Why Banks Are Still Being Stingy With Savings and CD Rates

Mike Stuckey is a classic “rate chaser,” moving money around every few months to earn better interest on his savings. Lately, that has meant parking cash in three-month CDs at a rather meager of 1% or so, then rolling them over, hoping rates sneak up a little more each time.

“It’s at least something on large balances and keeps you poised to catch the rising tide,” says the 60-year-old Seattle-area resident.

Rate chasers like Stuckey still don’t have much to chase, however. The Federal Reserve has raised its benchmark interest rates four times since December 2015, and banks have correspondingly increased the rates they charge some customers to borrow, but many still aren’t passing along the increases to savers.

Why? There’s an unlikely answer: Banking consumers are simply saving too much money. Banks are “flush” in cash, hidden away in savings accounts by risk-averse consumers, says Ken Tumin, co-founder of DepositAccounts.com. Bank of America announced in its latest quarterly earnings report its average deposits are up 9% in the past year, for example – despite the bank’s dismal rates.

“In that situation, there’s less of a need to raise deposit rates,” Tumin says. “In the last couple of years, we are seeing deposits grow faster than loans.”

Banks don’t give away something for nothing, of course. They only raise rates when they need to attract more cash so they can lend more cash.

As a result, savings rates remain stubbornly slow to rise. How slow? Average rates “jumped” from 0.184% in June to 0.185% in July, according to DepositAccounts.com. (Disclosure: DepositAccounts.com is a subsidiary of LendingTree Inc., which is also the parent company of MagnifyMoney.com.)

And while the average yield on CD rates is the highest it’s been in five years, no one is getting rich off of them. Average one-year CD rates have “soared” from 0.482% in April 2016 to 0.567% in July. Locking up money long term doesn’t help much either – five-year CD rates are up from 1.392% to 1.504%.

There’s another reason savings and CD rates remain low, something economists call asynchronous price adjustment. That’s a fancy way of saying that companies are more price-sensitive than consumers.

It’s why gas stations are quicker to raise prices than lower prices as the price of oil goes up or down. Same for airline tickets. Consumers eventually catch on, but it takes them longer. So for now, banks are enjoying a little extra profit as they raise the cost of lending but keep their cost of cash relatively flat.

Holding Out for 2%

There have been some breakouts, however, most notably among internet-only banks. They have traditionally offered higher rates than classic brick-and-mortar banks, and now, they are more sensitive to rate changes, Tumin says. Goldman Sachs Bank USA, the Wall Street firm’s push into retail banking, announced in June it would offer 1.2% interest to savings depositors. The bank is working hard to attract new customers. Soon after, Ally Bank announced higher rates at 1.15%.

“Internet banks are always more sensitive to changes in the economy and at the Fed. Also, internet bank account holders tend to be more rate sensitive,” Tumin says.

“I remember in 2005-2006 we were seeing a 25 or 50 basis point upward movement,” says Tumin. Now we are looking at a 5 or 10 basis point improvement.” He expects that trend – stingy rate increases – to continue for the foreseeable future.

When will more consumers sit up and notice higher savings rates – and perhaps start pulling cash out of big banks, putting pressure on them to join the party?

“I think 2% will be a big milestone,” Tumin says. “That will be a big change we haven’t seen in five years.”

If you’re really frustrated by low rates from traditional savings accounts and CDs, Tumin recommends considering high-yield checking accounts, a relatively new creation. These accounts can earn consumers up to 4%-5% on a limited balance – perhaps on the first $25,000 deposited. The accounts come with strings attached, however, such as a minimum number of debit card transactions each month.

“If you don’t mind a little extra work … you are rewarded nicely,” Tumin says.

Time to Ditch Your Savings Account?

For that kind of change, is rate chasing worth it?

For perspective, a 0.1% interest rate increase (10 basis points) on $10,000 is worth only about $10 annually.

It’s, of course, up to consumers whether or not the promise of a little more cash in their savings accounts is worth the effort of closing one account and opening another.

Stuckey says rate chasing doesn’t have to be hard.

“I don’t really find it anything to manage at all,” he says. “(My CDs) are in a Schwab IRA, so I have access to hundreds of choices. They mature at various times, and Schwab always sends a notice, so I just buy another one.”

The low-rate environment has impacted Stuckey’s retirement planning, but he’s philosophical about it.

“I have mixed feelings. In 2008, as I planned to retire, I was getting 5.5% and more in money market accounts. High-quality bonds paid 6 and 7%. So lower rates have had an effect on my finances,” Stuckey says. “But … it has been nice to see young people able to afford nice homes because of the low rates. My first mortgage started at 10.5%.”

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GOP Moves to Block Rule That Allows Consumers to Join Class Action Lawsuits

A rule that would make it easier for consumers to join together and sue their banks might be shelved by congressional Republicans or other banking regulators before it takes effect.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee announced Thursday that they will take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to stop a new rule announced earlier this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (D-Texas) introduced a companion measure in the House of Representatives.

The CFPB rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week and would take effect in 60 days, bans financial firms from including language in standard form contracts that force consumers to waive their rights to join class action lawsuits.

The congressional challenge is one of three potential roadblocks opponents might throw up to overturn or stall the rule before it takes effect in two months.

So-called mandatory arbitration clauses have long been criticized by consumer groups, who say they make it easier for companies to mistreat consumers. But Senate Republicans, led by banking committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), say the rule is “anti-business” and would lead to a flood of class action lawsuits that would harm the economy. They also say the CFPB overstepped its bounds in writing the rule.

“Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), referring to the CFPB director. “This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington’s most powerful bureaucracies.”

Congress’s financial reform bill of 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, directed the CFPB to study arbitration clauses and write a rule about them. The rule permits arbitration clauses for individual disputes, but prevents firms from requiring arbitration when consumers wish to band together in class action cases.

Consumer groups were quick to criticize congressional Republicans.

“Senator Crapo is doing the bidding of Wall Street by jumping to take away our day in court and repeal a common-sense rule years in the making,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “None of these senators would want to look a Wells Fargo fraud victim in the eye and say, ‘you can’t have your day in court,’ yet they are helping Wells Fargo do just that.”

Meanwhile, the new rule also faces a challenge from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, made up of 10 banking regulators. The council can overturn a CFPB rule with a two-thirds vote if members believe it threatens the safety and soundness of the banking system. A letter from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, a council member, to the CFPB on Monday asked the bureau for more data on the rule, and raised possible safety and soundness issues. Any council member can ask the Treasury secretary to stay a new rule within 10 days of publication. The council would then have 90 days to veto the rule via a vote. It would be the first such veto.

