It was big news when outstanding student loan debt surpassed credit card debt and then later exceeded $1 trillion for the first time. That shocking statistic keeps climbing, with no sign of slowing down: Americans now have more than $1.4 trillion in unpaid education debt, according to the Federal Reserve.
Meanwhile, college-bound kids and their families try to avoid going into debt by heeding advice like “save more,” “apply for scholarships” or “go to a cheaper school.” Of course, none of those address the major issue of rising costs that have far outpaced wage growth.
It’s smart to avoid student loan debt if you can, because those loans affect your credit and your financial future. (You can see how much by checking your free credit scores on Credit.com.) However, strategically choosing a school isn’t quite as straightforward as comparing tuition and fees.
One thing you can do is check out an institution’s net price calculator, which should be on its website, to see how much a student like you would pay after grants and scholarships. Another thing you can do is look at how much student loan debt recent grads ended up with. (You can read more about options for repaying your student loans here.)
The response to that question is a little trickier to figure out, but organizations like The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) have compiled such data to help. According to their Project on Student Debt, 68% of 2015 bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with student loan debt. The average was $30,100 per borrower.
TICAS put together their project based on student loan debt figures from the “Common Data Set,” a survey of colleges used by college-guide publishers. The colleges voluntarily self report their data, which presents problems.
“Colleges that accurately calculate and report each year’s debt figures rightfully complain that other colleges may have students with higher average debt but fail to update their figures, under-report actual debt levels, or never report figures at all,” reads the methodology for the Project on Student Debt. “Additionally, very few for-profit colleges report debt data through CDS, and national data show that borrowing levels at for-profit colleges are, on average, much higher than borrowing levels at other types of colleges.”
For students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available, TICAS determined the average student loan debt in each state by using data from 1,116 colleges. For comparison, there are more than 3,000 four-year institutions in the U.S.
Beyond that, the data were limited to bachelor’s degree recipients, meaning those who had debt but lacked a degree weren’t included, and if a student acquired debt at a different school before transferring to the one where they graduated, those numbers weren’t included in the totals. Still, as TICAS notes in the methodology for the Project on Student Debt, “CDS data are still useful for illustrating the variations in student debt across states and colleges.”
Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of the average student loan debt, from lowest to highest, for the class of 2015. The Project on Student Debt also lists student-loan-debt data by school. (Note: North Dakota is not included in this list, as TICAS did not include states where useable data reflected less than 30% of the state’s bachelor’s degree recipients in 2015.)
As confusing as credit scores can be, most people get the basic concept: You want a high score, not a low one. What qualifies as a good credit score depends on the scoring model you’re talking about (and there are dozens of them), but a common range is 300 to 850. The higher your score, the better. You don’t have to aim for an 850 to get the best terms on a loan or qualify for top-tier credit cards, but anywhere in the high 700s is a good place to be.
Ideally, you’re not anywhere near the bottom of the range, but it is possible to have a 300 credit score on a 300 to 850 scale. The good news: A very small portion of the population has such a score. The bad news: Some people do.
How Many People Have the Worst Credit Score?
There are 294 million “scoreable” consumers, and only 0.01% of them had a 300 credit score, according to data credit bureau TransUnion pulled for Credit.com in March 2017. (A scoreable consumer is someone with enough information in their credit files to generate a VantageScore 3.0. TransUnion said 4.28% of the population is not scoreable.) While 0.01% is a really small portion of consumers, it still means 29,400 people have the worst credit score (on the VantageScore 3.0 scale). In other words: It’s totally possible for your credit to hit rock-bottom. (You can see where you stand by getting two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)
Though it’s uncommon to have the worst credit score, having bad credit isn’t. More than a quarter (27.66%) of consumers have a credit score between 300 and 600, which is considered bad credit or subprime credit. Conversely, 20% have a super prime credit score (781 to 850). The average credit score was 645 when TransUnion pulled the data.
How to Deal With Terrible Credit
TransUnion didn’t identify common factors among consumers with a 300 credit score, but they pointed out some characteristics of subprime credit files: “Generally speaking people with poor credit (300-600 score) usually make late payments, only contribute the minimum amount, carry high percentage balances on multiple cards and apply for multiple lines of credit within a short period of time,” said Sarah Kossek, a spokeswoman for TransUnion, noting that the factors vary by individual.
So if you want to avoid joining the population of people with bad credit (or you want to get out of the club), it’s smart to make credit card and loan payments on time, pay down your debts, use a very small portion of your credit card limits and apply for credit sparingly. It’s also a good idea to regularly review your credit reports for accuracy, as errors may be hurting your credit. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Ideally, you’ll never need to ride in the back of an ambulance. But if it happens, here’s what you should know: Ambulance services are extremely expensive.
