Create a Budget Designed Just for Dumping Debt

Even if you hate spreadsheets and numbers, coming up with a debt-destroying budget can be simple with a single rule: always apply excess funds to debt.

This rule can work with two of the most common debt repayment methods: the debt snowball or the debt avalanche.

The debt snowball method attacks smaller debts first, regardless of interest rate. The goal is to motivate you with small victories in order to go on and gain confidence to pay off larger debts. The debt avalanche method focuses on paying down debt with the highest interest rate until you pay off the balance with the lowest interest rate.

How Much Can I Throw Toward My Debt?

The math for your budgeting process is super-simple: Monthly income minus monthly expenses equals the amount of extra money you can apply toward your debt each month. The emphasis is on extra money because you’ll still want to pay your minimum debt obligations to avoid getting behind on your payments.

Note: If you still need help with the math because you’ve got to actually figure out how much you spend each month, you can use an app that connects with your bank to add up all your expenses. Check out services like Mint.com, YNAB, or Personal Capital to help you get quick figures around your income and spending along with categories for each.

Though the math is not too complicated, the harder part could be increasing the gap between your income and expenses to actually have a surplus in your budget.

Unless you’ve got little to no wiggle room in your budget, you don’t have to start cutting expenses quite yet. However, there are some expenses that are discretionary and should be omitted from your equation until you’ve tamed your debt load.

For now, just get a baseline of what you should have left over at the end of each month once all your bills and expenses are accounted for. If it’s $15, great. Start there. If it’s more, even better.

Once you get this number, use it to pay more on your debt than is required. So if your minimum payment is normally $50, pay $65 with your $15 surplus. It can be the smallest debt or the account with the highest interest rate. What matters now is that you do something to get into the habit of making extra payments on debt and accounting for it in your monthly budget.

How to Apply This Rule in Various Scenarios

If you budget with a goal in mind, the purpose of your money becomes clearer. Any kind of money that turns out to be extra should be applied to debt to reduce your balances. But the key is being mindful of extra money, even when it doesn’t seem to be extra.

For example, getting a raise is a reason for some people to increase their standard of living. They might move to a place with a view or buy that lavish SUV they’ve been eyeing for a while. If you’ve committed extra funds to a purpose (paying off debt), the decision is made for you far in advance of you actually getting the money.

The same goes for your income tax refund check. You might bank on this money every time income tax filing season comes around. While many people are planning spring break trips and shopping sprees with this money, you’ve got to make up your mind that this money is already earmarked for debt repayment.

Finally, there’s always that unexpected windfall: an inheritance, a settlement, or any type of money you never saw coming. This might be one of the most difficult chunks of money to part with for the sake of paying off debt. After all, you didn’t know it was coming, and maybe you didn’t have to work too hard for it.

In this case, it’s pretty tempting to want to splurge and blow it all on something you think you deserve. Things can get complicated at this point. But if you keep following “the rule,” this money is technically already allocated, and your debt repayment budget suddenly becomes easier to stick with.

Keep Widening the Gap Between Income and Expenses

This is the fun part. Why? You get to be creative and have more control over your debt repayment timeline. Want to get out of debt fast? Then you’ll have to figure out how to make your income outpace your expenses. It could mean adding a side hustle to the mix or getting more aggressive with cutting out or decreasing expenses.

Adjusting Your Tax Withholdings

If you pocket a large tax refund each year, ask yourself why. It is likely because you are paying too much in income taxes throughout the year. If that’s the case, you can change your tax withholdings through your payroll department to keep more money in your pocket throughout the year. It will mean a smaller tax refund come tax time, but you’ll have more cash on hand to put toward your debt with each paycheck.

Use this IRS withholding calculator to estimate your withholdings.

Decrease Your Income Tax Liability

There are more than a few ways to decrease your income tax liability. From IRA contributions to tax tips for entrepreneurial endeavors and other tax credits and deductions, there should be one or more things you can do to owe less on your tax bill.

Cut Expenses Where You Can

There are so many ways to save money on so many things. You can start small with things like eating out and having cable and work up to saving money on housing costs or refinancing student loans.

Then there are the diehards who go full monty and go through full-on spending freezes on things like takeout and travel. The list of cost-cutting measures can get pretty long, but you get the point: Go through your spending with a fine-tooth comb and find out where you can save and what you could cut.

Increase Your Income

Creating another stream of income sounds gimmicky, but there are ways to do it without getting caught up in scams. You can find a part-time job, provide consulting services on the side, or even start a mini-business like dog walking or car washing. It shouldn’t be anything that will cost you tons up front to start, and it shouldn’t hinder your ability to keep your full-time job.

You may find that you have to try a few things before you come up with the perfect combination of low overhead, quick to start, and profitable. That’s OK. Just keep plugging away until something clicks. It’ll be more than worth it to add that extra income to the budget for paying off more debt even faster.

Remember the Golden Rule: Excess Cash Goes to Debt

It all comes down to committing your cash to a purpose ahead of time. No matter how your financial circumstance changes, you’ll know what to do when you’ve got a surplus of money.

You’ll have to come up with a list of things you are willing to do to increase your cash reserves, but if you keep the goal in mind of continually applying extra funds toward debt, you’ll save on interest and also pay down your debt faster.

The post Create a Budget Designed Just for Dumping Debt appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Clever Ways to Make Homeownership More Affordable

We all know that aiming to live well below your means will help you save more money, get out of debt, and get ahead financially overall. To supercharge this process, you may want to consider attacking your largest expense: housing.

Just being able to save $200, $500, or more each month on housing could put a large dent in your debt repayment or help you seriously pad your savings. Reducing or eliminating your housing expenses might sound difficult, but there are so many different strategies, at least one could work for you.