The CFPB rule also faces potential lawsuits from private parties.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Barring action by Congress, the CFPB rule is slated to take effect in late September 2017, with covered firms having an additional 6 months to comply, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

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It Could Get a Lot Easier to Sue Your Bank Thanks to This New Regulation

With looming existential threats from both the Trump administration and the federal court system, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went ahead on Monday with a controversial rule that will change the way nearly all consumer contracts with financial institutions are written.

The end of forced arbitration?

The rule will ensure that all consumers can join what CFPB Director Richard Cordray called “group” lawsuits — generally known as class-action lawsuits — when they feel financial institutions have committed small-dollar, high-volume frauds. Currently, many contracts contain mandatory arbitration clauses that explicitly force consumers to waive their rights to join class-action lawsuits. Instead, consumers are forced to enter individual arbitration, a step critics say most don’t bother to pursue.

Consumer groups have for years claimed waivers were unjust and even illegal, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with corporate lawyers, paving the way for even more companies to include the prohibition in standard-form contracts for products like credit cards and checking accounts.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Monday’s rule is slated to take effect in about eight months, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

“By blocking group lawsuits, mandatory arbitration clauses force consumers either to give up or to go it alone — usually over relatively small amounts that may not be worth pursuing on one’s own,” Cordray said during the announcement.

“Including these clauses in contracts allows companies to sidestep the judicial system, avoid big refunds, and continue to pursue profitable practices that may violate the law and harm large numbers of consumers. … Our common-sense rule applies to the major markets for consumer financial products and services under the Bureau’s jurisdiction, including those in which providers lend money, store money, and move or exchange money.”

A long road ahead for the CFPB

The ruling was several years in the making, initiated by the Dodd-Frank financial reforms of 2010, which called on the CFPB to first study the issue and then write a new rule. But it almost didn’t happen: With the election of Donald Trump and Republican control of the White House, the CFPB faces major changes, including the expiration of Cordray’s term next year.

Also, House Republicans have passed legislation that would drastically change the CFPB’s structure. Either of these could lead to the undoing of Monday’s rule. When I asked the CFPB at Monday’s announcement what the process for such undoing would be, the bureau didn’t respond.

“I can’t comment on what might happen in the future,” said Eric Goldberg, Senior Counsel, Office of Regulations.

Cordray cited the recent Wells Fargo scandal as evidence the arbitration waiver ban was necessary. Before the fake account controversy became widely known, consumers had tried to sue the bank but were turned back by courts citing the contract language.

Under the new rules, consumers would have an easier time finding lawyers willing to sue banks in such situations. No lawyer will take a case involving a single $39 controversy, but plenty will do so if the case potentially involves thousands, or even millions, of clients.

Consumer groups immediately hailed the new rule.

“The CFPB’s rule restores ordinary folks’ day in court for widespread violations of the law,” said Lauren Saunders, association director of the National Consumer Law Center. “Forced arbitration is simply a license to steal when a company like Wells Fargo commits fraud through millions of fake accounts and then tells customers: ‘Too bad, you can’t go to court and can’t team up; you have to fight us one by one behind closed doors and before a private arbitrator of our choice instead of a public court with an impartial judge.’”

The CFPB and Monday’s rule also face an uncertain future because a federal court last fall ruled that part of the bureau’s executive structure was unconstitutional. The CFPB is appealing the ruling, and a decision may come soon. Should the CFPB lose, it will be easier for Trump to fire Cordray immediately, and companies may have legal avenue to challenge CFPB rules.

On the other hand, enacting the rule now may give supporters momentum that will be difficult for the industry to stop — a situation similar to the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. While the Trump administration took steps to stop that rule from taking effect, many companies had already begun to comply, and simply continued with that process.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was heavily critical of the new rule.

“The CFPB’s brazen finalization of the arbitration rule is a prime example of an agency gone rogue. CFPB’s actions exemplify its complete disregard for the will of Congress, the administration, the American people, and even the courts,” the Chamber said in a statement.

“As we review the rule, we will consider every approach to address our concerns, and we encourage Congress to do the same — including exploring the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, we call upon the administration and Congress to establish the necessary checks and balances on the CFPB before it takes more one-sided, overreaching actions.”

But consumer groups called Monday’s ruling a victory.

“Forced arbitration deprives victims of not only their day in court, but the right to band together with other targets of corporate lawbreaking. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for lawbreakers,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “The consumer agency’s rule will stop Wall Street and predatory lenders from ripping people off with impunity, and make markets fairer and safer for ordinary Americans.”

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14 Ways to Prevent Fraud on Your Debit & Credit Cards

There's no way to make yourself 100% safe from credit card or debit card fraud, but you can build some pretty tall walls. Here's how.

Every time there’s a large credit card breach, you’ll hear some expert say risks for consumers are low, because it’s easy to cancel a credit or debit card and get a new one. Not so fast. If fraud appears on your bill, but you don’t notice it, you’ll pay for it. More important, changing account numbers is a hassle. You’ll have to update all your automatic payment accounts, for example. Screw up one of those, and you could get hit with late fees from a merchant when your payment is denied.

Despite the liability limits, you’re better off avoiding all this in the first place. Below are suggestions on how to do that. Most involve limiting the number of times you have to share your plastic with someone, decreasing your “attack surface.” Some might be familiar. Others might seem extreme. Either way, there’s no way to make yourself 100% fraud proof. That’s why we’ve also provided tips on the earliest possible detection and reporting of fraud, which is the main way to protect yourself. For example, regularly checking your credit scores can help you spot fraudulent activities on your credit cards. (You can check two of your scores free on Credit.com.) Here’s how to keep yourself as safe as possible.

1. Avoid Using Debit Cards to Buy Things

When I asked Gartner fraud analyst Avivah Litan about her fraud-fighting tips, this is the first thing she said:

“Never use PIN debit, except for bank ATM machines attached to bank branches.”

PIN debit is the technical term for using a debit card as “credit” at a merchant. From a fraud perspective, the “debit or credit” question is meaningless. Either way, you are putting your debit card account information into databases criminals can hack. And recovering from a debit card fraud is much more of a hassle than recovering from a credit card fraud. With credit card fraud, consumers call their bank, dispute a fraudulent charge and don’t pay for that part of their bill. With debit card fraud, money is taken from the victim’s checking account, and the consumer has to argue with the bank to get it back. That usually happens quickly, but in the meantime, the consumer’s balance can dip below zero, leading to overdrafts and other potential problems, like bounced rent checks.

It’s a bad idea to buy things with a debit card. Use a debit card to withdraw cash at a bank ATM. Otherwise, use credit.

Some people use debit card purchasing as a personal finance tool to limit spending. That’s a rational reason to do so. If you must, don’t use PIN debit, so at least a criminal can’t gain access to your PIN at that merchant.