Rick Santoro learned that the hard way.
After receiving a two-mile transport in February, Santoro experienced sticker shock: His ride added up to $2,691.50. Though insurance covered most of it, Santoro had to pay $770.30 out of pocket, and he wondered if that was right. The bulk of the bill resulted from the fact he hadn’t yet hit his annual deductible, but it still seemed pricey, he said, given the brief care he received.
“I just want an answer,” Santoro said. “If I gotta pay the 700 bucks, I gotta pay … It will be a lesson learned for me.”
‘I Didn’t Feel Well’
In early February, Santoro, 60, was at an orthopedist’s office for a small procedure, an injection in his knee. Afterward, he passed out, but once he regained consciousness, he continued to feel ill.
His doctor suggested he go to the emergency room, and Santoro, uncertain why he was having issues, agreed. An ambulance took him two miles to the nearest hospital, and a few weeks later, the bill arrived. The short ride cost more than the subsequent emergency room visit, which he estimates lasted about two and a half hours. That bill was $200.
Why Are Ambulance Services So Expensive?
Santoro’s inquiry isn’t the first Credit.com has received about a pricey ambulance ride. As we’ve previously reported, there are many reasons medical transport services cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s difficult to pin down an average amount for an ambulance bill, because costs vary so widely by location, services and contracts between providers and insurers. But the core expenses generally result from the same things.
“Labor, training, readiness, equipment — all these things factor into the equation,” said Alan Schwalberg, vice president of emergency medical services at Northwell Health Center in Syosset, New York, which provided the ambulance that transported Santoro. (Schwalberg said he couldn’t comment on a specific patient’s case but could speak generally about the cost of ambulance services at Northwell.)
“[Patients] can’t fathom how it’s so expensive,” he said. “They compare it to Uber, but it’s not Uber.”
People who receive ambulance transportation pay not only for the services they receive but also for what it costs for ambulances to be readily available in the service area, in addition to the cost of training people who provide medical services in the vehicle.
“There’s two people for every one patient, minimum,” which is a different standard of healthcare than you’d find in an emergency room, Schwalberg said. “It’s labor intensive.”
Equipment and staff must also meet local and state regulatory requirements, and the cost of such maintenance adds up. All that factors into the base charge, or what Schwalberg referred to as “loaded miles.”
On top of that, there’s a mileage charge, but that generally makes up a much smaller portion of the final bill. In Santoro’s case, the base charge was $2,480 and the mileage was $84. (The remaining $127.50 was a surcharge imposed by New York state.)
Part of what shocked Santoro is the fact that he received what he considered very little care: An EMT took his vitals and gave him oxygen, he said. But Schwalberg said Northwelldoesn’t itemize medications and other care a patient may receive in an ambulance. Patients are charged for one of two types of care: basic life support or advanced life support.
Why Ambulance Costs Vary
While Schwalberg’s explanation gives insight into the high costs of ambulance transport, it’s really only applicable to Northwell Health Center on Long Island. As with many aspects of health care costs, base charges vary by provider, insurance coverage and location.
In Northwell’s case, ambulance rates were set after working with an outside consulting firm a few years ago, Schwalberg said. They compared prices throughout the region, determined the final rates, and then negotiated with insurance carriers what they would pay. They determined a patient’s final responsibility would rely not only on the type of insurance coverage they have but also on the terms their insurance carrier set with the provider.
For these reasons, it can be really difficult to know how much a health care service will end up costing you, unless you price it out with the provider and your insurer in advance. That’s something medical billing experts like Adria Goldman Gross recommend, but obviously that’s not an option in an emergency situation. In that case, Gross said you should be prepared to negotiate. (You can read more about how to avoid a high medical bill here.)
How to Handle a Massive Medical Bill
Gross said the first thing to do when you get a bill is check the medical billing codes to see if they match the services you received. (She recommends doing this with any bill, no matter the size, because errors are common.) If it’s wrong, that’s the first thing to challenge with the health care provider, but if it’s right, the next thing to do is research costs for similar procedures in your area. She said she uses the Medicare fee schedule as a benchmark.
Fair warning: While the fee schedule is publicly available, it’s not the easiest thing to read. If, based on those figures or other research, you feel like you’ve been overcharged, you can try to negotiate a lower bill. Again, this is easier said than done.
“Sometimes it could be one phone call, other times it could be 15 phone calls or it could be 20 phone calls, it depends,” Gross said. You’re in for a lot of work, she added, but if you really believe you’re being overcharged, it can be worth the fight.