What’s more is that these options don’t have to be permanent. You can always go back to a more traditional housing situation once you feel like the arrangement has run its course.

See if one of these ways of cutting your housing costs might work for you.

Be Energy Efficient

The eco-revolution is here, and as a result, there are so many ways to save on utilities. A bonus is that some energy-efficient modifications and products can help you earn federal tax credits.

The list of things you can do is long and can get expensive, but there’s some low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing your energy consumption:

  • Stop air leaks with caulk, insulation, or weatherstripping
  • Swap out incandescent lights for LED lights
  • Turn down your water heater and get a jacket for it
  • Plug your devices into powerstrips that minimize idle current usage (or unplug devices altogether)
  • Use rainwater barrels for your outdoor water needs
  • Air-dry your clothing
  • Choose light colors on flooring and walls to minimize artificial light use during daylight hours
  • Program your thermostat
  • Get alerts for higher priced kilowatt rates during certain hours of the day

You get the point. The more you can minimize your energy use, obviously the more money you’ll save on these costs. Pick a few that work for you, then use the money saved to get ahead in your finances.

Put Your Bills on Autopay

Not only will this small gesture save your sanity, it could potentially save you fees and penalties connected with late payments. You can set up automatic payments to be deducted from your bank account or a credit card account. If you choose the latter, be sure to avoid carrying a balance from month to month and pay your credit card bill on time as well. Otherwise, the interest and late fees from missing your credit card payment could cancel out the benefits of your autopay setup.

Appeal Your Property Taxes

If you’ve ever gotten those solicitations in the mail from companies that claim to reduce your property tax bill, don’t put it in the junk pile quite yet. According to the National Taxpayers Union, up to 60% of U.S. properties are over-assessed. This means that 60% of Americans could be paying inflated property tax bills.

Many property owners don’t even know that they can get their property tax bill reduced via an appeal process. Because of this, it’s very possible that you are paying too much for your property taxes.

The appeal process to get your taxes can seem daunting, but it’s usually a string of paperwork and deadlines. Of course, you’ll be dealing with government entities so that could add a layer of complexity to the whole ordeal, but it’s not insurmountable.

If you have the time and ambition, it’s a process you could easily undertake yourself. If not, it may be worth hiring help to file and follow up through the property-tax appeal process. If the appeal is successful and your property taxes are reduced, you’d fork over a portion of the savings to the firm or person you hire.

Shop Around for Insurance

If you’ve got home insurance, you are likely to have other policies for vehicles, and perhaps you also have coverage for health and life insurance benefits, too. If you’ve got insurance needs that require multiple policies, you can leverage your buying power to shop around for better rates.

Shopping around for insurance can seem straightforward, but be ready to use your brain to the utmost in this endeavor. Not only will you need to compare prices, but you’ll also want to compare things like coverage amounts, premiums, deductibles, and available riders at the quoted prices.

Fortunately, there are comparison sites and independent insurance agents that can make this task a little easier. Either way you do it, it’s a good idea to check around every once in awhile to make sure your current insurance provider is being competitive and offering you the best rate.

Become a DIYer

One of the most costly expenses of owning a home can be maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. Save money by learning to do some things around the house yourself. There are many resources to help you with anything you don’t know much about, from books, to websites, to YouTube. Though it can take more time, you might come out ahead by cutting your own grass or installing your own kitchen backsplash.

If you’ve got complicated jobs that require special expertise and equipment, consider a partial DIY approach. For example, if you’re redoing your bathroom, you might ask the contractor about things you can do yourself to shave the bill down some. Demolition and cleanup of existing fixtures might be the type of work you can handle.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, but definitely be wise about the projects you decide to take on yourself. Finding the right balance between hiring and DIYing can save you time, money, and headaches as a homeowner.

Rethink Your Home Purchase Plan

Getting a conventional mortgage with vanilla terms that include a 10%-20% down payment and a 30-year loan period are all too familiar to the home-buying public. But if you really want to save on the single largest expense in your life, you might have to be a little more flexible than the standard terms accepted on most home loans.

Larger Down Payment

One approach to consider is putting down at least 20% on your home purchase. This will allow you to skip private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can amount to thousands of dollars over the life of your home loan. PMI can eventually go away over the life of the loan when certain criteria are met, but you can save more money by dumping it sooner than later.

Refinance Your Mortgage

Many people refinance their homes in hopes of getting a lower monthly payment or locking in a lower interest rate. Adjusting these numbers downward can definitely save money for some homeowners over the long run.

However, refinancing your home loan is not a silver-bullet solution that will work in every scenario. In some cases, it makes perfect sense to refinance, and in others, it wouldn’t be a good idea. The best thing to do is run the refinance numbers and make a decision. After doing the math, you might actually find that fees and extended loan terms could cause you to lose money rather than save it.

Make sure you fully understand the terms of your refinanced mortgage along with the potential impact on your entire financial outlook. Most definitely, confirm your assumptions about this move with math. If you need help running the numbers, check out this refinance calculator from myFICO.

Pay Cash for Your Home

While not an option for the average American, paying cash for your home is not unheard of. Paying cash for a home would eliminate tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest, mortgage fees, and PMI. If you think you’d like to go for the gusto and pay cash for a home, consider ways to make this feat possible:

Make Some Lifestyle Changes

Though these options aren’t for everyone, they are still worth a mention. These suggestions are for those who might be willing to change their lifestyle in order to garner the most savings possible when it comes to housing.

Get a Roommate (or Two)

The home-sharing revolution has caught on, and everyone from young professionals to empty nesters are finding boarders on places like Craigslist and Airbnb. If it works out, it can truly be a good solution to help lower your housing costs. Plus, having a roommate can be temporary or longer term, based on your living preferences.