2. Be Careful With Stored-Value Apps

The latest trend in money is “digitized stored value.” You probably familiar with it if you buy coffee with your Starbucks app. Many merchants are now imitating Starbucks with their own digitized stored value apps. But app makers and merchants are not banks. They have less experience keeping money safe. The consequences have been obvious: Starbucks consumers have complained for nearly two years about criminals raiding their app-linked credit cards. Worst of all, consumers with auto-fill have seen criminals conduct rapid-fire conduct transactions through the apps. Starbucks says this impacts a tiny fraction of consumers, and they are quickly refunded. If you are using “digitized stored value,” manually reloading value is safer than loading your credit card and especially your debit card.

3. Have a Separate Card for Digital Transactions

Splitting your transactions among cards can limit the “spillover” if fraud occurs. This tip isn’t for everyone. Some consumers like racking up points on one card. Others are afraid they’ll miss a payment if they have more than one credit card bill each month. But separating out transactions can have fraud-fighting benefits. If you are the type to buy items from less popular websites that might not have the security protections of a larger site, consider having a card you use just for those higher-risk purchases. That way, if the small site is compromised, the impact on your life will be contained.

4. Google Second-Tier Sites

Speaking of second-tier sites, you should always Google them before making a purchase. Search “BobsWidgetSite.com and complaints,” then “BobsWidgetSite and fraud,” before making a purchase the first time. Scroll through a page or two of results, in case the site has done search engine optimization work to beat back complaints. I talk often to victims who do that search only after they are victims of fraud, and then kick themselves.

5. Place a Sticker Over Your Security Code

Here’s a novel idea from computer security expert Harri Hursti. Most credit and debit card credentials are useless without the security code numbers on the back of the card. To limit the risk of physical theft, place a sticker over the numbers and memorize them. They are usually only three or four digits. That way someone else who holds your card for a few moments can’t get enough information to steal from your account. Such physical theft is less common than it once was, but the sticker idea is a simple fraud-fighting tool.

6. Say No to ‘Free’ Trial Offers & Avoid ‘Gray Charges’

About five years ago, a credit card fraud fighting firm named BillGuard.com coined the term “gray charges.” These aren’t traditional fraud, but they aren’t transactions you approved, either. It might be a magazine you didn’t realize you purchased as a bundle at a checkout. It might be a subscription travel service that “accidentally” ended up in your shopping cart when you booked a trip. Or it might be a free trial you forgot about that has now converted to a $20-a-month charge. Either way, gray charges are a hassle, and the easiest way to avoid them is to never sign up for a “free” anything that requires your credit card. Check your shopping carts diligently, and uncheck all the “sign me up for XX” boxes along the way.

7. Don’t Fall for Phishing

Phishing emails have been around for a while – so long you might forget the risk they pose. Big mistake. A study by the University of Texas last year found that phishers “thrive” on consumers’ overconfidence. There was a 500% increase in personalized, social-media-based phishes in 2016. A common, credit-card stealing email might be an alert claiming your credit card on file with iTunes has been rejected, and asking for an immediate update. If you think you can’t be phished, you’re wrong. Never enter your credit card number into a website unless you have manually visited the site by typing the address into your web browser’s address bar. Never click on a link in an email – even one you are certain is real – and enter payment credentials.

8. Don’t Give Your Credit Card Number Over the Phone

This tip is similar: Never give your credit or debit card number to anyone who calls your house. Even if you are certain the call is legit. Always hang up and manually dial the company’s phone number, then give your payment details. That might sound like a hassle, but any reputable company will appreciate your efforts at security. If the person on the other end of the phone gets annoyed, that’s a good indication you are being hustled.

9. Get a Post Office Box

Mail theft is still a cause of identity theft. The simplest way to avoid it is to stop mail from coming to your house. Small P.O. boxes can cost around $100 per year and can offer peace of mind.

10. Use ATMs Carefully & Watch for Skimmers.

You know to make sure no one is watching while you enter your PIN code at an ATM. But how? It’s getting harder and harder to be sure, as hackers are inventing smarter skimmer devices that let them “watch” you remotely. The latest devices are designed to fit snugly over the slot where cards are inserted or even to be snuck inside that slot, invisible to the untrained eye. That’s one reason Litan only uses ATMs attached to a bank branch. ATMs outside grocery stores or gas stations can be easier to attack and often have higher fees. The risk isn’t only at ATMs. So-called “overlays” that fit on top of a merchant point of sale terminal have been spotted at major retailers across the country. Whenever inserting your credit or debit card into any machine, it’s a good idea to look for signs of tampering. You can take a moment to rub your fingers around the edges of a machine to see if an overlay of skimmer has been snapped on top.

11. Keep Track of Your Cards

It’s easy to forget your card at a restaurant after a meal. Develop a personal checklist so you avoid that. Each time you get up to leave a store, or before you go to bed at night, do a card count. If you can’t find your card but you are hopeful it will turn up, you might have better options than you realize. Many times, people are loathe to call and report lost cards because of the ensuing hassle. Some banks let you temporarily “freeze” your card while you look for it, then turn the card back on if it’s found safe. Discover has a feature called Freeze It. Visa and MasterCard also gives their banks similar options. Don’t be afraid to protect yourself while you are looking.

12. Sign up for Mobile Banking

Mobile banking is a great fraud fighting tool. If you aren’t using your bank’s app, you’re missing out. More people used mobile than used a bank branch for the first time in 2015, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.

Mobile banking lets you check your account every day for unusual activity. Use of mobile banking can reduce your attack surface, too, since mobile check deposits mean fewer trips to the ATM.

13. Set Text Alerts for Your Credit Card

Banking apps make it easier to use another trick that helps with fraud detection: text alerts. Most banks allow you to set up texts about transactions. Options include: A text with every purchase, a text for every purchase more than $100 or a daily text with the account balance. I prefer the last choice. Anything more frequent and the messages start to feel like spam, and can be ignored. The tool also helps with spending habits, as you’ll have a daily reminder of how much you’ve spent. Most banks can send the alerts via email, too.

14. Report Fraud Immediately

If you are hit by fraud, time isn’t on your side. You will likely be hit repeatedly until the card is canceled. Most importantly, if you don’t report the fraud in a timely manner, you can be held liable for some or all of it. Most of the time, financial institutions are responsive to fraud, and make reporting concerns and getting replacement cards easy, but early detection is critical.

Image: seb_ra

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Debt Collection Is Going Digital. Here’s What it Means for Debtors

Your next debt collector may never say a harassing thing to you at all. That debt collector might also not be human.

The next time you speak to a debt collector, you might find yourself negotiating with a computer. And you might actually prefer that.