“Say, ‘Look, I really feel that you’ve been paid the reasonable amount, and I really only owe you this much for the allowed amounts for your location,'” she said. Gross suggested working your way up the ladder and even calling the CEO of the hospital or an equivalent authority figure to make your case. If you truly can’t afford your bills, ask about repayment assistance. Schwalberg said Northwell offers such a program.
Having made several phone calls to the hospital to verify his bill, Santoro said he is on track to pay the full $770.30 in small monthly installments. He said he wishes he hadn’t taken the ambulance or at least knew how expensive it was going to be. Reflecting on the situation, he said he should have waited to see if he felt better or taken a car service instead of an ambulance, then acknowledged he isn’t sure how knowing the cost would have affected his decision at the time.
“Why can’t the guy that picks you up say to you, ‘This is going to be an expensive ride?'” Santoro said, seeming to replay the episode in his head. He added: “I don’t know what I would say. I just wanted to feel better.”
Haven’t filed your taxes yet? Good news: You can get a six-month extension to do them. Bad news: You still need to pay your taxes by April 18 (this year’s deadline), or you’ll owe interest and fees for making a late payment. You have to do your best to estimate what you owe and make or postmark the payment by April 18.
How to Get an Extension to File Your Taxes
You can request an extension from the Internal Revenue Service by either submitting an electronic payment of your estimated tax due, filing an electronic Form 4868 or filing a paper Form 4868. Each option automatically gives you a six-month extension for filing your tax return, meaning you have until Oct. 18 to send in your paperwork.
To make an electronic payment to the IRS, you can make an online direct payment from your bank account, use the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (requires enrollment) or use a credit or debit card. Making an electronic payment means you do not have to file a Form 4868, as the payment triggers an automatic six-month extension. If you file a paper Form 4868, you should include your payment.
What to Do If You Owe But Don’t Have the Money
People often want an extension from the IRS because they don’t have enough money to pay their tax bill. But that’s not how it works.
If you don’t have the cash to pay your taxes, you can make a partial payment, though the unpaid balance will be subject to interest and a late-payment penalty (generally one-half of 1% of the unpaid tax each month the balance goes unpaid, up to 25%). You could also pay your taxes with a credit card, though there’s a processing fee to do so, plus the interest you’d owe your credit card company. You can learn more about paying your taxes with a credit card here. While the IRS offers installment plans, you must file your tax return to apply for one.
Not only can paying your taxes late get expensive due to interest and fees, it could potentially damage your credit: The IRS could place a lien against your property for unpaid tax debt, which will show up on your credit report as a derogatory item. That can drive up the costs of other things in your life, like loan rates and insurance premiums. (You can see what’s affecting your credit by getting a free credit report summary every 14 days on Credit.com.)
You’re motivated by a deadline, you’re busy, you’re still getting organized — whatever the reason, you haven’t filed your taxes yet. That’s not a huge deal (there’s a deadline for a reason), but still, waiting until the last minute to file your taxes means you might be rushed. And that means there’s a higher likelihood of making mistakes or overlooking something important.
To help you avoid making a mess of an already unpleasant task, we put together a list of things you should keep in mind as you get ready to face the job you’ve been putting off for months.
1. The Sooner You File …
… The sooner you can get a refund. The IRS says it issues nine out of 10 refunds in less than 21 days.
2. Waiting to File Puts You at Risk
Taxpayer identity theft is no joke. It generally involves someone using your Social Security number to get a fraudulent refund — preventing you from getting yours in a timely manner.
3. If You’re a Tax Fraud Victim, You Need to Prepare a Paper Return
“First, I would definitely contact the IRS, and you should also contact the credit bureaus, and then you would just have to paper file your return if they already e-filed using your Social Security number,” said Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant and tax expert with TurboTax.
4. The Deadline to File …
… Is April 18. No, that’s not a typo. April 15 falls on a Sunday this year, and April 16 is a holiday in the District of Columbia. So Tuesday, April 18 it is.
5. It’s a Hard Deadline
Your paper return must be postmarked by April 18. An e-file must be submitted before midnight on April 18. Otherwise, the IRS could slap you with fees.
6. But You Can Get an Extension
You can file Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, which gives you an additional six months to file.
7. The Extension Is for Paperwork, Not Payment
If you think you’ll owe taxes, you must make your best guess using previous years’ information and an online estimate calculator.
8. Unpaid Taxes Carry Fees …
Interest on unpaid taxes compounds daily from the due date of the return to the date they’re paid in full. The failure-to-pay fee is one-half of 1% of your unpaid balance for each month, or part of a month, up to 25%, until the debt is paid in full.
