a student or spouse has an affordable employer-sponsored plan that covers family members: Student and spouse do not qualify for insurance subsidies or Medicaid. Children may qualify for CHIP. Student and spouse should seek coverage through either the student health plan or the employer-sponsored plan in most cases. All members of the family must have qualified health coverage, or they will pay the individual mandate penalty.

Student health plan doesn’t offer coverage for spouse or dependents, and neither spouse has an employer-sponsored health plan: Spouse and dependents can apply for Medicaid, CHIP or subsidized insurance through the health care exchanges (provided they meet income criteria). Student may choose any coverage option (including Medicaid or subsidized insurance) without paying a penalty.

Student health plan offers coverage of spouse or dependents, and neither spouse has an employer-sponsored health plan: Student, spouse and dependents may purchase the student health plan. They can also apply for Medicaid, CHIP or subsidized insurance through the exchanges (provided they meet income criteria). All family members may choose any coverage option without paying a penalty.

Where if I don’t qualify for a subsidy?

If you don’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy, you can still apply for health insurance through or your state’s health insurance exchange. However, some insurers offer more or different options outside the exchange. Anyone who doesn’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy should consider using an online broker instead to look for plans.

People who don’t qualify for a health insurance subsidy should reconsider their health insurance options in 2018. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that a number of insurers have requested double-digit premium increases for 2018. Based on initial filings, the change in benchmark silver premiums will likely range from -5 to 49 percent across 21 major cities. (These rates are still being reviewed by regulators and may change, the analysis said.)

With rapidly rising costs, enrollees without subsidies may want to consider the lower-cost bronze plans to see if they meet their health insurance needs.

Part VII: The ultimate Obamacare glossary

Understanding basic health insurance terminology can help you make a more informed decision about your options. Here are common terms you should know.

This credit can be taken in advance to offset your monthly premium costs. The subsidy is based on your estimated income and can be taken directly from your insurer when you apply for coverage. You must repay credits if you qualify for a smaller subsidy once taxes have been filed. You can learn more about repayment limitations here.
This program was designed to provide coverage to uninsured children who are low-income but above the cutoff for Medicaid eligibility. The federal government has established basic guidelines, but eligibility and the scope of care and services are determined at the state level. Your children may qualify for CHIP even if you purchase an insurance policy through the health care exchange. You can learn about CHIP eligibility through the marketplace or by viewing this table at
Your share of the costs of a covered health care service. This is the percentage you must pay out of pocket after you have met your annual deductible. You pay a specific coinsurance amount until you meet your out-of-pocket maximum.

If you earn between 100-250 percent of the federal poverty level, you may qualify for additional savings. This extra savings reduces your out-of-pocket maximum, and it offers assistance with copays and coinsurance.

Disclaimer: There is ambiguity surrounding whether or not Congress and the White House will appropriate funds for the cost sharing subsidies. In October, President Trump used an executive order to cut off funding for the subsidies. However, the Affordable Care Act still requires that health insurers must issue them to all people earning 100-250 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result of this Trump executive order, many insurers raised premiums for silver plans. The premium increases will not affect the prices that people with subsidies will pay, but they will affect the prices you pay if you do not qualify for a subsidy.

Until the Affordable Care Act or the cost sharing subsidies are repealed, insurers will continue to pay cost reduction subsidies in 2018.

A fixed amount you pay for a covered medical service, typically when you receive the service or prescription. Also commonly referred to as a “copay.”
The amount you pay for covered health services before your insurer begins to cover part of your costs. According to the IRS, a high-deductible health insurance plan is any plan with a deductible over $1,300 for an individual or $2,700 for a family.
Medical services are only covered if you go to doctors, specialists or hospitals in the plan’s network (except in an emergency).
These plans focus on integrated care and focus on prevention. Usually, coverage is limited to care from doctors who work for or contract with the HMO. Generally, out-of-network care isn’t covered unless there is an emergency.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow you to save and invest money for current or future medical expenses. You do not have to pay any taxes on money you contribute to an HSA, and you can withdraw the money tax- and penalty-free if you use the funds for a qualified medical expense.

You can only contribute to an HSA if your insurance meets the standards for a high-deductible insurance plan. Individuals can contribute up to $3,450 to a health savings account, and families can contribute up to $6,900 in 2018.

If you shop for insurance through, plans will indicate whether they are HSA approved. To be an HSA compatible plan, your deductible must be at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family. The out of pocket maximums on these plans must be less than $6,650 for an individual or $13,300 for a family.

The out-of-pocket maximums required by the IRS do not line up with Affordable Care Act maximums, so many plans with high deductibles will not allow you to contribute to an HSA. If contributing to an HSA is an important part of your financial plan, be sure to filter for HSA compatibility on And be advised: Not everybody will have an opportunity to purchase a subsidized HSA-compatible health insurance plan.

If you can afford to purchase health insurance and choose not to, you will be charged an individual shared responsibility payment, in the form of a tax penalty. There are a few qualified exemptions, outlined in the guide above, that allow you to avoid the fine. For example, if your employer-sponsored health plan costs more than 8.05 percent for individual coverage, you will not have to pay the fine (though you will not qualify for tax credits).

The fine for 2018 has not yet been released, and Congress has considered removing the individual mandate requirement for 2018. If it is removed, we will update this piece with the required information.

For the 2017 tax year, the individual mandate was calculated two ways:

  1. 2.5 percent of household income (up to the total annual premium for the national average price of the marketplace bronze plan)
  2. $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085)

You had to pay the greater of the two penalties.

Medicaid: A joint federal and state program that provides health coverage to low-income households, some pregnant women, some elderly Americans and people with disabilities. Medicaid provides a broad level of coverage including preventive care and hospital visits. Some states provide additional benefits as well.

If you were a foster child who “aged out” of foster care, you can continue to receive Medicaid coverage until age 26 with no income limitations.

Medicaid Expansion: Obamacare gives each state the choice to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line. The primary goal of the ACA is reducing the number of uninsured people through both Medicaid and the health insurance marketplace. The Kaiser Family Foundation keeps track of expanded Medicaid coverage by state.

Medicare: Most people who are over age 65 and disabled people who have received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payment for 25 months in the United States will qualify for a Medicare Health Insurance Plan. Open enrollment for Medicare, which started Oct. 15, runs through Dec. 7. You can learn more about Medicare plans from the Medicare Plan Finder.

The amount you pay each month for your health insurance.
The highest amount you will pay for covered services in a year. In 2018, all health insurance plans sold through the Federal Health Exchange will have a out-of-pocket limits of $7,350 for an individual or $14,700 for a family plan.
You pay less for medical services if you use providers in the health plan’s network. You need a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist.
You pay less for medical services if you use the providers in your plan’s network. You may use out-of-network doctors, specialists or hospitals without a referral. However, there is an additional cost.
All health insurance plans purchased through the health care exchange cover some preventive care benefits without additional costs to you. These benefits include wellness visits, vaccines, contraception and more.
Most insurance plans have preferred pricing with a group of health care providers with whom they have contracted to provide services to members.
The federal subsidy for health insurance that helps eligible individuals or families with low or moderate income afford health insurance purchased through a health insurance marketplace.

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