Consumers buy toothpaste and bread without talking to a person. They get boarding passes for flights with a few swipes of a credit card or mobile phone. Why not pay off debt with a click or a text? After all, many consumers expect self-service now, and would rather perform these kinds of transactions without ever interacting with another human being.

Debt Collection Is Going Digital

In April, Experian announced a self-service platform named eResolve, which it says will let consumers negotiate and resolve past-due obligations without ever talking to a debt collector.

“The eResolve platform negotiates with the consumer on the client’s behalf and direction to resolve their obligation in a frictionless environment,” Paul DeSaulniers, senior director for risk scoring and trended data solutions at Experian, said in an email. ”eResolve is providing a way for the consumer to interact on their terms, at any time of the day or night using a digital channel that is more preferred over the traditional phone call and avoids aggressive collection tactics.”

A firm named TrueAccord attracted a lot of attention in 2014 promising to create a similar digital debt collection platform. CEO Ohed Samat says that since then, TrueAccord has generated plenty of success stories. He claims more than 60 clients with 1.4 million consumers are “on the platform.” There have been “hundreds of thousands” of resolutions — including consumers who could easily click and tell the firm they’d been victims of ID theft, or had filed bankruptcy, so collections efforts should stop.

Adios, Debt Collector Misbehavior?

It’s easy to see the potential advantages of digital collections. For starters, the obvious: Misbehaving debt collectors top most lists of consumer gripes, so getting rid of the “human element” can get rid of the illegal threats. After all, computers don’t get frustrated.

“Debt collection is a powder keg. There are explosive situations,” Samat said. “A computer doesn’t get tilted (frustrated). You can’t yell at computers and scare them.”

The old-fashioned method of debt collection resembles telemarketing, and when done badly, adds a layer of badgering that can violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. While more phone calls don’t mean higher collection rates, they do mean greater risk for harassment allegations. Both Experian and TrueAccord claim their technologies work to optimize the timing and method of communication with customers to get the best results.

“Consumers desire a more seamless and convenient way to resolve their debts, without what is often felt as an uncomfortable exchange,” DeSaulniers said. “The process is about making the experience less threatening for consumers and gives them the flexibility to access their account at any time. Doing so increases the consistency and efficiency of the debt collection process.”

ACA International, a trade association that represents collection agencies, did not immediately respond to request for comment for this article.

Negotiations Are Straightforward

Negotiating debt with a computer is exactly what it sounds like.

“First, the lender or collection agency contacts the consumer to remind him of his debt owed. At the same time, a website link is provided to the consumer, who can negotiate the payment of his debt without human interaction,” DeSaulniers said, describing the process. “Next, the consumer logs on to the website to submit a reference number associated with their account and then explores repayment options. Here, the consumer may negotiate payment amounts, terms and dates within parameters set by the lender.”

For example: Debtors get an email with an offer such as making three payments with 0% interest, or 90 cents on the dollar if paid in full. Depending on what lenders say they’ll accept, a consumer who turns down that offer might get a subsequent pitch for an 80-cents-on-the-dollar settlement. (Do you know your state’s statute of limitations on debt collections? Check them out using our handy map on debt collection statutes of limitations by state.)

Samat says machine-based debt collection solves several problems. Chief among them: thorny regulatory issues. Computers don’t call or text at the wrong times. They don’t use forbidden language, such as threat of law enforcement.

“Because of our machine-based approach, almost every line of text we send (to consumers) is pre-written and preapproved. It’s much easier for us to be compliant,” he said. He claims TrueAccord gets 66 times fewer complaints than traditional collection agencies (the sample size is still small).

Digital debt collection also fits into modern consumer behavior, Samat said. More than 60% of the interactions his firm has with debtors happen after hours, when it would be illegal to call.

“It’s people at 2 a.m., on their mobile phone, looking at their options,” he said.

Collection Efforts Tailored to Your Behaviors

But there’s more going on than just staying on the right side of the law. TrueAccord’s computers watch consumer behavior and learn when best to ping them for a resolution. If someone has spent several nights clicking through settlement options, perhaps that’s a good time to send a text, or even make a better settlement offer.

“People are different. Some need encouragement. Some need inspiration. Some need to be pointed to the facts,” he said. “We reach out in the right channel at the right time in the right language.”

Some of that language is funny – one note tells a debtor that a bill feels neglected and is “listening to breakup songs and eating ice cream” because it is unpaid. Per one consumer’s report, however, some were more sanctimonious, or even menacing.

“(It) feels like you’re taking advantage of (the debtor), and they ‘re kind of right,” says a consumer who posted a note quoting a TrueAccord email. “Let’s just take care of this balance now and be done with it. It’s not like we’re going to give up.”

When asked about the complaint, Samat said that if the cited email was really from TrueAccord, it was probably “very old and long decommissioned.”

“It did take us a while to find the right type of honest and clear communication that consumers respond well to,” he said. “And, of course, we have unfortunately seen cases where consumers confused us with other agencies.”

Dealing With Robot Debt Collectors 

Of course, even robot debt collectors have to obey federal law. Send a cease-and-desist letter, and the emails and texts must stop.

But digital debt collection might have a secret weapon: embarrassment – or rather, the lack of it.

“Consumers feel less judged,” when talking to a computer, Samat said. “Consumers in debt are afraid and overwhelmed. We speak to them in a tone they appreciate … we give them more flexible choices, so they feel like they aren’t being harassed.”

If you have debt that has gone to collections that you’ve either paid or should have aged off, you may want to check out some of our tips on ways to remove collection accounts from your credit reports. You may also want to see if the account if affecting your credit. You can view two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

Image: Geber86

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What Financial Reform Could Mean for Your Money

The legislation stands little chance of being approved in the Senate, but that doesn't mean some of its provisions won't be enacted through other means.

Financial reform is now being … reformed, and consumers could feel some of the proposed changes almost immediately. So what do the changes mean for your money? Let’s take a closer look, but first, a quick history lesson.

In 2008, in the wake of the economic collapse, Congress passed the most extensive financial reform package since the Great Depression. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 was designed to give consumers more power and to keep banks from making the kinds of risky decisions that helped lead to the housing bubble.

Last week, House Republicans voted to undo many of the reforms put in place by Democrats in 2010. On a party-line vote, House Republicans passed the Financial Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs Act, or the Financial Choice Act.

The Choice Act faces an uncertain future in the Senate. But Republicans have another path to enact much of what’s in the Choice Act.

The Senate Doesn’t Have to Act for Changes to Be Implemented

This week, the Treasury Department is releasing its own report on reforming financial reform, mandated by an executive order signed in the first few days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Many Choice Act provisions can be accomplished via administrative orders from Treasury, so it’s worth understanding the main tenets of the bill.