9. … & Even Affect Your Credit Score
If your unpaid-tax problem gets bad enough, the government may make a claim to your property until the debt is repaid. That’s called a tax lien, and it will show up on your credit report. (You can see how a tax lien and other factors affect your credit by reviewing two of your your free credit scores on Credit.com, updated every two weeks.)
10. Make Sure You Have All Your Forms
“Keep a list of all of your jobs during the tax year,” said Abby Eisenkraft, an enrolled agent and CEO of Choice Tax Solutions. “Some taxpayers receive numerous W-2s (think actors, temps, etc.). Freelancers — you may receive numerous Form 1099-Misc; be sure you received them all.”
11. But Report All Your Income, Even If You Didn’t Get a Form
“Some employers are sloppy and may not issue them to you by Jan. 31 of the following year. Regardless, you must report all of your income,” Eisenkraft said. You can ask an employer for a copy of a missing W-2 or ask the IRS for transcripts of forms you think you didn’t get. Of course, this takes time, so you may need to file an extension.
12. *ahem* ALL of Your Income
“The easiest way to get an IRS notice is to omit reporting all of your income,” Eisenkraft said. “Also, remember that jury duty and prize money (lottery, etc.) are also taxable.”
13. Plan to Wait in Line
At the post office, at your local tax preparer’s office — anywhere that does anything having to do with taxes.
14. Take Advantage of Technology
There are several ways you can file your taxes for free without having to do them the old-fashioned way. Tax software can be a huge help when you’re facing a time crunch.
15. Affordability Is No Excuse
“Many people put off filing their taxes because they can’t pay the full amount,” said Samuel Brotman, a tax attorney and owner of Brotman Law in San Diego. “You’ll cause far more headaches if you don’t even attempt to play ball with the IRS, though.” See: aforementioned fees.
16. Make an Effort to Pay
“It’s in your best interest to file and pay as much as possible by the April 18 deadline,” Brotman said. “If you’re just not ready or able to file by the deadline, make sure you file for an extension. The IRS will automatically grant a six-month extension, giving you additional time to get your taxes in order.” Thinking about paying your taxes with a credit card? Read this first.
17. Or Get a Payment Plan
Keep in mind you must file your tax return before applying for a payment agreement, so get cracking if you think you’ll need one.
18. The Chances of an Audit Are Low
Of all the individual income tax returns filed in 2014, the IRS audited 0.8% and 1.3% of corporate returns. (You can read more about how to avoid an audit here.)
19. But You Still Need to Be Careful
Just because it’s unlikely you’ll get audited doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your taxes as if you will. Not only could you get in trouble for a sloppy return, you could miss out on savings through deductions or credits you didn’t look into.
20. Watch Out for Scammers
Whenever people need help, there are other people out there waiting to take advantage of them. If you’re asking someone to prepare your taxes, make sure they’re qualified to do the job and that they have a good reputation. This guide can help you determine whether or not you need a pro to do your taxes.
21. Ask for Help
If you can’t afford or don’t want to pay for a professional, that doesn’t mean you’re totally on your own. “Go to trusted friends or family with last-minute questions on anything that might be confusing. With a little elbow grease, technology and friendly advice, you can get your maximum refund back — painlessly,” said Micah Charyn, a financial adviser with FTB Advisors in Nashville, Tennessee.
22. You’re Responsible for What You File
Keep in mind that, ultimately, you’re responsible for what’s in your tax return, even if you used software or an accountant to help you. Don’t zone out just because someone else is doing the heavy lifting.
23. ‘Do You Spell That With a C or a K?’
Of course, you know how to spell your name, but don’t leave anything to chance. This is especially important if you changed your name recently. Your tax return must have your legal name on it.
24. While You’re At it, Double-Check Your Address
This is an easy one to mess up if you’ve moved. “Your state may ask you where you lived by the close of the tax year you are filing, but you must file with your current address,” Eisenkraft said.
25. Your Social Security Number
“When you are tired or distracted, it’s so easy to transpose numbers,” Eisenkraft said. “And with so many numbers jumping out at you on the tax return, it’s easy to miss. The IRS will reject your tax return if the Social Security number is incorrect.”
26. Your Dependents’ Social Security Numbers
You must have the right Social Security numbers to get associated credits.
27. & Your Bank Account Info
You want that refund ASAP, right? “One mistake that we’ve seen before is listing the wrong bank details on your taxes,” said Jayson Mullin, the owner and founder of Top Tax Defenders, a tax resolution company in Houston. “This means your return won’t end up in your account. If you notice you’ve made this mistake, you’ll have to notify the IRS and wait an additional six weeks for a check to arrive in the mail.” The same goes for making a payment: You want that go to through.