Again, this option is not for the faint of heart. Adding a roommate to your living equation could be utterly disastrous or surprisingly pleasant, so choose your housemates wisely.

Buy a Multifamily Unit, Rent One Unit Out

Depending on the location and property type in these situations, homeowners can often cover their entire mortgage amount with their renters’ payments. It can definitely have its benefits, but don’t buy that two-flat just yet.

Remember, with this arrangement, you’ll be swimming deep in the waters of landlordship. How it all pans out can be based on so many variables: the landlord, tenant, property, location, and a host of other factors can make this arrangement easy income or a nightmarish headache.

If things go wrong with your property, your tenant doesn’t share the burden of fixing things though they live there just the same. There can be costs associated with maintenance and repairs that go well beyond the monthly income your rented unit brings in. You’ll want to have a comfortable cash cushion for incidentals before starting your homeownership journey as a landlord.

Downsize

You don’t have to join the tiny home revolution to downsize (though it’s not a terrible idea). Downsizing can look different for different people. Downsizing for one person might be moving from the lake-view two-bedroom apartment to a studio in a less ritzy location. You’ll have to decide what downsizing looks like for you and if it will be worth the effort.

While you might not be game for all of these suggestions, you can probably adopt a few that could change your financial situation significantly. Whatever measures you choose to save or eliminate your housing costs, make sure you are ready to deal with the consequences. These consequences can be both beneficial and somewhat inconvenient for your quality of life and your financial health. In the end, you’ll have to determine if it’s worth it.

The post Clever Ways to Make Homeownership More Affordable appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Save on Your Next Family Vacation

With spring and summer breaks imminent, many families are already planning their vacations. A 2013 report by American Express puts the average cost of vacation for a family of four at $4,580.

But for most, that’s not an affordable family vacation. With many Americans in large amounts of debt, barely saving for retirement, and unable to cover a $400 emergency, spending $4,000 on a vacation is simply not an option.

That doesn’t mean you should give up on family vacations altogether.

Vacations are a great way for families to bond and spend time with one another. On top of bonding, it’s been noted that people who take time off from work are more productive and enjoy a greater sense of health and wellness overall.

There’s pretty compelling evidence that a family vacation is worth the money, but unless you can get around the hefty price tag, it might be a luxury families will have to forgo. If your family is looking for a budget-friendly trip that won’t require a vacation loan, you might want to consider some of these affordable family vacation options.

National and State Parks

National and state parks are perhaps some of the most under-recognized destinations in the country. Though a Caribbean vacation might seem more luxurious, a visit to a national or state park can compete on so many levels.

 

Each park varies on pricing, but day passes can start at $20 per person while campsite rentals can be as low as $15 per night.

When it comes to bang-for-buck, these picturesque park sites have so many options for activities that you’ll end up having to choose. Hiking, camping, rafting, and sightseeing are just a few of the low-cost, family-friendly things you’ll find to do.

The draw of national and state parks is in the wide variety and flexibility of the grounds. You will find parks with a variety of climates, landscapes, natural features, and accommodations. If you want something super-rustic, you’ll probably save more money sleeping outside in tents and cooking your own food over a campfire. If you prefer “glamping” or glamorous camping, there are parks with luxury-type cabins and lodges as well.

The key is finding a location that suits your family size, interest, and personality. A little research can help you find the perfect combination of affordability, proximity, and fun.

Stick Close to Home

No matter where you live, chances are you’re close to some place worth visiting by car, train, or bus. If you can’t spring for $350-per-person plane tickets, then driving four to five hours to a destination might be more palatable — and affordable.

What you save on airline tickets could be used toward experiences, meals, and nicer accommodations. Depending on where you live, you might find a nearby farm, amusement or water park, bed and breakfast, or beach that could be just as satisfying as that $4,000 vacation.

You could also stay hyper-local and explore your hometown or neighboring communities. Check with your city or county visitors’ bureau to learn more about local attractions and activities. There are also sites like TripAdvisor, Groupon, and Airbnb experiences that help local visitors find activities and tours according to interests. You’ll find specially curated experiences for small groups, large groups, or families, or arranged around activities like cycling, gastronomy, sightseeing, or crafting.

With the rise in these “microtour” offerings, your family may even be introduced to your very own neighborhood in a different way. More than likely, there are tons of things you haven’t yet explored right in your own backyard. You could stay at home for your local experience or in a nearby hotel for a true “getaway” feel.

Visit with Relatives

Haven’t seen Grandma and Grandpa in a while? Make it a vacation! Visiting with relatives like grandparents can mean intergenerational quality time plus savings on things like food, entertainment, and lodging. Even if your aunts and uncles live in the middle of nowhere, you can plan activities centered around family meals, outings, and games.

A family game night out in the country under the stars can be just as exciting as an all-inclusive cruise or resort stay. Movie night with cousins can be fun with snacks while catching up on old times. With a little creativity, you can make a visit with your kinfolk into an epic family vacation that won’t break the bank.

And the real perk? You can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars by crashing with family versus staying at pricey hotels.

Volunteer + Vacation

Family volunteer vacations are increasing in popularity as people want to engage in purpose-centered travel. Many families desire to give their children a sense of perspective via traveling so they can interact with people of different backgrounds, races, income levels, and types of upbringing. A volunteer vacation can be the perfect way to give back, enjoy family time, and save a little money at the same time.

The types of volunteer vacations will vary in focus, pricing, activities, and accommodations. Some programs will provide free or extremely low-cost lodging in exchange for service, but will not necessarily cover travel costs.

If your family is open to working with people or nature, there are some volunteer opportunities that might appeal to you. Farming, in particular, seems to have many opportunities for 1-2 week commitments, but there may be age restrictions for younger members of your family.