In general, Republicans have argued that Dodd-Frank rules have hurt banks, particularly smaller banks, which has reduced competition, ultimately hurting consumers.

“We will make sure there is needed regulatory relief for our small banks and credit unions, because it’s our small banks and credit unions that lend to our small businesses that are the jobs engine of our economy and make sure the American dream is not a pipe dream,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, (R-Texas), the driving force behind the bill, said in a statement.

Critics say the bill would recreate the pre-bubble atmosphere that led to widespread abuse and economic collapse.

“This legislation releases every bloodthirsty, greedy Wall Street super-predator back onto the American people to feast on our misery, like they did pre-Dodd-Frank,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) during floor debate.

The bill repealing Dodd-Frank is more than 600 pages long. Many are devoted to back-end bank rules, such as how often institutions must pass “stress tests” to prove they aren’t at risk. But the bill also includes measures consumers would feel pretty immediately.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Weakened

Should the Dodd-Frank repeal efforts succeed, consumers would feel the impact most immediately via changes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The law would essentially dismantle the CFPB and reconstitute it with far less power as the Consumer Law Enforcement Agency. Instead of having a single leader, it would have a commission — similar to how the Federal Trade Commission operates. Critically, it would not have a dedicated source of funding. Both steps would make the agency more subject to political whims.

The law also prevents the consumer agency from taking enforcement actions against unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices — a catch-all category that generally forbids fraudulent activity — significantly narrowing the agency’s ability to file lawsuits on behalf of consumers.

Public Complaint Database Targeted

The CFPB’s consumer complaint center is perhaps the most public manifestation of financial reform. As of March, 1.1 million complaints had been filed, each one requiring an answer from industry. The database is public, so it serves as a kind of search engine for consumers who want to learn about the background of the financial companies with which they do business. It’s a tool that CFPB employees and other regulators use to find potential patterns of abuse. Banks have complained that responding to every complaint — some are indeed frivolous — is a costly burden. More generally, critics say it’s unfair to publish unverified complaints against companies.

“Is the purpose of the database just to name and shame companies? Or should they have a disclaimer on there that says it’s a fact-free zone, or this is fake news? That’s really what I see happening here,’’ said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia) during hearings on reform that made clear elimination of the database would be a priority.

Single-Agency Regulation Changed

Prior to Dodd-Frank, consumer protection was split among 10 banking regulators. Many, like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, were unfamiliar to consumers. In some cases, such as with private student loan issuers or payday lenders, it wasn’t clear if any banking regulator had jurisdiction. The CFPB’s one-stop shopping to get redress — often through the complaint database — made obtaining answers easier. Through its various enforcement efforts, the bureau has returned $12 billion to 29 million consumers. Under the Choice Act, many enforcement responsibilities would be returned to their original regulators.

Payday, Arbitration, Auto Lending Rules Rolled Back

A host of CFPB consumer protection efforts would be dialed back or shut down by the Choice Act.

After years of study, the agency published rules last year to regulate the payday and title loan industries. Those rules would be eliminated. The Choice Act contains a provision that prevents any federal agency from “any rulemaking, enforcement or other authority with respect to payday loans, vehicle title loans or other similar loans.” (See how loans affect your finances by viewing a free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.)

The CFPB also has spent six years working to eliminate binding arbitration agreements that prevent consumers from filing lawsuits against corporations, requiring them to use arbitration for complaints instead. The Choice Act prevents the agency from making rules about arbitration.

The Choice Act also nullifies a 2013 rule that requires third-party auto lenders — sometimes called indirect lenders — to comply with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The rule was put in place because CFPB research alleged that some indirect lenders were charging high loan markups to minority groups.

Fiduciary Rule Eliminated

Efforts to undo reform would reach beyond CFBP rules, however. Another provision in the Choice Act would essentially eliminate the fiduciary rule requiring certain financial advisers to act in the interests of their clients. After a decade-long debate, the Labor Department is set to institute the rule this summer. It will take effect in January, and many financial firms are already abiding by it. The Republican legislation would remove the requirement.

“The final rule of the Department of Labor titled ‘Definition of the Term ‘Fiduciary’; Conflict of Interest Rule—Retirement Investment Advice’ and related prohibited transaction exemptions published April 8, 2016 … shall have no force or effect,” the legislation says.

Risky Mortgages Made Easier

The Choice Act also makes a wide series of changes to rules governing the way banks issue mortgages. The most obvious would be an easing of “qualified mortgage” rules designed to make sure lenders make good-faith efforts to ensure borrowers have the ability to repay home loans. Qualified mortgages don’t have risky elements such as balloon payments or negative amortization. Banks that offer qualified mortgages are exempt from more stringent ability-to-repay requirements. The Choice Act expands the definition of qualified mortgages, making it easier for banks to issue some mortgages.

Enforcement, So Long as the Industry Isn’t Harmed

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Choice Act requires the CFPB replacement to consider the impact of any potential enforcement actions on the financial industry when deciding to pursue action against a misbehaving company.

The new agency must “carry out a cost-benefit analysis of any proposed administrative enforcement action, civil lawsuit or consent order of the Agency; and … assess the impact of such complaint, lawsuit or order on consumer choice, price and access to credit products,” according to the legislation.

This dual role — enforcing consumer protections while also ensuring the safety and soundness of the industry — puts regulators in a tough spot. Suing a bank for mistreating customers can hurt the fortunes of that bank, and other banks that might be employing consumer-unfriendly tactics. That can make siding with consumers a serious challenge.

The CFPB was set up specifically to avoid this dynamic, and set up so that fighting for consumer rights was its main task. The Choice Act eliminates this “on-your-side” structure.

Image: YokobchukOlena

The post What Financial Reform Could Mean for Your Money appeared first on Credit.com.

Why the “Do Not Call Registry” Can’t Protect You from Spam Phone Calls Anymore

If you’re afraid to answer your phone, you’re hardly alone. Spam calls have become so common that they’ve basically rendered the “phone” part of “smartphone” useless. Or at least, very dumb. But help might, finally, be on the way.

The Do Not Call list, which debuted in 2004, was perhaps the most popular program operated by the U.S. government in decades — 50 million numbers were entered before the list even took effect. Since then, another 170 million numbers were entered into the registry. U.S. telemarketers quickly learned to abide by the list or face multi-million dollar fines the Federal Trade Commission could impose — and there have been more than 100 enforcement actions.

It worked…for a while. But the combination of internet-based telephones and cheap long-distance calls have made it easy for telephone scofflaws to operate overseas, far beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. Unwanted calls have returned with a vengeance, making some wonder if the Do Not Call list works at all.