28. Make Sure You Can Legally Claim Dependents
“There are relationship tests, gross income tests, residency tests, etc. Make sure the person you are trying to claim as your dependent passes all of the IRS tests,” Eisenkraft said. “And if your child is in school and working, remind him or her NOT to claim his own exemption.”
29. There Are Lots of Deductions You Could Potentially Take …
“I call this ‘looking for change in the sofa cushions,’” said Dominique Molina, a CPA in San Diego. “Go back through your bank and credit card statements and scan through, looking for expenses you haven’t been reimbursed for. These can be deducted on Schedule A under Unreimbursed Employee Expenses.”
31. Student Loan Interest
You can get the forms you need from your student loan servicer. They’re usually right there in your online account.
32. Medical Expenses
“You can deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses if you itemize (file Schedule A),” Eisenkraft said. “You cannot deduct any expenses that are reimbursed by insurance. If your medical premiums are deducted pre-tax at work, you cannot deduct them on your tax return. No double-dipping! Be sure to keep all of your receipts.”
33. & Job Search Expenses
You can deduct expenses associated with your job hunt, provided you’re looking for a new job in your current field.
So many people forget to do this, but it’s important. You can count charitable gifts made until April 18 of this year.
36. Or Do a Last-Minute Spring Cleaning
Say you didn’t get around to much charitable giving last year or you didn’t keep records — you could always procrastinate a little more by cleaning the house and donating things you don’t need. Don’t forget a receipt. (But then you really need to get on that tax thing.)
37. Don’t Skip the City Tax
Local and other state taxes, which you can check for at the bottom of W-2 forms, refer to a wage or income tax and may not be automatically deducted from your paycheck if you’re self employed. If you haven’t paid them, be prepared to cut a check. Here’s a handy guide to understanding your paycheck.
38. Contribute to Your IRA
Want a last-minute way to reduce your tax bill? Unlike most other tax-saving strategies, which have to be in place by Dec. 31, you can contribute to your IRA up until tax filing day if you haven’t already contributed your maximum for 2016. As TurboTax notes, for example, you can contribute $5,500, the maximum amount for 2016, and save as much as $1,925 in taxes if you’re in the 35% tax bracket.
39. Don’t Overlook Credits, Either
The IRS estimates that four out of five taxpayers are eligible for the earned income tax credit but don’t take it. A tax pro or software can help you determine if you qualify.
40. Keep In Mind Things Change From Year to Year
Just because you got deductions last year or didn’t qualify for credits last year doesn’t mean the same is true for this tax year. Take time to think about what changed.
Even if you made less than the income threshold that applies to you, don’t ignore tax season completely. “If they had federal taxes taken out of their paycheck or qualify for the earned income tax credit, they may have a refund coming,” Greene-Lewis said of taxpayers.
43. Get a Past Year’s Refund You Forgot to Claim
You have three years to claim a refund.
44. Think About the Best Way to Use Your Refund
Need some motivation to get your taxes done? The average tax refund for tax year 2015 was $3,120. You can finally buy that thing you’ve wanted to splurge on, pay down debt, or even use the cash influx to help yourself build credit.
IRS audits generally go back three years but can potentially reach back six. Keep a copy of your return in a safe place. You may also want to hold onto W-2s if you’re planning on applying for a mortgage any time soon.
47. You Can Make Amends
If you made a mistake in your rush to file, you can amend your tax return. You won’t need to do this for math errors (the IRS can fix those), but you’ll have to file a Form 1040X if your filing status, number of dependents or total income is wrong or if you forgot to claim a certain exemption or deduction.
48. Make a To-Do List
Write down everything that gave you trouble this year or deductions you weren’t sure you could get because you didn’t document them. Maybe you won’t make the same mistake next year.
49. Get a File Folder
For storing all those receipts and documents you forgot to organize this time around.
50. & Set a Calendar Reminder
So you don’t end up in this situation again next year.
You’re probably going to die with some debt to your name. Most people do. In fact, 73% of consumers had outstanding debt when they were reported as dead, according to December 2016 data provided to Credit.com by credit bureau Experian. Those consumers carried an average total balance of $61,554, including mortgage debt. Without home loans, the average balance was $12,875.
The data is based on Experian’s FileOne database, which includes 220 million consumers. (There are about 242 million adults in the U.S., according to 2015 estimates from the Census Bureau.) Among the 73% of consumers who had debt when they died, about 68% had credit card balances. The next most common kind of debt was mortgage debt (37%), followed by auto loans (25%), personal loans (12%) and student loans (6%).