Working Weekends on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network of organic farming sites with over 160 worldwide locations and volunteering opportunities. You’ll have to choose a site and arrangement that would work for your family. You’ll explore listings to find hosts that can accommodate your lodging entirely or at a deep discount.

Websites like Workaway can easily connect you to host families abroad needing help for specific tasks and time periods. Each listing for housing and help will describe the volunteer commitment along with the types of accommodations available in exchange for that work.

Though prepackaged volunteer vacations and networking websites are a good place to start when researching options, don’t be afraid to arrange your own service outing. If you have the time to make phone calls and send emails, it might be worth the effort to create a unique experience designed to serve others that your entire family can take part in.

Go Where the U.S. Dollar Is Strongest

Lastly, you might consider traveling to places where the cost of living is relatively inexpensive. A favorable exchange rate plus a low cost-of-living index could help you vacation like royalty in some places.

The only caveat to this approach is that travel to some places can get very expensive. However, if you are strategic, you can use credit cards that offer travel reward points and miles or cash back to use toward travel to help offset some of the travel costs for your family.

Traveling to an affordable destination would be ideal if you plan to have a longer stay or take a deep dive into local food, activities, or amenities. If your family of four can vacation well on $50-$100 a day or less, it might be worth the plane ticket to get there.

For example, going to a country in South or Central America or the Caribbean could save you tons. Low exchange rates and low-priced accommodations could give you plenty of wiggle room to dine well and participate in varied experiences that would be more expensive elsewhere.

In Cuba, there are fairly nice accommodations that could start as little as $25 per night for an entire apartment rental. Though the convertible peso is pegged to the dollar, the national money is at a ratio of 25 to 1 USD. At this exchange rate, you can get upscale dining options for less than $5 per person.

There are many low-cost activities like walking tours or people watching in one of the many town squares in Old Havana. The museums are plentiful, educational, and interesting. It’s not uncommon to find live music in restaurants or at popular gathering places. Plus, nearby beaches are beautiful with many inexpensive options for dining and snacks.

Costa Rica is becoming a popular destination because it’s easy and affordable to reach from the U.S. One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it has almost unlimited options for cheap, family-friendly excursions. The national parks are accessible by inexpensive bus rides and can be explored for little to nothing in terms of self-guided or guided tours. A search for lodging on a site like Expedia or Airbnb will produce many results for under $100 per night that can accommodate families of up to 4-5 people.

The whole point of the family vacation is to spend time together, bond, and create lasting memories. If you are flexible and creative, you’ll find that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to make that happen.

The post How to Save on Your Next Family Vacation appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Clever Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Your Housing Costs

We all know that aiming to live well below your means will help you save more money, get out of debt, and get ahead financially overall. To supercharge this process, you may want to consider attacking your largest expense: housing.

Just being able to save $200, $500, or more each month on housing could put a large dent in your debt repayment or help you seriously pad your savings. Reducing or eliminating your housing expenses might sound difficult, but there are so many different strategies, at least one could work for you.

What’s more is that these options don’t have to be permanent. You can always go back to a more traditional housing situation once you feel like the arrangement has run its course.

See if one of these ways of cutting your housing costs might work for you.

Be Energy Efficient

The eco-revolution is here, and as a result, there are so many ways to save on utilities. A bonus is that some energy-efficient modifications and products can help you earn federal tax credits.

The list of things you can do is long and can get expensive, but there’s some low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing your energy consumption:

  • Stop air leaks with caulk, insulation, or weatherstripping
  • Swap out incandescent lights for LED lights
  • Turn down your water heater and get a jacket for it
  • Plug your devices into powerstrips that minimize idle current usage (or unplug devices altogether)
  • Use rainwater barrels for your outdoor water needs
  • Air-dry your clothing
  • Choose light colors on flooring and walls to minimize artificial light use during daylight hours
  • Program your thermostat
  • Get alerts for higher priced kilowatt rates during certain hours of the day

You get the point. The more you can minimize your energy use, obviously the more money you’ll save on these costs. Pick a few that work for you, then use the money saved to get ahead in your finances.

Put Your Bills on Autopay

Not only will this small gesture save your sanity, it could potentially save you fees and penalties connected with late payments. You can set up automatic payments to be deducted from your bank account or a credit card account. If you choose the latter, be sure to avoid carrying a balance from month to month and pay your credit card bill on time as well. Otherwise, the interest and late fees from missing your credit card payment could cancel out the benefits of your autopay set-up.

Appeal Your Property Taxes

If you’ve ever gotten those solicitations in the mail from companies that claim to reduce your property tax bill, don’t put it in the junk pile quite yet. According to the National Taxpayers Union, up to 60% of U.S. properties are over-assessed. This means that 60% of Americans could be paying inflated property tax bills.

Many property owners don’t even know that they can get their property tax bill reduced via an appeal process. Because of this, it’s very possible that you are paying too much for your property taxes.

The appeal process to get your taxes can seem daunting, but it’s usually a string of paperwork and deadlines. Of course, you’ll be dealing with government entities so that could add a layer of complexity to the whole ordeal, but it’s not insurmountable.

If you have the time and ambition, it’s a process you could easily undertake yourself. If not, it may be worth hiring help to file and follow up through the property-tax appeal process. If the appeal is successful and your property taxes are reduced, you’d fork over a portion of the savings to the firm or person you hire.

Shop Around for Insurance

If you’ve got home insurance, you are likely to have other policies for vehicles, and perhaps you also have coverage for health and life insurance benefits, too. If you’ve got insurance needs that require multiple policies, you can leverage your buying power to shop around for better rates.

Shopping around for insurance can seem straightforward, but be ready to use your brain to the utmost in this endeavor. Not only will you need to compare prices, but you’ll also want to compare things like coverage amounts, premiums, deductibles, and available riders at the quoted prices.