How bad is the problem? A firm called YouMail Inc. tries to count the number of robocalls that pester Americans, and the statistics are staggering. YouMail claims that 2.5 billion unwanted calls were placed just in April 2017, equaling 7.7 calls per person.

For fun, YouMail breaks down its data by ZIP code, and found that Atlanta wins for most robocalls received, with about 50 million placed just to the 404 area code in April. Another 35 million arrived at Atlanta’s 678 area code. Houston and Dallas area codes came in second and third. New York City’s 917 area code was fifth, with 29 million.

The robocall problem has been intractable for a series of reasons — mainly, because it makes the criminals who run scams like fake IRS debt collection like these a lot of money. But two other technology reasons stick out.

1. Criminals can “spoof” caller ID numbers.

First, it’s become easier for criminals to “spoof” caller ID numbers. That not only keeps consumers from blocking numbers, it can also make them more likely to answer. Calls that appear to come from the recipient’s own area code — or even share the same first six digits of their phone number — suggest a local call, so consumers are tempted to answer.

2. The telecom industry has a hard time stopping suspicious calls.

Second, the telecom industry has avoided implementing technology that would stop many suspicious calls because the firms claim they are legally required to connect calls, and they don’t have the authority to decide what is spam and what isn’t.

Years of frustration and consumer complaints finally nudged the Federal Communications Commission toward action last year, and it created the Robocall Strike Force. In August, tech heavy hitters like AT&T, Google, and Microsoft gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss ideas.

Then in March, with the FCC under new leadership, Chairman Ajit Pai indicated he would go ahead with proposals from the task force. Specifically, he would call for a change in rules that explicitly gave telecom firms the right to cut off spammers.

“Under my proposal, the FCC would give providers greater leeway to block spoofed robocalls. Specifically, they could block calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers — there’s a database that keeps track of all phone numbers, and many of them aren’t assigned to a voice service provider or aren’t otherwise in use,” he wrote in a Medium post explaining the change. “There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid phone number. It’s just a way for scammers to evade the law.”

Later in March, the FCC approved the proposal. The work isn’t done, however. There’s now a public comment period; a vote to enact the new rules won’t happen until later this year. Then there will be a transition period as carriers implement their spoofed-call-blocking technologies.

How to stop unwanted spam phone calls

Relief is in sight, but it’s not time to turn your ringtone back on just yet. For now, consumers can investigate third-party services like Nomorobo ($2/month, iPhone only, see a review here) or Hiya (free, see iTunes reviews here) that claim to help by using blacklists and other methods to identify spam callers. Some providers and smartphones offer their own free call-blocking options, but they are cumbersome to use. Consumers can Google phone numbers that call, just to see if others have complained online about them. Or simply keep screening those calls for a bit longer.

The post Why the “Do Not Call Registry” Can’t Protect You from Spam Phone Calls Anymore appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Here’s How Trump’s New Budget Will Affect Your Student Loans

Have a student loan? You'll want to read this.

The 43 million Americans with student loans — and the millions more who will take out their first college loans this fall — should pay close attention to President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget. It requests dramatic changes to the help offered to borrowers, calling for an end to many benefits for lower-income students, and making life harder for those repaying graduate school loans. There’s a glimmer of hope, though, for those repaying undergraduate loans.

The budget, which was made public Tuesday, and is available on the White House website, is not set in stone — in fact, it’s more like a wish list the White House sends to Congress every year. Still, it will be used to frame discussion of student loan borrowing and repayment, so it demands attention.

Let’s break down what it could mean for you.

Lower-Income Borrowers Would Take a Hit…

Trump’s budget calls for elimination of the Stafford Loan program, which provides discounted loans to students with financial need. Stafford borrowers pay roughly half the interest rate of standard federal loan borrowers. These borrowers would also have to pay interest on their loans while in school, ending a long-time benefit. Students with standard federal loans don’t make payments while in school, but interest on their loans accrues and is capitalized, or added to their balance.

As Would Service-Based Loan Forgiveness…

The budget also calls for the end of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which allows workers in some professions to see their loan balances erased after they make income-based repayments on their loans for as few as 10 years. The program began under the Bush administration, but under President Obama, the earn-out time was reduced to 10 years.

The program is already the subject of controversy, as the first crop of students eligible for 10-year forgiveness — about half a million graduates — will have that benefit kick in this fall. The Department of Education, under the leadership of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, already has said it might not honor the forgiveness now. The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the program, or Trump’s budget.

Income-Based Repayment Plans Would be Reduced, But…

The biggest government savings in the budget when it comes to student loans, though, comes from reducing the number of income-based repayment plans made available to struggling graduates, according to a New York Times analysis. Currently, there are a series of complex offerings (explained in detail on the Department of Education website).

Plans with names like income-contingent repayment, income-based repayment, and “pay as you earn” are all designed to keep payments between 10% and 20% of the borrower’s income. Some offer payments as low as $5 per month, depending on income.

…Forgiveness Could Come Sooner

However, the Trump plan offers those using income-based repayment plans something Trump promised on the campaign trail. Monthly payments for undergraduate loan holders would increase slightly to 12.5% of income (from 10%), but would promise forgiveness on a shortened schedule — after 15 years of on-time payments. Currently, many plans require 20 years of payments.

Grad Students Would Be Hit Hard

On the other hand, those with graduate loans would face a tougher road. Graduate students would also have to pay more — 12.5% of their incomes — and would have to pay for 30 years instead of 25 years.

In other words, under Trump’s plan, a student who earned a graduate degree at age 25 would have to make on-time income-based repayments until age 55 to earn loan forgiveness, while someone with an undergraduate degree who graduated at 22 could earn forgiveness by age 37.

Those who plan to stop school after college might cheer the proposal, but an analysis of the student loan problem published by Credit.com shows that the majority of borrowers with oppressively large loans accumulated their balances in graduate school. While the average college loan balance for a 2016 graduate is about $37,000, one quarter of all grad degree earners had borrowed more than $100,000, according to a paper published by the New America Education Policy Program in 2015.

The New America paper also found that 40% of America’s outstanding $1 trillion-plus student loan balance is owed by those who earned a graduate degree. Trump’s budget essentially uses savings from cutting help to graduate school borrowers to offer help to undergraduate-only borrowers.

Whatever your student loan situation, keep in mind that missed or late payments can end up impacting your credit scores, which can hinder your borrowing ability in the future. You can see how your loan repayments are affecting your credit by checking your two free credit scores right here on Credit.com.

Image: Geber86

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17 Questions Every College Graduate Has (But Is Afraid to Ask)

If you're graduating from college, your work is only beginning. Here are some of life's questions for which you'll need answers.