These were the average unpaid balances: credit cards, $4,531; auto loans, $17,111; personal loans, $14,793; and student loans, $25,391.
That’s a lot of debt, and it doesn’t just disappear when someone dies.
What Does Happen to Debt After You Die?
For the most part, your debt dies with you, but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect the people you leave behind.
“Debt belongs to the deceased person or that person’s estate,” said Darra L. Rayndon, an estate planning attorney with Clark Hill in Scottsdale, Arizona. If someone has enough assets to cover their debts, the creditors get paid, and beneficiaries receive whatever remains. But if there aren’t enough assets to satisfy debts, creditors lose out (they may get some, but not all, of what they’re owed). Family members do not then become responsible for the debt, as some people worry they might.
That’s the general idea, but things are not always that straightforward. The type of debt you have, where you live and the value of your estate significantly affects the complexity of the situation. (For example, federal student loan debt is eligible for cancellation upon a borrower’s death, but private student loan companies tend not to offer the same benefit. They can go after the borrower’s estate for payment.)
There are lots of ways things can get messy. Say your only asset is a home other people live in. That asset must be used to satisfy debts, whether it’s the mortgage on that home or a lot of credit card debt, meaning the people who live there may have to take over the mortgage, or your family may need to sell the home in order to pay creditors. Accounts with co-signers or co-applicants can also result in the debt falling on someone else’s shoulders. Community property states, where spouses share ownership of property, also handle debts acquired during a marriage a little differently.
“It’s one thing if the beneficiaries are relatives that don’t need your money, but if your beneficiaries are a surviving spouse, minor children — people like that who depend on you for their welfare, then life insurance is a great way to provide additional money in the estate to pay debts,” Rayndon said.
Poor planning can leave your loved ones with some significant stress. For example, if you don’t have a will or designate beneficiaries for your assets, the law in your state of residence decides who gets what.
“If you don’t write a will, your state of residence will write one for you should you pass away,” said James M. Matthews, a certified financial planner and managing director of Blueprint, a financial planning firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Odds are the state laws and your wishes are different.”
It can also get expensive to have these matters determined by the courts, and administrative costs get paid before creditors and beneficiaries. If you’d like to provide for your loved ones after you die, you won’t want court costs and outstanding debts to eat away at your estate.
With the beginning of spring and more interest-rate hikes coming up, a lot of people are wondering if it’s time to make the jump from renter to homeowner. Of course, making such a move involves much more than browsing real estate listings and cobbling together enough for a down payment.
One of the most important things a first-time homebuyer can do is prepare their budget for this big financial event. We asked our partners and money-savers extraordinaire at Clark.com to share some of their best budgeting tips for people looking to buy a home this year. Here are Clark.com Managing Editor Alex Sadler’s responses, edited for length.
What Tweaks Should People Make to Their Budgets in Preparation for Buying a Home?
First of all, there’s a whole lot more that goes into buying a home than many people realize. I’m actually going through the process right now, and believe me, it ain’t like walking into a leasing office and signing up for an apartment.
When you’re preparing your finances for buying a house, here are a few steps you need to take first.
Get your credit in shape: The higher your credit score, the better deal you’ll get on a mortgage. The goal is to get approved for the lowest interest rate possible, so before you apply, make sure your credit is in good shape. [Editor’s note: If you’re not sure where your credit stands, we’ve got you covered. You can get your free credit report snapshot on Credit.com, and it’s updated every 14 days.]
Have enough saved for a down payment – and then some: A good amount to shoot for is 20% of the purchase price. If you put down less money, you still may be able to get a loan, but it’ll come with higher monthly payments. Plus, typically when you put down any less than 20%, you’ll need to have private mortgage insurance, which is another monthly bill to prepare for.
Prepare for other upfront costs: Home inspection (a few hundred dollars), closing costs (estimate between 2% to 5% of purchase price) and extra cash. Some lenders may require you to have some cash in the bank after the purchase is complete, maybe two to six months’ worth of mortgage payments.
In terms of your monthly budget once you’re in the house, a good rule of thumb is to spend no more than 25% of your income on housing – including mortgage payments, private mortgage insurance (PMI, if you need it), property taxes, homeowners insurance — all the monthly bills specifically tied to the house.
What Are Things Renters Don’t Have to Budget for but Homeowners Do?
Buying a house is exciting, but you need to go ahead and prepare yourself for unexpected expenses — that’s just the reality of owning a home. No more calling the landlord or leasing office to come fix something. Whether it’s a broken light bulb or a busted HVAC, the cost of that repair is coming out your pocket. Basically, you should overestimate how much money you’ll need to cover all of your expenses each month.