Fortunately, there are comparison sites and independent insurance agents that can make this task a little easier. Either way you do it, it’s a good idea to check around every once in a while to make sure your current insurance provider is being competitive and offering you the best rate.

Become a DIYer

One of the most costly expenses of owning a home can be maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. Save money by learning to do some things around the house yourself. There are many resources to help you with anything you don’t know much about, from books, to websites, to YouTube. Though it can take more time, you might come out ahead by cutting your own grass or installing your own kitchen backsplash.

If you’ve got complicated jobs that require special expertise and equipment, consider a partial DIY approach. For example, if you’re redoing your bathroom, you might ask the contractor about things you can do yourself to shave the bill down some. Demolition and cleanup of existing fixtures might be the type of work you can handle.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, but definitely be wise about the projects you decide to take on yourself. Finding the right balance between hiring and DIYing can save you time, money, and headaches as a homeowner.

Rethink Your Home Purchase Plan

Getting a conventional mortgage with vanilla terms that include a 10%-20% down payment and a 30-year loan period are all too familiar to the home-buying public. But if you really want to save on the single largest expense in your life, you might have to be a little more flexible than the standard terms accepted on most home loans.

Larger Down Payment

One approach to consider is putting down at least 20% on your home purchase. This will allow you to skip private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can amount to thousands of dollars over the life of your home loan. PMI can eventually go away over the life of the loan when certain criteria is met, but you can save more money by dumping it sooner than later.

Refinance Your Mortgage

Many people refinance their homes in hopes of getting a lower monthly payment or locking in a lower interest rate. Adjusting these numbers downward can definitely save money for some homeowners over the long run.

However, refinancing your home loan is not a silver-bullet solution that will work in every scenario. In some cases, it makes perfect sense to refinance, and in others, it wouldn’t be a good idea. The best thing to do is run the refinance numbers and make a decision. After doing the math, you might actually find that fees and extended loan terms could cause you to lose money rather than save it.

Make sure you fully understand the terms of your refinanced mortgage along with the potential impact on your entire financial outlook. Most definitely, confirm your assumptions about this move with math. If you need help running the numbers, check out this refinance calculator from myFICO.

Pay Cash for Your Home

While not an option for the average American, paying cash for your home is not unheard of. Paying cash for a home would eliminate tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest, mortgage fees, and PMI. If you think you’d like to go for the gusto and pay cash for a home, consider ways to make this feat possible:

Drastically Change Your Lifestyle

Though these options aren’t for everyone, they are still worth a mention. These suggestions are for those who might be willing to change their lifestyle in order to garner the most savings possible when it comes to housing.

Get a Roommate (or Two)

The home-sharing revolution has caught on, and everyone from young professionals to empty nesters are finding boarders on places like Craigslist and Airbnb. If it works out, it can truly be a good solution to help lower your housing costs. Plus, having a roommate can be temporary or longer term, based on your living preferences.

Again, this option is not for the faint of heart. Adding a roommate to your living equation could be utterly disastrous or surprisingly pleasant, so choose your housemates wisely.

Buy a Multifamily Unit, Rent One Unit Out

Depending on the location and property type in these situations, homeowners can often cover their entire mortgage amount with their renters’ payments. It can definitely have its benefits, but don’t buy that two-flat just yet.

Remember, with this arrangement, you’ll be swimming deep in the waters of landlordship. How it all pans out can be based on so many variables: the landlord, tenant, property, location, and a host of other factors can make this arrangement easy income or a nightmarish headache.

If things go wrong with your property, your tenant doesn’t share the burden of fixing things though they live there just the same. There can be costs associated with maintenance and repairs that go well beyond the monthly income your rented unit brings in. You’ll want to have a comfortable cash cushion for incidentals before starting your homeownership journey as a landlord.

Downsize

You don’t have to join the tiny home revolution to downsize (though it’s not a terrible idea). Downsizing can look different for different people. Downsizing for one person might be moving from the lake-view two-bedroom apartment to a studio in a less ritzy location. You’ll have to decide what downsizing looks like for you and if it will be worth the effort.

While you might not be game for all of these suggestions, you can probably adopt a few that could change your financial situation significantly. Whatever measures you choose to save or eliminate your housing costs, make sure you are ready to deal with the consequences. These consequences can be both beneficial and somewhat inconvenient for your quality of life and your financial health. In the end, you’ll have to determine if it’s worth it.

The post Clever Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Your Housing Costs appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Disputing Credit Card Charges: What You Need to Know and Instructions for Each Card Issuer

If you use credit cards, chances are at some point you’ll need to dispute a charge that appears on your statement for one reason or another. The good news is that this common practice has some pretty awesome guidelines and provisions protected under both state and federal laws.

Whether your dispute is straightforward or complicated, you’ll want to know the ins and outs of how the dispute process works so that it can ultimately work for you should you need it. The dispute process will help you get the best outcome in the case of billing errors, fraud, misrepresented products, or any other charge on your statement you believe you shouldn’t be responsible for.

When to Dispute a Charge on Your Account

The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) protects consumers from unfair credit billing practices. This federal law also provides guidelines to both consumers and credit card issuers for dispute management and resolution. According to the FCBA, consumers can file disputes, according to the FCBA settlement procedures, for the following billing errors (list provided by the FTC website):

  • Unauthorized charges. Federal law limits your responsibility for unauthorized charges to $50.
  • Charges that list the wrong date or amount.
  • Charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed.
  • Math errors.
  • Failure to post payments and other credits, like returns.
  • Failure to send bills to your current address — assuming the creditor has your change of address, in writing, at least 20 days before the billing period ends.
  • Charges for which you ask for an explanation or written proof of purchase, along with a claimed error or request for clarification.