May is a big month for college graduates. There’s all the last-minute details with finishing school – finals, papers, moving, selling stuff. There’s the family, the cap and gown, the parties, the sad farewells. Then after all that, there are the questions. What now? Where will I go? What will I do? We can’t answer all of them for you (you’ll have to decide to keep or dump that college sweetheart on your own). But here’s a good start at answering some of the questions you may have when it comes to money.

1. What Should I do With Graduation Money I Get From my Family?

Lucky you! Resist the urge to spend it all upgrading your hostels to hotels on that summer trip to Europe. Instead, use half of it to pay down debt or pay for your move to a new city, and the other half to invest for the future, preferably, retirement. Really. Read the parable of the Two Twins. In short, it shows that people who put away money for retirement in their twenties — and stop by age 30 — end up with more money than those who save nothing in their twenties but save from age 30-65. It seems impossible, but it’s true. Those who invest in their early twenties have an amazing advantage over everyone else.

2. When do I Have to Start Making Student Loan Payments?

Most student loans come with a six-month grace period, meaning the first payment is due seven months after graduation. For most of you, that means this November, unless you’re headed to graduate school.

3. Should I Go to Graduate School?

That depends. While it’s tempting to put off “real life” (and student loan payments) for a few more years, many people can benefit from working for a few years before returning to school. Studies can be more focused when students are sure they are studying a field they plan to pursue. A few years working as a paralegal in a law firm can disavow you of the notion you want to be a lawyer, which will save you a lot of money and strife through law school. Of course, in some fields, like medicine, graduate school is a prerequisite, so attending right away can make more sense. But it’s important to remember: The majority of folks who are drowning in excessive student loan debt incur that debt in graduate school, not during undergraduate studies, so poorly-planned grad school can become a real problem.

4. If I Must Start Repaying my Loans, Can I Lower my Payments?

Yes. There are many ways to do this, but all of them can have negative consequences. With federal loans, the simplest way is to select a “graduated repayment plan.” This allows borrowers to pay less now, and more later – payments usually go up every two years —  with the assumption that recent grads will earn more as time goes on. All borrowers are eligible, but it means borrowing more money for longer, which means more interest paid. Beyond that, the Department of Education has numerous plans available to borrowers. Consolidation loans can extend payment terms for up to 25 years – but of course the interest paid will soar. There are also various income-based repayment or loan forgiveness programs. These can be reviewed at the Department of Education websites. You can learn more about what happens if you do default on your student loans here.

5. What Should I Do to Prepare for a Job Interview?

Google yourself. Clean up your social media accounts. Erase, or at least make private, those keg stand pictures.  Then, prepare, prepare, prepare. Learn everything you can about the company you are about to interview with (and even the person if that information is available to you). Read the job description carefully and at least appear to be excited about the specific tasks that will be required of you. Know that while the ad may say “Join an exciting team and help build a life-changing product,” you could be spending nine hours a day composing social media posts. At least, at first. Embrace that. And, maybe get a new suit. You can find 50 more steps grads can take to find their first job here.

6. It’s my First Job, What Salary Should I Ask for?

The average starting salary for college grads this year is $49,785, according to advisory firm Korn Ferry. That’s not a bad starting reference point. And it’s up 3% from last year. Some professions get more, some less. Software developers earn 31% above average; customer service reps, 28% below. Check out more numbers from the Korn Ferry analysis.

7. How do I Make a Budget?

Budgets don’t have to be complicated. Type into a spreadsheet the costs you know (or guess) for rent, utilities, TV/video, Internet, car, phone, student loan repayments, food, entertainment and whatever else applies. Add it all up, then compare it to your take-home pay. If the first number is higher than the second, you’re going to have to make some cuts, so start figuring out what you can live without. At the end of the month, take out the credit card bill and see how realistic your projections were. Then add lines where you missed things – lines for travel, or savings, or emergencies (they happen, sometimes monthly). Then repeat, every month. You’ll get it. It might be painful, but keep at it.

8. Should I Put Money in a 401K or Pay Down Debt Instead?

Yes! You should do both —save and pay down debt at the same time. It’s a BIG mistake to pay extra to lower your student loan balance at the expense of contributing enough to your 401K to at least maximize your company match. That’s free money you should never leave on the table.

9. Should I Live With Roommates?

For most people, housing is the biggest monthly expense. Ideally, rent will cost no more than one-third of your income. Keep in mind, though, that it’s essentially impossible to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment one a single average income anywhere in the U.S. One bedrooms also can be are expensive, so while you may be tired of living with roommates, your best strategy is to live like you are in college for a few more years and save your money. Living with roommates can be the quickest route to owning a home in your thirties.

10. How Much Money Do I Need to Buy a House?

The median home price in the U.S. right now is $189,000. To make a traditional 20% down payment on that would be $37,800. A 5% down payment, accepted in many situations with higher fees, would be about $9,500. Of course, in many populous cities, prices are much, much higher. For example, the median home price in Washington, D.C., is $549,000 – a 20% down payment there is $109,000, and 5% down is $27,500. Some mortgage programs, like FHA loans, allow first-time home buyers to have even less money down, but those come with other fees, and of course, the monthly payment will be higher. Speaking of monthly payments, would-be buyers need to remember house payments also come with insurance and property taxes. Then, there’s maintenance and surprise repair costs. So, save while you can.

11. How Much Does a Wedding Cost?

From $100 to $100,000, or more. Seriously. You can Google the cost of an average wedding, and you’ll quickly find averages in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. But these numbers are based on online surveys, which are self-selecting. Averages are skewed by extremes, plus an “average” wedding in New York will cost more than one in St. Louis. You, you can spend as little or as much on your nuptials as you choose, but guess which one is financially smarter. You can go simple and put that cash toward a down payment instead.

12. How Much Money do I Need to Start a Family?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but here are a few data points. It costs $233,610 to raise a single child through age 17 (not including college), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s just one child. Of course, you don’t need it all at once. A kid costs about $12,000-$14,000 annually. Costs will vary regionally, and on your taste in clothes and schools, and on your health insurance plan. Kids are expensive – the average cost of just having a baby in the U.S. is about $10,000, and that’s without any complications.

13. OK, Then. How do I Make More Money?

The easiest way is moonlighting in the gig economy. Drive an Uber one night per week (do it on a weekend night and you’ll save by not spending!) Rent out your place on AirBNB. Sell things on eBay or Etsy. Volunteer for overtime.  Most of all, hone a skill that’s desirable, like software coding. And don’t forget the most obvious: Ask for a raise at your current job …

14. How Do I Ask for a Raise?

Never forget that how much compensation you get from a company is a simple business negotiation. You don’t get to ask for more money because you need it. You have to ask for more money because you are worth it. Do your research. Go to places like Salary.com, Indeed, or Glassdoor and learn if you are paid commensurate with others in your profession. If you aren’t, that’s a good starting point. Chiefly, do a quiet job hunt and see what others in the market might pay you. The best way to get a raise is to get a counter-offer.