Give yourself a cushion to fall back on — cash savings you can dip into to pay for an unexpected repair or to cover your bills in case you lose your job or can’t work for a period of time for whatever reason.
A few other costs that come with owning a home: property taxes, homeowners insurance, disaster insurance required for homes in certain areas, higher bills (utilities, heating, air conditioning), maintenance — any and everything is your responsibility.
The bigger the house, the more expensive every single bill will be. Keeping up with regular maintenance is crucial in order to avoid bigger, more expensive repairs down the road
What Are Tips for Transitioning Your Budget From That of a Renter’s to a Homeowner’s?
Come up with a monthly budget to cover all of your expenses as a homeowner, and start living on that amount now. It will force you to save the money that you won’t have the luxury of spending once you own that house. Send it directly into savings so you don’t give yourself a chance to spend it.
How Can Homebuyers Make Sure They’re Not Biting Off More Than They Can Chew?
Just because you can qualify for a bigger house doesn’t mean you should buy one. The financial risks are extremely serious.
No one plans for unexpected setbacks like job loss, emergencies, medical issues — and if you aren’t prepared financially, one big unexpected event can be devastating not only to your short-term financial health but also your long-term finances. If you can’t pay the mortgage payments, the lender is coming after your house. If you have nothing to save each month, you’re giving up retirement savings and everything else that comes with being financially independent.
Bottom line: Buy less house than you can afford. And even on a less serious scale, you don’t want to live in a house that you can’t afford to furnish, or you can’t afford to take vacations because you have nothing left to spend or save each month.
When you’re so good at saving money that you can retire at age 31, people understandably want to hear your money tips. That’s how Clark Howard ended up with his own radio show, where he takes consumers’ questions about all things personal finance.
As it often is, debt has been a popular topic recently, and Howard has a few tried-and-true tips he likes to share with consumers. Whether you’re committed to paying down huge credit card balances or simply want to avoid ending up in debt, here are three things Howard recommends you do.
1. Always Save Some Money
Saving money is Howard’s primary approach to getting out of debt. Shoot for a savings rate of a dime per dollar earned (or 10%), but if you’re not saving anything right now, start by setting aside a penny per dollar (1%) and increase your savings rate every six months, he said.
“Now you may wonder, what does this have to do with eliminating debt in your life?” he said. “You have to start off by learning to live on less than what you make.”
Unless you can find a way to make more money, that means you need to cut things from your budget and put that extra money toward your debt (or a savings account, so you don’t have to turn to a credit card in an emergency).
2. Pay More Than the Minimum
“A lot of people pay the minimum payment because that’s what the bill says,” said Alex Sadler, managing editor of Clark.com. Doing that could leave you in debt for a very long time, so make it a priority to budget for more than the monthly payment. Credit card bills also include a section that says how much you need to pay each month in order to get out of debt in 36 months (three years), which can help you figure out how much room you need to make in your budget to get out of debt.
When you have multiple debts to pay off, Howard recommends using the “laddering method” to save the most money. That means focusing on the debt with the highest interest rate first.
“Keep throwing money at it, and [on] all the others pay the minimum,” Howard said. “Methodically, step by step, work your way to zero debt.”
It helps to make a list of all your debts and their interest rates. In fact, most people who call Howard don’t know how much debt they have, so sitting down and getting a sense of the numbers is a great place to start.
“If you ever want to get out of debt … the first thing you have to do is figure out how much debt you owe, and then you can make a plan,” Sadler said.
3. Find a Cheaper Alternative
One of the most common kind of questions Howard gets these days is about student loan debt, particularly from older consumers who borrowed or cosigned on behalf of children or grandchildren. As with all kinds of debt, the best thing to do is avoid it in the first place, because once you’re in debt, there’s usually not much you can do to get rid of it other than pay it off. (This is especially true of education-related debt, because it’s rarely discharged in bankruptcy.)
“The reality with anybody approaching college is the cost of college needs to be the highest priority,” Howard said. “You may have your favorite, but if your favorite would put you into very heavy debt or your family into very heavy debt, you need to go with a different school.”
Though he’s talking about education, that approach applies to anything that could put you in debt. You can’t always avoid going into debt, but if you save up as much as you can and opt for more affordable things (like a vehicle with fewer options or a home with most but not all of the things on your wish list), you’ll end up borrowing less and spending less money on interest.
As you work to pay down and stay out of debt, keep an eye on your credit scores. Not only will good credit help you qualify for better terms on things like an auto loan or mortgage, it can also make it easier to get everyday necessities like a cell phone or utility accounts. You can see two of your credit scores for free, with updates available every 14 days, on Credit.com
“I LOVE my student loan debt,” said no one, ever. Not only can student loan repayment be difficult to understand, it can crush your budget, and whenever there’s confusion and desperation, there’s someone trying to make money off it.