There are additional FCBA provisions covering problems with the actual goods or services, aside from billing errors. This is known as the right to assert “claims and defenses.” In other words, the charge is correct, but the goods or services are not delivered as promised or described. This right can be exercised up to one year after purchase.

Under claims and defenses, the purchase has to be made within 100 miles of your current billing address and be more than $50, and you’ve got to make a “good faith” effort to resolve the dispute with the merchant first. The dollar and distance rules don’t apply if there is a special relationship between the buyer and seller or the purchase was made via internet, mail, or phone.

When you are initiating a dispute on this basis, make that clear with the credit card company so they’ll process the dispute accordingly. In this case, state laws may also play a part in determining what actions you can take against the merchant and the credit card issuer if the dispute is not resolved in your favor.

How to Dispute a Charge on Your Credit Card

The first thing you’ll want to do is determine if the charge is really an error. A little research will help you figure out if a charge is an error, fraudulent, or a purchase gone wrong. Some things to consider:

  • Did you let someone use your card? Do you have an authorized user on your account? They may have made a purchase with it.
  • Is it possible that someone obtained your information illegally and made a fraudulent charge on your card?
  • Does the merchant use another company name that appears on your credit card statement? (For example, Binky Toys can appear as “TOY CORP” on your billing statement.)
  • Did you read the fine print? You may have signed a contract with a merchant authorizing charges you were not aware of.

Once you determine there is an actual problem with your statement, you’ll want to figure out if the problem is with your credit card issuer or a merchant. The process can be slightly different if a merchant is involved or not.

If the charge is an error that doesn’t involve a merchant, like fraud or identity theft, then you can contact your credit card issuer directly. Though it’s best to document your dispute in writing, many card issuers will discuss the issue with you (and sometimes even resolve it) over the phone.

Nowadays, most major card issuers will allow you to log in to your account and file the dispute or initiate an inquiry about a charge online. If you don’t feel comfortable with any of these methods, you can use this sample dispute letter provided by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and begin the dispute process via mail.

If the charge involves a merchant whose goods or services were either defective, misrepresented, or not delivered as agreed, then you’ll want to contact them first. You can place a call to start the process, but it’s best to have things in writing. So an email or snail mail letter can either kick things off or confirm and reiterate what was discussed over the phone regarding the issue.

Many times, merchants will work with you because they want to keep their chargeback rates (credit card refunds due to errors and disputes) low. Merchants who have higher chargeback rates are deemed high risk by credit card processors and face higher penalties and processing rates which cut deeply into their bottom line. For this reason, try to settle with them before going to your credit card company with the problem.

If you can’t get an acceptable resolution from the merchant who charged your card, then it’s time to contact your credit card issuer. Just like the process outlined above for billing errors, you can choose to initiate the dispute via phone, internet portal, or mail.

In all your disputing, remember the timelines set forth by the Fair Credit Billing Act. If your problem is with a merchant, you’ve got up to a year to make a claim under “claims and defenses.”

For errors, your dispute correspondence has to be received by the credit card issuer no later than 60 days after the first statement containing the charge you are disputing. In either case, if you decide to send your correspondence via mail, it’s a good idea to send it certified with proof of delivery.

What Happens After You Initiate a Dispute

Under the FCBA, your card issuer has to acknowledge your complaint 30 days after receiving it (unless they resolve it before then). Sometimes, the dispute process is fairly straightforward and within a matter of minutes the dispute could be resolved in your favor. You’ll receive a credit on your statement and the issue is resolved.

You should also be aware that under the FCBA, you don’t actually have to pay the amount in dispute or any interest or any related late fees while the dispute is ongoing. Sometimes, the card issuer will even remove the charge under investigation right away. The bank has 90 days to investigate the issue and resolve it either in your favor or the merchant’s favor.

Keep in mind that you could be asked for supporting documentation to back up your dispute. This could include police reports, photos of a defective product, manufacturer claims and descriptions, tracking numbers, screenshots, and email correspondence.

This evidence will be gathered and checked against any evidence supplied from the merchant. Once the bank has concluded the investigation, you’ll receive a final ruling where the charge is either removed permanently or placed back onto your statement and becomes your responsibility to pay. You should also know that you may be responsible for interest and fees that accrue for a dispute you ultimately do not win.

What If Your Dispute Isn’t Approved

If finally, despite your best efforts, you’re deemed responsible for the disputed charge, you still have a few options. You could appeal the final decision with the credit card issuer within 10 days of the decision. Sometimes, the investigation could be reopened. Inform the bank that you’ve got new information they should consider.

If they still decline to reconsider or resolve in your favor, they can report your failure to pay to credit bureaus. If they do report this information, it must also state that you do not believe you owe the amount in question.

Another option is to take the merchant, your bank, or both parties to court. This can be costly, but for an amount that’s high enough, a court case could be justified. Be sure to check terms and conditions for both the merchant and the issuer, because you may have waived your right to this course of action in doing business with them. Also, state laws will have a say in what legal recourse is available to you against both the merchant and credit card company. Check with the consumer protection division of your state’s attorney general office for guidance in this area.

Also, don’t be afraid to engage help and organizations that might have oversight of the institutions involved in your dispute. You can file a complaint against credit issuers with the FTC. The FTC complaint process, however, won’t apply to banks. Banks are regulated by the FDIC. You can find the regulator that has oversight of the bank you are dealing with here, or you can file a complaint with the Federal Reserve Consumer Help website.

If you’ve got the time, energy, and ambition, you can always take to social media to vent and tell the world about your experience. Many companies are diligent about protecting their online reputation and prefer to route these conversations offline for resolution. If possible, be just as polite and diplomatic on social media channels as you would be with a phone call or written complaint. You’ll likely get further with this approach.