Also, note these two disturbing trends in many salary surveys: Workers often don’t get raises any more, they get bonuses, which help corporations keep down their long-term liabilities (it’s easier to kill a bonus than lower salaries when times get hard). And many workers today find the only way to get a real raise is to change jobs.

15. There Are no Jobs in my Major. What Should I Do?

Don’t give up your first love, but be realistic. Right now, the best-paid American workers and the most plentiful jobs are in software, engineering, and health care. Can you switch to one of those fields, and pursue your love of music or the arts on the side? Can you sell what you make on Etsy, but still have a day job? Could you write code during the day, and tutor children at night to fulfill your love of teaching? Creative thinking is your friend here.

16. What Do I Do if I Can’t Find a Job?

Start with part-time work. Research professions that offer piecework which might be similar to the field you wish to enter. FlexJobs maintains a list of jobs you can do from home. Consider joining the gig economy for a while.

17. I Don’t Know What I Want to Do. What Should I Do?

Read. Read a lot. Read books like What Color is Your Parachute. Talk to people. Talk a lot. Most important – DO SOMETHING. Anything. Work in fast food, or work at a Walmart. You can learn something at any job. Even if you hate it, that’s one thing you can cross off your list. And just maybe, you won’t hate it. But above all, don’t do nothing.  Wracking up credit card debt and student loan interest during your twentiess can haunt you for the rest of your adult life. Whatever you do, earn money and tread water. You’ll figure it out.

Image: pixelfit

The post 17 Questions Every College Graduate Has (But Is Afraid to Ask) appeared first on Credit.com.

Want to Roll Your Student Loans Into Your Mortgage? Here’s What to Consider

It can be a good option for some people, but for others it's just trading old debt for new.

It’s a question as old as debt itself: Should I pay off one loan with another loan?

“Debt reshuffling,” as it’s known, has garnered a bad reputation because it often amounts to just trading one debt problem for another. So it’s no wonder the news that Fannie Mae would make it easier for homeowners to swap student loan debt for mortgage debt was met with some caution.

It’s awfully tempting to trade a 6.8% interest rate on your federal student loan for a 4.75% interest rate on a mortgage. On the surface, the interest rate savings sound dramatic. It’s also attractive to get rid of that monthly student loan payment. But there are things to consider.

“One thing we stress big time: It worries me, taking unsecured debt and making it secured,” said Desmond Henry, a personal financial adviser based in Kansas.  “If you lose your job, with a student loan, there is nothing they can take away. The second you refinance into a mortgage, you just made that a secured debt. Now, they can come after your house.”

The Cash-Out Refinance

The option to swap student loan debt for home debt has already been available to homeowners through what’s called a “cash-out refinance.” These have traditionally been used by homeowners with a decent amount of equity to refinance their primary mortgage and walk away from closing with a check to use on other expenses, such as costly home repairs or to pay off credit card (or student) debt. Homeowners could opt for a home equity loan also, but cash-out refinances tend to have lower interest rates.

The rates are a bit higher than standard mortgages, however, due to “Loan Level Price Adjustments” added to the loan that reflect an increase in perceived risk that the borrower could default. The costs are generally added into the interest rate.

So what’s changed with the new guidelines from Fannie Mae? Lenders now have the green light to waive that Loan Level Price Adjustment if the cash-out check goes right from the bank to the student loan debt holder, and pays off the entire balance of at least one loan.

The real dollar value savings for this kind of debt reshuffle depends on a lot of variables: The size of the student loan, the borrower’s credit score, and so on. Fannie Mae expressed it only as a potential savings on interest rates.

“The average rate differential between cash-out refinance loan-level price adjustment and student debt cash-out refinance is about a 0.25% in rate,” Fannie Mae’s Alicia Jones wrote in an email. “Depending on profile [it] can be higher, up to 0.50%.”

On $36,000 of refinanced student loan debt — the average student loan balance held by howeowners who have cosigned a loan — a 0.50% rate reduction would mean nearly $4,000 less in payments over 30 years.

So, the savings potential is real. And for consumers in stable financial situations, the new cash-out refinancing could potentially make sense. Like Desmond Henry, though, the Consumer Federation of America urged caution.

“Swapping student debt for mortgage debt can free up cash in your family budget, but it can also increase the risk of foreclosure when you run into trouble,” said Rohit Chopra, Senior Fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and former Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “For borrowers with solid income and stable employment, refinancing can help reduce the burden of student debt. But for others, they might be signing away their student loan benefits when times get tough.”

Risking foreclosure is only one potential pitfall of this kind of debt reshuffle, Henry said.  There are several others. For starters, the savings might not really add up.

Crunch the Numbers. Alllll the Numbers…

“You don’t just want to look at back-of-a-napkin math and say, ‘Hey, a mortgage loan is 2% lower than a student loan.’ You’ve got to watch out for hidden costs,’ Henry said.

Cash-out refinances come with closing costs that can be substantial, for example. Also, mortgage holders who are well into paying down their loans will re-start their amortization schedules, meaning their first several years of new payments will pay very little principal. And borrowers extending their terms will ultimately pay far more interest.

“We live in a society where everything is quoted on a payment. That catches the ears of a lot of people,” Henry said. “People think ‘That’s a no brainer. I’ll save $500 a month.’ But your 10-year loan just went to 30 years.”

There are other, more technical reasons that the student-loan-to-mortgage shuffle might not be a good idea. Refinancers will waive their right to various student loan forgiveness options – programs for those who work public service, for example. They won’t be able to take advantage of income-based repayment plans, either. Any new form of student loan relief created by Congress or the Department of Education going forward would probably be inaccessible, too.

On the tax front, the option is a mixed bag. Henry notes that student loan payments are top-line deductible on federal taxes, while those who don’t itemize deductions wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the mortgage interest tax deduction. On the other hand, there are caps on the student loan deduction, while there’s no cap on the mortgage interest deduction. That means higher-income student loan debtors who refinanced could see substantial savings at tax time.

In other words, it’s complicated, so if you’re considering your options, it’s probably wise to consult a financial professional like an accountant who can look at your specific situation to see what makes the most sense. (It’s also a good idea to check your credit before considering any refinancing or debt-consolidate options since it’ll affect your rate. You can get your two free credit scores right here on Credit.com.)

As a clever financial tool used judiciously, a cash-out student loan refinance could save a wise investor a decent amount of money. But, as Henry notes, the real risk with any debt reshuffle is that robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t change fundamental debt problems facing many consumers.

“The first thing to take into consideration is you still have the debt,” he said.

Image: monkeybusinessimages

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