There are a handful of legitimate ways you can make your student loan payments more affordable, but it’s very likely you’ll come across student loan scams if you’re researching repayment options. These scams vary widely — some are looking to steal your personal or financial information, while others are trying to profit from high fees or misleading claims. Here are some red flags you need to watch out for.
1. It’s Too Good to Be True
The age-old scam identifier holds true for student loans: If it’s too good to be true, it is. Some common scams include terms like “instant forgiveness” or that you’re “pre-qualified” for lower loan payments, said Matt Ribe, senior director of legislative affairs and corporate secretary for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A company can’t know if you’re qualified for federal student loan programs like income-based repayment (IBR) or public service student loan forgiveness unless they’ve assessed your student loans and your personal financial situation. Ribe said to watch out for any broad, blanket guarantees that a company can get you a particular outcome — it’s really not that simple.
2. They Charge High, Upfront Fees
It doesn’t cost anything to apply for federal repayment or forgiveness programs (IBR, public service student loan forgiveness, revised Pay As You Earn aka RePAYE, etc.). You can do that through your student loan servicer (talking to your servicer is always free, too).
There are a lot of companies out there that charge fees for helping you apply for such programs.
“We pay people to fix our cars and prepare our taxes all the time; there’s nothing inherently wrong about that,” Ribe said. “It’s the misleading advertising that really irks consumer protection folks and the Department of Education, for sure.”
Joshua R.I. Cohen, a student loan lawyer in Vermont and Connecticut, said he’s seen student loan scams offer consumers “relief” and charge upfront fees between about $300 to $2,000. The company may not clearly explain what the fees are for — people often confuse monthly maintenance fees with their actual student loan payments — or they might just take your money and run. Your loans may not even qualify for a federal repayment program (private student loans don’t), but they’ll charge you a consulting fee anyway.
3. They Say ‘You Have To’
Any company that demands a specific form of payment (often paired with high-pressure sales tactics like, “This offer will expire at the end of the year!”), should make you suspicious, Cohen said.
You’ll also want to be wary of an offer that tells you how you should handle your loans, because it’s up to you to decide what makes most sense for your finances. For example, you generally do not need to consolidate your loans to qualify for IBR (except for Federal Perkins Loans, which must be consolidated to qualify for IBR).
“The scam company doesn’t say why you need to consolidate they just say, ‘Oh you need to do this,'” Cohen said.
4. ‘The New Obama Student Loan Relief Program’
Both Cohen and Ribe cited this one. You may have even seen ads for it online.
They say something like, “‘By consolidating you can qualify for the Obama Loan Forgiveness Program’ — there is no Obama Loan Forgiveness Program,” Cohen said.
Falling for this one may mean you pay a fee or you end up “consolidating” into a loan with murky terms and a high interest rate — all for a program that doesn’t exist.
Also watch out for companies claiming to be affiliated with the government or the Education Department — only student loan servicers and debt collectors work directly with the government.
5. They Want to Take Control of Your Loan
Cohen and Ribe said there’s no reason to pay your loan through a third party. Scam companies have been known to ask for your Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) or your National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) PIN. This is personally identifying information that can allow a third party to take control of your loan.
“You don’t know what the company is actually doing, (or) if they’re actually forwarding the money onto the servicer,” Ribe said. The company may also change your contact information on your student loans, so you won’t know if you miss payments or default.
Why You Need to Be Careful With Student Loan Repayment
If you ever have questions about your student loan payments, you can ask your student loan servicer for guidance. The Education Department, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and local consumer advocates (like a student loan lawyer or a non-profit credit counselor) are also good sources.
The share of U.S. homes in foreclosure fell slightly in January, down 3.55% from December and down 12.94% from January 2016. The figures come from real estate data company ATTOM Data Solutions, which bases foreclosure rates on the portion of residential properties in any of the three stages of foreclosure: default, auction and repossession.
Much of the decrease came from a decline in foreclosure starts (default), which fell 11.55% from December and 20.11% from January 2016. A great deal of foreclosure activity came from banks purchasing foreclosed homes — the end of the process.
The overall decline indicates fewer American homeowners are falling behind on their mortgages and, as a result, avoiding foreclosure and credit damage. (You can see how your mortgage and other accounts affect your credit by reviewing your free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) The list of states with the highest foreclosure rates includes most of the same states that were on it in past months, though most of them saw declines, as well. Here are the 10 states that had the largest portions of homes in foreclosure in January.