Where It Can Get Sticky

As mentioned, disputes can be settled quickly and easy. Some people say that their card issuer didn’t even ask for documentation but charges were immediately reversed. Other times, it can be a longer process, especially if a merchant objects to your dispute.

When this happens, there can be a lot of back-and-forth between everyone involved in a credit dispute. The purchaser, the merchant, the acquirer (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover), and the issuing bank all have to coordinate communication to make sure disputes are investigated thoroughly and resolved appropriately.

Be aware that there are circumstances that can complicate, delay, and even hinder the dispute procedures.

Bankruptcy

When a merchant doesn’t deliver goods or services due to insolvency, there may not actually be any money in their bank’s account to cover a chargeback. You might be better off filing a case in small claims court. Sadly, in many bankruptcy proceedings, outstanding payables due to customers are one of the last payment priorities.

Collections

Though the dispute can be resolved in your favor from the credit issuer, the merchant could come back and bill you anyway. They can even send your account into collections. In this case, keep your documentation and be ready for a potential battle with collection agencies that have been engaged to recoup the funds from you. You credit report could also suffer.

Prepaid services

Let’s say you make an advance payment on a fitness camp 12 months in advance, but the company goes out of business and won’t be hosting the camp after all. You’ll want to make sure that you fully understand the dispute resolution process regarding future purchases. It will vary for each card issuer, so find out how you are protected in a situation like this. Consult your bank’s card member agreement and speak with someone who can give you clarity on dispute terms before making advanced payments with your credit card.

Product returns

If the dispute is resolved in your favor, part of the resolution may be connected to returning goods in order to receive the refund amount. There are very clear rules around what merchants must do when they receive your goods — a credit must be transmitted to the card issuer within seven days. From there, the issuer must ensure it shows up on your account within three days. It’s not unheard of for a seller to “send” for an item and never retrieve it in order to delay or avoid issuing a refund. Make sure that you take responsibility for returning goods. It’s a good idea to pay for tracking and insurance to make sure your items arrive safely, with proof of delivery, to the seller.

Pre-existing contracts

Terms and conditions are no fun to read, but it’s a good practice to look at the fine print (especially for large purchases). Hidden in these terms could be strict refund policies and even waivers to the dispute process should a problem occur with a sale.

Instructions for Filing Disputes with Major Credit Card Issuers:

 

Card Issuer: Instructions for Disputes:
Chase Chase dispute instructions
Bank of America Bank of America dispute instructions
Capital One Capital One dispute instructions
Barclays Barclays dispute instructions
Discover Discover dispute instructions
Citi Citi dispute instructions
American Express American Express dispute instructions

Final Thoughts on Credit Card Instructions

There are so many variables that can influence the outcome in all of these cases that it can seem like the final decisions are arbitrary. What worked in one scenario may not work in another with a different company or cardholder.

Many times, you’ll be working with a customer service representative who is unfamiliar with your rights as a consumer and the laws that should govern the outcomes of credit card charge disputes. When all else fails, research, education, and persistence may be your most powerful weapons in the fight for your consumer rights.

The post Disputing Credit Card Charges: What You Need to Know and Instructions for Each Card Issuer appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Guide to Adding an Authorized User to Your Credit Card

Disclaimer: Though we have done our best to research information regarding this topic, be aware that issuing banks may have unique rules and agreement terms that apply to their particular credit card accounts. Contact issuing banks directly for questions on terms and policies relevant to specific credit card accounts.

What Is an Authorized User?

An authorized user on a credit card account is any person you allow to access your credit card account. Not to be confused with a joint account holder, an authorized user can only make purchases and, in some cases, have access to certain card benefits and perks. Joint account holdership is becoming extremely rare, but typically occurs when two people apply for a credit card together. In joint account ownership, both people are liable for charges and can access and make changes to a credit card account.

An authorized user can be a spouse, relative, or employee. When you designate an authorized user on your credit card account, this person usually gets a card bearing their name with the same credit card number as the primary cardholder. In this scenario, the primary cardholder is liable for all transactions made by themselves as well as by any authorized user tied to their account.

Why Would You Add an Authorized User to Your Credit Card Account?

There are many reasons you might think about designating an authorized user for your credit card account. It all comes down to convenience and extending benefits that a credit account offers: access to credit, related perks, and credit card rewards, as well as the potential to improve the credit score of the authorized user.

For example, couples that share expenses might find it easier to designate one or the other as an authorized user to avoid passing a single card back and forth to make purchases. Perhaps you have a relative who lives far away, and it would be easier to give them access to your credit account for emergency purchases. You may also have a child that you want to assist in building credit history to increase their credit score. Adding them as an authorized user could help with this, but we’ll cover that more in another section.

Additionally, if you are an employer whose employees need to make purchases on behalf of the company, it would make sense to make them an authorized user. Without this designation, it could be extremely inconvenient for them to not have a company credit card at their disposal.

In some cases, adding an authorized user can also accrue reward points connected to a credit card account. These reward points can be used to make purchases or receive discounted pricing on things like travel and retail products. Typically, points are accrued from reaching credit card spending amounts within a certain time frame. Sometimes, the act of adding an authorized user can garner additional rewards as well.

How Can I Add an Authorized User to My Credit Card Account?

As the primary cardholder you are the only person who can designate an authorized user. The authorized user cannot contact the credit card issuer and add themselves to your account. You will have to contact the issuing bank and request to add one or more authorized users to your account.

Depending on the bank and the technology in place, you may be able to handle this process entirely online. Some banks allow you to log in to your banking portal to designate additional authorized users, create their own bank login and profile as well as determine the level of access you’d like them to have to your account. Levels of access can range from being able to view transactions only to making purchases. If your bank doesn’t have this technology in place, usually a phone call is sufficient.

Who Can Be an Authorized User on My Account?

An authorized user can be anyone you choose, whether they are related to you in some way or not. In most cases, the bank will request identifying information such as name, birthdate, Social Security number, and address. Some card issuers require that authorized users meet age requirements, and others do not have age requirements. As always, check with the bank to understand the criteria authorized users must meet for your card.

The Fees

Some credit cards will charge an additional fee for more additional authorized users, while others will offer this benefit at no charge. Make sure you read the fine print in your cardholder agreement so that you are aware of all the fees associated with having one or more authorized users on your account.

Fees can range from less than $100 to a few hundred dollars and beyond each year. Business accounts especially can carry higher fees when multiple authorized users are associated to one account.

Liability

As the primary account holder, you must understand that you are 100% solely liable for any and all charges made on your account by both yourself and your authorized user. If you have been designated as an authorized user, you do not legally share liability for purchases made on the credit card account. However, you may have a personal arrangement with the primary account holder to pay your share of charges when the bill is due.

What Can an Authorized User Do?

This can depend on the level of access you’ve chosen with your card issuer for your authorized user. If there are not varying levels of access to choose from, check with the card issuer to find out exactly what an authorized user can and cannot do.

In most cases, an authorized user cannot make changes to an account. They cannot close an account, request changes in bill due dates, change account information, or request limit increases or a lower annual percentage rate.

Again, this varies from card issuer to card issuer, but there are many other things an authorized user can do.

Here are some possible capabilities based on the terms of your credit card issuer:

  • Make purchases
  • Report any lost or stolen cards
  • Obtain account information
  • Initiate billing disputes
  • Request statement copies
  • Make payments and inquire about fees

Benefits of Adding an Authorized User

As mentioned before, adding an authorized user to a card can be for convenience, accruing rewards, or sharing card perks and benefits. An authorized user can be incredibly convenient in the case that you don’t have your personal card or for some reason don’t have immediate access to it.

Having an authorized user can help a primary user reach limits to earn reward points for some cards. One of the most effective marketing strategies of credit card companies is to offer bonuses and rewards for adding authorized users to your account. Adding another user to your account could add a few thousand extra reward points you would not have earned without adding the user. Then, there’s always the chance that the authorized user will make purchases that contribute even more to your attempt to accrue reward points.

Finally, there are a number of credit cards that offer perks or benefits that can extend to your authorized users. Depending on your credit card, benefits like car rental insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, and extended warranties could apply to all purchases made, including those by your authorized users, on your credit card account.

Benefits of Becoming an Authorized User

Though the credit-reporting landscape is changing, there’s still the potential to “piggyback” on a primary account holder’s credit history for a card in good standing. But not all credit card companies report information to credit bureaus for authorized users in all circumstances. However, to know for sure what will be reported to the credit bureaus in regard to your authorized user status, speak with your card issuer for the details of what information is reported and when to credit bureaus.

Another benefit is having access to more credit. If you are in a bind and have emergencies that come up, access to credit can be helpful. Plus, exercising diligence in managing purchases and bill payment can help you develop good credit habits.

You should also know that being an authorized user may grant you access to certain perks for account holders and their primary users. There are benefits like access to travel lounges, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application, travel credits, and discounts an authorized user could be privy to as well.

What Could Go Wrong?

If for some reason the credit card account doesn’t remain in good standing, the credit score of both the primary account holder and the authorized user could be affected. If you are a primary account holder, make sure your authorized user understands the terms under which they can make purchases. If they make purchases that cause your payments to be delinquent, your credit score could suffer.

Even if you did not give this person permission to make purchases with your credit card account, the fact that you designated them as an authorized user is evidence that you at some point trusted them with your credit card access. A claim of criminal or fraudulent activity in this instance would be extremely difficult to prove, so choose your authorized users wisely.

Though not as common with an authorized user, your credit score could be negatively affected if an account becomes delinquent. Because tradeline reporting for authorized user accounts to credit bureaus varies from card to card and scenario to scenario, a delinquent account status could still appear on your credit report. If you will be added to someone’s account as an authorized user, find out whether or not the credit history of the account will be reported to credit bureaus under your authorized user status.

Removing an Authorized User from an Account

Either the primary cardholder or the authorized user can remove an authorized user from an account by contacting the credit card issuer. You may be asked to verify your information as well as the information of the primary account holder.

In many cases, only one card number is issued between one or more users. Your credit card company may deactivate the primary cardholder’s credit card number and reissue a new card and number once an authorized user is removed from an account.

If your status as an authorized user does show up on your credit report for the credit account after you’ve been removed from a credit card account, you may have to contact credit bureaus to have it removed.

The Best Way to Manage Shared Credit Access

Designating someone as an authorized user is not something to be taken lightly. Even a small misunderstanding of credit card issuer terms and your own interpersonal credit arrangement can cause problems. Before adding an authorized user to your account, set ground rules around card use that covers access to perks and making purchases.

Some things to consider and discuss with your authorized user include:

  • What is the goal in having the authorized user on the account?
  • Will the authorized user have a physical card?
  • When is it OK to use or not use the credit card to make purchases or access card perks?
  • The credit history of both the primary cardholder and the authorized user
  • Good credit habits that will prevent identity theft and fraud
  • Setting up monitoring alerts with the credit card company or an identity theft protection service

The ability to add an authorized user to a credit card account can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, convenient benefits of access to credit and credit card perks can make life easier in so many ways.

On the other hand, this same convenience can cause problems if both the primary cardholder and the authorized user don’t understand the rules of engagement with each other or the terms set forth by the credit card company.

Adding an authorized user to your account has the potential to be incredibly convenient and mutually beneficial if handled the right way. Make sure you follow best practices to get the most out of this financial arrangement.

The post Guide to Adding an Authorized User to Your Credit Card appeared first on MagnifyMoney.